Shinto painting from manuscript of Todaiji, Nara, Japan

Purification as the Core of the Ancient Shinto Faith

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A ritual based religion, Shintoism is defined as "the way of the gods" in Japan, from the Chinese Shendao.  It is the indigenous religion of the country, and survives today as the state religion, primarily because it allows for the continued infusion of other faiths into its core structure, as seen when Buddhism was incorporated into the faith centuries ago.  The core of Shintoism, however, is the kami system, or the belief in multiple spirits of the universe, making these adaptations viable because they are more focused on the natural world and the elements than on specific individual gods.  However, despite this, Shinto does have a core group of gods and it has remained greatly admired for the way in which the religion has managed to maintain these gods while consistently incorporating aspects of numerous other religions.

One of the most pertinent rituals of the Shinto faith is the purifying ritual, performed right before entering the jinja, or shrine.  It is a simplified version of a much larger purifying ritual that generally takes place in a river or by a waterfall.  The only tools required for this ritual are the Temizuya, or the water basin, and the Hishaku, the long wooden spoon provided at the basin.  In this version, a visitor approaches the temple and stops at the Temizuya first.  The visitor will then use a Hishaku to scoop up water and pour it first on the right hand, then the left.  The person then cleanses his/her mouth with the water in his palm and then pours water over the left hand again to repurify it.  The remaining water must drip back down the handle and the Hishaku is replaced.  The purpose of allowing the water to drip back down the Hishaku is due to the longer version of the ritual.  Known as "purification by moving water", the water must constantly be in motion for the ritual to be successful.  By allowing the water to flow back down the other side of the tool this original purpose is fulfilled.

Yasaka Shrine Main Gate's Purification Fountain in Kyoto, Japan

Yasaka Shrine Main Gate's Purification Fountain in Kyoto, Japan . Kyoto, Japan - 2014.Photo credit by Checo. (

Shinto Shrine Purification Basin.

Shinto Shrine Purification Basin. Photo by: darkhriss   (

The purpose of this ritual is to cleanse the visitor of the jinja.  Purification is an important aspect in many religions, but in Shintoism it is particularly necessary because of the elemental qualities of the faith.  As previously stated, Shintoism is defined by its belief in the kami, and these natural spirits are attuned to all aspects of the natural world.  Even the individual gods are closely associated with nature and the earth.  The first gods, Izanagi and Izanami—both spouses and siblings—created the islands of Japan and the fire god, Kagutsuchi.  Izanami was killed following the birth of fire, and her husband, Izanagi, gave birth to the three primary gods on his own: Amaterasu the goddess of the sun, whose grandson will become the first of the Japanese royal lineage; Susano, the god of the sea and storms, thus associated with both wind and water; and Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon.  Thus before entering the shrine, one must completely cleanse him/herself of the unnatural world and this is symbolized in this shortened version of the formal purification ritual.  

 Izanami and Izanagi, two powerful deities in Japan and the first gods, they were both spouse and siblings.

 Izanami and Izanagi, two powerful deities in Japan and the first gods, they were both spouse and siblings. ( Wikimedia Commons )

This particular rite is performed by those who want to visit the temple: priests, worshippers, or even tourists who would like to visit the shrine.  Whether or not the person who comes to the jinja truly follows the faith, the purification is necessary to keep the shrine pure and the atmosphere cleansed.  The priests are those who tend to perform the full ritual; however this larger version takes place in the wilderness near a river or waterfall so it cannot be performed on a daily basis.  This simplified version allows for their constant purification.  The purification is intended to symbolize becoming one with the natural world.

Priest in deep prayer at the Dazaifu Tenmagu Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan, 2007

Priest in deep prayer at the Dazaifu Tenmagu Shrine in Fukuoka, Japan, 2007 Photo by Chris73 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The ritual, then, is an everyday occurrence, but only by those who visit the shrine.  That is to say, those who are followers of the Shinto faith do not have to cleanse themselves every day in their own homes; rather, they merely need to ensure they are cleansed and pure before entering their local shrine.  If they happen to go to their temple on a daily basis, then this ritual would indeed occur every day.  It is important to note that purification rituals are very important in the Shinto religion and other variations of this ritual occur at various different moments.  For formal practitioners, they also occur on important dates, at lunar or seasonal intersections, or at the opening of a new Shinto jinja. 

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