Shinto［Chapter 1］The Origin of Shinto Rituals
Rituals for kami (the gods) have developed from when people first settled in the Japanese islands. By the Kofun period, the early forms of the traditional Sacred Treasures of Japan had already been dedicated to the kami.
In the later 7th century, Shinto rituals, mainly agricultural festivals, were systematized. Rituals deeply involving the Emperor, the Daijosai and Shikinen Sengu conducted at Ise Jingu, were accorded special significance. During the Heian-period, the number of rituals connected to the Emperor increased. These are called oyake-matsuri (Public Rites). Today the Kamosai (Aoi-matsuri) and the Iwashimizusai, modern descendants of the oyake-matsuri, are well-established representative Japanese matsuri festivals.
Court rituals systematized in the latter half of the 7th century accompanied the adoption and development of what is called the ritsuryō (penal code and administrative law) system of government. Among these rituals, those performed by the emperor were regarded as crucial and set in a class apart from the others. The Daijōsai in particular — a rite conducted by the emperor over the course of one evening in conjunction with his accession, in which he offers freshly harvested grains and such to the deities — was regarded as especially important.
Special preparations are undertaken for the Daijōsai, the greatest being the construction of ritual site buildings, with the pair of structures called yuki and suki which are central to the ritual. The construction of these buildings is simple, and is meant to evoke the forms of ancient festivals. The tradition of the Daijōsai stretches back for more than 1,300 years of recorded history, although it was unavoidably interrupted during the civil wars and feudal government between the medieval period and the start of the early modern era.
The courteous qualities of the festivals held at the Ise Shrine (in Mie Prefecture) is due to the presence of Amaterasu ōmikami, the ancestor of the imperial family. In the latter half of the 7th century, unmarried imperial princesses, blood relatives of the emperor, were already traveling to Ise as envoys called saiō. The role of saiō was to serve in the important festivals (the Kanname-sai and Tsukinami-no-matsuri) at that site on behalf of the emperor.
The Ise Shrine also celebrated the Shikinen Sengū rite at the shrines, where all the shrines’ buildings, sacred treasures, and furnishings are all rebuilt every 20 years. Although it was not carried out for one period during the Warring States period, and the 20-year rebuilding cycle was not always strictly observed, the ritual has significance as one of the most important rites of the nation's functions. Central to the Shikinen Sengū rite is the rebuilding of the main shrine building where the venerated deity is said to dwell. The building’s architecture is of a style unique to the Ise Shrines, called yui’itsu-shinmei-zukuri, which reflects its ancient form.
The 8th century Ritsuryō system of government established 13 classes and 19 forms of annual rituals. The most important was the kinensai — a prayer service to 3,132 gods (jingi) throughout the nation for good crops. These rituals were to be carried out at shrines throughout the nation, but in fact frequently did not take place, as the government relied on the willingness or ability of local shrine ritualists (hafuribe) to carry them out.
During the first half of the Heian Period (784-1185), a variety of new ceremonies were added to these oyakematsuri (public rites). These new ceremonies were devoted to tutelary deities in the emperor’s matrilineal line, and the jingi from areas in the vicinity of the capital. Most of the ceremonial offerings for these rituals were prepared at the Bureau of the Imperial Storehouse (Kuraryō), which handled imperial court finances, We can understand that the motive for creating these public rites was piety toward the imperial deities. The trio of ceremonies currently referred to collectively as the San-chokusai (“three imperially-ordered festivals”) — the Kamo (“Aoi” [hollyhock]), the Kasuga, and the Iwashimizu festivals — trace their origins back to the public ceremonies that began in the Nara and Heian periods.
Japanese attach great importance to harae (purification ceremonies) and have done so since ancient times. Harae are seen as rituals to atone for transgressions. The instruments used for performing such rituals, however, are not uniform.
At many shrines today, priests will use a long staff to which paper strips or hempen rope has been attached. This ritual wand is called an ōnusa. Based on the depictions in the Nenjū Gyōji e-maki, we can see that such wands have been in use from ancient times. Meanwhile, we can also see in the Engi-shiki (a set of contemporary government regulations) that human figurines made of metal were likewise used for purifications. Even today, the imperial envoys (chokushi) dispatched by the monarch for the Kamo and other such festivals will wield a human figurine (hitokata) known as the ginjin to perform purifications. The doll is used in combination with a hempen rope fashioned into a small ring and called the tokinawa. Such ropes have also been used from ancient times.
Individual shrines also stage purification rituals in ways unique to each. At Kamo Mioya Shrine (aka Shimokamo Shrine), the shrine priests themselves carry out the purification in advance of festivals there. The ritual wands (konusa) and tokinawa used there are distinctive to the shrine.