Tokyo shrine offers virtual solace to worshippers unable to attend in person


Shinto shrines, where many in Japan pray for good health and safety, have largely shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic, but one Tokyo shrine has gone virtual for those seeking solace online.

Onoterusaki Shrine in downtown Tokyo livestreamed prayers via Twitter during the May 1 to May 10 holiday, allowing those stuck at home to participate in rituals.

The shrine also accepted messages from remote worshipers, displaying them on virtual wooden tablets that are then offered to Shinto gods to keep away evil spirits and the epidemic.

“I thought about how people can pray and have peace of mind at a time when everyone is feeling uneasy about all the news and going through major changes in their life but still cannot go out to pray,” said head priest Ryoki Ono. “The idea is to provide a chance for people to pray from home.”

For Machi Zama, a freelance writer, that’s just what she needed. Zama prayed for her friend who recently had surgery, and everyone else experiencing difficult times, as well as for an early end to the global pandemic.

Watching the priests perform the purification rites, she felt as if she was at the shrine, Zama said. When one of the priests faced the screen and waved the ōnusa sacred wand decorated with paper streamers, she bowed. It was like her prayers were answered, she said.

“Wherever you are, I think it’s your feelings and thoughts, the wish to pray — that’s what’s important,” Zama said. “Whether online or offline, I don’t think it matters.”

For Ono, praying in the sacred shrine is still better. He said he hoped people would visit the shrine for a real experience when it reopens. The shrine ended the online prayers last Sunday to prepare for its upcoming annual festival.

Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion that dates back centuries. The term means “the way of kami,” which refers to Shinto gods or spirits. It includes features of animism, in which sacred spirits are believed to reside in living things and aspects of nature, including wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility.

Purification is key to Shinto rituals, in order to keep away evil spirits. Worshipers can also make wishes for traffic safety, good health, success in business or exams, safe childbirth and many other things.

There are about 80,000 shrines in Japan. Revered as the most sacred is Ise Shrine in central Japan that venerates the sun goddess Amaterasu, the mythological ancestor of the emperor.

Not everyone in the conservative religion agrees with the departure from the traditional in-person prayers.

But Naomi Shiba tweeted six prayers to the online shrine, hoping for an early end to the pandemic, for her two sons to be able to resume their work and studies, and for herself to lose some weight.

“Perhaps this is the way to do it in the current age,” she said.

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