Searching for spiritual rebirth

The steady crowds cross an arched bridge and follow a pebbled path into a forest of towering cypress trees, bowing before a simple gate that stands between them and the holiest place in Japan — the inner sanctuary of the Grand Shrines of Ise.

Though built over a spot believed to pulsate with the power of the sun goddess, the shrine is weather-beaten and unassuming.

It is made entirely of wood, except for a touch of golden gilding on the beams atop its crest. The roof is thatched and covered with patches of moss.

The masses who come to this city on Japan's central coast once would have been called pilgrims.

Today, they are mostly just tourists. They offer quick prayers, buy a pocket-sized charm or two and head off to their next destination.

Such is the heart of Shinto, Japan's native religion. As old perhaps as Japan itself, Shinto is a rich mixture of folklore, reverence for all things natural and the Japanese nation itself.

But to say one believes in Shinto has become almost meaningless: For most Japanese, the worshipping side of Shinto is relegated to a small cadre of priests and their helpers, most of whom inherited their jobs from ancestors.

The Japanese today ''practice'' Shinto by making wishes at the local shrine, or enjoying its autumn festivals.

As recently as World War II, a special brand of state-sanctioned Shinto was the ideological foundation upon which Japan's emperor-worshipping military machine was built.

Its treatment of the Japanese people as unique and divine, its emphasis on harmony and its deep-seated fear of impurity continue to be an integral — albeit not always conscious — part of the national psyche.

But as it has become stripped of its official status and tarnished by the excesses of militarism, Shinto is struggling to find a place in postwar Japan.

The priest

Takashizu Sato comes from a long line of Shinto priests.

''My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather — all the way back to feudal times,'' he said.

Sato went to work for a big company after college. But deciding he needed something more spiritual, he quit, studied prayers and rituals for a year, and took up duties at a shrine in the ancient city of Nara. He is now with the Association of Shinto Shrines, to which virtually all Shinto organizations and their 21,000 priests belong.

Like many priests, he hesitates to call Shinto a religion.

''Shinto has no scripture, and no founder,'' Sato said from the association's headquarters in downtown Tokyo. ''In that sense, we are very different from the major religions of the world.''

But Shinto has no dearth of gods. Its pantheon is poetically said to have 8 million deities, from Amaterasu no Omikami (the sun goddess) to Konohana Sakuya Hime (the goddess of Mount Fuji).

That's just a start — all dead ancestors are believed to assume a godlike status.

Along with reverence for the dead and the worship of nature, Shinto is built around a complex body of folklore, the most famous of which explain how Japan's imperial family descended from the sun goddess. Dispelling evil and appeasing the gods are also crucial aspects of Shinto — not surprising in a country regularly shaken by earthquakes and whipped by typhoons.

Priests don't normally give sermons and congregations don't gather every Sunday or Friday to pray. But Shinto has a strong communal side.

Shrine festivals are big events nationwide. Tens of millions of Japanese visit their local shrines on the first three days of each year. And the country's more than 80,000 shrines — not all have a resident priest — serve as informal neighborhood meeting places, or places for children to play.

''It's difficult to pin down, but there is something about Shinto that is very fundamental to the Japanese mentality,'' Sato said.

Even so, the ties between Shinto — the faith — and the average Japanese are weakening.

The tight-knit communities that once kept local shrines alive are unraveling. Many young people at festivals have little interest in the religion behind the fun. The small Shinto altars that were once a common household feature are gradually disappearing.

''We still look Japanese, but inside we are forgetting what that means,'' Sato said. ''It's our responsibility to try to revive what makes us Japanese.''