Famous for its cultural heritage and beautiful places of worship scattered across the country, it is no surprise that millions of people around the world flock to Japan in order to see these structures. Shinto is one of the two major religions present in Japan today and of the two Shinto is native to the country.
Shrines are the designated places of worship for the Shinto religion, whereas temples are for the other major religion in Japan, Buddhism.
While shrines and temples can typically be differentiated by the structures you find on their grounds, throughout history, the two religions have coexisted along with their architecture, so you may find a few recognizable Shinto shrine features at other temples.
Identifying features of a shrine
The most striking and probably most iconic feature of a Shinto shrine is the ‘torii’ gate. They can vary in size and are usually orange/red ( Vermilion ) and black in color but can be found in many different shades as well.
Acting as the entryway that divides the physical human world from the spiritual world, you will often find a ‘torii’ gate right at the entrance to the shrine.
Alternatively, in some shrines, people and companies donate after finding success in their business that is represented by a ‘torii’ gate. This is a sign of gratitude towards the shrine or kami as they believe it helped influence their success. The larger the donation, the larger the ‘torii’ gate will be.
A notable example where you can see this is the ‘Fushimi Inari-Taisha’ shrine located in Kyoto, which is famous for its long winding trail with thousands of ‘torii’ gates.
Nearby the entrance you will also find some sort of water basin called a ‘temizu’ which translates to hand-water. They are generally made of stone and can be seen with many ladles on top that are known as ‘hishaku’.
The purpose of this is to purify and clean yourself before entering the spiritual grounds of the shrine. There is a specific way to purify yourself at the basin, but before we begin make sure not to perform this ritual above the water basin in order to avoid the water you use from being transferred back into it.
You start with a ladle with your right hand and pouring the water onto your left hand to wash. You then grab the ladle with your left hand to pour onto and clean your right hand. Swap the ladle back into your right hand again, but this time cup your left hand and pour some water into it so that you can rinse your mouth.
This is done in order to avoid your mouth making direct contact with the ladle. After that, you wash your left hand again, and you finish by tilting the ladle vertically so that the water can clean and purify the handle after use.
Place the ladle back onto the basin and you are done.
As you make your way into the shrine grounds you sometimes see two buildings, one being the ‘honden’ that acts as the main hall, and the ‘haiden’, which acts as the secondary hall of worship. In some cases, especially for smaller shrines, you may also find these two buildings connected into one.
At the ‘haiden’ you will find an offering box for coins along with a bell in most instances. If there is a bell, be sure to ring it first before starting the monetary offering and prayer ritual as it is a way of signaling to the ‘kami’ or spirits of your presence.
Here, you can make a donation to the shrine where commonly a five yen coin is used. This is because it
is pronounced as ‘go-en’ which sounds the same as the word for a bond or relationship.
People believe that by using a five yen coin you are strengthening your connection with the deity or deities (kami) of the shrine and is considered good luck. After that, you bow twice, clap your hands twice, and then put your hands together to pray. Once you are done, you bow again once more to finish.
Things you can find at Shrines
When walking around a shrine or possibly from seeing images online, you may have seen various wooden plaques on display. These are called ‘ema’ and can be purchased from the shrine in order to write your wishes or prayers.
Ema (Wooden Prayer Plaques)
Typically, they are angled on the top to represent a roof, while on the backside you will see beautifully illustrated images of animals. The animal used will be the one that represents the current year on the Chinese animal zodiac calendar, though this is not a strict rule, and many other images can be depicted.
In recent years, the wooden plaque designs and illustrations used for ‘ema’ have evolved where you can even find ones inspired by anime. If you end up buying an ‘ema’, write your prayer or wish on the front and hang it at the designated area which can be easily spotted from the numerous other ‘ema’ that will already be on display.
From there, it will continue to be hung in the shrine until the next ceremony or event (usually new years day) where they are all burned. It is believed that once burned all of the wishes and prayers that were written on the ‘ema’ are released for the spirits.
Omikuji (Paper Fortunes)
‘Omikuji’ are Japanese fortunes that are generally written on a small slip of paper. They are sold at shrines and are meant to predict your future. Though the way you pick your fortune can differ depending on the shrine, it will always be random and there is no way for you to see what the fortune is beforehand.
Traditionally, you will find a container filled with numbered sticks, and after paying, you pull one out at random. In the same area, you should find a large wall of drawers, each numbered with Japanese kanji.
The number on the stick is usually written in Japanese kanji as well, so unless you are able to read it, hold onto it while you search for the drawer with the same corresponding kanji to the one on your stick.
Once you find it, you can put the stick back into the container, open your drawer, and pull out the first slip of paper on the top. This will be your fortune. ‘Omikuji’ from popular shrines or ones in popular areas will sometimes have an English translation, however, there may be times where it is only written in Japanese.
If this ever happens do not worry! You can always ask one of the people at the shrine to translate it for you, and even if you do not end up finding anyone that can speak English, there is always language translating apps you can use on your phone.
When you open up your fortune, the first thing to check is to see whether you got a good fortune or not. There are five levels of luck you can receive ranging from ‘excellent luck’, all the way down to ‘bad luck.
Your fortune is then broken down into different categories such as health, love, business success, and general fortune. From here you can choose what you would like to do with your slip.
People who end up getting a good level of luck tend to take it home with them, sometimes keeping it in their wallets. While people who receive bad fortune will leave it at the shrine in a specified area where it is tied to a rope so that they do not bring the bad luck home with them.
Whatever you decide to do with your slip is entirely up to you. Even if you end up picking a bad fortune you may want to take it with you as a souvenir. Despite the fact that you may only get the paper slip in most places, there are many shrines that offer something extra.
For example, there are shrines in Nara, that come with a small model deer holding the fortune in its mouth, and others where the fortune is written on the inside of a foldable fan. It is believed that the fortune lasts up to one year, so you will most often see people purchasing an ‘omikuji’ at the beginning of the year.
Shimenawa (Straw rope)
Shimenawa is a straw rope with jagged white paper strips (shide). It can be found at the shrine, holy trees and stones, and other places that indicate the border to anything sacred. Sumo wrestlers can also be seen wearing these paper (shide) strips.
All of the money used in the examples above, financially contribute towards the shrine, so you will be happy to know that any money spent will help with maintaining and upkeeping the shrines.
Some notable Shrines
Briefly mentioned above, ‘Fushimi Inari-Taisha’ located in Kyoto is one of the most iconic Shinto shrines in the whole of Japan. The trailing paths up the mountain surrounded by ‘torii’ gates are a true beauty to behold and is no surprise why millions come to visit it.
Another notable one is the ‘Itsukushima’ shrine, found on the small island of ‘Miyajima’ off the coast of ‘Hiroshima’, the stand-out feature here is the large giant ‘torii’ gate that sits upon the water. When the tide is low, the water no longer surrounds the bottom of the gate making it accessible to approach by foot.
Being able to see the gate close up during the low tide and making it seem as if it is floating on the water during high tide are both breath-taking sights.
Many Types Of Shrines
Local and Neighborhood Shrines
Many shrines are devoted to local kami and are not affiliated with any other shrines. People of these local neighborhoods will assist in keeping the Shrine clean and tidy. Some will have a priest who manages many small shrines at once.
Shrines dedicated to founders of powerful family groups
In Japanese history, certain families built and dedicated shrines to their predecessors. The Toshogu Shrines devoted to Tokugawa Ieyasu, notably the renowned Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, are the most notable example.
Konohanasakuya, the Shinto goddess of Mount Fuji, is honored at Sengen Shrines. More than a thousand Sengen Shrines may be found throughout all of Japan, with the main shrines being at the foot and top of Mount Fuji.
The kami of Sugawara Michizane, a Heian Period scholar and diplomat, is honored in Tenjin Shrines. Especially popular among students studying for admission examinations. Ox sculptures and plum (Ume) trees, Michizane’s favorite trees, are found on the grounds of Tenjin Shrines.
Hachiman Shrines are shrines devoted to Hachiman, the god of war, who was formerly widely popular among the country’s most powerful military families. The most renowned of Japan’s dozens of Hachiman Shrines is undoubtedly Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.
The god of rice, Inari, is honored in Inari Shrines. Because the fox is regarded as Inari’s messenger, they may be identified by fox sculptures. There are dozens of Inari Shrines around Japan, the most renowned of which being Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine.
In the era of State Shinto, these were the shrines that were directly sponsored and controlled by the government.
Many of Shinto’s most significant shrines, such as the Ise Shrines, Izumo Shrine, and Atsuta Shrine, as well as a number of shrines newly constructed during the Meiji Era, including Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine and Kyoto’s Heian Shrine, are among them.
Architecture and characteristics of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have merged. There is a variety of building styles, most of which are influenced by Buddhist architecture from China. Only a few shrines nowadays are regarded to be built entirely in the Japanese style.