As is the case with Buddhism, Shintō is a religion in some of its manifestations but not others. To the extent that it is a religion, it is one that is unique and 'peculiar' to Japan, and one that primarily consists of numerous rites, customs, and festivals.
We can also say this---Shintō is not really an ‘ism’, but more of a teaching or set of teachings. Ritual, as well as the observance of ancient festivals, ceremonial customs and sentiments, pilgrimages to old shrines, and not belief, lies at the heart of Shintō, and ritual can be very, very transformative. Never underestimate the power of religious ritual.
So, what exactly is Shintō? Well, Shintō is the authentic, primal, indigenous ('native'---although the Japanese were not the original 'natives' of Japan) spirituality of Japan with its roots stretching back to about 500 BCE. It lies at the root, and the heart, of Japanese pride and patriotism, culture, social and family structure, ethics, artistic and sporting life, and much else. Some have referred to Shintō as both the 'soul of Japan' and the 'Japanese way of living.'
If you want to appreciate the fragility and yet preciousness and here-and-now-ness of life, delve into Shintō. If you want to stay rooted in nature, and show respect, gratitude and love toward nature, indeed all living things, Shintō has something special to say to you. If you want a simple, flexible, and largely naturalistic spiritual system with no religious fundamentalism attached to it, and little theoretical speculation about the supposed afterlife, and which provides numerous opportunities in this life for personal improvement and mental cultivation (especially by stilling the mind), look into Shintō. If you want to affirm the innate goodness ('no-sin') of human beings, and are sick of religions which divide the peoples of the earth into the 'saved' (or 'chosen') and the 'unsaved' (or the 'rest'), with the latter destined---or perhaps even predestined---to go to Hell, then check out Shintō. If you want to live life to the fullest here-and-now, try Shintō. You will not be disappointed---unless your mind on matters religious and spiritual is well and truly already closed.
The word ‘Shintō’ means, variously, the ‘Way of the Kami,’ the ‘Way from the Kami,’ the ‘Way according to Kami,’ the ‘Kami-like Way,’ and the ‘Way to [the] Kami.’ By way of explanation, the Japanese tō of Shintō is from the Chinese word tào [dào] (as in Taoism) [modernly: Daoism], meaning, of course, the ‘Way.’ The Shin is to be read as Kami---at least where the character occurs in isolation---the meaning of which I will now proceed to discuss.
So, who or what are the kami? ‘Gods,’ we are ordinarily told, but that is not quite right. Some say ‘angels,’ ‘spirits,’ ‘souls,’ 'spirit-souls,' 'superior and extraordinary beings,' or ‘natural forces’ are better English descriptions, but none of those is quite right. Indeed, there is no one English word that encapsulates what is meant by the Japanese word kami. Indeed, it has been said that even the Japanese people themselves do not have a clear idea regarding the kami. In a narrow but very correct sense, we are talking about the supposed native and indigenous spirits of Japan, as distinct from foreign deities (eg those of Chinese Buddhism), but Shintō is no crude animism despite what you might have read or been told. (Got that?) The celebrated Shintō high priest Yukitaka Yamamoto wrote of the nature of kami in these words: 'any divine being or indeed anything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings a sense of its divinity and mystery.' I think that's helpful---and more than sufficient for present and other purposes. This is also helpful---it's the text of a 'Poem Revealed to Mikado Seiwa':
Anyway, this is how I see it. The word kami is a shorthand description, a code-like word, denoting the innate sacredness or holiness of all life---something that is overwhelmingly transcendent and awe-inspiring, even if it be the extraordinary in the ordinary, and which is sensed as a result of some emotional or intuitive (as opposed to intellectual or rational) stimulus. Speaking personally, although I reject the assertion that there are higher and lower levels of reality, I have no difficulty in recognizing the transcendence, both in time and space, as well as power, of nature itself over human beings, together with our utter dependence upon nature for the continuance of our lives both physically and otherwise. In short, there is a special quality about life that is ... kami-like.
There is said in Shintō to be myriads of kami in and over all things, but collectively they are all one. Again, it is a case of the One---that is, the one life---becoming the many, but remaining forever One. We all are children or descendants of the kami, we all have the ability to get closer to the kami (particularly through Great Nature, which is the 'living scripture' in Shintō), and we all have kami nature (cf buddha nature in some forms of Buddhism), and the innate potential to not only restore our original kami nature but also actually become kami.
Now, one doesn’t have to believe in the literal truth or existence of the kami. I don’t, and I also reject those bits of Shintō that I regard as crass superstition. (I do, however, respect the right of others to see things quite differently, as many do.) For me, the use of the word kami is in the nature of a metaphor, referring, as mentioned, to the innate sacredness and holiness of life---all forms of life. If you want to cultivate your kami nature---that is, renew yourself---perhaps the best way of doing that is to revere and get closer to nature. Shintō reminds us that we all have a duty to properly manage, develop, protect, restore, enhance and conserve the natural environment.
