Guide to Japanese Shinto Shrines

In Japan Shintoism and Buddhism co-exist and many temples and shrines can be found everywhere in Japan and are one of the most popular tourist attractions among both domestic and international travelers.

There are about 80,000 Shinto Shrines and 75,000 Buddhist Temples all over Japan, some are small and simple, others instead are extremely important for Japanese history.

Shintoism is a religion that originated in ancient Japan. The idea of Shintoism is that there are thousands of different kinds of Gods in this world, such as mountains, rivers, stones, and trees. The spirits of the Gods of Japan exist as a sacred object which is enshrined inside the Shrine buildings. The location of a shrine is related to the sacred nature of a place where a holy ceremony took place in the past.

The Shinto Gods are called “Kami” and sacred objects of worship that represent the kami are stored in the innermost chamber of the shrine where they cannot be seen by anybody.

Shrines are visited in order to pray for good fortune or pay respect to kami and visit a shrine is one of the main Japanese traditions for the New Year. Shrines are also chosen for celebrations regarding family happiness like newborn baby, shichigosan and wedding.

Elements of Shinto Shrines

It’s possible to distinguish a Shinto Shrine from a Buddhist Temple from some typical elements like:

Torii: the entrance to a Shinto Shrine is marked by a torii gate, that attracts the good spirits and keeps away the evil. Japanese people usually bow when they puss under a torii gate and after the entrance, is recommended to walk on the side since the central area is for the kami.

Komainu:  a pair of guardian dogs or lions, often found on each side of a shrine’s entrance. In the case of Inari Shrines, they are foxes rather than dogs.

Shimenawa: shimenawa is a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips that marks something sacred and can be found on torii gates, around sacred trees and stones, etc.

Like in Buddhist Temples, also in Shrine you can find water fountains for purification, omikuji (fortune-telling papers) and ema (wooden tablets), as well as main offering wall.

Types and Classification of Shinto Shrine

Shrines can be classified for the type of kami enshrined or for the “status” and importance.

Jingu: Jingu is the highest status and it’s referred to the prestigious or historic Shinto shrines with a deep connection to Japan’s Imperial Family, Jingu shrines enshrine ancestor gods of the Imperial Family. Ise Jingu is the most important Shrine of Japan, where is worshipped the goddess Amaterasu, who according to the legend create Japan and the Imperial family directly descent from her. Another example of Jingu, is the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, where Emperor Meiji and his wife are enshrined.

Gu: Gu refers to the Shinto shrine with a high status that was given its name because of having some special reason. Gu shrines enshrine deceased persons relating to the Emperor of Japan or the Imperial Family. For example, the Thosho-Gu related to Tokugawa clan.

Taisha: The term taisha was originally a way of referring to a particular shrine in Shimane Prefecture, the Izumo-taisha, but after other shrines receive this title as well. Are places of Shinto worship nationwide before the Second World War and the expression taisha functioned as a way of grouping together shrines that carry the same name. Despite these shrines taking higher precedence; they also indicate places with a particular historical background.

Meiji Jingu Shrine

There is then the classification based on the kami enshrined or that the shrine is dedicated to and some of the most famous are:

Inari Shrines: dedicated to Inari, the kami of rice. They can be recognized by fox statues, as the fox is considered the messenger of Inari. There are thousands of Inari Shrines across Japan, but definitely, the most famous one is Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Hachiman Shrines: dedicated to Hachiman, the kami of war, which used to be particularly popular among the leading military clans of the past. There are thousands of Hachiman Shrines across Japan, one of the most famous ones is the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura.

Benten or Benzaiten Shrines: dedicated to one of the most popular goddess of water, worshipped independently or as one of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods. Her shrines are almost always in the neighborhood of water — the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond, and she represents everything that flows (e.g., music, words, speech, eloquence) so it’s considered the protectors of many arts.


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