Walking the way of the gods

by Jon Burbank

As long as there has been Japan there has been Shinto: the “way of the gods.” Shintoism is not organized around any central religious text or authority. It is perhaps best described as an amalgam of thousands of local deities (kami) and beliefs observed within a base framework of rituals and customs. Each deity is housed in a shrine called a jingu or jinja.

To get an idea of how old Shinto is, one need only refer to the Katori Jingu in Sawara, Chiba Prefecture, about 30 minutes by train or bus from Narita, which celebrated its 2,600th anniversary in 1958.

Shinto was such a natural part of life in early Japan that it didn’t even get a name until the 6th century, in order to distinguish it from the newly arrived Buddhism. With its emphasis on harmony, Shinto has no objections to other faiths. Followers may subscribe to any other faith they choose, and people of other religions are welcomed at the shrines.

When Shinto appeared thousands of years ago, food and security were the prime concerns: good harvests, plentiful fish and game, clean water and protection from severe rains, mountainous waves and typhoon winds. Originally kami were believed to be found in nature: in the mountains, forest trees, waterfalls and stones. At some point it came to be believed that a person who lived an exemplary life also could become a kami after death.

The deity enshrined in Katori Jingu, Futsunushi no Okami, started out renowned for his military prowess and diplomatic skills. Under the command of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, founder of Japan (housed in Ise), Futsunushi no Okami talked Okuninushi no Mikoto, God of Izumo (now Shimane), into peacefully reverting to Imperial rule, vanquished all the dissenting deities. He also helped do the same in the eastern provinces.

Sawara evolved from an agricultural district into an important commerce center due to its location on the Tone River, one of the major thoroughfares providing rice and soy sauce to Edo’s ever-growing population. As Sawara changed, so did the types of requests directed to Futsunushi no Okami.

Katori Jingu became a favorite for those seeking help in commerce and manufacturing, as well as old themes like agriculture and marine safety. Perhaps based on his reputation as a diplomat, people appealed to Futsunushi for a successful marriage. In turn, that led naturally into appeals for smooth childbirth.

In Meiji, as the government started to look at Shinto as a resource for building the nation, Katori Jingu received the title Kanpei Taisha, the highest title accorded to shrines.

Although it rarely is given much attention in modern tourists guides, Katori Jingu remains one of the major Shinto shrines in Japan. Traditionally it is known as one of the Togoku Sansha, three great shrines of the Eastern Kingdom (the other two are Ikisu, 10 km to the east, and Kashima, now perhaps better known for the Antlers, its popular soccer team).

Situated on more than 12 hectares of beautifully wooded hillside, Katori Jingu is a wonderful combination of artistic craftsmanship and natural beauty.

The main shrine of Katori used to be rebuilt every 20 years (as the shrine in Ise continues to be), but that custom ended about 300 years ago and the present main shrine dates from 1700, built at the command of the fifth Tokugawa Shogun Tsunayoshi (1646-1709).

Tsunayoshi, sometimes called the “Dog Shogun,” is remembered as one of the most bizarre of the Tokugawa shoguns. Born in the year of the dog, Tsunayoshi made killing a dog a capital offense and built gorgeous dog shelters throughout Edo. He was also known for his fondness for young boys and girls, who provided him with “companionship.”

Whatever Tsunayoshi’s personal peculiarities, he was a great patron of the arts. His reign, known as Genroku, is remembered for its cultural brilliance, and Katori Jingu’s richly decorated main shrine is a fine example of that rich artistry.

Before you can reach the shrine you have to walk through the torii gateway, which is designed to take you from the secular to the sacred. The wide approach then winds for several minutes uphill through a thick forest of maple and pine. Over 50 huge stone lanterns, each inscribed with the name of the benefactor who donated it, line the walk.

The path is filled with loose pebbles that scrunch pleasantly underfoot as the rich green foliage leans overhead, soothing your eyes, while the breeze whispering through the trees soothes your mind. Near the top of the walk you can hear the sound of the stream and waterfall nearby, and it adds to the calming ambience. Forest, mountain and water, all basic elements of the Shinto world, combine to put you in the proper frame of mind to worship.

A broad stone stair leads up and through the vermilion entry gate. Straight ahead is flowing water to wash your hands and mouth, purifying yourself before approaching the kami. A few more steps lead to the vermilion Romon main entry gate flanked by its guardian figures.

Inside the wide courtyard sits the 300-year-old main hall, its massive pillars almost black, its thick thatched roof shining silver and brown. Decorative figures are all in primary colors: gold, green, red, white, blue — all is rich and direct.

The subtlety comes from the huge cedars surrounding the shrine. They tower over everything, some so thick it seems even a three-generation family could hold hands and still not surround the trunk. These trunks, deeply crenellated, shade from burnished copper to deep brown-black. Their upper foliage seems to luminesce emerald green from deep within.

A treasure house beside the main hall holds objects used by or presented to the shrine through the centuries, but it is the ambience created by the hall and trees outside that is the treasure here. It’s a good place to start to comprehend the essence of Shinto.

Behind the shrine a wide dirt avenue leads through an arcade of more towering cedars, both awesome and reassuring at the same time. The walk ends in a drop off overlooking Sakura no Baba, Cherry Riding Grounds, still justly famous for its spring view over a grove of cherry blossoms.

Beyond lies Suigo Quasi-National Park, guaranteeing an enjoyable view anytime. There are several rundown snack-and-souvenir stands here. They certainly don’t add to the ambience, but one can either enjoy a cup of amazake or just ignore them.

In modern times, the government tried to use Shinto as a tool for both its nation and militant empire building. Unfortunately that is how many foreigners and visitors came to perceive Shinto. Places like Katori Jingu can help reach beyond (or before) these recent twists to give visitors an idea of Shinto’s origins rooted in harmony and tolerance, with the natural world.

JR trains go to Sawara via Narita. There are also express buses from Narita to Sawara Station. From the station local buses go to Katori Jingu. By car take the Higashi Kanto Expressway and get off at the Sawara exit.