On Shimenawa

In Japan, shimenawa (sacred twists of ricestraw rope) can be as small and light as a feather or weigh over 3,000 pounds. They signify a sacred or newly purified space, especially when hung over doorways.

The largest shimenawa in the country hangs over the main entrance of the Isumo Taisha or Great Shrine in Izumo, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. The shrine is on the western side of the main island, much more rough and rural, facing the Sea of Japan between Japan and China. The area is also called "uva Nihon," "back of beyond."

Shinto = cosmic weaver, the way of the gods

Ame no miso-ori me = the heavenly weaving maiden central to Shinto cosmology

cf. Alan L. Miller, "Ame No Miso-Ori Me (The Heavenly Weaving Maiden): The Cosmic Weaver in Early Shinto Myth and Ritual." History of Religions 24.1 (August 1984): 27-48.





 items about shimenawa from The Daily Yomiuri (Japan):

In Japan, handmade decorations are created for the New Year. These are "divided into two categories: wall and door decorations... and table ornaments. With any of these, the frame is made with a shimenawa, which is then decorated with traditional festive items such as pine boughs, bamboo and plum twigs, or little kites. Simple decorations can be made in about 15 minutes." ---The Daily Yomiuri, December 28, 1992

Shimenawa are also important to sumo wrestling.
"Traditionally, the highest sumo rank was that of ozeki. Only a man recognized as particularly superior in both ability and character among ozekis was allowed to wear the "yokozuna," the special ornament he was given to wear on his dress apron called "keshomawashi."

Many people probably associate the yokozuna ornament with the "shimenawa, "the sacred straw festoon that adorns a Shinto shrine archway. They are right. Sumo was originally closely connected with Shinto rites, and the dohyo (sumo ring) used to be adorned with a component piece of shimenawa when the ring was not in use, to show that the arena was a sacred place."
---The Daily Yomiuri, April 29, 1992, p. 3; article by Shumon Miura.


"The theme of renewal, banishing the old year's evil spirits and getting a
fresh start with the new seems nearly universal. In some European cultures, the door is left ajar for the old year to escape, and a shutter is left open for the
new year to enter. The Japanese prepare for the big day by cleaning their homes from top to bottom, then hang a sacred rope, or shimenawa, over the doorway to prevent malevolent spirits from entering the house."

---Laura Outerbridge, in The Washington Times, December 26, 1991

another item from The Daily Yomiuri:

Dondo-yaki, also called tondo, dondon-yaki, or by other names depending on
the region, is a bonfire festival held around Jan. 15 throughout Japan. New
Year's decorations of pine, bamboo and straw are burned in huge fires. Mochi, or
rice cakes, are baked on the bonfire and eaten to protect against disease and

Festivities vary at local temples, shrines and communities. Why not check if
there's one in your neighborhood? The celebrations usually proceed in the case
of rain.

[Included in a list of the major dondo-yaki in the Kanto and Kansai regions is the following note:]

TONDO-YAKI AT TORIGOE SHRINE in Torigoe, Taito-ku, Tokyo, will take place on Jan. 8. New Year's decorations and good-luck charms embraced in the previous year will be set aflame at 1 p.m., after prayers by the shrine priests. Worshipers will bring rice cakes to be toasted on the fire.... Children will burn their calligraphy, believing that the higher the ashes rise, the more rapidly their writing will advance. The shrine is a five-minute walk from Asakusabashi Station on the JR Sobu Line. (03) 3851-5033.......

---"Celebrate The New By Burning The Old"
in The Daily Yomiuri, January 4, 1991, Pg. 7

 On the Shinto shrine at Izumo

ne of the best-kept 'secrets' from foreigners is that there are two quite
different Japans. The first, like the Tokyo region, is dotted with factories,
crisscrossed by bullet trains and ultramodern in appearance. The other is north
of the east-west mountainous backbone of the main island of Honshu and faces the Korean peninsula. In this Japan there is little industry and the people are slow
of pace, especially in winter. And winter, when the wild duck that is the
specialty of the region appears on the tables of the country inns, is the time
for a gourmet tour.

"Few foreigners visit this part of Japan because there's not much to see ---
with one great exception. At Izumo there is the Shinto shrine dedicated to
Okuninushi-no-mikoto, a deity traditionally thought to have introduced medicine,
sericulture (raising of silkworms) and agriculture. The shrine, a landmark site
of Japanese civilization dating to at least the seventh century, and probably a
good bit earlier, contains buildings constructed mostly around 1874; the main
shrine, which is surrounded by a double wooden fence, dates from 1744.

