Photo of the side of a shrine with a trough of water looping the building and dozens of Japanese metal lanterns hung by the building.

Lanterns in the area around Kasuga Taisha.

I lived in Japan for a year and a half, during which I saw an awful lot of shrines. I did all the things tourists are inclined to do at Shinto shrines–I wrote ema and bought omamori. I have a hamaya from Ise Jingu. I unintentionally incited an argument between a couple of folks when I asked how many times I was supposed to ring the bell and bow at hatsumoude.

That’s the face of modern Shinto. But I’ve always wanted to learn more about historical Shinto, particularly the ritual, magical, and esoteric side of it. Unfortunately, that brings you into the realm of serious academic study and historical folklore, and it’s really hard to find anything good in English.

The best place I’ve found for nitty-gritty details is The Encyclopedia of Shinto. It’s an easy way to just dig up articles on micro-details of Shinto.

I actually like the Shinto family of articles on Wikipedia too, and they have some articles on some really specific topics. And, as always, there are some fantastic books in the references.

But so far I’ve been unwilling to do things that’d get me some truly good information on historical Shinto practices:

  • Purchasing books intended for university classes
  • Looking up research articles on the topic
  • Or buying something in Japanese and tediously translating it.

…And as tempting as that last one is (I wonder if you can download Kindle books off of Japanese Amazon?), I’m pretty sure I’d regret it. I don’t have the vocabulary for it.

Instead, on a whim, I picked up Shintoism: The Indigenous Religion of Japan. It’s an old, old book. I wasn’t really expecting much, which is fine–none of it is really new, but it’s fun to read about anyway. The most entertaining part of it is that it was written in 1934, and social sciences have come a really long way since then. It’s full of moralistic statements about how the ancient Japanese were primitive because they never grew out of polytheism, which is… about what you’d expect from turn-of-the-century scholars. I’m hoping The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart will give me an angle I haven’t seen before.

But it’s one of those topics I keep coming back to. I’ve heard tons of subtle, sly, and fiercely derivative references to this stuff in some of the games I’ve translated, and it hints at a whole world that I really know nothing about.