Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan (and the official state religion until 1945).
An animistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of many (read: thousands) of divinities, known as kami, who represent and watch over everything and everyone.
Traditionally, horses were considered intermediaries between the human world and the realm of the kami (though, unfortunately for the horses, they had to be sacrificed in order to get there). White horses are considered particularly sacred, and were sacrificed to the kami on important occasions.
The sacrificial horses were often stabled at the shrine, fed well and given special care to ensure both the animal's health and the kaki's favor. On the festival day, the horse was adorned with ornate tack and blankets, amulets, and sometimes even a headdress, walked to the altar ... and sent on its mystical journey. (We'll leave it there.)
These special sacrifices continue even to this day, but in modern times, wooden amulets and statues of horses take the place of real, living animals. Many of the larger shrines still "stable" a life-sized statue of a horse (usually white) on the grounds - sometimes in the converted stable where the real horses were once kept:
|Awaiting his fate at Itsukushima Shrine|
At Itsukushima Taisha, on Miyajima Island, the ritual horse (pictured above) has a stable directly across the path from the shrine's main entrance, with a view of the shrine's Great Torii and the bay:
|Great view . . . if you don't mind being a sacrifice.|
It's a world-class view, though I'm sure the real horses didn't appreciate it quite as much.
|The Great Torii (same view) at high tide.|
At other shrines, like Fushimi Inari Taisha (just south of Kyoto) the ritual horse is kept in a ritual "stable" built especially for that purpose. Fushimi Inari's ritual horse "lives" halfway up the first flight of steps at the very base of Mount Inari, between the shrine's main altar and the first of the uphill paths where thousands of torii line the mountain's slopes.
|The horse lives in the little house, bottom center frame.|
The "stable" measures about the size of a one-car garage, and has windows so visitors can see the horse (and vice versa) as they pass on their way up the mountain.
|A closer view of the "stable"|
The horse is removed from his "stable" and decorated for festivals and rituals where a real horse would once have been sacrificed.
|Fushimi Inari's ritual horse.|
Symbolic sacrifice as a form of worship is fairly common in Shinto ritual - many of the shrines sell amulets imprinted with various objects, and worshippers purchase the ones that correspond to their current prayers and needs.
Shinto remains one of Japan's primary religions, and a significant portion of the population will acknowledge Shinto as their faith, if asked. Among the world's religions, Shinto ranks among the more peaceful--although (some of) the kami don't necessarily object to war or hostility, most of them don't request it or expect anyone to conduct it in their name. Also, Shinto accommodates other religions well--when Christianity came to Japan in the 16th century, many adherents of the Shinto faith became Christians "also" -- seeing the Christian god as simply one more to add to the pantheon. (Ironically, most of them didn't worry much about the Bible's claim that the Christian God was the only god - they simply thought he was foreign, and thus mistaken--and like most gods, they figured it was easier to simply go along with him in church than to try and disabuse him of the notion.)
I find both Shinto and its various kami fascinating, and its shrines offer some of the loveliest and most compelling architecture in all of Japan. If you find yourself near one, definitely take the time to visit. They're beautiful, relaxing, and peaceful places and perfectly safe. . . unless you happen to be a horse.