Shinto and Shinto Shrines

Japan is known as the land of the rising sun. This is embodied in their flag, which features a red circle against a white background. The focus that is put on the importance of the sun greatly reflects Japan’s belief of paying proper respects to the cosmos. This originates from their native religion, Shinto, and is further reflected in a prevalent pious structure found in many cities across Japan: the shrine. Shinto shrines have become renowned tourist spots over time, providing the public with an overview of Japan’s story.

The Origin and Meaning of Shinto

Shinto dates back from prehistoric times and is said to have no founder. Instead, it originated from the people’s fear of the supernatural and their powers. Its basic principle lies in the worship of Shinto gods, individually referred to as kami. Kamis are mystic creatures that take form in natural objects and occurrences such as the sun, trees, seas, and storms. Shinto explains that humans, after death, also become kami and are revered by their families as ancestral kamis.

Though Shinto does not have a written medium of its doctrines, Japan considers it as their state religion, alongside Buddhism. Its teachings have been passed from generation to generation through practice. Although the Japanese are no longer as superstitious or as fearful of the kamis as their ancestors were, they believe that Shinto ceremonies are a great expression of their natural role in the community and are proof of their dedication to maintaining a harmonious life. Several celebrations corresponding to different life events, ranging from the simple joy of being alive to the union of spouses, incorporate Shinto and are referred to as matsuris. During matsuris, different forms of gratitude are done with a pure heart in the hope that more happiness and success will continue.

The Practice of Shinto in Japan

Shinto, being a kind of communion with nature to pay tribute to all that is sacred, is greatly reflected in many Japanese traditions. Tourists visiting Japan will most likely encounter different adaptations of the religion throughout their stay. For example, in sumo wrestling, where two large men push each other beyond the bounds of a circular arena, Shinto is incorporated by having the wrestlers use salt to purify the arena, and then kick one another in order to eradicate evil forces. In addition, the referee is also dressed as a Shinto priest. Another example would be Ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangement, which can be interpreted to represent Shinto ideals. The placement of the flowers is an illustration of the three planes of man, earth, and heaven. Many theatrical performances also include the different kamis, providing the public with an overview of Shinto.

The Shinto Shrine: Use and Organisation (Priest and Maiden)

photo by Herry Lawford - flickr

Modern life has inevitably been separating the supernatural aspects of Shinto from its practices. Luckily, shrines established since the Yayoi Period (300 BCE) still stand to this day and continue to serve as places dedicated to the different kamis. At least one Shinto Shrine is present in each town of Japan. These shrines are often visited throughout the year by those seeking for good fortune.

Shinto Shrines have a palpable sense of peace and safety. A chief priest or minister, referred to as the kannushi, accompanied by the shrine maiden, referred to as the miko, are present at each shrine. Originally, the kannushis and mikos respectively served as intermediaries and shamans for the kamis and were capable of doing miracles and communicating with the gods. Over time, their roles have become institutionalized to carry the responsibility of maintaining the proper observance of the shrine’s practices. 

The Definition of Shrines and Temples

Japan considers two major state religions – Shinto and Buddhism. These faiths are not mutually exclusive in the sense that the people may participate in the ceremonies and rites practiced in both. Each religion has its own place of worship; shrines for Shinto, and temples for Buddhism.

Given that Japan is home to numerous religious structures, tourists may easily confuse a temple with a shrine, or vice versa. Architecturally speaking, shrines and temples can be differentiated from each other by the respective presence of a Torii (a gateway in the form of an arch) and a Pagoda (a several-tiered tower). Stepping inside, visitors will also see a contrast in how prayers are done. At shrines, a certain prayer process is done which involves the clapping of hands, while temples practice silent prayers.

It is also worth mentioning that shrines are particularly unique to Japan and clearly showcases the country’s culture. Although temples also incorporate the Japanese philosophy, variations of these structures can also be found around the world where Buddhism is practiced.

The Architecture and Layout of Shinto Shrines

Shrines do not follow a specific layout, but often include the following within its vicinity:
  1. Torii
    Torii refers to the shrine’s gate which serves as an entrance and a mark in approaching the shrine. Wood, and the colors orange and black are often used to create Toriis.
  2. Honden
    Honden refers to the main sanctuary of a shrine. This area is dedicated for the enshrined kami and is not accessible to the general public.
  3. Haiden
    Haiden refers to the offering hall, which is often a separate area from the honden. This section is meant for worship and is open to visitors for presenting their offerings and making their prayers.
  4. Komainu
    Komainu refers to the animal statues found in front of the shrine’s main sanctuary. These statues serve as the shrine’s guardians and may come in the form of dogs, foxes, or lions.
  5. Chozuya
    Chozuya refers to the purification fountain meant for cleansing before entering the honden. Ladles are provided here for visitors to clean their hands and mouth with the fountain’s fresh water.
  6. Stage
    Some shrines feature a stage where kagura performances are conducted. Kagura refers to the ritual of calling a soul back to its body; a ritual practiced during the ancient times.
  7. Ema
    Ema refers to a section of the shrine where visitors may write down their wishes on wooden plates and leave them there in the hope that they come true. Common wishes include success, good health, and love.

