Shinto priests wear distinctive vestments when performing ceremonies, based on the clothes worn by the nobility of the Heian period (ca 800 – 1200 CE). The vestments are different for male and female priests, and for priests of different ranks, and for matsuri of different levels of importance. This post just gives a couple of representative examples for male priests, as most Shinto priests are still male. (I plan another post on female priests in the near future.)
The base of the vestments, for both male and female priests, is a white kimono with hakama, which are usually coloured. There are two styles of vestments, Saifuku and Jōë, in which the hakama are white, but they are worn less often than the other forms at most jinja. Most of the time, priests who are on duty but not actually performing a matsuri wear just the kimono and hakama, putting on the remaining vestments when necessary. Off duty priests do not wear their vestments (although there are doubtless occasional exceptions).
The priest illustrated to the left is a relatively low-level priest, dressed in Kariginu. These vestments are worn for the most common matsuri, including almost any matsuri that an individual might ask for at a jinja. His hakama are the colour worn by the two lowest ranks of priest, third and fourth, and because he is inside he is wearing only white tabi on his feet. The blue garment over the white kimono (which is visible at the neck and one shoulder) is the kariginu itself. This literally means “hunting costume”, which seems odd; it does not exactly look practical for hunting. (On the other hand, the Japanese for “viewing autumn leaves” is “momijigari”, which means “autumn leaf hunting”, and it would work perfectly well for that.) The kariginu is relatively straightforward to put on by yourself, with a bit of practice.
His black hat is called an “eboshi”. These hats are actually made of Japanese paper, washi, which is layered on to the shape and dyed black. So, yes, Shinto priests wear paper hats.
The wooden stick in his hand is called a “shaku”. In the distant past, courtiers wrote notes for the ceremonies on them, but they have been nothing more than a symbol of dignity for centuries. Up to the late nineteenth century only some priests were authorised to hold them, but all male priests have them now. There are specific rules for the etiquette to follow when a priest must put his shaku down or away in order to clap when paying reverence to the kami.
The image to the right shows a priest of the first rank, as you can tell from his hakama, dressed for a major matsuri in Ikan. He is outside, so he is wearing black shoes of lacquered wood, called “asagutsu”. He carries a shaku, just like the lower ranked priest, and there is no significance to the difference in colour; that is simply a matter of the wood used and the age of the shaku. The black garment is called a “hō”, and its colour also indicates his rank. Under the hō, he is wearing a hitoë, although this is only just visible at his neck. On his head, he wears a kanmuri. This word is normally translated as “crown”, but as you can see it looks very little like what most English speakers would call a crown. The bit sticking up is actually a long strip of material, which bends over at the top and hangs down behind him, about as far as his neck. The Tennō, and, I believe, only the Tennō, wears a kanmuri on which this strip of material sticks straight up for many Shinto rituals.
If the image to the right was of a priest of special rank, the highest, his hakama would be white, with the other colours the same. The patterns would still be on the hakama, but they would still be white, so they would be hard to see.
If he were of upper second rank, the hō would be red, and the patterns on the hakama would be fainter. A priest of second rank would still have a red hō, but his hakama would be purple without any patterns. A priest of the third or fourth rank would have a green hō, and hakama the same colour as in the picture to the left.
These differences in vestments mean that you can tell a lot about what is going on in a jinja at a single glance, and also spot people who are working at a jinja but who are not qualified priests (because they have hakama in different colours — white is ambiguous, however).