Author: Elisha Kayne
Modern western society often views the worlds of earth and spirit as separate. The material existence is made of physical matter, which can be touched and easily observed, while many either view the spiritual realm as pure myth or as something that exists outside of the everyday world. The belief in Kami, as held by practitioners of Shinto, brings a refreshingly different perspective into the modern era. Suddenly, the divine is within grasp, existing in the heart of everything that surrounds us.
What is Kami?
The concept of Kami can be difficult to understand for those who are unaccustomed to these unique ideas and beliefs. Kami can be described closely to that of spirits, phenomena or the spiritual essence of everything in existence. The deities who created the Universe are Kami. Forces found in nature, such as the wind can be considered Kami, as well as physical objects like stones and trees. In addition, humans also have Kami, which means that after death, the spirits of great individuals can retain Kami, and are often worshipped by their descendants. Kami can be both benevolent and mischievous, and provide both protection and assistance to those who reach out to them. They are hidden from the eyes of man, but they inhabit the physical manifestations of creation, often accumulating in areas of exceptional beauty or sacredness. The Kojiki lists 300 distinct classifications of Kami, and modern practitioners currently recognize more than eight million Kami.
How Are Kami Revered in Shinto?
Worship of Kami can be just as varied in expression as the Kami themselves. From home shrines to cultivated gardens and landscapes to the public shrines which are visited by millions of Japanese citizens and tourists each year. Shrines often contain shintai, a symbolic object that’s accessible to humans who wish to worship the associated kami. This could include Shinzo, manmade sculptures of kami, or naturally found objects like waterfalls, stones or even a mountain. Certain rituals, purification practices and festivals help observers further develop their connection and relationship with the Kami, and are a central part of the Shinto faith.
Festivals and Shrines
Shrines are placed in the private homes of individuals, where family members can show their respect to specific Kami which are sacred to the clan or ancestors of a household or regional area. In addition, there are more than 100,000 shrines in Japan, many of which are open to the public. Some of the most popular shrines include Yasakuni in Tokyo, Ise Grand Shrine and Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Matsuri, or festivals are the sacred Shinto holidays celebrated throughout Japan. Some are led by nearby shrines and temples. Celebrations may vary from place to place, but the festivals which are observed nationwide include Seijin Shiki, Coming of Age Day; Hinamatsuri, the Doll Festival; Hanamatsuri, Flower Festival; Tanabata, Star Festival; Shichi-Go-San, a festival for young children and Omisoka, or New Year’s Eve. Many visitors to Japan prefer to plan their vacation around one of these festivals, so they have the most memorable experiences. The festivals can also provide an opportunity for those who are interested in learning more about Kami or Shinto first hand.