In ancient Japan, salt was considered an important commodity, because of the laborious and time-consuming process it took to make. The Japanese integrated the use of salt in their rituals, traditions and customs which are still practiced today. Often used as an offering to the gods, it is a symbol of holiness, purification, and to keep bad luck away.
My first personal encounter with salt being used for Japanese ceremonial purposes was when I attended a Japanese Buddhist funeral. Although my grandparents were Buddhists, this was the first time to attend as an adult. To pay respect to the deceased there are certain rituals and procedures during the ceremony. I didn’t want to offend anyone by making a mistake so I had to ask my friend for instructions. Then at the end of the service I was given a small white envelope. She informed that it was a small packet of salt. I was to throw the salt in front of my front door before entering the house. This was to cleanse me from the funeral which symbolizes death. By doing this it is believed that one doesn’t bring the death spirits with them into the home
Another example of salt in the daily culture was shown to me by our local sushi man when he was cleaning and prepping his restaurant for the day. Standing in the entry way by the sliding door under the noren, Japanese awning, he was splashing water and sprinkling salt liberally on the sidewalk. I learned that this is an act of purification. A practice still common today is the little cone shaped mounds of salt on little dishes on the ground by the threshold of a restaurant, shop or even a residence. It means the place has been purified and it hopes to attract customers. This can often be seen at Japanese sushi restaurants not only in Japan but all over the world. Next time you go to a Japanese restaurant have a look to see if they practice this tradition. If so, you will know they are authentic!
photo: Magnus Manske
Salt is also used in sport. At a sumo wrestling match, you will see the wrestlers throwing a hand full of salt into the ring. Again, this is for purification. It’s believed that this is done so no evil spirits can enter the ring to prevent the wrestler from winning. Watching and comparing them throw salt is entertainment in itself, as it displays character. Some wrestlers just grab and drop the salt while others throw a whole handful up in the air. It becomes a personal ritual and trademark for each wrestler.
These salt superstitions still continue today. In fact, I know people who when they have an unwelcome visitor to their home, throw salt over their threshold when they leave!