As part of my last trip to Japan in August 2012, I visited a famous Shinto shrine named Yushima Tenmangu near Ueno Park.1 I visited there in 2010, and prayed that I would pass the JLPT N2 exam, and after 2 years I finally succeeded. So, per Shinto custom, I returned to offer thanks and express gratitude.
While there, I picked up an ofuda (お札), which is something you can sometimes get at Shinto shrines. It’s basically a large card you can put into a Shinto home altar, or kamidana (神棚) and is considered a manifestation of that particular kami. Shinto teaches about the ability for kami to be divided infinitely, so that each “piece” is just another manifestation of that kami, and perfectly valid for an altar. You can read more about ofuda here.
Now, usually, people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines and get a charm or omamori for luck, protection, or just as a charming souvenir. That’s fine when you casually visit temples and such, but if you have been to a shrine repeatedly and feel a certain connection, and are willing to make a commitment, you can build on that relationship by purchasing an ofuda and making your own shrine at home. It’s not required, it’s more like taking that relationship to the next level. For me, I really like that particular shrine, plus I get inspired a lot by the life of Sugawara no Michizane (now “Tenjin”) as a poet and scholar. One nerd to another, I guess. 😉
Anyhow, the ofuda was the smallest one they sold. It was ¥1000 (about $12), and some were as high as ¥3000 or more. It is a heavy card wrapped in a thin, white paper which you can see through.
The shrine included some instructions with this, presumably because anyone who is buying this is probably setting up a new home shrine. One section explained how to enshrine an ofuda:
My translation skills aren’t very good, but what I believe this says is:
Enshrine the ofuda so that it is facing south or east. For homes that do not have a kamidana shrine, there are also small-sized ones that you can get and hang on a wall, or kamidana for Western-style rooms too.
The kamidana shrines themselves are sold online in places like Rakuten International (helps to know even a little Japanese), among other places. Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America lists them as well, but I am not sure if they sell them online. You might want to contact them about that. They do provide ofuda though for those who live far away.2
But I didn’t really feel like investing in a proper kamidana, and the excerpt above suggested other ideas (wall-hanging kamidana, etc), so I thought I would just make my own. Originally I just propped it high up on my bookshelf, but it just didn’t look very “sacred”, so I decided to do a little more.
I took a large balsa-wood box I once used as my original Buddhist altar, and found that the ofuda fit almost perfectly.3 What luck! However, it still might fall out, so I took some clear tape and made tabs on the top and bottom. The tape is clear, so it doesn’t get in the way, and it bends, so it’s easy to remove the ofuda later.
It’s pretty amateur, but it works. For now.
Regarding offerings, the same instructions provided some basic advice:
Which I believe says:
Before the kami, you offer uncooked-rice, water, the first produce of the season (fruit, vegetables, fish, etc), souvenirs4, or anything that you want to offer in gratitude. Then, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more before the altar.
There’s even a certain way to position the offerings according to the instructions. For the three basic offerings (water, rice and salt): you can position them like so:
- Uncooked rice (back row, closest to shrine)
- Water (front-row, left side
- Salt (front-row, right side)
So, from above, it looks like a triangle, pointing toward the shrine. If you offer alcohol as well (this is done in Shinto, but never in Buddhism), you can put two cups in a “middle row”, further apart, so that from above it looks like a circle, not a triangle.
Although my main altar at home is Buddhist, I am glad to finally setup a small kamidana as well to round-out the spiritual life in our home. I don’t pay respects very often, but I am still glad it’s there. Japanese homes often have both, and this helps complete the setup. The one I setup is very basic, amateur and probably not “official Shinto”, but I did the best I could with limited resources and living far away from Japan. Hopefully others will find this useful.
1 Funny story, it was raining horribly. Thunder, lightning, rain, everything. I couldn’t stay long, and with my umbrella, I was a little worried about being hit by lightning. :p
2 Since Tsubaki Grand Shrine is somewhat close to Seattle, I’ve been there once before a long time ago. Nice people. Since I travel to Japan regularly, I usually am satisfied with the shrines there, but if you can’t go to Japan, definitely check these guys out.
3 I took out the Buddhist image from altar and taped it inside the front cover of a copy of the Amitabha Sutra, which my daughter had put stickers on. Although not my favorite translation of the sutra, that book is dear to me (since it reminds me of my daughter), and I felt it was a safe and appropriate place to put the Buddhist image.
4 The notion of “souvenirs” in Japan is fairly different than in the US. More on that in a later post. Think of them as sweets and such, not silly postcards or t-shirts. 😉