Shinto Shrines In Japan And The Symbolic Items and Practices At Each One

Shinto shrines are found all over Japan, rarely will you be able to walk through a town or city without encountering one. They are an integral part of Japanese culture and traditional practices, but they are fairly unknown to non-Japanese tourists and visitors. If you want to take some time to visit one of these shrines while exploring Japan, there are some things you should know before you go.

The rest of this article is going to explain what Shinto Shrines are, what their purpose is, what the symbols at the shrines mean, and more.

What Is Shinto?

Shinto is the indigenous Japanese religion where people can visit shrines that represent “kami” or “shin”. The religion is about as old as Japan itself and has no founder or scriptures but is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and traditions. 

In the Shinto religion, kami are gods that represent essential parts of life, such as wind, water, fertility, rain, rivers, fire, mountains, and so on.

Small Shinto Shrine

When humans die, they become ancestral kami and are revered by their families. Very important and extraordinary people are believed to become kami that become enshrined at shrines where others can worship or honor them. 

There is no absolute right and wrong in this religion, only that all humans are good and any bad comes from evil spirits.

Most rituals have the purpose of warding off evil spirits when performed. It is the major religion in Japan, aside from Buddhism

What Are Shinto Shrines?

Shinto Shrines are places of worship that represent the kami/shin and stand as their dwellings. The shrines hold sacred objects of worship hidden in the innermost parts of the structure away from any prying eyes. 

Shinto Shrine Fukuoka

Why Do People Visit Shinto Shrines?

Typically, shrines are visited to pay respect to the kami of the shrine, and also they can pray for good fortune.

Occasions and festivals are also celebrated at shrines such as New Year, shichigosan, and setsubun to name a few.

Weddings can also be held at shrines and newborn babies are brought there as well a few weeks after birth.

New Years Day Visiting The Shinto Shrine

What Are Shinto Symbols And What Do They Mean?

The symbols found in Shinto shrines are as follows:

Torii

Torii is probably the most common Shinto symbol you will see throughout Japan. The word “torii” literally translates to “bird perch”.

One or more of these will be present to mark the entrance of the shrine. They are painted in a variety of colors and are made of various different materials.

Commonly, they are made of wood and are painted reddish-orange or vermilion and black.

Some torii are made of stone with white or grey color while others are made of metal.

Some notable torii is the thousands of torii that wind up the mountain at Fushimi Inari Shrine, the torii of Ikutsushima Shrine that sits in the middle of the sea on the island of Miyajima, and the giant torii of Yasukuni made of metal and standing at 25 meters (82 feet) tall.

Purification Trough

These troughs of water are found close to the entrance of the shrine. Before entering the shrine, hands and mouth must be washed for impurities. Washing of the mouth is less common these days, however.

Komainu

Komainu is statues of lion dogs that are perched at the entrance of the shrine as guardians.

Also known as shisa (lion-dogs), komainu are sometimes depicted with one of them having an open mouth to scare off demons and one with a closed mouth to shelter and keep the good spirits in.

Different animals can be present depending on the god the shrine is dedicated to. Examples are foxes for shrines dedicated to the god/goddess of agriculture/rice Inari, and monkeys for shrines dedicated to the god Sanno. 

Main/ Offering Hall 

At some shrines, the main and offering halls are one building, while in others, they are separate.

The main hall’s inner-most chamber houses the shrine’s sacred artifacts while the offering hall is where monetary offerings can be made to the shrine deity and prayers can be made as well. 

A Red Offering Box Seen At The Entrance To The Shrine

Ema

Ema is just one of the ways wishes can be made at Shinto shrines. Visitors write their wishes on wooden plaques and leave them at the shrine hoping for their wishes to come true.

Most wish about passing exams, good fortune in business, love, and health.

Other lucky charms and fortunes include Omamori (protective amulets), Oinori (paper prayers), Magatama (ancient Shinto talisman of good fortune), and Hamaya (evil destroying arrow).

Stage

Some shrines have noh theatre and even kagura dance on these stages. Kagura dances are a specific kind of Shinto ritual dance that is meant to entertain the deity of the shrine.

Shimemanawa

Shimenawa is straw ropes with zig-zagged papers (shide) hanging from them that are used to ward off evil spirits and mark boundaries around sacred spaces.

These can be found around sacred trees, stones where kami are said to dwell, and also on torii gates. These ropes vary in size and shape often being either small or thick in nature. 

The highest-ranked sumo wrestlers, called yokozuma, wear them as well during ritual ceremonies. 

Shide

As well as being used on shimenawa for warding off evil and marking sacred boundaries, they are also used in purification ceremonies.  Simple in appearance are these zigzag paper streamers attached to the shimenawa.

Omikuji

Omikuji are fortune papers that are found at temples as well as shrines predicting either good luck (daikichi) or bad luck (daikyo).

At a shrine, visitors can choose one at random to determine their lucky or unlucky prospects in the future.  

Tomoe

The tomoe symbol consists of three swirling commas reminiscent of China’s yin and yang symbol but it differs in use and meaning.

The term is translated sometimes as “comma” and was used as a badge (called “mon”) for samurai. The three commas represent the three realms of existence, heaven, earth, and the underworld. 

Tomoe is also found on houses, taiko drums, and charms.

Shrine Practices

Purification

Purification is necessary to enter a shrine. As mentioned before, hands and mouth must be purified, but in practice, most people don’t wash their mouths as much anymore but the face is purified in the water sometimes as well.

Kagura Gagaku

Kagura is a type of ritual dance usually performed on the stages of Shinto shrines. They are accompanied by music called Gagaku, music that is traditional to the Japanese Imperial Court.

These two elements put together are considered the main ways of communication between worshippers and the deities.

Offerings

Shinto shrines have a hall where offerings can be left for the deity of the shrine. The most common offerings are rice, sake, sanku, and shinsen. In many ceremonies, rice is used as an offering in the form of mochi, or rice cakes.

Local communities would band together to pound the rice into mochi, this is still done to this day three days before the New Year celebrations. 

Visitors can also offer prayers to the deity of the shrine and this requires a certain kind of etiquette. There are different variations of how this should be done. 

Shinto Shrine Bells

The more common way is, to begin with entering the shrine through the torii, washing your hands in the purification trough, going to the offering hall (or the main hall if they are combined in purpose), ringing the bell (if the shrine has one), bow twice, clap twice, bow once again, and then place coins into the offering box (typically 100 yen is a base offering). 

Types Of Shrines

Over the history of Japan, Shinto shrines have changed over the years, especially since Shinto and the government are no longer tied together.

All shrines are dedicated to different kami that represents an integral part of life or were important figures in history. These different types of shrines are as follows:

Imperial Shrines: shrines from the Shinto State period with the imperial family chrysanthemum crest on them.

Hachiman Shrines: Dedicated to the war kami Hachiman

Tsuruoka Hachiman

Inari Shrines: Shrines dedicated to the deity Inari of rice and agriculture

Sengen Shrines: Dedicated to the deity of Mount Fuji Princess Konohanasakuya

Tejin Shrines: These shrines are popular among students and are dedicated to the Heian scholar Sugawara Michizane.

Shrines for Powerful Clan Founders: Powerful clans from Japan’s history have erected shrines for their founders. 

Local shrines: Shrines like this are dedicated to local deities present in the area of specific places. They are not associated with other shrines and are exclusive to these places.  Copyright TankenJapan.com

Visiting A Shinto Shrine In Japan

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.