The Significance of the Shinto Shrine Gate

As briefly mentioned in the typical layout of a Shinto Shrine, the torii is a gate that serves as the shrine’s entrance. This gate comes in the form of an arch and symbolizes the boundary between the profane and spiritual worlds. The placement of the torii does not necessarily have to be in front of the shrine, and can sometimes already be seen on the road leading to the sacred place. Thus, it is a good indicator for visitors to know if they are nearing a shrine. Also, some shrines will have multiple toriis within its vicinity to signify different levels of holiness.

Types of Shinto Shrines

Many cities and provinces of Japan have shrines which have a corresponding deity they are dedicated to. There are local shrines which exist in homage to local kamis and are often separate from the common shrines of Japan. Some of the more well-known shrines can be categorized to fall under the following types:

  1. Imperial Shrines
    Imperial Shrines pay tribute to Japan’s imperial family. The main distinction of Imperial Shrines is its use of the chrysanthemum crest – the national seal of the imperial family.
  2. Inari Shrines
    Inari Shrines pay tribute to Inari, the rice god. These shrines feature fox statues, which serve as Inari’s messengers.
  3. Hachiman Shrines
    Hachiman Shrines pay tribute to Hachiman, the war god. During the earlier periods of Japan, Hachiman was especially famous to several military groups.
  4. Tenjin Shrines
    Tenjin Shrines pay tribute to the kami of a famed scholar during the Heian Period named Sugawa Michizane. These shrines feature ox statues and plum trees, the scholar’s favorite. Many students visit Tenjin Shrines in preparation for their exams.
  5. Sengen Shrines
    Sengen Shrines pay tribute to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji. The main Sengen Shrines can be found at the base and peak of Mount Fuji. Over a thousand other shrines of this kind also exist nationwide.

Visiting a Shinto Shrine

Shrines have become one of Japan’s top places to visit to get a glimpse of the country’s history and culture. Locals and tourists are also welcome to drop by to pay their respects to the kamis and to wish for good luck. Shrines are also visited during special occasions such as New Year, weddings, Setsubun (the day before spring begins), Shichigosan (the day of celebration for every child aged 3, 5, or 7).

Given that shrines are a place of worship, certain kinds of etiquette must be followed:

  1. Bowing before entering the Torii gate shows respect to the kami and is greatly practiced at shrines. The center of the Torii gate, called the Sei-chu, must be avoided as this is believed to be the kami’s walkway. Visitors may approach the shrine by walking at either side of the Torii.
  2. Visitors must cleanse in the chozuya before going into the main hall. The proper cleansing procedure is to use the ladle to wash the hands first then the mouth.
  3. When making a wish or prayer, visitors must remove their hats or caps. Ritual requires for coins (a cent or two) to be thrown into the offering box as the first step. The visitor must then do two deep bows, two claps, and the make his wish or prayer. The process is concluded by making the deepest bow one can manage.
  4. Visitors must make it a point to avoid taking photos at the Sei-Chu and during the ceremonies done by the Shinto priests.
  5. Other people making their wishes or prayers must not be disturbed.
  6. Shoes and caps must be removed upon entering the main shrine.
  7. Traditionally, sick people, which include those having an open wound and those in a mourning state, are advised to rest and stay at home instead of going to a shrine. They will unfortunately not be welcome on the site because their condition is considered as a cause of impurity.

Shrines also provide visitors a section where they can purchase different items such as small wooden plates for them to write their wishes on and leave at the shrine for the gods to receive. Several charms are also available such as Hamayas, which are used to ward off bad spirits, and Omamoris, which are a variety of amulets with corresponding purposes.

Furthermore, visitors may also purchase omikuji, a piece of paper with a written fortune. Omikujis are often written in Japanese and range from great to very bad fortune. The Japanese term used for each fortune is as follows:

  • dai-kichi (大吉) - great fortune
  • chuu-kichi (中吉) - middle fortune
  • sho-kichi (小吉) - small fortune
  • kichi (吉) - fortune
  • sue-kichi (末吉) - ending fortune
  • kyo (凶) – bad fortune
  • dai-kyo (大凶) – very bad fortune

The Controversial Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine was established in 1869 by Emperor Meiji to commemorate and pay respect to the souls of those who died during the wars from 1867 to 1951. It currently houses around 2.5 million souls, of which 1,068 are of war crime convicts.

