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Shinto is one of the oldest religious traditions in the world. Actually, it is the name given to a conglomeration of religious practices whose roots are in prehistoric Japan.

Not much is known about Japanese religions before it developed into a unified state in the Yamato period of the 4th to 7th centuries CE, but it is believed to have been widely animist in nature, with a belief in supernatural forces residing in natural objects like trees, animals, and mountains.

The oldest literature of Japan speak of the myths and legends of the various clans. The oldest of these are the Kojiki and the Nihongi, which is also known as the Nihonshoki, and these are considered important works by advocates of Shinto, but they are not recited or studied by ordinary adherents of Shinto.

From the time of the Yamato period forward, the imperial household took on an important role in Shinto. Up until the end of the Pacific War (World War II), the Shinto religion was focused on Ise Shrine, and its doctrines were built around the cult of the emperor.

After the war, the emperor's status as divine was officially denied and Shinto was disestablished and, since that time, religious teachings were no longer included in government-operated schools and the observance of Shinto practices became a voluntary matter.

Today, the practice of Shinto is an individual matter. Someone might visit a shrine to make a request, such as before a journey or before beginning a new enterprise. Family occasions might also involve a visit to a shrine. Shinto priests officiate at most Japanese weddings, although they are generally not held in a shrine, and new-born babies are often brought to a shrine, where prayers are said for its health.

Visits to shrines are high at New Year, particularly on January 1, and it is not unusual for people to visit a shrine just after midnight on December 31. People visit mountain shrines to observe the rising sun and bathe their faces in its first rays. There is an active business during New Year visits selling feathered wooden arrows, protective charms, and stiff paper strips with the name and seal of the shrine, which is taken home and displayed in a high place for the coming year.

The practice of Shinto, in modern times, is based on each individual shrine. Most shrines are affiliated with the Association of Shinto Shrines, but the people who visit are seldom aware of this. Each shrine has an individual reason for its existence, which might be a natural phenomenon such as a mountain, a historical event, or an act of personal or political patronage. For example, the shrine at Kashima is devoted to the martial arts, although its grounds includes several other sub-shrines.

Features that most Shinto shrines have in common include a large symbolic gate, with two uprights and two crossbars, although they are sometimes situated some distance from the shrine itself, and there may be two or more, or even a long line of them leading to the shrine.

Larger shrines usually include a worship hall (haiden) and the main hall (honden) standing behind. The main hall is smaller, and it is not entered, for it is the physical location of the kami, which is the spirit or phenomena that is worshipped. On occasion, the worship hall might be entered by small groups seeking petitionary prayer, while individual visitors to the shrine generally stand outside the worship hall, toss a coin into the offering box, and pull on a dangling rope that rings a bell, clap their hands twice, bow in prayer, clap their hands again, and leave. The bell is intended to alert the kami to their presence.

There are three main types of shrines.

The ujigami is a shrine of purely local significance, housing the kami of the locality.

Next there are those of a recurrent type, such as the Inari Shrines, which are visited by those who are praying for success in business. These may be found in any part of the country.

Then, there are the shrines of great national and semi-political importance, such as the Ise and Izumo Shrines, as well as the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, which honors the former Emperor Meiji, and the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the souls of Japan's war dead.

A significant part of Shinto practice are its festivals, as these are the times when a particular shrine has meaning for all of its worshippers at once.

Shinto festivals are usually elaborate, including a procession or a fair, with several stalls and sideshows, and they draw large numbers of people. One shrine might hold several festivals a year, but only one or two of these might be of special importance.

The practice of Shinto also involves various rituals, amulets, and talismans, but these tend to be individual, and not universally applied.

 

 

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