What Is a Shinto Shrine?

Torii gate of the Itsukushima shrine
Torii gate of the Itsukushima shrine.

 korkuson Rodaree/Getty Images

Shintō shrines are structures built to house kami: the essence of spirit present in natural phenomena, objects, and human beings that is worshipped by Shintō practitioners. Reverence toward the kami is kept by regular practice of rites and rituals, purification, prayers, offerings, and dances, many of which take place at shrines.

Key Takeaways: Shintō Shrines

  • Shintō shrines are structures built to house kami and to create a link between kami and human beings.
  • Shrines are sacred places of worship where visitors can offer prayers, offerings, and dances to the kami.
  • The design of Shintō shrines varies, but they can be identified by their entrance gate and a sanctuary that houses the kami.
  • All visitors are welcome to visit Shintō shrines, participate in worship, and leave prayers and offerings for the kami. 

The most important feature of any given shrine is the shintai or “body of the kami," an object where the kami is said to reside. Shintai can be manmade, like jewelry or swords, but can also be naturally occurring, like waterfalls and mountains

Worshippers visit Shintō shrines not to praise the shintai, but to worship the kami. The shintai and the shrine create a link between kami and human beings, making kami more accessible to people. There are more than 80,000 shrines in Japan, and almost every community has at least one shrine.

Design of Shintō Shrines

Though there are archeological remains that suggest temporary places of worship, Shintō shrines did not become permanent fixtures until the Chinese brought Buddhism to Japan. For this reason, Shintō shrines often feature design elements similar to Buddhist temples. The design of individual shrines can vary, but there are a few important elements present in most shrines.

Visitors enter the shrine through the torii, or the main gate, and walk down the sandō, or the pathway that leads from the entrance to the shrine itself. The grounds may have multiple buildings or one building with many rooms. Usually, there is a honden, or a sancturary where the kami is enshrined in the shintai, a haiden, a place of worship, and a heiden, or a place of offerings. If the kami is enshrined within a natural element – a mountain, for instance – the honden might be completely absent.

Torii

Torii are gates that serve as the entrance to the shrine. The presence of torii is usually the easiest way to identify a shrine. Consisting of two vertical beams and two horizontal beams, the torii is not a gate as much as an indicator of sacred space. The purpose of torii is to separate the secular world from the world of the kami.

Sandō

Sandō is the pathway just after the torii that leads worshippers to the structures of the shrine. This is an element taken from Buddhism, as it can often be seen in Buddhist temples, as well. Often, traditional stone lanterns called tōrō will line the path, illuminating the way to the kami.

Temizuya or Chōzuya

In order to visit a shrine, worshippers must first practice purification rituals, including cleansing with water. Every shrine will have a temizuya or chōzuya, a basin of water with dippers for visitors to wash their hands, mouths, and faces before entering the shrine structures.

Haiden, Honden, and Heiden

These three elements of a shrine can be different structures entirely, or they can be different rooms in one structure. The honden is the place where the kami is enshrined, the heiden is the place of offering used for prayers and donations, and the haiden is the place of worship, where there may be seats present for worshippers. The honden is usually located behind the haiden, and it is often surrounded by a tamagaki, or a small gate, to indicate sacred space. The haiden is the only area continuously open to the public, as the heiden is opened for ceremonies only and the honden is only accessible by priests.

Kagura-den or Maidono

The Kagura-den or the maidono, is a structure or a room within a shrine where sacred dance, known as kagura, is offered to the kami as part of a ceremony or ritual.

Shamusho

The shamusho is the administrative office of the shrine, where priests can rest when they are not participating in worship. In addition, the shamusho is where visitors can purchase (though the preferred term is receive, as the objects are sacred rather than commercial) ofunda and omukuji, which are amulets inscribed with the name of the kami of the shrine intended to bring protection to its keepers. Visitors can also receive ema: small, wooden plaques on which worshippers write prayers for the kami and leave them in shrine for the kami to receive.

Komainu

Komainu, also known as lion-dogs, are a pair of statues in front of the structure of the shrine. Their purpose is to keep away evil spirits and protect the shrine.

Visiting a Shintō Shrine

Shintō shrines are open to the public for both worshippers and visitors. However, individuals who are sick, injured, or in mourning should not visit a shrine, as these qualities are believed to be impure and thus separate from the kami.

The following rituals should be observed by all visitors to a Shintō shrine.

  1. Before entering the shrine through the torii, bow once.
  2. Follow the sandō to the water basin. Use the dipper to first wash your left hand, followed by your right, and your mouth. Lift the dipper vertically to allow the soiled water to fall from the handle and then place the dipper back on the basin as you found it.
  3. As you approach the shrine, you may see a bell, which you can ring to expel evil spirits. If there is a donation box, bow before leaving a modest donation. Keep in mind that 10 and 500 yen coins are considered unlucky.
  4. In front of the shrine, there will likely be a sequence of bows and claps (typically, two of each), followed by a prayer. Once the prayer is finished, press your hands together in front of your heart and bow deeply,
  5. After your prayers are finished, you can receive an amulet for luck or protection, hang an ema, or observe other parts of the shrine. However, be aware that some spaces are not accessible for visitors.

As with any holy, religious, or otherwise sacred space, be respectful of the site and mindful of the beliefs of others. Look for any posted notices and adhere the rules of the space.

Sources

  • “Religions: Shinto”. BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation, 7 October 2011.
  • Bragg, Melvyn. “Shinto”. Audio blog post. In Our Time. British Broadcasting Corporation, 22 September 2011.
  • McVay, Kera. All About Shinto. Delhi: University Publications, 2012.
  • Nueman, Lara. “Navigate your way around a Japanese Shinto Shrine.” Go Go Nihon, Go! Go! World, 17 March 2018.