Death and Mountain Kami — Origins of Shinto

I decided last year to do a post in the gods section. But then I got lost in the library trying to decide what god to start with.
It’s typical to start with Izanami and Izanagi, but their role in actual religious practice  before the 8th century is debatable at best.
A more interesting topic is the older mountain-based belief systems that likely date from 12,000 BCE.
Many yokai, such as Yamanba, may have been integral parts of these older belief systems that were later depicted as monsters who could only be defeated by monks and priests to solidify the higher position of the new religion.  Monsters defeated by priests and monks will have to be a later post though.

Note: There is a distinction between older versions of Shinto (such as koshinto) and the more modern State Shinto which was developed largely as a political tool to grant the emperor “divine right” to rule — and war mongering blends of religion and politics  are more terrifying than anything we could find in yokai land. So the information in this post is not about State Shinto.

For those of you who have a love for sacred-mountain belief systems, this is your post! (Don’t overwhelm me with your numerous responses.)
And even if you’re like me and never paid two cents to mountains, you’ve undoubtedly had some exposure to sacred mountains in belief systems (Mt. Sinai in Christianity/Judaism and Mt. Olympus in Hellenistic religion…or bald mountain in Fantasia?).

The main premise for this belief being seemingly that mountains are really tall and impressive and therefore noteworthy. So prophets/shamans go up the mountains to talk to the gods and then deliver their message to the layman (chicanery!).

I got lost last week on a mountain near Izumo. And while I did not find any gods or yokai, I did find sunburn, snakes, giant bees, hawks, and a billion or so caterpillars that got stuck in my hair and sundress. And while I may have descended looking like a wild-haired prophet fresh from a vision, my powers of prognostication do not seem to have improved.


Mountain Beliefs in Early Japan
Parts of the academic information for this post were taken from Hitoshi Miyake’s (宮家 準) book Sacred Mountains and the Japanese (霊山と日本人), published by NHK Books in 2004. I’ve filled it out using freely available information from online sources, such as Japanese Wikipedia. If you need a citation for a specific reference I make, please contact me and I’ll be happy to track it down for you (I usually keep extensive notes, including page numbers).
I’ll write this post from Jōmon Period to the rise of Buddhism in the Asuka Period (because after that, it gets boring for yokai enthusiasts).


I made you this timeline to help out 😀


Jōmon 12,000 – 300 BCE
Note: There is little concrete historical information from this time period (only written references from later time periods), so most of this is speculation from Japanese scholars based on later writings. It’s a little choppy.

The Jōmon Period is traditionally marked as the time in Japanese history when humans in Japan started living non-migratory hunter-gatherer lifestyles centered around river valleys.  According to Miyake (Sacred Mountains and the Japanese), this is also when Japanese people started praying to mountain and forest kami, likely due to the bountiful resources they received from the mountains and forests.
I’ll explain the concept of kami briefly below to mitigate confusion.
Definition of kami for this blog post: gender-neutral divine spirits that can be malevolent or benevolent, are usually nameless or named after their location, and which reside ambiguously in nature but can be called into manifestation in specific locations/using specific protocols

Miyake also brings up the stone circles (環状列石) from the Jōmon Period as another aspect of their religious practice. It is believed that these stone circles were built to mark the sunrise on specific mountains during winter and summer solstices, and also equinoxes. While this indicates some kind of mountain spirituality, it’s not clear how they practiced it.
However, it is known that the Japanese were acutely aware of the phases of the sun, moon, and stars. They had festivals associated with the waxing and waning of the moon.
And the fixed north star was even later deified as the bodhisattva, Myoken bosatu (妙見菩薩). Because the mountains were closer to these celestial beings, worship may have occurred on mountains while watching the sunrise and sunset, maybe at solstices. And, as in many cultures, solar and lunar eclipses, comets, and shooting stars were seen as ominous signs of coming natural disasters.

More info in English here:

Female Dogū

Also, I expect some readers will be familiar with the Dogū (see image). They are humanoid figurines made from clay. Generally, one part of the figurine was purposefully damaged before burial (in many cases, one leg is broken off), and a whole figurine was made anew. To many scholars (as I recall in Art History class and Wikipedia confirms), this seemed to indicate a kind of ceremony to either heal or avert an illness. Some theorists put forward that the body part afflicted by illness would be broken and then made anew. This seems semi-plausible to me, although the implied massive number of leg injuries baffles me. However, Miyake posits a different theory. He offers the sickness theory, but goes on to state that since the vast majority of the Dogū are female, with breasts, hips, and bellies greatly emphasized, that they also likely represent a belief in humans reborn through the Goddess. He states the figures may have been broken and made anew in a ceremony to pray for rebirth to the Goddess (Note: He does not seem to be a Goddess nut. Goddesses rarely appear in the book other than the Jōmon references).
Naturally, fertility theories have also been posited by numerous scholars.
It’s up to you I guess 🙂
But I will say that Miyake goes on to bolster his theory later in the book.
This bit always reminds me of the Venus of Willendorf…
So to sum up Jōmon, we have some evidence of mountain/forest kami, mountain spirituality, stone circles, and some kind of Goddess/fertility belief system.

Yayoi Period (300 BCE to 300 CE)
In Yayoi period, people began logging trees, watering the fields and gathering food and kindling from the forests in the mountains near their villages. At the beginning of the Yayoi Period, bronze weapons and small bronze Dōtaku (bell-shaped objects ― see timeline pic) were imported from the Korean peninsula. In early Yayoi, the Dōtaku included a bronze clapper that could be used to sound the bell.

Dōtaku excavated near Izumo
Dōtaku excavated near Izumo

Bronze weapons and Dōtaku were also eventually made in Japan and most of the larger Dōtaku that have been found are Japan-made. Along with being used for fighting, bronze weapons were also used as burial accessories and festival implements. These weapons and Dōtaku were buried in the foothills and river sources near villages. In most cases, they were buried diagonally and individually in shallow holes. Due to this burial method, Taichiro Shiroishi (a Japanese scholar who writes about ancient Japan as evidenced in archaeology) believes these Dōtaku were Yorishiro for earth spirits and harvest spirits. (To be overly simplistic, yorishiro are a kind of tool to cause kami to manifest ― see more in English here:
Shiroishi believes the Dōtaku were used in festivals as musical instruments to invite kami.
Shiroishi also posits that just as the Dogū were used during the Jomon period for a mother goddess belief, the Dōtaku were a further cultivation of that belief and connected with the earth’s life-force and nurturing powers of the earth/mother goddess.

But according to Taryo Obayashi (an emeritus professor at Tokyo University as a Japanese ethnologist), the burial of these objects in the foothills and river sources surrounding the village indicates that they may have been guardian talismans meant to seal off the forests and mountains controlled by volatile kami from the village.
(The image above is from ruins in Izumo:

From mid-Yayoi onwards, Dōtaku have simple etchings on them ― usually of deer, birds and other animals, men and women rokuboku(including people dressed as birds), some kind of small building, boats, red dragonflies, weapons, and waterfalls.
Hideji Harunari, a Japanese archaeologist, writes these images can be interpreted as follows: the deer was seen as a servant to kami, and its regenerating horns represented reincarnation. The shoulder blades and ribs of deer were used to conduct the fortune telling method called Rokuboku (involves heating the bone and reading the cracks ― I don’t understand it, but you can see it to the right as found in Tottori Prefecture).  The birds represent the harvest spirit, rice spirit, or ancestor spirit. The person dressed as a bird was probably a shaman, the men and women were likely ancestors, the building was a shrine, the boats were transport to the spirit world (and ancestor world), the red dragonflies were ancestor spirits, the weapons were talismans, and the waterfall represented the kami of the mountains and rivers.

For whatever mysterious reason, Dōtaku ceased to be made after the Yayoi period.

Kofun Period (300 – 540 CE)
Enter Shaman Queen Himiko (!)
She will be a later post.
It is believed that under her magnanimous reign the practice of building Kofun (large grave mounds) was common.

Haniwa soldier guarding the Tokyo National Museum
Haniwa soldier guarding the Tokyo National Museum

They were built from the 3rd century C.E. – 6th century C.E.
Often found inside the Kofun or around them were clay figurines called “Haniwa.” They were usually humanoid or of animals or birds, but also boats and houses…and one that they insist is a dog, but I’d swear it’s an aardvark. These were often found encircling specific areas, usually directly above the actual burial location.

