The Way of the Kami

Kami of the Mountain/Kami of the Field
Poll Everywhere

Torii (Shinto Gate) Icon

In its earliest form, the people of a particular region established a symbiotic relationship with the powers of nature that were responsible for protecting the community. For example, since water flows from the mountains to the fields, this natural cycle was personified as a kami of the mountain (yama no kami) that descended in the spring to become the kami of the field (ta no kami), which then returned to the mountain after the fall harvest. People therefore offered “first fruits” to this local kami in order to ensure the protection of the community. This idea of living in harmony with kami of the natural world is known as kannagara, which Yukitaka Yamamoto, ninety-sixth Chief Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, describes as follows:
The Spirit of Great Nature may be a flower, may be the beauty of the mountains, the pure snow, the soft rains or the gentle breeze. Kannagara means being in communion with these forms of beauty and so with the highest level of experiences of life. When people respond to the silent and provocative beauty of the natural order, they are aware of kannagara. When they respond in life in a similar way, by following ways according to the kami,they are expressing kannagara in their lives. They are living according to the natural flow of the universe and will benefit and develop by so doing. (Living Religions, 226)
Izanagi and Izanami (Shinto deities associated with creation)
Shinto & the State
The Birth of Japan
Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of Heaven and held counsel together, saying, “Is there not a country beneath?” Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven and, groping about therewith, found the ocean. The brine which dripped from the point of the spear coagulated and became an island which received the name of Ono-goro-jima. The two deities thereupon descended and dwelt in this island. (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 14)
  • How is this creation story similar to and/or different from the more familiar account of Genesis in the bible?
Amaterasu's Birth
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto consulted together saying, “We have now produced the great-eight-island country, with the mountains, rivers, herbs, and trees. Why should we not produce someone who shall be lord of the universe? They then together produced the Sun Goddess, who was called O-hiru-me no muchi. (Called in one writing Amaterasu no O-hiru-me no muchi.) The resplendent luster of this child shone throughout all the six quarters. Therefore the two deities rejoiced saying, “We have had many children, but none of them have been equal to this wondrous infant. She ought not to be kept long in this land, but we ought of our own accord to send her at once to Heaven and entrust to her the affairs of Heaven.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 20-1)
Amaterasu hides in the cave

Shinto: Imperial Regalia
After “all the Central Land of Reed-Plains” was completely “tranquilized,” Amaterasu gave her grandson, Ninigi, the Three Treasures (a curved jewel, a mirror, and a sword) and sent him down to rule the earth, saying: “This ... Land is the region which my descendants shall be lords of. Do thou, my August Grandchild, proceed thither and govern it. Go! And may prosperity attend thy dynasty, and may it, like Heaven and Earth, endure for ever.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 28)
According to tradition, Ninigi’s Great Grandson, Jimmu, went on to become the first “emperor” of Japan in 660 B.C.E. The present emperor of Japan, Akihito, is said to be a direct descendent of this lineage, which is ultimately traced back to the kami Amaterasu.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko

Kanji (Chinese characters) for Kami
In addition to the deities discussed above, the term kami refers to “the spirits that abide in and are worshipped at the shrines. In principle human beings, birds, animals, trees, plants, mountains, oceans — all may be kami. According to ancient usage, whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence, or inspired a feeling of awe was called kami.” (The Sacred Paths of the East, 247)

Sacred tree with shimenawa
Tree surrounded by a shimenawa (a rope made from rice stalks that identifies a space as sacred and wards off evil spirits).
Wedded Rocks with shimenawa
The “Wedded Rocks” (representing Izanagi and Izanami) at Futami no Ura are linked by a shimenawa.
Mt. Fuji (sacred mountain)
The perfectly conical shape of Mt. Fuji has made it one of the most venerated “nature” kami throughout Japanese history.
Nachi Waterfall (kami)
Nachi waterfall is a sacred space for Shinto. The falls were originally devoted to kami veneration, but over time they also came to be associated with Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy in the Buddhist tradition. Note the shimenawa at the top of the waterfall.
Bamboo Separator

Kegare (impurity/defilement)

& Purification

Misogi (waterfall purification ritual)
Kanji: tsumi (defilement)In the traditions collectively referred to as Shinto or kannagara, the world is beautiful and full of helpful spirits. ... However, ritual impurity is a serious problem that obscures our originally pristine nature; it may offend the kami and bring about calamities, such as drought, famine, or war. The quality of impurity or misfortune is called tsumi or kegare. It can arise through contact with low-level spirits, negative energy from corpses, negative vibrations from wicked minds, hostility toward others or the environment, or natural catastrophes. In contrast to repentance required by religions that emphasize the idea of human sinfulness, tsumi requires purification. The body and mind must be purified so that the person can be connected with kami that are clearn, bright, right, and straight. (Living Religions, 231)
The Western idea of sin generally involves intent; sin usually cannot be accidental. The Shinto idea of defilement, by contrast, is more akin to what we find in taboo cultures — that is, the contact itself is the polluting factor regardless of whether the person knew about the offense or undertook the action voluntarily. ... In the symbolic language introduced in the previous chapter, we could say the mirrorlike mindful heart is soiled (perhaps through no fault of its own) and cannot reflect the kami-filled world. Things will not go right from this point forward — the only solution is a purification ritual to eradicate the pollution or defilement. (SWH, 47-8)

Misogi (Ablution)
Harae/Oharai (Purification Rituals)


Reflection Paper Icon
How do Shinto purification rituals relate to the concept of kannagara (living in harmony with kami of the natural world)?