Shintö Shrine Visits – A New Year’s Tradition

Shintö Shrine Visits – A New Year’s Tradition

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Shrines Deliver Blessings for the New Year

Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
As the new year dawned on 2015, throngs of visitors to Shintö shrines in Japan and Hawai‘i sought blessings and good fortune for themselves and their loved ones. The practice of starting the new year with a shrine visit is called Hatsumoude. It begins just after midnight as New Year’s Eve turns into New Year’s Day, and continues for several days thereafter. Many Japanese take this occasion very seriously, with long lines forming at shrines as they patiently wait their turn to approach the sanctuary. Visitors to Japan’s Meiji Jingu shrine in Tökyö reportedly number in the millions in only the first few days of the new year.

Why are visits to Shintö shrines so important at the start of the year? According to the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawai‘i’s (also referred to in this story as “Izumo Taisha”) newsletter, the religious and spiritual significance of the visit is to “wipe our personal slate clean with a renewed promise of hope and well-being from the start of the New Year.” Established in 1906, Izumo Taisha will observe its 109th anniversary in Hawai‘i this year, although it wasn’t always located at its present location, which will be discussed later in this story.

“For an individual and family,” the article continues, “it is the prayer and hope for personal and family health and well-being, prosperity and good relationship with others. For a business-person, it is the hope for a prosperous year with great customer satisfaction.” Shrine visits are also an opportunity to express gratitude for past blessings and to pray for divine guidance and protection, as well as to obtain — by donation — amulets, charms, fortunes and related paraphernalia.

Although Buddhist temples are a familiar sight in Hawai‘i, Shintö shrines today are not as visible by comparison. They were more prevalent prior to World War II, but, like so many other institutions associated with Japan, were forced to close. Most of the shrines never made a full comeback after the war, in part because they were associated with Japanese nationalism and even militarism, although those are not completely accurate reflections of the Shintö belief system as a whole. A handful of Shintö shrines in Hawai‘i did manage to reopen after the war, however, and continue to serve the community to this day.

In mid-December, in preparation for New Year’s, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i hosted a bus tour to two O‘ahu Shintö shrines — Daijingu Temple of Hawaii in Nu‘uanu Valley, and the Izumo Taishakyo Mission, on the ‘ewa edge of Honolulu’s Chinatown district. JCCH had previously offered guided tours of selected Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawai‘i, most of them led by Dr. George Tanabe, University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa professor emeritus of religion. Tanabe illuminated on the Shintö belief system for the tour participants, who were able to get an up-close look at the shrine architecture as well as the religion’s artifacts and symbolism.

The first stop was the Daijingu Temple of Hawaii, which was founded in 1916. A light drizzle fell on the cool and somewhat misty Saturday morning, giving the mountains behind Nu‘uanu Valley an ethereal appearance.

Professor Tanabe talked about the many symbols present at this and other Shintö shrines. When you enter the shrine grounds, for example, you pass through a space between two large rectangular stone pillars that are joined by a thick rope hanging overhead. (At other shrines, this would typically be a torii, the familiar Japanese “gate” seen in photos depicting traditional Japan.) Hanging from the rope were folded white paper objects that looked like lightning bolts. Called shide, they signify a sacred space. The washbasin nearby is for visitors to wash their hands before entering, symbolizing a cleansing of the person before proceeding into the shrine’s sanctuary. The concept of purification emerged repeatedly in the symbols and rituals that followed.

A thick rope connected to a bell hung from the front-end roof of the shrine as you stepped onto a platform leading to the entrance to the sanctuary. Tanabe explained that by ringing the bell, you are announcing your presence to the kami, the divine spirits. The Izumo Taisha newsletter says the bell is rung “to banish the evils and purify ourselves.”

Once seated inside the sanctuary, the Rev. Akihiro Okada, Daijingu’s resident priest, performed a short ritual for the group. It included chanting in Japanese, the beating of a large drum and the serving of small individual bowls of sake. He invited participants to come forward and, one-by-one, to sip the sake and then return to their seats. When everyone had had their turn, Rev. Okada took a seat and Professor Tanabe began his presentation about Shintöism in general and in Hawai‘i.

He said that Shintö shrines were suspect in Hawai‘i during World War II due to their perceived association with Japanese nationalism and militarism. All Japanese institutions in Hawai‘i were suspect — language schools, Buddhist temples, community organizations and Japanese language newspapers. Shintö shrines were of particular concern, however, because of the perception that they were aligned with the Japanese imperial family and because of how one particular “clan” came to dominate the other clans in Japan’s history.

“You can rule by might,” Tanabe said in his brief Japanese political history lesson, “or you can rule by right.” In other words, you can rule by force, or you can rule by an ideology that claims you are the rightful ruler based on a prevailing narrative that you control. Major histories of Japan were written in the eighth century. By presenting a narrative that depicted the ruling class of Japan as being in a long line of succession, beginning with the sun goddess Amaterasu, the legitimacy of an inherited right to rule was established, which is one reason Japan has had a single continuous imperial dynasty for so long while other countries have had many different dynasties over time. The ideology of what is called State Shintö made it a suspect institution during World War II.

But there are other ways of understanding Shintö that do not focus on imperial lineage and politics. Tanabe explained that Shintö is a primal religion that is native to Japan. It is not one of the greater traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, which are considered world religions. Unlike Buddhism, which is a foreign religion in Japan (having made its way to Japan from India via China), Shintö is often thought to be a purely Japanese religion. It is also an “animistic” religion, which refers to the belief that there is a divine force or spirit throughout nature, all around us. The entire world is thought of as being sacred, although there are some places and things such as particular mountains, trees, oceans, waterfalls, animals, etc., that are thought to be especially full of spiritual force. It is said that the kami “lives” within these places and things. This idea shares similarities with Native Hawaiian and Native American perspectives. As an example, Tanabe pointed to a particularly grand-looking and robust tree at a park outside the shrine property.

