I lived in Japan once, for about eight months or so, many years ago. Some of favorite memories from Japan are of my visits to Shinto shrines in various regions of the country. They were always quite beautifully situated and always fascinatingly tranquil, whether at the top of a mountain, or in the center of Osaka or Tokyo.
the shimenawa: the sacred rope
An intriguing aspect of Shintoism is its privileging of form over belief. I don't know that this is too much different than other religions in practice, but at least with Shintoism, the privileging of the "superficial" adherence to prescribed ritual forms is explicit:
Belief is not a central aspect in Shinto, and proper observation of ritual is more important than whether one "truly believes" in the ritual. Thus, even those believing other religions may be venerated as kami after death, if there are Shinto believers who wish them to be.
Fans of Miyazaki animation will recognize the influence of Shinto's animism and veneration of the natural world in those films:
The most immediately striking theme in the Shinto religion is a great love and reverence for nature. Thus, a waterfall, the moon, or just an oddly shaped rock might come to be regarded as a kami; so might charismatic persons or more abstract entities like growth and fertility. As time went by, the original nature-worshipping roots of the religion, while never lost entirely, became attenuated and the kami took on more reified and anthropomorphic forms, with a formidable corpus of myth attached to them. (See also: Japanese mythology.) The kami, though, are not transcendent deities in the usual Western and Indian sense of the word - although divine, they are close to us; they inhabit the same world as we do, make the same mistakes as we do, and feel and think the same way as we do. Those who died would automatically be added to the rank of kami regardless of their human doings. (Though it is thought that one can become a ghost under certain circumstances involving unsettled disputes in life.)
More on the kami:
[In] Shinto . . . kami are understood as the divine forces of nature. The worshippers of the Shinto religion in ancient Japan revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power such as waterfalls, mountains, boulders, animals, trees, grasses and even rice paddies. They strongly believed the spirits or resident kami deserved respect.Wikipedia.
Shinto believers also adhere to kami having an anthromorphic form with the ability to act and communicate, as in a kind of avatar. They could not be seen by men. However, they were not omnipotent and omnipresent. In Japanese mythology, for example, Amaterasu, the sun goddess of the Shinto pantheon, could not see the events of the human world. She also had to use divination rituals to see the future.
The kami traditionally possessed two souls, one gentle (nigimi-tama) and the other aggressive (arami-tama). This human but powerful form of kami was also divided into amutsu-kami ("the heavenly deities") and kunitsu-kami ("the gods of the earthly realm"). A deity would behave differently according to which soul was in control at a given time. In many ways, this was representative of nature's sudden changes and would explain why there were kami for every meteorological event: snowfall, rain, typhoons, floods, lightning and volcanoes. The ancestors of a particular family can also be worshipped as kami. In this sense, these kami were worshipped not because of their godly powers, but because of a distinct quality or value. These kami were regional and many shrines (hokora) were built in honour of these kami.
I was also--especially as an ignorant outsider--fascinated with the concepts of forbidden areas, and sacred ground. Some of these closed off areas are known as "kinsokuchi" Foreigners like myself were constantly getting themseves into trouble by crossing boundaries and defiling sacred ground.
There is not room here to delve into Shinto's relationship with the rise of the militant and expansionist Japanese imperial project, ending with nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the continued association of Shintoism with right-wing nationalist sentiment in modern-day Japan. See, e.g., Yakusuni Shrine. Needless to say, this religion, like others, has at various times been bent by the State for its own purposes. One can perhaps catch a glimmer of how nationalists see Shinto as their religion, especially in Shinto's unrelenting emphasis on purity, but, still, from my relatively ignorant perspective, it appeared to be a beautiful and peaceful tradition. I know that for myself, contemplation of the living spirit in trees, waterfalls, and rivers does not generally move my mind to belligerent thoughts. Indeed, perhaps we could all stand to embrace some of the virtues of Shinto's respect for the natural world as our planet begins its slide into oblivion.