I had the good fortune to visit a Kofun in Korea (Cheonmachong, 6th c. CE) last year, and it is a strange feeling to walk inside the earth ― similar to Newgrange (3200 BCE) if any readers have been there.
Miyake indicates in his book that this is a time when the inside of the mountain was viewed as a separate world and the mountain remains significant. He theorizes that the Haniwa were recreations of the necessities that would be needed in the afterlife, or perhaps the horse, bird, etc… were meant to carry the spirit to the afterlife. Others suggest they encircled sacred space or housed the departed soul. I’m not really happy with any explanation I’ve found for Haniwa, so if you have a good idea, feel free to comment.

The biggest Kofun is in Osaka called Daisenryo Kofun.
However, Kofun were only created for aristocrats, so I don’t care much about them.

Anyways, also during the Yayoi and Kofun periods agriculture and village life took hold. In these periods we see the growing importance of rivers (especially during Kofun, as irrigation becomes commonly practiced rather than slash-and-burn).

The strongest religious practice was ancestor worship (although the word “religion” may be inadequate for how integrated these beliefs were in daily practice).
And where can you find these ancestor spirits? The shrines? Your home? No!
The mountains!

Japanese people believed the soul went to the mountains after death.
These ancestor spirits were responsible for sending the rivers down for crop irrigation.
I’m going to throw a tricky concept at you now. Are you ready?
In traditional beliefs, departed human spirits eventually become ancestor kami (祖神) and amalgamated into a larger being of spirits which were called Ujigami.
For a long time, I didn’t understand the phrase Ujigami (氏神) in Japanese. You can often see shrines that are dedicated to Ujigami. I thought it was some kind of god’s name. But Ujigami refers to this integrated spirit and is worshiped as a local deity.
It’s not “one” deity, but it is one deity (too Daoist?).

How to Take Care of a Departed Soul
Following a person’s death, ceremonies were held by relatives starting on the 7th day after death, and every 7 days from then until the 49th day. Again on the 100th day, the first year, the third year, the seventh year, the thirteenth year, and the thirty-third year for a total of 13 ceremonies.
Because newly dead spirits were considered the most volatile, after Buddhism took hold in the Heian Period, the boddhisatva for their ceremonies became Acala (不動明王).
If the descendants performed the 13 ceremonies well, after the 33rd year, the ancestor spirit became an ancestor kami (祖神), was purified and could be worshiped in its integration with other mountain gods. And they were worshiped to encourage them to come down to the villages from the mountains in spring and protect their descendants’ crops.

Relatives/loved ones offered flowers at Obon and pine at New Year’s  to welcome the spirits back every year. Obon and New Year’s in Japan still encompass shrine/temple visits even today. And although many modern Japanese people are unaware of the significance of pine on the front door at New Year’s, I do see it every year.

The ancestor spirits were also believed to bring children to their descendants (fertility). The ancestor spirits were believed to stay in the village from spring until the first harvest which they would enjoy with the descendants in the autumn festival (秋祭) before returning to the mountains.
Some scholars speculate the cherry blossom viewing parties (花見) that mark the beginning of spring were originally a celebration to welcome the ancestor spirits to the village as the other end of the autumn festival marking their return to the mountains.

For many ancient Japanese, working hard, giving birth, raising children, dying, being cared for in after death ceremonies as an ancestor spirit and eventually joining the mountain kami was viewed as complete happiness. To not be cared for after death, or to die in an unfortunate way was a great misfortune. Especially when someone killed someone else in a war or political struggle. If the perpetrator later became ill, it was believed to be the curse of the angry ghost (怨霊). These angry ghosts were able to conspire with the mountain kami to bring natural disasters. There were also kami of pestilence that brought plague (疫神).

The Journey of the Soul
The soul’s journey was complete when the mountain cycle was complete.
1) The soul came down from the mountain in the river.
2) The soul was born into the human village.
3) The soul died and spent 33 years in the shrine yard at the foot of the mountains, visiting home on Obon, New Year’s, and memorial services.
4) The soul was purified and joined the Ujigami. The soul came down from the mountain in spring to protect its descendants crops and returns to the mountain in the fall.

This cycle was seen to mirror the cycles of the fish in the rivers that came down the river to the sea, then climbed up the river to lay eggs and die.