“The basic idea of animism is that the deities, if we can call them that, the divine presence is infused in all of nature. That tree out there that I’m looking at, which is quite an incredible tree, is, as the young kids would say, awesome. In Japan, that tree might be regarded as being the location of the divine presence and that would be indicated by saying there is a kami in the tree.”

If you interpret the kanji (Japanese characters derived from the Chinese writing system) for Shintö, it would translate to “way of the kami.” How to define kami, however, is another matter. It is often defined as “god,” but sometimes also as “spirit” or “divine force.” Tanabe described kami as being everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. In Shintö, there are many different types of kami, which is why it is called a polytheistic religion, one that has many different gods or divine forces.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes the divine force is associated with a place, or a natural object, or even a particularly powerful individual. Sometimes the divine force is associated with a natural phenomenon. So, if there is too much or too little rain, you pray to the rain kami for help. If you want a good harvest, you pray to that particular kami, and so on. Kami can be human-like in their temperament and personalities. They have names like Amaterasu and her “parents,” Izanagi and Izanami, and they show emotions and can be a contentious group. Unlike the world religions, Shintö does not have a lot of doctrines and rules.

A visitor to Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii bows to receive a blessing. (Photos by Kevin Kawamoto)

A visitor to Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii bows to receive a blessing. (Photos by Kevin Kawamoto)

But as Tanabe observed, Shintö does require a certain level of conceptual sophistication, because the divine force is an abstraction, not a concrete image such as the Buddha. For example, to conceive the divine force in a tree or a mountain or even in a particularly awesome rock requires the ability to think abstractly. It also attempts to make sense of the universe and its origins, just as most religions do, and to give people a way to try and affect their lives or their environment in some way through divine intervention, again, as most religions do.

There is a lot of symbolism in the Shintö belief system, much more than can be covered in this piece. Books and websites on the subject can provide more detailed descriptions and explanations of Shintö’s symbolism.

However, one symbolic object is important — the mirror that is always present on a Shintö altar. Different people may explain it differently, but one explanation is that it provides a reflection of not only the body, but also of the mind and soul. Mirrors are potent symbols that have been used since ancient times and may have acquired newer meanings since then, but they are a common object on Shintö altars.

Typical blessings and ceremonies at Shintö shrines include 7-5-3 blessings (Shichi-Go-San), a rite of passage blessing for 3- and 5-year-old boys, and 3- and 7-year-old girls; Girl’s Day and Boy’s Day blessings; Yakudoshi blessing; the baby blessing; and the wedding ceremony. Blessings are also done for groundbreakings, homes and other special events.
The second stop on the tour was the Izumo Taishakyo Mission, which was built in the more traditional architecture of Shintö shrines in Japan. (The Daijingu Temple’s architecture is more modern and in the form of a residence, somewhat in keeping with its neighborhood.)

When the JCCH tour participants were at Izumo Taisha, crowds of Japanese tourists — at least one group that arrived in a tour van — came to pay their respects and receive blessings. If past years are any indication, New Year’s Day 2015 found long lines of visitors — Japanese nationals, Hawai‘i residents of all ethnicities and visitors from other places — lining up outside the shrine grounds, spilling out onto Kukui Street and winding around ‘A‘ala Street, all the way to Beretania Street.

Bishop Daiya Amano, the head priest at Izumo Taishakyo Mission, outlined the shrine’s history, some of its symbols (such as the traditional torii gate at the entrance to the shrine’s grounds) and the shrine’s contributions to Hawai‘i’s Japanese community. The main kami at Izumo Taisha is Okuninushi no Okami, but it also houses the kami for the Futenma Jingu from Okinawa and the kami for the Wakamiya Inari Shrine, which was relocated to Hawaii’s Plantation Village in Waipahu in the late 1970s.

One of many interesting features at Izumo Taisha is the shimenawa (straw rope) that hangs at the entrance to the shrine. It was woven by a group of elders in Shimane, the home of Izumo Taisha in Japan, and was displayed in a 1994 exhibition at the then-Honolulu Academy of Arts titled, “Traditional Japanese New Year’s.”

But Izumo Taisha’s location on Kukui Street is not where the shrine was originally located. Although Izumo Taisha and its parent shrine in Japan were not managed by the Japanese government, the shrine in Hawai‘i was shuttered and confiscated by the government during World War II. Its head priest, Bishop Shigemaru Miyao, and his family were interned on the U.S. mainland. It took years of legal battles for the shrine property to be returned. By then, the old shrine structure was in extremely poor condition, “standing only on the strength of a few posts,” according to one report. It was repaired, remodeled and moved to its current location and rededicated in 1968.

Today, Izumo Taishakyo Mission stands boldly as a symbol of strength and resilience over a challenging time in Hawai‘i’s history. It has programs and activities throughout the year, including first day of the month blessings, services on the 10th of each month, and assorted activities such as a Memorial Day Cemetery Visitation and Joint Family Memorial Service and a golf tournament. The shrine also publishes a newsletter, which is quoted in this article, and is available on-site. Like other Shintö shrines, it has items such as omamori (amulets) for sale.

Aside from Daijingu Temple and the Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawai‘i, there are two other Shintö shrines on O‘ahu: Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha — Hawaii Dazaifu Tenmangu in the Kalihi-Pälama area, and the Hawaii Ishizuchi Jinja in Mö‘ili‘ili. There are also two shrines on Maui and one in Hilo on Hawai‘i island.

Although New Year’s Day has passed, most of the shrines will remain busy for a few more days to welcome those who were unable to make it to their shrine on the first day of the year can come by to receive blessings for the “Year of the Sheep.”

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.

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