One question I am often asked, and indeed was recently asked by one of my patrons on Patreon, is “What first prompted your interest in Shinto?”. This is a reasonable question. After all, when I was growing up in England, there was not much Shinto around. And, oddly, it is not that easy to answer.
I have been interested in Japan for as long as I can remember. Indeed, I was interested in Japan before I knew I was interested in Japan, because two of my favourite TV shows when I was young were dubbed versions of Japanese series (Gatchaman and Saiyūki, or Battle of the Planets and Monkey). My first encounter with the kami was in the supplement Deities & Demigods for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where Amaterasu was cool because she was Lawful good and had scores of 25 in all characteristics, making her a good choice for the deity of a Japanese paladin.
At this point, my knowledge of Shinto was not, shall we say, particularly deep.
In fact, my knowledge of Shinto was still fairly superficial when I first came to Japan, in 2003. I knew a bit more than I had in my early teens, and I was at least clear that there was a difference between jinja and Buddhist temples, but my interest in Shinto was still really just a part of my interest in Japanese culture more broadly. I did have a bit more interest in that area than many others, enough to prompt me to find an introductory book on the subject in Japanese fairly soon after my Japanese reached a level that let me read it. When I moved to Tokyo in 2005, I actively went looking for the local jinja, and did the same after moving to Kawasaki later the same year.
My interest grew from there. I got hold of more books about Shinto, and started attending a course at Kokugakuin Daigaku. I visited my local jinja more frequently, which led to a good relationship with the priests there. I started reading Jinja Shinpō in late 2010, so by the time I was introduced to Jinja Honchō, around 2015, I knew enough to impress them, and eventually start working with them.
To a great extent, my interest has been self-reinforcing. The more I know about Shinto, and the more I do in that context, the easier and more natural it is to do other things in a Shinto context. For example, I typically support disaster-struck areas of Japan through their jinja, both through donations and through visits to have matsuri performed for recovery. Similarly, when I travel in Japan, I normally visit jinja in the area.
Thus, it is very hard to answer the specific question I was asked. I can’t point to anything that first prompted my interest in Shinto. Since I have been in Japan, it has felt very natural to me to study it, and practise it, and so I have — even if that puzzles nearly everyone else.