Previously, I talked about the process of purchasing and displaying a kamidana – a miniature Shinto shrine designed for home worship. In this post, I’d like to talk a little more about what makes up a kamidana…
The most important part of the kamidana is the ofuda, お札. This is the paper or wood charm that is imbued with kami essence and it functions as the central point of veneration. It is housed inside a miniature replica of a Shinto shrine building called an omiya, お宮. In the photo above, you can see the ofuda housed in the omiya. The characters on the ofuda say “Fushimi Inari Taisha,” referring to Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine where it was originally from. You can see how snuggly it fits into the omiya. In my kamidana, the doors of the omiya can be removed completely to insert the ofuda easily. Alternatively, the doors can be opened to partially expose the ofuda. Usually, the doors remain shut, concealing the ofuda.
The other accessories that accompany the kamidana are called shingu 神具, which can be translated as “spirit tools” or “items for worship.” These include:
1- Sakaki 榊 – Two branches of sakaki are placed either side of the kamidana. Sakaki is a type of Japanese evergreen tree and is sacred in Shinto; the kanji for sakaki is in fact made up of the characters for tree 木 and kami 神. It’s common these days for people to display artificial sakaki with their kamidana. This might seem a little strange, but it has the advantage that it doesn’t need to be changed or watered. For people living outside Japan where no sakaki grows, artificial sakaki leaves like these are a good solution! Sometimes though I like to change what’s displayed in the vases. Over the winter period, I put sprigs of pine and mistletoe in place of the sakaki; it seemed most appropriate to me.
2. Sakaki-tate 榊立 – Small, white vases for displaying sakaki leaves. In cases where real plants are used, the water in the sakaki-tate should be changed regularly and the plants should be disposed as soon as they start to wither.
3. Kagari-bi 篝火 – Candle holder, also called rōsoku-tate, ローソク立. They are designed for burning tiny white candles (rōsoku) which are lit whenever you visit the kamidana for prayers. In practice, I only save this for special occasions, for several reasons. Firstly, my daily morning prayers at the kamidana are really quite short, as I make them before setting off the work and I have limited time! Secondly, I only have a limited supply of the little candles designed especially for kamidana, and I want to save them. Thirdly, burning candles always poses a fire risk, so I try to minimise this where I can. Some people use little electric lanterns, or tōmyō 燈明, instead of candles. Recently, I’ve occasionally used those electric tealight candles that are popular in the UK at the moment; they fit on the kagari-bi stands and I can leave them unsupervised without any worries of fire!
4. Kumo 雲 – This is just a piece of paper with the Japanese kanji for cloud, kumo, written on it. This is for fixing above the kamidana when it is not possible to position the kamidana in the highest point of the house; it’s sort of a way of acknowledging to the kami that they should be enshrined at the highest point but regrettably circumstances prevent you from doing so. The room where I put the kamidana isn’t the highest point (we have an attic), so this was very useful.
5. Torii 鳥居 – Torii are “gateways” that you’ll find at the entrance Shinto shrines. They symbolise the separation of the mundane world from the sacred world of the shrine. They are particularly ubiquitous at Inari shrines, where they are usually painted red.
6. Heishi 瓶子 – Little bottles for offering nihonshū (aka sake), Japanese rice wine. This only really needs to be offered on special occasions, like New Year’s Day. Sake can sometimes be hard to find outside Japan, so other beverages are also acceptable. Be warned though – the size and shape of the heishi make them rather hard to clean, and this, coupled by the fact that they are usually white in colour, means that you should avoid putting in drinks that might stain, like red wine.
7. Shinko 神狐 – Statues of the (usually white) foxes that are said to be the messengers of Inari Ōkami. For kamidana enshrining other kami, you might find statues of komainu (“lion dogs,” sometimes called “foo dogs” in the west) instead. Inari shrines may have hundreds of fox statues offered by devotees.
8. Shinkyō 神鏡 – “Sacred mirror.” In a way, this represents the kami themselves, as mirrors are often used in Shinto shrines as a yorishiro – an object into which a kami can be attracted. As it reflects back the devotee’s reflection, the mirror is also said to play the role of reflecting the devotee’s sincerity to the kami.
9. Mizutama 水玉 – A little bottle for offering water. When offering it to the kami the top is removed, and then replaced once prayers are finished. Devotees should aim to replace the water every day.
10. Hirazara 平皿 – Most sets of shingu include two small flat dishes, called hirazara. One is filled with rice and goes on the left, while the other is filled with salt and goes on the right. Ideally these too should be replaced every day, but once a week also seems to be acceptable.
There are many other shingu that can be used to honour the kami, but these are the basics. If you can read Japanese, I recommend consulting the Kokoro ga yasuragu kamidana sutairu for more information on setting up a kamidana.