Shinto Shrines: Celebrating Faith, Culture, and Nature
Many cultures revere nature as a spirit in and of itself. And with the grandeur of the world, why shouldn’t we think of it as such? From the trees to the mountains to the rivers—there is an inherent spiritual depth within each of these domains.
Shinto—meaning “the way of the gods”—is a Japanese religious practice that believes in spirits of nature called kami, who take the form of any domain in nature: land and bodies of water, animals, plants, and even the bodies of the deceased.
These spirits are believed to reside in the highly spiritual Shinto shrines all over Japan. Each of these shrines is dedicated to a kami, depending on the area it was built in. Today, believers of Shinto and tourists from around the world continue to visit these shrines to pay their respects to these ancient spirits. Or, if not that—to catch a glimpse of how marvelous this religious culture is.
Shinto and Japan’s National Identity
Shinto predates the existence of Buddhism in Japan, although it is not uncommon for a person to practice both religions. Neither Shinto nor Buddhism is monotheistic or heavily doctrine-driven, so they co-existed as dominant religions in the history of Japan. Shinto, in particular, is more of an aspect of life and culture rather than a religion in its conventional sense. Of course, it is still classified as a belief system.
Since it has existed in Japan far before the country was unified, Shinto was initially a very local one. It varied from region to region and depended on the spirits worshipped in the area or shrine.
Around the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, Japan implemented State Shinto, which meant that the country integrated this religion with its political efforts and power. Shinto priests became government officials, and the royal family was closely affiliated with the religion’s myths and deities. Shrines were also funded by the state, and some were even erected in honor of the royal rulers.
Although the religion and the state were formally separated by the end of World War II, Shinto remains a major religion that still, to this day, defines the country’s culture and collective philosophy.
Some Incredible Shinto Shrines
There are thousands of Shinto shrines all over Japan, all with varying degrees of importance. They are often classified according to function (the Jingu and Gu, for instance, are affiliated with the Imperial Family, its gods and ancestors, and other influential nobles). Sometimes, they are also classified according to the gods or deities they worship.
Shrines also differ in size and magnitude; some have more rooms and spaces than others. However, they generally have some vital architectural structures: the torii or entrance gate, the temizuya purification trough, the offering hall, and the ema or wooden offering plates.
These elements are not arbitrary placements—they all serve a ceremonial purpose. For instance, it is customary to bow before the torii gate and step through the entrance with the left foot first. The center of the gate is for the spirits, so visitors usually avoid passing there.
And in the hall, the visitors throw a donation (of any currency) at the Saisenbako or coin box, bow and clap twice, and say a prayer. Acknowledging each part of the shrine and its purpose is part of the full experience of the visit.
Of course, while every shrine is worth seeing, some have greater cultural legacies and more notable historical backgrounds. Here are some of the most significant Shinto shrines you can visit in Japan.
Ise Grand Shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture
The Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) is considered the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. Located within a forest in the Mie Prefecture, the shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, who is also the country’s supreme deity. It is believed that the Imperial Family are her descendants and that they rule because of the divine power given to them.
According to the legend from thousands of years ago, the 11th Emperor Suinin ordered the princess Yamatohime-no-mikoto to seek a place for the permanent enshrinement and worship of Amaterasu. After traversing many, many lands for almost twenty years, the princess faced a revelation—directly from the sun goddess herself—to build the shrine in the province of Ise.
Ise Jingu has around 125 shrines all over the city, but the most significant ones are the inner shrine (Naiku) and the outer shrine (Geku). The inner shrine is home to the Sacred Mirror or Yata no Kagami, which is said to be a gift from Amaterasu herself to the first emperor of Japan. As such, it is one of the three Imperial Regalia, along with the sword and the jewel.
The mirror is only ever seen by royals and high priests, and it is considered far too sacred to be displayed. Still, visitors can pay homage to Amaterasu and the holy treasure before the gates.
