Japanese shrine: Nature and reverence

Japan is a highly industrialized and urbanized nation of more than 127 million people, yet one is never far from intimate glimpses of nature. The natural world is subtly integrated into daily life due, in large part, to the influence of Shinto, an ancient nature-based religion indigenous to Japan.

Shinto embraces a unique world view that reinforces the natural order of all things — the universe is essentially benign, and nature is to be venerated. These concepts are underlying themes in many Japanese customs and rituals as well as in the panoply of gardens and parks, which await the visitor to Japan.

Not surprisingly, the nature-garden continuum is also a fundamental aspect of the many Shinto shrines found throughout the country. And a visit to some of the most sacred shrines in the country — the Grand Shrines of Ise in central Japan — gives ample proof of the harmonization of nature, history, art and religion manifest in Japanese culture.

Shinto shrines
On the verge of the outer shrine called Geku, the placid Magatama-Ike Pond creates a delicate mood of calm, reverence and harmony. Its mirrored surface reflects the surrounding ancestraforests in varying hues of green, a tableau embellished by its celebrated purple, mauve and white irises. As is the case at all Shinto shrines, people and nature commune. During our visit, a group of young mothers and children picnic on the grass in a grove of trees, listening to poets recite haiku and tanka poetry during the annual moon-viewing festival.

Next to the pond is the entrance to the sacred Ise forest. An enormous grey-brown torii (gate) marks the passageway into the infinite world of the spirits, or kami. We pass beneath its enormous crossbeam and enter a wooded sanctuary of majestic, centuries-old Japanese cedars and cypresses. Under the canopy of the enormous trees, the hyperactivity of the outside world is suddenly far away; songbirds and gentle breezes augment the natural sanctity of the woods.

We pass numerous simple structures including a music hall from which flute-like sounds emanate; a roped-off space containing three stones in which the guardian deity of the area is said to reside; a pavilion where the faithful obtain amulets and talismans; a small lodge in which Shinto priests prepare the daily offerings of food to the principal deities of Ise; and an open-sided hut in which an immaculately groomed ceremonial horse is stabled. We climb a wide mossy stone stairway that leads to a discreetly situated sub-shrine overlooking dense vegetation and a meandering brook. In due course, the subtly designed paths lead us to the central shrine of Geku.

Next page: A hidden and mysterious religion

A hidden and mysterious religion
Dating from AD 478, Geku is home to the kami of Agriculture and Industry. To one side is the ablution pavilion, a small, rustic structure into which clear water flows. Before approaching the shrine, worshippers use long-handled bamboo ladles to obtain a cupful of water with which they clean their hands and mouths.

Above the entrance rises the thatched roof of the shrine. Its wooden infrastructure has elegant, simple lines and conveys the solidity of heavy wood but, at the same time, an airiness. The whole is triangular in shape with a 45-degree incline and distinguished by its extended ridgepole, jutting crossbeams and chigi beams thrusting upwards on the diagonal. The roof is all we see of the shrine, most of which remains hidden behind a high wooden fence. Even a veil-like cloth swaying in the breeze at the entrance obscures our view of the passageway to the interior.

At the Grand Shrines of Ise—the most venerated in Japan–only the emperor and empress and their representatives are permitted access to the innermost sanctuaries. This sense of hiddenness and mystery is the essence of Ise. During our three weeks in Japan, we have observed something similar in the quintessential Japanese politeness and discretion; a cultural behaviourism that assures a core of privacy for the Japanese as well as for outsiders.

Fundamental principles, such as an appreciation of virtue and honesty as goals in themselves, a love of purity in all things (hence the Japanese high standards of hygiene and cleanliness) and a striving for a simple aesthetic, can be seen in everyday life in Japan. Japanese cuisine, for example, emphasizes pure ingredients, simplicity and the subtle engagement of the senses. The typical Japanese garden, a microcosm of nature, is a place apart but not separate from the larger natural world. Humans are seen not as owners of nature but as participants and observers.

Amaterasu: the spirit of Naiku
The supreme deity of Shinto is Amaterasu, the sun goddess. By tradition, the Emperor — the symbol of the Japanese people — is believed to be her direct descendant and was himself considered a god until the end of the Second World War. Thus Naiku, the inner shrine of Ise, which houses the sacred objects and spirit of Amaterasu, is the most revered in Japan. And just a few kilometres from Geku, we find this treasure, entering its outer reaches by crossing the exquisite Ujibashi Bridge.

The simple but elegant toriis at either end of the bridge are a double reminder that we will be entering and returning from a very special place. The graceful 100-metre-long wooden bridge spans the clear waters of the sacred Isuzugawa River and exemplifies the balance, harmony and pragmatism of nature. Crossing the bridge, we follow the pristine paths to wide stone steps leading down to the river. Here, worshippers repeat the act of cleansing, a purification of the heart and the body, before proceeding to the actual shrine.

Next page: Privacy and peace

There seems to be a natural flow of people throughout the entire shrine area. Passing a smaller secondary bridge, we see a young Japanese woman alone at one end. She is leaning contemplatively on the wooden railing, gazing into the water. Her white umbrella shades her from the rays of sunlight that slip through the branches of the towering cedars.
And then we are at the foot of the rough stone stairway leading to the shrine of Amaterasu. The steps, buttressed by lofty cedars, have been built slightly off the axis, an architectural gesture of humility before the goddess. This is not unlike the Japanese habit of avoiding prolonged, direct eye contact.
Worshippers approach the shrine, bow deeply, present their offerings, clap their hands twice to summon the kami and then bow again. The gesture is repeated rhythmically and with humility by others. Having paid homage to the spirit of Naiku — a pilgrimage that every believer hopes to make in his or her lifetime — they withdraw and retrace their steps to the river, chatting quietly.
Privacy and peace
Making our way back to the Ujibashi Bridge, we pass a display of award-winning ikebana flower arrangements and bonzai trees. Each harmoniously proportioned work of art is a natural world in miniature, the product of an ancient art form, and representative of a larger natural context. Each also embodies the same aesthetic and spiritual values inherent in the Ise shrines.

For visitors to Japan from the West, this densely populated nation initially can create sensory dissonance. However, a visit to Ise reveals how Japanese culture transcends the pressures of society by creating private, peaceful spaces where human intervention honours nature.