Shimenawa Sacred Ropes

Shimenawa Sacred Ropes 標縄

Jake Davies

Shimenawa, the stylized ropes most often encountered strung across torii, Shinto gateways, are, like torii, used to demarcate the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

Also like the torii, the exact origins of the shimenawa are lost in the mists of time. Many theories suggest they came from the tradition of tieing a rope to something to mark ownership, but others suggest it comes from the habit of Central Asian nomads who strung a rope around their campsite.

The myths are  mostly silent on the matter though since the elevation of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, to the apex of State Shinto some sources suggest that the rope used to keep her from re-entering the cave she hid in is where the shimenawa originated.

A little known story from what is now Tottori Prefecture has the Izumo kami, Susano, instruct people to string a rope along roads to ward off disease, so this story would seem to be a more likely candidate for the mythical and actual origin of shimenawa.

Streets lined with shimenawa in preparation for mikoshi procession in Tsunozu, Shimane.
Streets lined with shimenawa in preparation for mikoshi procession in Tsunozu, Shimane, Japan
Shimenawa, Izumo Taisha, Shimane, Japan.
The biggest shimenawa in the world at Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, Shimane Prefecture

Forms of Shimenawa

Shimenawa come in all shapes and sizes. The simplest would be string that is strung along the streets in preparation for the procession of mikoshi, the portable shrines carrying the kami through the streets of its "parish" during a matsuri. This shimenawa mark the streets as a pure and sacred space through which the kami will be able to travel.

Similar simple string shimenawa will also be found strung between four pieces of fresh cut bamboo enclosing a temporary space where a ritual will be held such as a ground-breaking ceremony for a new building. The shimenawa will almost always have white paper shide folded into a zigzag shape hanging from them.

At the other end of the scale you will find massive shimenawa that have almost lost their form as a rope but rather appear as large sculptural decorations. The shimenawa in the Izumo region of western Japan best typify this style, and the biggest shimenawa in the world can be found at the Kaguraden of Izumo Taisha Shrine.

Weighing in at somewhere between 5 to 8 tons, and 13 meters long, it is something to see, but be careful when looking close up as there is a tradition of throwing coins up into the shimenawa, if the coin sticks it is considered good luck, but many don't first time so you may be struck by falling coins - pennies from heaven?

Shimenawa at Kamo Shrine, Tottori Prefecture, Japan.
One style of shimenawa which is sometimes referred to as Kasuga style, braided rather than just twisted together. Kamo Shrine Tottori Prefecture.
Ancient trees and trees with legends associated with them will be marked sacred by having a shimenawa wrapped around them.
Ancient trees and trees with legends associated with them will be marked sacred by having a shimenawa wrapped around them. Takashima Shrine in southern Nara.

Shimenawa Design

Between the simple string and the huge monster shimenawas of Izumo there is a surprisingly wide range of designs, more often than not based on locality and region.

From something as simple as a twisted rope people have found ways to creatively make something unique. One feature that offers a lot of variation are the fusa, translated as tassel.

Usually these appear as three objects hanging from the shimenawa, but sometimes they protrude from within the shimenawa. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be a fringe.

Shimenawa at a shrine in Ehime shows the fusa, tassels, taken to the extreme of a fringe.
This shimenawa at a shrine in Ehime shows the fusa, tassels, taken to the extreme of a fringe.

Traditionally shimenawa are made of rice straw, and are surprisingly strong. This major by-product of rice farming has an amazing number of uses, from being the main padding of tatami mats, to being the raw material for sandals, raincoats and hats, as well as being mixed into mud for walls.

Nowadays plastic is increasingly being used to make shimenawa. Rice straw starts to deteriorate after about three years and need replacing, but a plastic shimenawa can last for decades, and while there is no shortage of rice straw, those with the skills to make the shimenawa are disappearing, especially in the cities.

Meotoiwa or married rocks in south Fukuoka.
Shimenawa are used to connect pairs of Meotoiwa, "married rocks" like here south of Fukuoka.

Modern Shimenawa

Standard polypropylene rope is used sometimes but other kinds of plastic are making their appearance. This new material has led to yet more variations in shimenawa design. Shimenawa can actually be found all over, but mostly they are associated with Shinto shrines where they will adorn most buildings as well as the entrances, torii.

They can also be found on statues of all kinds including komainu, horses, foxes etc. Yorishiro, things that may be inhabited by kami will have a shimenawa wrapped around them or attached to them.

Shimenawa at Iya Shrine in Shimane. From these small ropes came the development of shimekazari.
Shimenawa can be very small, like this one at Iya Shrine in Shimane. From these the development of shimekazari, new year talisman/ornaments can clearly be seen.

This would often include trees, usually large, ancient ones, though any could be used, and rocks, called iwakura, a fairly common yoshiro. Meotoiwa are pairs of rocks usually found just offshore and are male-female pairs joined by a shimenawa. The shimekazari, a New Year's ornament-talisman attached to most doors are also a development of shimenawa.

Plastic shimenawa, shrine in Miyoshi, Hiroshima.
Plastic is being used nowadays to make longer lasting shimenawa like at this shrine in Miyoshi, Hiroshima.

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