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History, Culture and Words Behind Shinto Shrines in Japan

Japanese shrines are beautiful and awe-inspiring. But what's actually in a shrine? Here's a quick run down of the basics, from kami to Korean dogs.

By 4 min read

Jinja (shrines) are everywhere in Japan—more than 100,000! They’re not hard to spot. The entryway to a shrine is marked by a large torii (gate). This is in contrast to Buddhist temples that do not have torii gates. Once you pass through the torii, you’ll know you’re in a sacred space. But what kind of sacred space? And what do all the structures and markings mean?

With almost 2,000 years of history, there’s too much to cover in one post, but we’ll give you enough to make a shrine visit a little more interesting. Of course, even a casual visit with no prior knowledge can be rewarding. Shrines are relaxing and quiet places full of nature, like trees and rocks. Just a quick stroll around can have a calming effect on anyone.

Armed with a little knowledge, however, your visit could take on much more importance. It is a sacred space, after all.

Shrines house gods

Arakura Fuji Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi.

Japanese shrines are places of worship for Shinto spirits called kami. Shinto is often referred to as animistic or a kind of nature worship. Followers of Shinto, the native religion in Japan, believe that kami exist in everything: in natural elements like rocks and trees, inorganic and artificial things and even in people.

Ancestors, mountains (like Mount Fuji) and even natural phenomena and weather like wind and rain can be kami. Shrines are typically placed nearby where people can worship them.

The Buildings at a shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

Shrines can range from local jinja to massive complexes like Ise Jingu or Izumo Taisha. The number of buildings with a complex can vary, but generally, there will be a building to house the kami called a honden. The interior of a honden is usually hidden, and only the shrine priest can enter. Inside is the goshintai, a physical object for the kami to enter. These are sacred “treasures” like swords, mirrors or curved jewels called magatama.

They may be wrapped in cloth so that even the head priest can’t see them! Then, during festivals, the goshintai is removed from the honden, placed in an omikoshi, an elaborately decorated portable shrine, and paraded around the shrine grounds or neighborhood. This is so the kami may take a walk, so to speak.

Another main building at a shrine is the haiden, or hall of worship. This is what you stand in front of to pray. Priests hold ceremonies inside, such as for shichigosan, a rite of passage or for Shinto wedding ceremonies. A shrime complex may also have sub-shrines for related kami (kami can have a family), a treasure hall, and a kaguraden for sacred dances.

Shrine architecture tells a story

Old and new, but sacred nonetheless.

The aesthetics of a shrine can tell you a lot about its history. For example, several different architectural styles can be divided into two periods: before the arrival of Buddhism and after.

Those that maintain a pre-Buddhist style tend to be simple in design, with clean lines and uncomplicated decorations. Those after the importation of Buddhism in the sixth century are more ornate. Of course, being wooden structures, shrines often burn down and need to be rebuilt. The architectural style can change over the years. Still, there’s a clear distinction between much older shrines like Ise Jingu and ones established in later years.

Shrines, particularly the honden, have a unique shape, usually with a gabled roof. Often the roofs are ornamented. The log-like decorations, called katsuogi, originally served to help hold the straw roof in place but have now become a tradition. Chigi, the forked finials in a V or X shape on the ridge of the roof, can tell you if the kami is a man or woman. A vertical cut across the top points to a male kami, while a horizontal one indicates a female.

Rope and paper markings

A massive shimenawa at Miyajidake Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture.

The torii marks the entrance to the shrine as a sacred space. Still, there are also markings inside shrine grounds to further highlight the sacredness of a place or object. This is usually done with a shimenawa, a woven straw or hemp rope. They can be small, like the ones wrapped around jinboku (sacred trees) or massive, like the one that hangs in front of the kaguraden at Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture, the largest in Japan.

Often you will see shide (zigzag-shaped paper streamers) hanging from the shimenawa. They also adorn wands called gohei used by kannushi and maiko, the shrine priest and maidens.

Guardian statues

A dog or a lion?

One of the more distinctive features of a shrine is the pair of guardian lion statues that appear on either side of the main approach to the honden. These are called komainu, literally Korean dogs, although they are meant to represent Asiatic lions and not dogs at all. The tradition came from Tang-era China via Korea, hence the name. The statues are similar but not identical, with one mouth open and the other closed.

Many shrines have other animals instead of komainu. The kitsune (fox) is the most common, which can be seen at Inari shrines. The kitsune is said to be the messenger of the kami, Inari. Other animals you may see are shika (deer) at Kasuga shrines, ookami (wolves) at Mitsumine Shrine in Chiba Prefecture and even nezumi (mice) at Otoyo Shrine in Kyoto.

What is your favorite shrine in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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