When people died in disasters or wars, the spirits were led by lanterns to the river. And on Obon, people used to float offerings out to sea by a river, perhaps in an effort to send the spirit to the sea and have it be purified.

Most cultures traditionally have 3 strata of existence:
1) the world of the living
2) the border/transition between our world and the spirit world
3) the world of the dead/spirits.

In Yayoi/Kofun beliefs, we could say the mountain was viewed as a separate world for spirits, and the river was the border world that flowed between our reality and the reality(ies) of the dead. Rivers hold strong prominence in myths in Japan. The ridiculously popular Momotaro (peach boy) is about a child found floating in a peach (fertility) in a river (border world) from the mountain (spirit world) who grows to be a great hero.

As an aside, whether or not related, the practice of taking elderly people to the mountains to die (uba sute 姥捨) is recognized as having been practiced by the ancient and not-so-ancient Japanese. This may have been because of beliefs in life-cycles that involved death and rebirth from the mountains. However, as you can imagine, leaving grandma to die in the forest does quite a number on the human psyche. Many scholars speculate later tales of cannibalistic old women in the mountains was a kind of self-punishment for these acts (see Yamanba post).

Other Notes that may Provide Insight
Miyake also looks at the practices of modern minority groups that were less influenced by mainstream Japanese culture, such as the Matagi in Akita Prefecture, to see how mountain worship may have been traditionally practiced.
The Matagi are a hunting society that even have special words for water, rice, bear, and dog that are used exclusively in the mountains. It is taboo for women, or men for whom a close relative has recently died, to participate in hunting parties.
When they first enter the mountains to hunt, they leave food and other offerings at an alter at the local mountain shrine. The young men whose first time it was on the mountain would tie white streamers to their willies and dance around. This was supposed to delight the mountain Goddess who would grant them good hunting (haha, she knows a good time, eh?).

There is also a ceremony called Kebokai performed after shooting an animal. First the animal’s lips, nose, eyeballs, ears, nails and other parts that are thought to contain its soul are removed, the animal is skinned, the skin is reversed, the carcass is covered with the skin and the heart is offered to the mountain kami. They believed that by leaving the heart and carcass, the animal could be revived by the mountain Goddess.

Regarding Children
While living in Japan, I often encounter the 7-5-3 ceremonies for children. At ages 3, 5, and 7, children in Japan usually have a special picture taken. According to Miyake, these ages also had significance in ancient Japan.

Age 3 (in modern times this is the age hair is allowed to grow — in Meiji times hair was shaved on children until age 3)
Pre-Meiji, this was known as “himo otoshi” — dropping of the string, this ancient practice is still done in Izumo and other parts of Shimane Prefecture.
This is the age a child would stop wearing a string around their waist and begin to wear the traditional obi (both boys and girls)

Age 5 (same reason in modern times)
A celebration for boys only for when they would begin to wear the Hakama.

Age 7 (in modern times, it’s the age a girl begins to wear a special kimono)
Pre-Meiji, this was the age when boys and girls entered the religious practice as ujiko (shrine alter boys/girls, I suppose).

Children were not necessarily considered fully part of this world until age 7. Their existence was fluid as they could die easily and be taken back by the kami. And spirits of children/infants who died were believed to reside in the mountains, perhaps waiting for a chance to be born again. To ease their suffering, cairns of stones were erected and nowadays dolls and votive pictures are still left at mountain shrines by bereaved parents for anniversaries of what would have been ages 3, 5, 7, coming of age (20), marriage, and school entrance for the departed child.
*An interesting topic that I don’t have time to go into now is the way abortion is viewed in Japan due to this belief, infanticide during famines in the Meiji period, and ghost stories about the vengeful spirits of children in Japan.

Asuka (592-701 CE)
During this period, the dark clouds of organized religion cross the sea and cover the beloved land of Wa. Which also undergoes a name change to Nihon (Japan) as good governance takes hold in all its glory and all things terrible and beautiful are driven to mountain tops and deepest, darkest forests where they must fend for themselves against the onslaught of holiness. The significance of mountains continues in Buddhism as ascetics travel to the mountains for training, but

…this is where I part ways with historical fact and choose to live in folktales and ghost stories. If you want to know more about religion in Japan from Asuka onwards, there are a number of excellent books on the topic in English and Japanese. But I won’t help you. Because I know where it’s going. And it’s a mistake.

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