Enshrinement at the Yasukuni Shrine required that the person’s death be by any cause as long as he was in the line of duty. The Shrine’s officials and priests decided to honor numerous criminals as martyrs because they were included in the war dead registry. This was kept secret and was only revealed to the public more than a decade after. Typically, enshrinement results to the absolution of all earthly deeds, thus, causing tremendous controversy to surround the shrine.

The sources of controversy also cross political territory especially when several members of the Japanese government, particularly the Prime Ministers, pay a visit the the shrine. Such activities have provoked many negative reactions from the local and international community.

The Grand Shrine of Ise

The Grand Shrine of Ise, or Ise Jingu, is located in the Mie Prefecture in Honshu, Japan. It is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and is actually a massive compound composed of over 125 shrines centered between an inner shrine, Naiku, and outer shrine, Geku. One of the three imperial regalia, specifically the sacred mirror believed to be given by Amaterasu to Japan’s 1st emperor, is safely kept in the Naiku and, thus, has made Ise Jingu one of the most important Shinto Shrines in the country.

Another interesting fact about the Ise Jingu is that its shrines are rebuilt every twenty years to symbolize the death and rebirth of nature. Exact replicas are created through traditional practices and the wood of the original shrine is either recycled to create toriis or is sent to and used for other shrines across Japan. The kami are transferred to the new shrines through a special ceremony.

More Shinto Shrines to Visit in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Other Cities of Japan

  1. Meiji Shrine
    Meiji Shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Japan. It is built to commemorate Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.  Meiji Shrine, covering around 174 acres of land, also includes the Treasure Museum, Iris Gardens, The Kakuuntei Teahouse and Garden, and Kiyomasa’s Well. The shrine is a popular place for weddings following a traditional Japanese style.
  2. Asakusa Shrine
    In the late 1800s, Emperor Meiji ordered for the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism. Located in Tokyo, Asakusa Shrine shares its vicinity with a temple, the Sensoji Temple, and has become unique for this reason. The shrine is often swarmed with visitors during the wildest festival of Tokyo, the Sanja Matsuri, which runs for 3 days.
  3. Atago Shrine
    In the midst of the busy upscale district of Tokyo, the rustic Atago shrine sits on a steep hill. Visitors are challenged to take on its long staircase in order to gain the respect of the gods.
  4. Fushimi Inari Shrine
    Fushimi Inari Shrine, the number one visited shrine in Kyoto, features 10,000 closely-spaced orange Torii gates, extending over the hills of Inariyama. Dedicated to Inari, the shrine has a lot of followers, a majority of which are merchants. The numerous gates were donated by several businessmen hoping for good fortune, and feature the corresponding company names.
  5. Izumo Taisha Shrine
    Located in the Shimane prefecture, the Izumo Taisha Shrine is believed to be the oldest shrine in Japan, regardless of the lack of records to show when it was exactly built. This shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi, the kami for marriage.
  6. Itsukushima Shrine
    The Itsukushima Shrine has gained popularity with many tourists thanks to its unique torii gate which seemingly floats on water. It is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun kami, and to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the seas and storms kami. Since 1878, deaths and births have not been permitted near the shrine, in order to retain its purity.
  7. Tomioka Hachiman Shrine
    Tomioka Hachiman Shrine is believed to be the place where sumo was born. It is now well-known for hosting the popular Fukagawa Hachiman Festival, a summer festival featuring water fights. The festival is celebrated in honor of the gods who enjoy a good soak to battle the summer heat.
  8. Kotohiragu Shrine
    The Kotohiragu Shrine dates back from 1660 and has developed quite the oddity - a building on top of it. Accordingly, it is surrounded by numerous high-rise buildings, reflecting the expensive prices of Toranomon land. It carries a wide variety of omamoris and is known to be a place for praying and wishing for success and safety.
  9. Kume no Heinai-do Shrine
    Kume no Heinai-do Shrine pays tribute to Heinai, a brilliant samurai of the 17th century. Heinai was incredibly skilled in sword fighting and killed a lot of people. As he got older, the deaths caused by his hand made him feel guilty, pushing him to become a priest as a form of repentance.
    The original name of the shrine was Fumitsuke, which means “to tread upon”. Having a similar pronunciation with another word meaning “lover letter”, the shrine has also become a place dedicated to match-making and marriage.