Shintō has no theology in the Western sense, but it does have a very colourful mythology---indeed, more than one of them---to which is appended much folklore. Again, one need not believe in the literal truth or existence of the mythological hierarchy comprising myriads of superior and inferior deities that, it seems, developed out of the old ancestor-cult in Japan.
And gone---hopefully forever---is that rather nasty, grotesque, militaristic, ultra-patriotic national cult of comparatively recent but questionable provenance (namely, 'State Shintō') that was for a time the state religion of Japan. It is no longer a case of Japan being a 'divine country (kami no kuni) which excells all others' ('Oracle of the God of Atsuta'). Nor is it a case of the divine descent of the Japanese race and its [generally assumed to be] 'living god' emperor, who on that ground believed themselves to be superior to the people of other countries, as well as divinely commissioned to force the rule of the sun goddess upon the rest of the world. No, today it is the much more sensible and palatable case that all people come from the same sacred, holy source. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is thus the mythological ancestor of us all, and not just the emperor of Japan who supposedly was her descendant and representative. Thus, Shintō now ascribes divinity---that is, basic goodness and holiness---to all human nature, not just the Japanese. (If nothing else, Shintō has always shown a remarkable ability to evolve and adapt. It's a pity so many of the world's other religions are unwilling to do the same.)
Shintō ritual and practice provide numerous and regular opportunities all designed to bring us into more conscious---and for the most part, largely spontaneous---communion with nature and the divine. It's all about connectedness---and interconnectedness. We need to cultivate purity, cleanliness, honesty, sincerity, and a reverence and respect for all forms and manifestations of life. A commitment to the all-pervading path or way of Shintō does not exclude the pursuit of other spiritual traditions and practices. As in all religions, love is the ultimate virtue. In the Shintō writing 'Oracles of the Gods of Kasuga,' one reads, 'The Lord will visit the home where love reigns. Love is the representative of the Lord.' In other words, love is divine (cf. 1 Jn 4:8).
So, how might someone who is not Japanese practice Shintō without actually being or becoming Shintō? Well, here are some suggestions---and please note that word, ‘suggestions.’ There is nothing dogmatic in Shintō. There are no 'musts.'
First, spend more time mindfully appreciating Great Nature, and do all you can to protect, restore, enhance and conserve the natural environment. The original Shintō shrines were groves of trees---how appropriate! Develop a reverential sense of the sacred (particularly in trees, plants, animals, forests, lakes, streams, mountains, and all natural matter, but also, of course, as respects your fellow human beings), and learn to live in harmony with nature, for we are not above, beyond or separate from nature as we tend to think in the West. Maintain a real, ongoing sense of awe, reverence and gratitude toward nature, recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. As Shintō teaches, we are all offspring or ‘child-spirits’ of the great original Spirit of Life to which we all ultimately return, and in which we all live and move and have our being. So, treasure the mysterious and the awesome. In the words of the great mythographer Joseph Campbell, 'Shintō, at root, is a religion not of sermons but of awe.' I like that.
Thirdly, strive to be happy, for Shintō encourages a cheerful and grateful way of life, and places great value on the pursuit of happiness. Use and develop your intuition and practise introspection---but not of an obsessive, self-centred kind---in order to discover the true path.
Seventhly, you may wish to set up at home your own little Shintō shrine (kamidana). There is plenty of good advice on the internet on how to go about that. And there are some lovely Shintō prayers, such as this one.
Eighthly, practise mindfulness with a choiceless acceptance of what is. In the Shintō writing 'God of Fujiyama' we read, 'Every little yielding to anxiety is a step away from the natural heart of man.' There is much wisdom in that. Our 'natural heart'---or natural state of mind---is one completely free of worry and anxiety, for such a mind (cf. our 'original face') is fully rooted and grounded in the here-and-now with no concern for what might---or might not---happen in the future. Seek the sacred and divine in life's ongoing onfoldment, that is, in the so-called ordinary and everyday. In the words of the Shintō writing 'God of a Tajima Shrine':
Note. The photos of Shintō shrines and related sites and environs were all taken by the author on his various trips to Japan.
HAIKU AND THE MINDFULNESS OF THE MOMENT
TEA AND MINDFULNESS
JAPAN, THE DALAI LAMA, THE QUEEN MOTHER, A MOTOR VEHICLE ... AND MINDFULNESS
THE CALLIGRAPHY OF MINDFULNESS