You’re on a tour of Japan’s most famously modern city, and in the Shibuya district, the centre of pop culture and, seemingly, all the city’s noise and light. Or you’re elsewhere, surrounded by towers of glass and steel, plastered with more advertising (paper, digital and neon) than you’ve ever seen in one place, everything racing and chaotic…
Wherever you are in Tokyo, you can turn a corner, and be plunged into calm and tranquility. The clock is dialed back hundreds of years, the modern world fades from the edge of your vision, and Shinto Japan is revealed, wrought in red walls and elegantly curving roofs.
Tokyo has over 4,000 shrines and temples (of around 80,000 scattered across Japan) - and this is a big clue to its enduring popularity.
Despite what you might first think by drawing analogies from churches and temples elsewhere in the world, Shinto is as much a part of modern Japanese culture as those high-rise towers and flashing billboards in downtown Tokyo. Yes, it’s the country’s heritage on display in devotional form, but it’s also being used, in a way you rarely see elsewhere in the world.
It’s a religion that’s become a bridge between the past and the present, and between the natural and man-made landscapes - and it’s so completely integrated into normal life that while around 80% of the Japanese population perform Shinto rituals every day, less than 40% describe themselves as religiously inclined.
The first big difference between religions elsewhere is the lack of figureheads. There is no equivalent of Jesus or Muhammad in Shinto. Instead, it’s about kami - sometimes translated as “gods” but more correctly defined as elemental spirits related to particular aspects of life, with loose parallels to the ways the Ancient Greek gods were related to specific human traits or phenomenon in the natural world.
Kami exist in sacred spaces (always Japanese spaces - there is no version of Shinto practiced abroad), and they’re separate but connected to the mortal world. It’s important to keep on their good side. Even the most peace-loving kami is capable of raining havoc on your life if you disrespect it.
If you want to know which kami’s favour you want to court, you need to go to your local kannushi or Shinto priest. It’s his job to interpret the Kojiki for you, an ancient text filled with myths and legends about the origins of Japan and the creation of its vast number of kami.
(It’s not a protected work - you can even buy a copy on Kindle these days - but it is regarded as inscrutable as a source of guidance, especially regarding kami, unless it’s your job to translate it so.)
Part of Shinto’s enduring popularity is its role in connecting the present with the past. Kami are the key to connecting with family ancestors, since every worthy deceased person ascends into kami form - so Shinto has become the religion of the home, less a formal system of worship than a series of rituals almost unthinkingly woven through your day that keep ill fortune at bay, pay homage to your ancestry, and court divine favour for long-lasting happiness in life.
(Ancestral kami are especially important, since their role is to safeguard the family’s lineage and look after the souls of its departed.)
Shinto also has something to prove to the rest of the world. While its origins go back to the 8th Century, so-called “State Shinto”, a non-Japanese term for the form that became the national religion in 1868 when Shinto and Buddhism were separated, was used to legitimise and solidify the power of the Emperor.
In the wake of the Second World War, it was assumed that State Shinto was guilty in creating a warlike Japan - and it was banned by the conquering Allies, in an attempt to separate religion and state.
Now Japan wants to show the world - and in particular, the United States - that it’s got Shinto all wrong. There’s been no formal reversal of the Shinto Directive in 1945, but in every sense that counts, Shinto is back (or more correctly, it never went away).
There’s nothing militaristic in the kinds of daily Shinto rituals you might see being performed today. It’s traditionally underpinned by a humane and largely peaceful philosophy - Shinto teaches that yes, humans can do bad things through ignorance or the influence of evil spirits, but that people are essentially decent and good.
Many rituals are performed at the family altar (most homes have one, called a kami-dana or “kami shelf”). You may attend a local public shrine - but in essence, Shinto revolves around the home.
At a public shrine, you might see people performing any number of cleansing rituals - and, at places like Tokyo’s famous Meiji Shrine, partake in them yourself, washing your hands in a water tank before offering up a prayer of your own. You might see people leaving flowers, incense or food at shrines dedicated to ancestors - although graveside rituals are always Buddhist, since Buddhism deals with death. You might see Jichinsai, ceremonies taking place on a plot of land before a building is erected on it...
In all walks of Japanese life, Shinto is everywhere - and usually regarded as “just the way we do things here”. In some ways, the rituals have become more important than the faith system underpinning them...except really, it’s a form of belief that is woven so tightly into Japan’s history and identity that it’s hard to see how Japan could function without it.
In a functional sense, Shinto is Japan getting on with its day-to-day, and as comforting and dependable as the rising sun in the morning.
Shinto and the state may have been forcibly separated, and the country’s cutting-edge role in technological change may be - but for most of Japan, Shinto anchors the experience of everyday life in a way nothing else can. You might as well ask the sun to stop coming up.
Find out how to tour Japan the right way! Read our complete Japan travel guide: Making the most of your Japan tour: A traveller’s guide.