Natasha Norman Visual Artist

The Spirit World

The spirit world in Japan is disarmingly parallel to the human world. All along the lake, in the forests on the surrounding hills or interspersed between the houses are Shino temples or shrines. Marked by a lintel gate that indicates one is entering the spirit world, these houses are simply that: houses for the kami. Unlike the Western Christian tradition of a church being a house of God to accommodate the community, local Shino temples are not entered. One passes a fresh water basin in a separate pavilion near the gate to wash hands and mouth and then one stands in the shallow portico of the temple building to ring the bell, bow, clap and bow respect to the spirit housed within. Sometimes the wooden and glass screen reflects the outside world back at you. One is not presented with a spectacle of holiness, just a place.

It was a completely different way for me to spend Easter Sunday, the most celebrated day of the Catholic calendar, alone in a spirit world forest (every shrine and temple is housed in a wooded area, it is easy to find a temple in a built up area by the tale-tell clump of trees). After a slow morning recovering from a night of sake, Kirin beer and karaoke with Charles and Hayato, I ventured up the low mountains around Lake Kawaguchiko to seek the shrine and temple on the hilltop over looking us. We’ve had moody, misty weather the last few days that has hidden Mount Fuji from us with the forecast for snow tomorrow (it’s been freezing cold too!). If you’ve ever played the computer game, Riven, they you’ll have a sense of my experience today. A clearly marked and well-kept path running the ridge of the hill, the subtle sound of birds, curious Shinto buildings with tools stored out in the open (no fear of theft) as though the occupants have momentarily vacated the place and a surreal wondering past a wood cutter’s house back into the village.

Hayato explains that the shrines are Shinto and the temples Buddhist. Some temple complexes, like the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo or the Fujiomurosengen Shrine complex near us in Kodachi, seem to house a kind of monastery with monks in attendance. In my limited experience they are places of peace, places of spirit but not necessarily of ritual activity.

As in African culture there seems to be only a thin veil between the spirit world and human world, in fact, just a simple lintel gateway. The first emperor of Japan was said to have married the goddess Otohime, daughter of Ryojin; the dragon deity of the sea. Ryojin lives on in the contemporary Manga movie culture - the boy-dragon of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away - and in the food offerings left at little kami houses safe in their forests alongside the human world.