Japan from the inside out

Working the salt beds at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 8, 2008

IF YOU’VE SEEN A SUMO MATCH, you know that the rikishi, or wrestlers, usually spend more time on the preliminary rituals than it takes to decide the winner of the match itself. Those rituals last around four minutes, while many matches are over in a matter of seconds seconds.

Those symbolic rituals are deeply connected to Shinto, the Japanese folk religion, as are many aspects of sumo. Even the referee is dressed as a Shinto priest, and the canopy over the ring, called a yakata, resembles the design of shrine roof.


Apart from the belt-slapping and the staredowns, the most recognizable of those preliminary rituals is the tossing of salt into the ring for purification. Indeed, as an agent for purification, salt is an indispensable part of Shinto.

Where does all that salt come from? Certainly not the supermarket. In fact, at the Mishiodono Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, they make it themselves in a traditional method using salt taken from a nearby salt bed. The connection between salt and the shrine is so close that the shrine’s name, mishio, is derived from the word shio, or salt, preceded by an honorific. (Note that the shrine calls itself Mishiodono, but the people in the neighborhood call it Mishioden.)

As you can see from the photo, the people at the shrine consider this serious business, and that attitude extends even to their work clothing. The shrine produces all the salt used for its activities during two periods, one in March, which is just now ending, and one in October. Both last for about five days.

The rough salt taken from the bed (in a process that extracts it from seawater) is packed in a three-sided earthen container using a wooden ladle. It is then baked in an earthen oven until it hardens into a block. Each of the sides is about 10 centimeters long, and one block weighs about 800 grams. They make about 20 blocks a day.

The man in photo, named Kitai Noritada (I think), commented, “I put my heart into the work to make good salt”.

Don’t pass up the chance to see these excellent photographs. The first is of the shrine’s salt bed. Notice the torii, or Shinto arch, at the far side. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one permanently installed anywhere other than at the front entrance to the grounds of a shrine. The second is of the building where they bake the blocks.

Japan is not the only place where salt is used in religious ceremonies, by the way. In the Catholic Church’s traditional Latin mass, the priest mixes salt with holy water, blesses the mixture, and sprinkles it on the altar.

Cleanliness–or purity–is next to godliness, after all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: