Customs and Rituals

What kinds of ritual objects figure in Shinto worship and prayer?

Shinto tradition refers to all of its “ritual furniture and utensils” with the term saikigu. It includes several items used on every altar during offering ceremonies. The priest carries the offerings (heihaku) and gifts of food (shinsen) on a tray (sambo), which he sets upon an eight-legged table (hassoku-an) made of a reddish cypress wood (hinoki, “fire tree”). Priestly staff remove these objects after worship ends. Objects used regularly in nearly all rituals include several items that ritual specialists wave over those to whom they are ministering. Branches of the sakaki (combining characters for “tree” and “kami”) provide a splash of greenery and association with living nature. A wand used for purification, either in place of or in conjunction with the sakaki branch, is called haraigushi—a thick cluster of white paper streamers attached to a long stick. Another stick with a set of zigzag-cut white paper (and sometimes of other colors) symbolizes the kami’s presence in the holy place. All three objects are mounted on stands and displayed when not in use by one of the priests or a miko. Miko also use a set of five bells (suzu) for their sacred dances.

Several larger implements play a central role in the great public festivals called matsuri. Most important is the portable shrine called the mikoshi. Celebrants carry this miniature, but still often very heavy, four-sided model of a shrine sanctuary in procession, shouldering long beams that hold the shrine aloft. Larger mikoshi can weigh up to several tons and require a large crew of strong bearers. In some places large wagons called yatai and dashi rumble through the streets on massive wheels, carrying groups of musicians and revelers. Built like mobile shrines, the hefty wooden wagons range in height from just over thirty feet to about sixty-five feet.


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