Shinto, or Kami no Michi (lit. The way of the Gods) is a traditional religion practised by the people of Japan, and up to this day, is one of the dominant religions in The Land of Rising Sun, alongside Buddhism. It has been practiced in Japan since the country's creation, preceding Buddhism and every other religion that has entered Japan.
Shinto worship revolves around the gods of nature (i.e. the gods of rivers and mountains, stones, trees, etc.). It is said that there are 8 million gods in Shinto. The Japanese phrase for this is yaoyorozu. It is important to note that Japanese kami are not the almighty deities whom we meet in Western religions, but are rather abstract creations, natural forces.
There are a number of important deities in Shinto, amongst which, Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun is considered to be the primary, most important god. Her full name translates as the Great Spirit Who Shines in the Heavens.
The essence of Shintoism is the harmony with nature. There are a number of traditions, festivals and other activities which symbolise the connection and love of a human being towards nature. Shintoism is a sanguine religion. Shinto belief is that nothing, in principle, is evil and humans are initially good-natured. Wrongdoings and mischief are caused by evil spirits. Here is where the festivals, traditions, rituals and prayers stand. They are to purify the evil spirits and ward against their scourge.
Since Shinto symbolises the relations of life and nature, presents people with means of dealing with nature, it would be fair to say that Shinto is a philosophy of life. Even so, Shinto has no teachings that touch upon the afterlife. As a result, most of the Japanese people practice Shinto during their lifetime, follow Shinto rituals and traditions (i.e. weddings, matsuri, etc.), but refer to Buddhism after death. The funeral ceremonies are conducted by Buddhist priests.
The most interesting Shinto traditions are the matsuri, local festivals, which are still practised widespreadly in modern Japan. There are countless festivals which are celebrated in countless shrines spread all over Japan. The matsuri worship a certain shrine's deity, and most of those festivals are held annually.
The matsuri are sometimes distinguished by the season during which they occur: haru, natsu, aki, fuyu (spring, summer, autumn, winter). Out of these four types the most famous ones are natsu matsuri - summer festivals.
During the summer festivals people wear traditional Japanese clothing, in particular summer kimono, called yukata together with traditional Japanese footwear, geta. People pay visits to the particular shrine where the festival is being held, buy food from the food stalls, yatai, on their way, play festival games, watch a shrine maiden's, miko's performance and finally watch the fireworks. Fireworks are one of the most favourite things of the Japanese people. They associate summer, festivals and fireworks with one another.
Aki matsuri, autumn festivals, also hold a special importance in Shinto. The traditional name of month October in Japan is Kannazuki, (lit. the month when there are no gods.) It is said that all of the gods gather in Izumo Province, in the shrine dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu. In Izumo, however, October is called Kamiarizuki, meaning the month when the gods are present. After a week has passed, when the gods return to their own shrines, the people hold festivals to welcome them back and thank them for the harvest.
Fuyu matsuri, winter festivals, however, do not have a connection with Shintoism and are held only for the sole purpose of attracting tourists to Japan during the winter.
Haru matsuri, spring festivals, mark the beginning of spring and the planting of crops. If the festival is spent at home, the father of the family will throw fried beans around and chant "Out with the demons! In with the luck!" (Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!).
The above mentioned are however only some of the major festivities. Every village, every city, every town holds its own festival that is dedicated to its protector kami.
Shichi-go-san (lit. seven-five-three) is the celebration of children coming to a certain age: girls of age three and seven, boys of age three and five. Parents dress their children into kimono, pay a visit to a shrine and lastly, photographies are taken. Shichi-go-san celebrates growth of children and prayers are made for their health and well-being.
One of the most favourite and widely practiced Shinto traditions is the first visit of the year to a shrine, hatsumoude. The mood in the shrines may remind you of natsu or aki matsuri: the atmosphere, food stalls, etc. It is customary to make a symbolic, small offering to the shrine and get an omikuji, a fortune-telling strip of paper. Whatever is written on the paper will determine the course of your upcoming year. The writings on omikuji vary from 'Great blessing' to 'Great Curse'.
Japanese people visit Shinto shrines, jinja, quite often. During a visit to a shrine they pray to the gods and ask for their wishes to be fulfilled. Now, even though this is something common in every religion, Japanese people have a certain procedure of praying to the gods. They throw some amount of money into a certain box called saisenbako, ring the huge bell, suzu, which is hung in front of it, bow two times, clap their hands two times, make their prayers, and bow one last time. This numbers, however, can vary from a shrine to shrine.
During a visit to a shrine, one can write his prayers on a wooden plaque, ema, and leave it to hang in a shrine. It is said that the gods will read these and make your wishes come true. It is common to buy an ema for success in work, exams, health, and many other causal reasons.
Another option is to buy an omamori. The phrase originates from the word "to protect", and omamori are a form of talismans, amulets, which are meant to bring luck and success to its wearer.
Japanese shrines have a peculiar structure, the entrances to the shrine territory are marked with wooden gates of various colours, called torii. In front of the shrines itself there usually are statues of guardian dogs, lions, in some cases even foxes. The territory of a shrine is normally surrounded with huge ropes that have zigzag-like strings of paper tied in. Those ropes are called shimenawa. They mark the entrance to a place which is considered to be sacred.
In shrines one can often find ponds and fountains which carry a purifying holy water. This practice is called misogi. In the past people would visit the rivers in the neighbourhood of the shrines and wash their whole bodies. Nowadays, however, the purifying ponds and fountains are used as replacement. Visitors usually wash only their hands and rinse their mouths.