The word Shinto is made up of two characters, and they are “Shin” which means Kami and “to” which means Wa, in other words, Shinto means the way of the gods. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan and it dates back to 200 BC, Shinto beliefs are based on the fact that both the gods or spirit, are found in all living things. The gods or kami (kah-me) are believed to reside in beautiful, sacred places such as waterfalls or ancient forests.
Artists who display exceptional skills are believed to have the hand of the Kami in their lives, even some non-living things such as rocks are believed to contain the presence of kami.
Unlike many other religions, Shintoism has no formalized book or writings to guide their faithfuls, rather Shintoism emphasizes on a constant search, of harmony with nature, coupled with the recognition and appreciation, for a god’s presence in one’s surroundings. Shintoism also believes that in these sacred spaces, one can truly connect with the spiritual realm.
It wasn’t until 540, when Buddhism finally reached the shores of Japan, that Shintoism began to have a formalized structure, before Buddhism there were numerous shrines scattered throughout Japan, which recognized only the local kamis, the kami was important to local townships and were greatly revered.
But with the introduction of Buddhism, it was obviously necessary to preserve the indigenous religion of Japan, which was begun by the structuring of all the various kamis, that were worshipped in Japan. The Japanese were eventually able to organize, the various kami structures or shrines into what was eventually termed as Shintoism.
Also it wasn't until recently that the Japanese government, altered Shintoism to create a State Shinto which was specially for propaganda purposes and
today there are thousands, if not tens of thousands Shinto shrines in Japan.
In Japan today, Shintoism has returned to its original form of Jinja Shinto (Shinto Shrine) which emphasizes and appreciates the beauty, of the supernatural around us, recognizing that we are an inseparable part of the world, in which we co-exist with other living things.
The famous Japanese torii (red gateways) serves to let anyone passing through, know that the area they are approaching is indeed sacred, while it would take several long writings, to feature all the prominent shrines in Japan, here are two to start:
The Ise Shrine is the most important, as well as oldest of Shinto shrines in Japan, it was built during the third and fifth centuries. The Ise Shrine consists of an inner shrine called Naiku as well as an outer shrine called Geku. These wooden buildings, are dedicated to the kami Toyouke and the Amaterasu Omikami.
The Ise shrine is next to the Isuzu River, which is at the base of Mount Kamiji and Mount Shimaji in southern Honshu Japan. There is also a sort of weird fact that the Ise Shrine, is said to be about 2,000 years old but its structures are always rebuilt every twenty years! Well the next rebuilding will take place in 2013.
Kamo Wake-Ikazuchi Jinja (Kamigamo Shrine)
This is the oldest Shinto shrine, it is in the ancient city of Kyoto, this shrine is dedicated to the deity Wakeikazuchi, it was built in 678 during the reign of Emperor Temmu.
For more information on Shintoism, please visit the website of the International Shinto Foundation.