The brown or white straw ropes that frequently adorn Shinto temples are indeed beautiful and welcoming, but the purpose they serve goes beyond appearance. These shimenawas express values that are significant to the native Japanese religion, namely purity and protection. They’re seen in many settings, from the entrances of temples to trees.
The use of a shimenawa signifies a sacred area. These ropes make it clear that visitors are entering a special place, such as designated worship site inside a temple. Not only do these ropes indicate a sacred setting, they also convey that kami are nearby. “Kami” refer to the gods of the Shinto religion. Sightings of shimenawas in Japan are plentiful in daily life. They are particularly common sights hanging right above the doorways of structures, over the lintels.
Shimenawas point out sacred areas, and also function as a means of discouraging wicked spirits and sending them away. These ropes are occasionally even seen decorating farms and private residences, notably during the New Year at the beginning of January, Japan’s biggest holiday. The shimenawas are used on the holiday as a symbol of purity, and also to protect the structure for the upcoming fresh year.
These divine ropes are made from twisting rice straw. Their coloration is usually muted. They vary greatly in size. Some of them are paper-light, while others exceed 3,000 pounds. Japan’s biggest shimenawa can be seen in front of Oracle Hall at the ancient Izumo-taisha, which is a shrine in Shimane prefecture in southwestern Japan. Izumo-taisha is frequently regarded as the nation’s oldest shrine, and is a massive complex that houses worship halls, sanctuaries and even art displays that depict the shrine’s extensive history. The grand rope dangles over the front entry point to the structure. It measures 42 feet in length. Paper tassels that represent rice straw roots are often seen attached to these ropes. These tassels are called “shide,” and are specially folded to be shaped similarly to lightning bolts.
Shimenawas are also frequently seen amid natural landscapes that are considered to be stunning and majestic, commonly trees, rocks and waterfalls, for example. If a tree is unusually large, you might spot a shimenawa somewhere on it. Nachi Falls in Wakayama prefecture is home to its own shimenawa. The waterfalls are considered to be a site for displaying reverence to Shinto gods. Water is associated with purity in the Shinto faith, and Shintoists believe that Nachi Falls is a hub for kami. Kumano Nachi Grand Shrine is not far from the waterfalls, and was constructed specifically to honor the kami of the waterfalls. Shimenawas are also commonly seen around “shinbokus,” which are sacred trees where Shinto gods are thought to reside. Shintos have immense appreciation for these trees, and as a result abstain from ever chopping them down.