Early Shinto was more a way of life rather than a religion. Individual tribes or clans who originally crossed over to the islands now known as Japan generally held onto their beliefs. It was their way of understanding the natural world, their relationship to it and to one another.
In the beginning, it was believed that two deities, Izanagi and Izanami were created from matter which floated freely about space before the earth was formed. These two deities, standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven were said to have created the eight beautiful islands of Japan with mountains, rivers, plants and trees. And to be Lord of this universe they pronounced Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the Sun Goddess.
So beautiful were these islands it was believed that kami (gods or spirits) existed in nature. Kami is understood to mean anything that could inspire in human beings a feeling of awe, reverence or mystery. The Japanese kami are not the superhuman inhabitants of a distant heavenly realm as in Western religions. Kami were considered divine, but were very close to the world of daily life. (See also Sho Chiku Bai, Tsuru & Kame, and Koi).
Every element of the physical world has a sacred side for Shinto, and the religion promotes harmony between the divine, human, and natural worlds. A lofty tree, a towering waterfall, or a wondrous mountain were believed to possess kami and were made objects of worship, and the sea was recognized as the source of life.
Originally there was no name for Shinto. It wasn’t until the 5th and 6th centuries, when Confucianism and Buddhism were introduced to Japan and gained influence came the need of a name to distinguish this way of life. The name Shinto comes from Chinese characters for Shen - 'divine being', and Tao - 'way'; and means 'Way of the Gods' or 'Way of the Spirits', or, best of all, 'Way of the Kami'. This closeness between man, nature and the kami was the way of life for the people, and it has remained strong throughout the evolution of Japanese culture. Today, Shinto belief is the basis for the outlook, practices and daily life of the Japanese people and is considered the spiritual roots of Japan.
Shinto is primarily a practical and ritual response to the world, rather than an intellectual one. Shinto is a religion of this world. Everything, including the spiritual, is experienced as part of this world. Shinto has no place for any transcendental other world. Instead of creed and creator, Shinto focuses on rituals and tradition. People follow Shinto by taking part in festivals and rituals, visiting shrines, and practicing some cultural activities. This is in line with the importance of ritual and form in Japanese life.
Some examples of Shinto in daily life are the matsuris (Shinto festivals) celebrating local kami. Masturi is derived from the word matsuru (to worship). The matsuri is in essence, the renewal of a kami’s spiritual protection over a particular community. In Japan, thousands flock to the countryside to view the blossoming cherry trees. One of the most popular matsuris in the Bay Area is the Sakuramatsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) and Akimatsuri (Autumn Festival) in Japantown, San Francisco. At the beginning of New Year, it is customary to place a pair of Kadomatsu (gate pines) before every gate or door. The trees are paired, one rough and prickly (male), the other softer and more graceful (female), male on the left, female on the right. With these are placed bamboo cuttings and plum branches (sho chiku bai). Before a sumo match, rituals and ceremonies must take place making offering to kami. Shinto influence can most be seen in the arts, where favorite and most popular subjects were that of nature and great care was practiced to capture the simple beauty and life that exists in nature.