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A shimenawa is a thick braided rope that marks the separation between the ordinary world and a sacred place. The rope forms a barrier against evil spirits. Shimenawa may be found in Japan at the entrance to a shrine, at an altar, or in nature, around a tree or a rock. Sometimes strips of white paper, folded in the shape of a lightning bolt (called shide), or tassels of hemp fibre hang from the rope. In this print, the waterfall is marked by a shimenawa.
These ropes used to be braided from hemp fibres or hemp bark. However, since the ban on hemp cultivation that took effect in the 1950s, this material has become scarce and very expensive. The (huge) ones you now see at some Japanese Shinto shrines are usually made of rice straw. Sometimes hemp thread is still used to attach the shide, as a reference to the traditional production method.
Hemp shimenawa created for this exhibition
The shimenawa at the entrance to the exhibition room and the small one at the house altar (kamidana) are, however, made of hemp. They were created especially for this exhibition by Mr Masahiko Yamakawa of the Yamakawa workshop in Kyoto. This specialist workshop has been making ceremonial objects for Shinto shrines by hand, in the traditional way, since 1886.
The origins of the shimenawa lie in an ancient Japanese legend. Amaterasu, the kami of the sun and foremost of her kind, retreated to a cave after a quarrel with her brother. Since Amaterasu brought light to the world, the entire universe was plunged into darkness. The other kami tried all kinds of things to lure her out of the cave. When they finally succeeded, the kami Futo-tama tied a shimenawa in front of the cave entrance. This prevented Amaterasu from returning to the cave, and light returned to the universe.
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