Shinto (or kami-no-michi) is the indigenous spiritual tradition of Japan. Shinto may be as old as Japan itself, originating from millennia of folk and oral traditions, rather than one founder or scripture. Still, Shinto isn’t exactly a religion, but a set of spiritual views and rituals synonymous with traditional Japanese culture.
Kami are worshipped at public shrines, though private home shrines (kamidana) are also common. A shrine’s entrance is marked by torii, gateways that mark a place as divine. The entrance may also be flanked by komainu: pairs of lion, dog or fox statues. Before entering the shrine building, those making omari (visiting the shrine) wash themselves at water basins in a purifying ritual called temizu. Ritual purity is a central concept in Shinto: wrong deeds put one in a state of kegare (impurity); purifying rituals restore kiyome (purity).
Once inside the shrine, visitors make offerings of food and drink called harai. Visitors may write personal wishes on wooden tabs called ema, or draw an omikuji - an paper fortune. Shrines are staffed by priests called shinshoku; though originally men, shinshoku can be men or women and have families. The temple is also tended by miko: young, unmarried women who assist priests. Though these girls may be the daughters of shinshoku, they’re commonly students who work at temples part-time.
Annual festivals (matsuri) are a vital component of Shintoism. Matsuri can mark specific seasons, like the Sapporo Snow Festival; or myths, like Tanabata, a star festival that revolves around wish-making. The biggest matsuri is Shōgatsu (the New Year), where attendees eat traditional foods, decorate their homes, play traditional games, and attend bonenkai (“year forgetting parties”) to close the old year and begin anew. Most Japanese festivals also include a procession, a parade in which the sacred object representing a shrine’s kami is placed in a mikoshi (palanquin) and carried through the streets.
Although Shinto is Japan’s native spiritual tradition, Buddhism is also widely practiced. Whereas religions are widely thought to compete in the West, Shinto and Buddhism intersect peacefully and seamlessly in Japan. For example, it is common for the Japanese to celebrate a child’s birth at a Shinto shrine, but – because death and mourning are a source of impurity – handle funeral arrangements in the Buddhist tradition. Hopefully, you learned a lot about Japan’s spiritual traditions, but the most important lesson may be this: religion and culture can create connection, not just conflict.