Japan: Shimenawa and Shide, Shinto Spiritual Symbols
Updated: 4 days ago
The decorative and symbolic elements of Shinto shrines, such as shimenawa and shide, play a crucial role in Japanese tradition and spirituality. These objects are not only aesthetic but also carry a deep meaning, rooted in the history and culture of Japan.
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Similar to the Torii gates, shimenawa symbolize the separation between the secular and the sacred world. They are used to purify and protect the space they enclose. Found at the entrance of shrines, around sacred trees, encircling stones, or other objects revered in Shintoism, they hold significant spiritual importance.
Origins and Symbols
Shimenawa (縄) are braided ropes used in the Shinto religion to demarcate a sacred space or to indicate the presence of a kami (Shinto deity). Their use dates back to ancient Japan, where they were often associated with various beliefs.
The most significant reference to the origin of shimenawa is found in Shinto mythology. The "Kojiki" and the "Nihon Shoki", the two oldest texts of Japan, narrate the story of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. According to legend, Amaterasu hides in a cave (Ama-no-Iwato), plunging the world into darkness.
When she is finally lured outside, a shimenawa is placed at the entrance of the cave to prevent her return, symbolizing the separation between the sacred and the secular worlds, and the protection against evil spirits. This story is fundamental in understanding the Japanese spirit and the spiritual significance of shimenawa in Shintoism.
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The shimenawa represents the boundary between the secular and the sacred world. By marking the limits of a space, it signifies purity and serves to ward off negative or impure influences. The braiding of the ropes, often made from rice straw, is also a symbolic act. It represents unity and strength.
Shimenawa, as an important Shinto symbol, have representations that extend across various aspects of Japanese culture, including literature, painting, and even cinema.
Literary and Mythological References
Painting and Visual Arts
In traditional Japanese art, shimenawa are often depicted in paintings and prints illustrating scenes from shrines or Shinto rituals. Paintings of sacred landscapes or mythological scenes, especially from the Edo period, frequently feature shimenawa to indicate the presence of a kami. They are thus immediately associated with a sacred place by the Japanese.
Cinema and Popular Culture
In Japanese cinema and popular culture, shimenawa often appear in films and TV series dealing with religious or supernatural themes. For example, they can be used to create a mystical atmosphere or to indicate a place of great spiritual importance.
While less common in Western media, they are sometimes represented in films or series exploring Japanese culture. Manga, popular comics, and Japanese animations regularly refer to shimenawa to signify a spiritual space.
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Rice straw is the most commonly used traditional material for making shimenawa. It is chosen for its availability, abundance, and significance in Japanese culture, where rice holds fundamental importance.
Sometimes, other materials like hemp, flax, or synthetic fibers are used, particularly for large-sized shimenawa or those exposed to harsh weather conditions.
Harvesting and Preparation: Rice straw is harvested, dried, and cleaned. For large-sized shimenawa, this step can be particularly labor-intensive, requiring a substantial amount of straw.
Braiding: The braiding process is crucial. The straw is woven into rope, a process that can range from simple braids to complex patterns for more elaborate shimenawa. The braiding is often done by hand by experienced craftsmen, giving each shimenawa a unique character.
Elevated to an art form, shimenawa are thus associated with the artists and craftsmen who created them. They are, therefore, considered works of art. Their display in shrines is an honor for their creators.
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Making the Rope: Once braided, the rope is formed into a loop or a specific shape, depending on the tradition of the shrine and its intended use. The dimensions and shape depend on the importance of the shrine and the location where the shimenawa will be installed. Read my article on the hierarchy of Jinja, Jingu, and Taisha shrines for more information.
Addition of Shide (see below): Shide are paper streamers often attached to shimenawa. They are usually made of washi paper and are added to complete the shimenawa, enhancing its spiritual significance.
Blessing and Installation: Before being installed, shimenawa are often blessed in a Shinto ritual. They are then placed at the entrance of shrines, around sacred objects, or in other specific locations, reinforcing once more the notion of sacred space.
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Shide: Function and Significance
Attached to shimenawa, shide (紙垂) are zigzag-folded paper strips. They are traditionally made from white washi paper (see below), although color variations may be observed during special events or festivals.
Shide are considered symbols of purity in Shinto religion. They act as receptacles for the kami and are often used in purification rituals.
Shide are typically made by Shinto priests or artisans specialized in creating religious objects. In some cases, they may be made by the faithful themselves, especially for personal use or during small local festivals.
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They are traditionally made of washi paper, a type of Japanese paper made from mulberry fibers. Washi is chosen for its texture and its ability to withstand the elements, being more durable and flexible than ordinary papers.
Washi paper is cut into long strips, then folded into a zigzag pattern. This shape is achieved by alternately folding the paper back and forth, creating a series of sharp triangles.
The Zigzag Shape
The zigzag shape of the shide is significant. It is often interpreted as symbolizing lightning, a powerful natural element associated with divine presence and purification. This shape is also believed to facilitate the connection between the earthly world and the kami.
When hung outdoors, the shide sway with the wind, creating a movement that is both visually captivating and symbolically powerful, evoking the active presence of the kami.
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Famous Shrines for Their Shimenawa
The size of shimenawa can vary greatly. In small shrines, they may measure just a few centimeters in diameter, while in major shrines, they can be several meters long and in diameter, weighing several tons.
Here are some examples of shrines known for their spectacular shimenawa:
Izumo Taisha (Izumo Grand Shrine)
Located in Shimane Prefecture, Izumo Taisha is famous for housing one of the largest shimenawa in Japan. It measures about 13 meters in length, has a diameter of more than 4 meters, and weighs about 5 tons. This shimenawa symbolizes the power of Okuninushi, a central deity of the shrine.
Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine)
Although located in the heart of Tokyo, this shrine is a haven of peace and spirituality. The shimenawa of Meiji Jingu, while less massive than that of Izumo Taisha, is impressive and contributes to the sacred atmosphere of the shrine.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Known for its thousands of red torii gates, this shrine, a famous tourist spot in Kyoto, is dedicated to Inari, the kami of rice and prosperity. The shimenawa here are often associated with rice offerings and underscore the importance of agriculture in Japanese culture.
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Togakushi is an ancient shrine in Nagano Prefecture. It is particularly known for its forest setting and its five distinct shrines. Shimenawa are used here to mark sacred spaces, in harmony with the surrounding nature.
Miyajima Shrine (Itsukushima Shrine)
Itsukushima Shrine is located on Itsukushima Island, also known as Miyajima (meaning "middle island" in Japanese), in Hiroshima Prefecture. This shrine, built over water, is famous for its "floating" torii gate. Shimenawa are present in several locations, playing a significant role in the beauty and spirituality of this particularly spectacular site.
Kumano Hayatama Taisha
Part of the famous Kumano Sanzan, this shrine in Wakayama Prefecture is surrounded by lush nature and is known for its ancient and sacred tree, called Nagi (Podocarpus), encircled by a shimenawa.
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The Final Word
Shimenawa and shide are more than just ornaments in Shinto shrines. They are entwined with the history, culture, and spirituality of Japan, representing purity, protection, and divine presence.
Their size and design vary, reflecting the importance and uniqueness of each shrine. As symbols of Shinto tradition, they continue to inspire and fascinate, both for believers and visitors from around the world.
Rooted in mythology, shimenawa have traversed the centuries and have also found their place in various forms of artistic and cultural expression in Japan. Their presence in literature, painting, and even cinema, testifies to their ongoing importance and influence on cultural identity. As photographers, capturing these elements in their natural and spiritual context adds a profound dimension to our work.