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Notes on the Shinto Tradition and Haiku

Started by DavidGrayson, February 09, 2012, 01:25:06 AM

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In 1999, 83% of Japanese indicated that they followed Shintoism.(1) While it's not easy to disentangle the religious threads that have shaped haiku, it is possible to note key concepts that Shintoism and haiku share. As a starting point, I want to highlight five Shinto assumptions and beliefs that are reflected in haiku.

1. Shintoism is local - A characteristic of Shintoism is that it is locally focused. Kami are rooted in specific locales, as are the shrines dedicated to them, and their constituents.

2. Physical vs. spiritual - Shintoism does not draw a hard distinction between the physical world we inhabit and the spiritual world. A nice illustration are Torii gates, which mark the entrance to shrines. The gates, which are actually arches, often have no gate or fence -- marking the permeability between our world and the spirit world.

3. The natural world - Shintoism is grounded in the natural environment. Shrines are built in harmony with nature, usually built with natural materials and incorporating natural elements. Indeed, some "shrines" are natural landmarks like waterfalls and trees.

4. Seasonality - This is related to number three, but deserves to be called out. Festivals are tied to the seasons and to milestones in the farming calendar. Gabi Greve has compiled a saijiki of kigo for festivals and ceremonies:

5. Focus on the present - Shintoism is very much focused on the here and now.


Shinto-inspired haiku abound; here are several that I've enjoyed:

on the trail of the gods ...
all creatures and spirits
blessed by hoarfrost

- Nozomi Sugiyama, from Seasons of the Gods (2)

flicking off water
a dragonfly quickly
becomes divine

- Hoshinaga Fumio (3)

there is no voice
in this waterfall in November --
Fudo Waterfall

- Shimomura Hiroshi, from the "Religion and Nature" Topic in Religio (4)

Having climbed Mt. Fuji,
My shadow stretches into
The form of a giant man

- Nobuyuki Yuasa, from Seasons of the Gods (5)

As mentioned above, Gabi Greve's Saijiki for Festivals and Ceremonies ( is a good resource.  Do you have recommendations to share for good resources on Shintoism and haiku?

Have you composed, or read, any haiku that touch upon or reflect Shinto ideas?

What are your thoughts about the influence of Shinto traditions on haiku?



(1) BBC Religions: Shintoism - 76% indicated that they followed Buddhism. 

(2) Icebox -

(3) Richard Gilbert, Poems of Consciousness (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2008), 167.

(4) "Religion and Nature" Topic in Religio, created by Gab Greve.

(5) Icebox -

Gabi Greve

With great photos

Green Shinto

The spirituality of haiku

It might be hard for poets outside Japan to write "shinto haiku".

But living in Japan, it is everywhere, not only in the shrines (jinja) but in nature,  in the waterfall, in Mount Fuji . . .

And the seasonal rituals are endless . . .
But my saijiki is almost completed, thanks for pointing this out.

Gabi from Japan

Gabi Greve

Shugendo, where Shinto and Buddhism (and annimism) meet

Shugendō (also spelled Shugendo) can be loosely translated as "path of training to achieve spiritual powers." Shugendō is an important Kami-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinkō 神奈備信仰 (the idea that mountains are the home of the dead and of agricultural spirits), shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and the rituals and spells of Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life. Practitioners are called Shugenja 修験者 or Shugyōsha 修行者 or Keza 験者 (those who have accumulated power) and Yamabushi 山伏 (those who lie down in the mountain). These various terms are typically translated into English as ascetic monk or mountain priest.


Gabi Greve

miya suzushi baba wa kami o katari-ori

coolness in the shrine -
an old woman
talks about God

Kuehle im Schrein -
ein altes Weib
redet von Gott

A few more informations about a Shinto shrine


ko yashiro ya o o hikkakete yuu kigisu

this little shrine -
a pheasant drags its tail
in the evening

Kobayashi Issa



David, Gabi,

Thank you for these wonderful links!

"The pain felt in my foot is not my hand's,
So why, in fact, should one protect the other?"

Larry Bole

Within my small library of haiku-related material, there are two discussions of Shinto and haiku that I know of: Blyth, in vol. 1 of Haiku, in Section I, "The Spiritual Origins of Haiku," part 10. Shinto; and Joan Giroux discusses Shinto in a few places in her book, The Haiku Form.

This is how Blyth starts out his discussion about the relation of Shinto to haiku:

QuoteThe relation of Shinto to haiku is a vital one, but owing to the obscurity of the nature of Shinto it is difficult to write clearly on the subject. With Shinto and its boring and repulsive mythology, haiku has little to do, directly or indirectly, but primitive, or crude Shinto, which still persists throughout Japan, both expresses the national character and affects it. As far as it concerns haiku, there are two aspects of this Shinto which we must describe, animism and simplicity.

Blyth does not give any examples in this short essay of Shinto-influenced haiku, as he does for example when discussing the influence of Confucianism on haiku.

Joan Giroux, after a very brief introduction to Shinto beliefs and practices, points out that:

QuoteThe communal aspects of Shinto did dovetail nicely with the utopian theories of Confucianism. But the Shinto word 'kami' (translated into English by 'gods') really indicates the animism which is the essence of Shinto. Animism is a primitive belief which endows even inanimate things with both life and spirit to explain two phenomena: first, the difference between a living man and a corpse (described as caused by the disappearance of life from the body), and secondly, the existence of dreams (explained as the ability of the spirit to move about.) Shinto, with its belief in the many 'kami' or minor deities of mountains, streams and trees, is a religion of nature worship. This fact is reflected in the large part played by nature in Japanese haiku.

Giroux's remark about dreams makes me think about Basho's death-verse in a new light:

tabi ni yande yume wa kareno o kakemeguru

ill on a journey:
my dreams roam round
over withered fields

--Basho, Tr. Barnhill

Although there is clearly a Buddhist element here, is there also a Shinto element as well?

As others have pointed out, there are haiku about various Shinto places, practices, and festivals. Basho wrote haiku about visiting sacred mountains. He wrote a haibun, Visiting the Ise Shrine," which contains the haiku (also in "Knapsack Notebook"):

nami no ki no hana to wa shirazu nioi kana

from what tree's
blossoms I know not:
such fragrance

--Basho, Tr. Barnhill

Barnhill points out that this haiku is a 'take-off' from a waka by Saigyo, which includes these lines translated by Barnhill: "What divine being / graces this place / I know not...."

On another visit to a shrine, Basho wrote (in "Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field"):

misoka tsuki nashi chitose no sugi o daku arashi

month's end, no moon:
a thousand year cedar
embraced by a windstorm

--Basho, Tr. Barnhill

Ueda notes that Basho wrote this "when he visited one of the Grand Shinto Shrines in Yamada..." The commentator Tosai points out that "...the Outer Shrine [is worshipped] as a moon deity.  With no moon, the invisible deity seemed even more august, and the poet looked up to the cedar tree as her holy manifestation."

Blyth has two kigo/topics related to Shinto in his 4 volume "Haiku": in Spring, under "Gods and Buddhas," there is "The Shrine of Ise," and in Autumn, under "Gods and Buddhas," there is "The Gods' Absence." Perhaps "The Feast of All Souls" in Autumn is also related to Shinto?

I will close with a haiku by Issa which seems to me to reveal how pervasive Shinto is in Japanese people. Issa was a Pure Land Buddhist (if I'm remembering correctly) and yet, when he visited the Inner Precincts of Ise Shrine, he wrote:

onozukara koube ga sagaru nari kamiji yama

Kamiji Yama;
My head bent
Of itself.

--Issa, Tr. Blyth


Larry Bole

P.S. "The Gods' Absence" is in Winter, not Autumn. Sorry for my neo-Confusionism.


