Pagan, Shinto & Spiritual Book Reviews September 2016

We have now entered autumn, the month of reading according to the Japanese. Not sure what to read? Take a look at this month’s reviews and see if any of them take your fancy – this month we even have a book by the managing editor of Patheos Pagan!

sep2016

  • Shin’ya Abe; Yuko Nagasaki; Kamidana Life Workshop, Kokoro ga yasuragu kamidana sutairu
  • Melusine Draco, The Secret People: Parish-Pump Witchcraft, Wise-Women and Cunning Ways
  • Jason Mankey, The Witch’s Athame: The Craft, Lore & Magick of Ritual Blades (The Witch’s Tools Series)
  • Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, The Science of Discworld
  • Ceisiwr Serith, A Book of Pagan Prayer

KokorogaYasuraguKamidanaShin’ya Abe; Yuko Nagasaki; Kamidana Life Workshop, Kokoro ga yasuragu kamidana sutairu (心がやすらぐ神棚スタイル)
(President Inc., 2012)
★★★ Read of the Month! ★★★

I have recently decided that I should at last acquire a kamidana – a kind of small, household shrine for Shinto kami (deities), sometimes called a “spirit house.” I consider this a very important step in my spiritual growth as a Shintoist; a kamidana represents a strong commitment to the way of the kami. As such, I take all the duties and responsibilities surrounding the procurement, display and tending of a kamidana very seriously, and before I purchase one, I wanted to read up on the subject to make sure I have a good knowledge of kamidana and the rituals and etiquette that surround them. Books in English on the sole subject of kamidana seem in short supply, so I decided to get something written in Japanese. That’s when I came across Kokoro ga yasuragu kamidana sutairu (which could be translated as “Kamidana styles for peace of mind”). It advertises itself as a “start book” for those looking into the “kamidana lifestyle,” and sure enough it has a friendly appearance, with its fun, colourful cover. I thought it might be a nice, non-intimidating book for someone like me for whom Japanese is not their first language.

I am very happy to report that Kamidana sutairu turned out to exceed all my expectations. This book is written especially for ordinary, everyday people, particularly those with only a basic knowledge of Shinto. Kamidana sutairu had absolutely everything I needed to give me the practical knowledge and confidence to obtain and look after a kamidana. The first chapter of the book introduces the basics of kamidana in clear and simple terms, explaining its history in brief, how it should be displayed, and how to make offerings and prayers correctly. This chapter features lots of bright, attractive diagrams explaining what each shingu (ritual item for Shinto worship) is and how to use it; this also mercifully includes furigana (phonetic readings) for the more difficult kanji (Japanese logograms).

While this first chapter focuses on the basic rules of kamidana, the second chapter deals with breaking those rules – or rather, how people adapt them to suit their personal circumstances. The authors of Kamidana sutairu are aware that the strict etiquette surrounding kamidana puts some people off getting one at all in modern times. For example, in many urban Japanese homes it is impossible to place the kamidana in the highest point in the house, which is where it technically should be. The authors have interviewed a number of ordinary members of the public from all walks of life – chefs, rickshaws drivers, interior designers, martial artists and so on – and reveal the personalised, unique ways in which they display their kamidana, complete with full-colour photos. This section even takes a look at kamidana owners in Hawaii, giving it an international feel. This section is very reassuring in that it shows that you do not have to follow all the rules of kamidana worship in order to establish a good relationship with the kami; the most important thing to do is to approach the kami with sincerity.

The next part of Kamidana sutairu looks at traditional kamidana in some of the shops and households of Ise (a centre of Shinto worship due to the presence of Ise Grand Shrine), while the final chapter includes FAQs on kamidana. These FAQs are all extremely helpful and address many issues that I personally had wondered about before.

So is this book easy to read for non-native speakers of Japanese? Luckily, it is written in a very clear, simple, “pop” style – it feels like reading a magazine (which is unsurprising considering the publishers, President Inc., seem to specialise in lifestyle magazines). Readers whose Japanese is close to N2 and above of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test probably won’t have any problems, especially if they are already familiar with Shinto. Readers currently below this level might find Kamidana sutairu too challenging to benefit fully, but it might be nice as something to own in order to aspire to reading later – plus you’ll probably enjoy the photos and pictures.

I feel a little troubled about giving a book that most Patheos readers probably won’t be able to read my “Read of the Month” designation, but to be honest it’s so useful and so well-suited to those for whom Japanese is not their first language that I felt I just have to. Although much basic information on kamidana can be found online in English (so don’t be put off getting a kamidana just because you can’t read Japanese!), I thought Kamidana sutairu had pretty much everything one would need to know to begin their “kamidana lifestyle” and I know I’m going to be referring back to this book again and again. A must-read for members of the international Shinto community looking for a basic, enjoyable, and gentle book on kamidana.

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