Izumo Grand Shrine in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture
The Izumo Grand Shrine, or the Izumo-Taisha, is generally considered the oldest surviving Shinto shrine in Japan. It is believed that the shrine itself had already been around since the 700s, although not much is known beyond this fact.
Over time, as the area began to be filled with prominent clans, more buildings and structures were added. Like other Shinto shrines—including the Ise Jingu—the Izumo Grand Shrine is rebuilt every few years, although there are only minor changes in the building process.
Its origin and history may be lost to time, but it is still rich with ancient folklore and tradition. The shrine was believed to be built for the kami Ōkuninushi, and legend says that spirits gather here once a year to meet. Today, visitors come to the Izumo-Taisha to pray for good fortune and sustenance.
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
The Fushimi Inari Shrine, located at the base of a mountain in Kyoto, is an important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari: the kami of rice and general prosperity. Aside from the monumental structures within, the Fushimi Inari Shrine boasts of its Shenbon Torii—thousands of red gates and stairs leading up to the sacred Mount Inari.
There is also a multitude of fox statues all around the area, since these animals are recognized as Inari’s messengers. Sometimes, they are depicted carrying rice grains with their mouths and red scarves. Red—in general, and especially in this shrine—is associated with sanctity and good fortune.
This shrine is also among the oldest and most ancient ones, dating back to the Heian period around the 700s. It has greatly influenced the country’s visual and cultural identity, which is why it continues to be one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan.
Itsukushima Shrine in Itsukushima, Hatsukaichi
Famous for its unique floating torii gate, the Itsukushima Shrine is situated on the island of Itsukushima in Hiroshima bay. The torii is submerged in the waters of the high tides, which is how it appears to be “floating.
The earliest structures of the shrine date back to the late 500 C.E. Saeki no Kuramoto, who governed the so-called “Island of Worship,” said that he received a message from the spirits to build the shrine in its waters. Some centuries later, however, it became more attributed to the daimyo (warlord) Taira no Kiyomori. At the time of his governance, he contributed greatly to the Itsukushima Shrine’s building efforts, patterning it after an architectural style called shinden-zukuri which is commonly designed for the nobility.
The shrine is meant to worship the “three female deities,” namely Ichikishimahime-no-mikoto, Tagorihime-no-mikoto, and Tagitsuhime-no-mikoto, who are all descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The goddesses gave their blessings to the Imperial Family and helped them brave the stormy seas during perilous journeys.
Because of its unique heritage and architecture, the Itsukushima Shrine is recognized and protected by UNESCO. Parts and buildings of this magnificent place are also designated as Japan’s National Treasures.
Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo
The Meiji Shrine or Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, Tokyo is one of the most popular Shinto shrines in the country. Built only in the 1920s during the latter years of the Meiji Restoration period, the shrine was erected in honor of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. These were more or less the years when State Shinto was implemented in Japan. Contrary to the misconception, however, the Meiji Jingu is not their burial ground; the royal couple is entombed in an imperial mausoleum in Kyoto.
Despite its recency, the shrine has already faced some devastating blows. The original structures had been a casualty of the Tokyo air raids during World War II. Fortunately, after community efforts in funding, the grand shrine was rebuilt around the 1950s.
Today, the Meiji Jingu garners millions of visitors per year, especially during ceremonial occasions (such as the New Year). In such sublime events, visitors from all over the world gather collectively to celebrate and say their prayers.
‘The Way of the Gods’
Shinto was, without a doubt, a significant factor in the formation of Japan’s national identity. Even in the ancient years when Japan had not been unified as a country, it still defined the nation’s beliefs and way of life. And today, this culture is being practiced and spread joyfully around the world.
Thanks to tradition, folklore, art, and these captivating shrines, the rich faith of Shintoism continues to be illustrious. Although we as a society live within the luxuries and advances of the modern world, Shinto shrines serve as a beautiful reminder for us to come back to the roots of life: nature, and the wonders that we often take for granted.
Which Shinto shrine would you like to visit in the future?