"For those who wish to inspect the shrine, visit the local ryokan, or
traditional inn, and eat some of the best food in the land - as in France, the
good cuisine is found in the provinces - the procedure is simple. Take a plane
from Tokyo to Izumo airport, a journey that lasts just over an hour, and a
25-minute cab ride or somewhat longer bus trip (cabs cost close to $20 for the
ride) to Izumo village.

"Shinto --- literally, ''the way of the gods'' ---is to the outsider an
astonishing mixture of the sacred and the profane. On the spacious grounds of
the Izumo shrine, just to one side of the avenue of aged pines that leads to one
of Japan's holiest places, the priests have parked a big, black steam
locomotive of the D51 type, a venerable workhorse of the first industrial
revolution in Asia. The locomotive is set there to attract children, but adults
also swarm into its cab, pulling at its levers and murmuring in delight.

"Shinto, a religion that lacks dogma or even holy writ, is very much a force
to be reckoned with. Nearly 80 million Japanese swarmed to their local shrines
on New Year's Day this year. Shinto is a religion that stresses such observances
and it judges mankind by the criterion of works, not faith, like some branches
of Christianity.

"At Izumo one walks up the avenue of pines --- the locomotive is parked on the
left --- and arrives in the shrine compound facing a prayer hall; the hall is
impossible to miss because an enormous shimenawa, or sacred rope, is fastened
to its front. Turn left at the rope and enter the concrete building, not a great
beauty, that houses an office and a museum with a collection of samurai swords.
The obligatory ritual that precedes a visit to the inner shrine --- it can be
seen clearly, towering up to the height of a seven-story building --- is short and
simple. One removes his overcoat and a young woman attendant puts a white
vestment over one's shoulders, a kind of doctor's coat in Western eyes. Then one
stands by a running tap and dips one's hands briefly into the water over a sprig
of freshly cut pine.

"A priest then conducts one toward the sanctuary, a wooden structure marked by
chigi, huge beams that stick aslant into the sky from the roof of the building.
Behind the sanctuary is a pine-covered hill known as Mount Yakumo, the Mountain
of Eight Clouds. The 300-foot peak is considered as holy as the innermost shrine
itself and no visitors are allowed to set foot there.

"The purification ceremony that follows is a rare experience. A priest in full
robes and shiny black hat stands in the West Corridor and waves a wand toward
the shrine. White strips of paper inscribed with sacred Shinto symbols are
attached to the wand; they flutter as he moves. After chanting a spell and a
prayer he turns and waves the wand toward the visitor. The visitor next places a
sprig of sakaki (''sacred tree,'' Cleyera japonica) on a low altar under an
eightlegged gate, stands back, claps four times and bows for a moment. Behind,
in the East Corridor a few yards away, another attendant waits with a cup of
sake. She holds a kettle of the rice wine and pours it into an unglazed
porcelain cup in the visitor's hands. The correct response is to drink up in one
swoop - then to receive the cup, wrapped in white paper, as a souvenir. The
whole ceremony lasts no more than five minutes.

"Then a visitor is free to roam between the Inner Fence and the Sacred Fence,
over a pebbled compound with flat grayish stones dominated by the sanctuary, the
chigi striking up into gray winter skies. It's not an easy moment to forget,
standing at the appointed ''festival viewing place.''

"Izumo is one of the holiest places in the land, second only to the grand
shrine at Ise, where the emperor worships his legendary ancestor, Amaterasu
Omikami, the sun goddess. At Ise no secular visitors are allowed inside the
sanctuary, but at Izumo the tradition is more flexible, less mysterious,
altogether more friendly. One has a close view of a shrine that marks the place
of origin of the Japanese people, according to eighth-century chronicles. The
chronicles denote Izumo as the habitation of the entire pantheon of Shinto gods,
numbering many millions according to some accounts.

"Those without the patience or interest in going through the purification
ritual may roam along a Worshipping Route that winds all around the shrine. But
one is separated from the grand shrine by the latticed Inner Fence, and it is
impossible to take unobstructed photographs. The priests have no compunction
about allowing cameras into the inner compound, but to prepare for a visit to
Izumo, arrangements must be made in advance in Tokyo. The priests also require
that a non-Japanese speaking visitor bring an interpreter, since almost no one
in that part of Japan speaks English. The priests make it plain that an
interpreter is a must. But they make no other demands, said Yoshimasa Hara, an
official who met with an American visitor. ''We don't want people to regard this
just as tourism,'' Mr. Hara said, ''but those with an interest in our religion
can certainly enter'' the inner shrine....."

---from HENRY SCOTT STOKES,"HOME OF JAPAN'S SHINTO GODS," The New York Times, February 21, 1982, Section 10; Page 6.

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