Gabi Greve

Gods are absent (kami no rusu)

The tenth lunar month (now November), after the harvest when the Japanese gods had done their duty, they left their local shrines for a bit of a vacation. They would all go for an audience and to celebrate at the great shrine of Izumo, so the rest of Japan was "without gods".

There are various kigo related to this important event.

"gods-absent month", 10th lunar month,
kannazuki, kaminazuki 神無月 かんなづき

"gods-present month", month with the gods
kamiarizuki 神有月
This kigo could only be used in IZUMO itself, where the gods were present.

the gods are absent, kami no rusu 神の留守
the gods are travelling, kami no tabi 神の旅

saying good bye to the gods, sending off the gods
..... kami okuri 神送り

welcoming the gods, greeting the gods
..... kami mukae 神迎
This kigo could only be used in IZUMO itself, where the gods were arriving.

During this month, various taboos were observed all over Japan, after all, the protective deities were all away ! And in Izumo, they would be feasting and celebrating with the boss, so to speak. Okuni-Nushi no Mikoto (ookuninushi) 大国主命 was the most important deity, revered at the grand shrine of Izumo, Izumo Taisha 出雲大社.
Okuni-Nushi is also known as the god of happiness and marriage. In this respect, he is equivalent to the Buddhist Deity of Daikoku-Sama 大黒、大国.

The shrine compound is most serene, settled in a forest of old pines. Close by is Hino Misaki 日の岬, with a view to the sacred island where the god stood when he fished for the Japanese Islands in the sea, as the legend goes.

I visited the area a while ago and the strong impression of the actual presence of the deities is still with me.



Gabi Greve

Umi no Sachi -
the gods make mery
and multiply

Just yesterday a friend sent this from the "Wakasa Wedding" of the Gods.
"Hikohohodemi-no-mikoto Emaki (彦火火出見尊絵巻)"

Details are here


Gabi Greve

Thanks for the Issa, Larry!!

onozukara zu ga sagaru nari kamiji yama

by itself
my head bows...
Mount Kamiji

A hill dedicated to the sun goddess Amateru, Mount Kamiji is located in a garden in the inner precincts of Ise shrine. Since Issa composed the poem in First Month in Shinano Province, 300 kilometers north of Ise shrine, he must have relied on memory and imagination when composing this haiku.

Issa bows to the sacred hill. More accurately, "the head, by itself" is bowing without conscious intention on the part of the poet. For this reason, I first translated zu ga sagaru literally as "the head bows," rather than "my head bows." However, in a note on a similar haiku in which a head "by itself bows," Shinji Ogawa writes that first person, "my head," preserves the poem's intensity in English.

Tr. David Lanoue

Larry Bole

For what it's worth, here is another translation of the Issa haiku, with explication, by Lewis Mackenzie in his book, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa:

onozukara atama ga sagaru Kamijiyama

Of itself
The head bows in reverence
At Kamijiyama.

Mackenzie's comment:

QuoteThe Ise shrines...are the most important in the Shinto faith, and in Issa's time as in ours were the subject of thousands of pilgrimages. Although many of them were no more solemn than that of the Wyf of Bath [a pilgrim in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales], visitors without any reverance for Shinto have often remarked on the atmosphere of peaceful sanctity that seems to surround the place, in part created by tradition, in part by the plain wooden buildings set in sourroundings of unusual loveliness. Kamijiyama is a hill within the precincts, the name of which signifies literally 'The Way of the Gods' as does the word Shinto itself.


Gabi Greve

about Emperor Jinmu Tenno

miya no i no yabusame ririshi Jinmu Tennoo ki

the gallant figures
at the Shrine Yabusame -
Jinmu Memorial Day

Yoshi Yoshi
source :

At Miyazaki Jingu 宮崎神宮
This shrine is dedicated to Jinmu Tenno.
His old name as a deity here is
Kan Yamato Iwarehiko no Sumera Mikoto

And a lot more about the deification of Japanese emperors


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