Home DestinationsAsia Shrines in Japan : Worship Methods, Architectural Insights, and Unique Shrines

Shrines in Japan : Worship Methods, Architectural Insights, and Unique Shrines

by Naoi Rei
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Shrines in Japan : When traveling to Japan, many tourists feel compelled to visit local shrines. However, for many, this experience often ends up as a simple photo op. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the world of Japanese shrines, offering insights into their history, ways of worship, architectural elements, related cultural practices, and must-visit unique shrines. Let’s embark on a journey to explore the depth of Japanese shrines!

Japan Shrines: Origins and Introduction

  • Shrines in Japan: The foundation of these sacred sites lies in “Shinto,” Japan’s indigenous belief system. Shinto, also known as “Shin Do” or “Way of the Gods,” is deeply rooted in the worship of nature, including mountains, seas, trees, and natural phenomena. It also involves the veneration of ancestors, legendary figures, and spirits of various forms, making it a polytheistic faith.
  • Shrines Everywhere: Shrines serve as the spiritual heart and place of worship in Shinto beliefs, and there are over 100,000 of them scattered throughout Japan. One of the most renowned deities in Japanese mythology is “Amaterasu Omikami,” the sun goddess who governs the heavens. The famous Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami.

Shrines, Jingu, and Temples: Differentiating the Sacred

  1. Shrines: These are characterized by the presence of torii gates at their entrances. Shrines are dedicated to various deities, ranging from legendary figures or historical individuals (such as Ryoma Sakamoto), to animals (like the kitsune fox), and even inanimate objects believed to be inhabited by divine spirits. The famous Fushimi Inari Taisha, known for its thousands of torii gates, is an example.
  2. Jingu (Shrine): These are larger shrines dedicated to imperial ancestors or individuals closely associated with the Japanese imperial family. Jingu also have torii gates but are more grand in scale and design, such as Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu and Kyoto’s Heian Jingu.
  3. Temples: Temples are associated with Buddhism and feature a distinct gate known as the Sanmon. Buddhist deities like Shakyamuni Buddha and Kannon Bodhisattva are enshrined here, and visitors can make offerings and interact with resident monks. Popular temples include Senso-ji in Tokyo and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto.

Worshipping at Shrines: Traditions and Etiquette

  • Before Entering a Shrine: It is customary to bow towards the torii gate at the shrine’s entrance to show respect to the deities. Passing through the torii gate signifies entering the realm of the gods, and one should behave with caution and reverence. The path leading from the torii gate to the main hall is called the “sando” and is believed to be the path of the gods.
  • Purification Ritual: Before approaching the main hall, visitors should perform a purification ritual. At a structure called the “chozuya” or “temizuya,” they cleanse their hands and mouths with water to purify their bodies and spirits.
  • Worshipping at the Main Hall: The typical ritual at the main hall includes bowing, clapping hands twice, making a wish, and bowing deeply once more (commonly remembered as “2 bows, 2 claps, 1 bow”). It’s also customary to make a small monetary offering, and if there’s a bell or gong, you may ring it before praying.
  • Ema (Wooden Plaques): Worshippers can write their prayers or wishes on wooden plaques known as “ema” and hang them at the shrine. The word “ema” means “picture-horse,” and it’s believed that these plaques carry one’s prayers to the gods.
  • Omamori (Amulets): After visiting a shrine, people often purchase “omamori,” amulets believed to provide protection, luck, and blessings. These small cloth bags or charms are worn or carried for various purposes, such as warding off evil or promoting health and success.

Shrines: Architectural Features

  • Torii Gates: Symbolic structures that mark the division between the sacred realm of the gods and the ordinary world of humans. Torii gates come in various shapes, materials, and designs, but they typically consist of two vertical pillars and one or two horizontal crosspieces, sometimes adorned with inscriptions. Examples include the iconic thousands of vermilion torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, the grand “floating” torii gate at Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, and the stone torii gate at Osaka’s Shitenno-ji.
  • Shimenawa: A sacred rope made of straw, the “shimenawa” is used to demarcate the boundary between the divine and the profane. It is often accompanied by “shide,” zigzag paper streamers symbolizing purity and protection. Large shimenawa are typically hung above shrine entrances or sacred trees. Notable examples include the giant shimenawa at Izumo Taisha in Shimane, measuring around 13 meters in length and weighing 5.2 tons, with the thickest part having a diameter of 9 meters.
  • Komainu: Stone statues resembling lions or dogs, these “komainu” typically stand guard on either side of a shrine’s entrance or in front of the main hall. They serve as protectors of the shrine and are often depicted in various forms, from facing each other to back-to-back. Different features and expressions characterize them. Some shrines, like Inari shrines, feature fox-shaped komainu, while Kyoto’s Okazaki Shrine has komainu in the form of rabbits.
  • Sando (Approach): The “sando” is the path leading to the main hall or worship area, and it is considered the path of the gods. Visitors typically walk along the sides of the sando, as the central path is believed to be reserved for the deities.
  • Main Hall: The “main hall” is the primary building within a shrine where the deity is enshrined. It typically contains the “honden” (main sanctuary), the “haiden” (worship hall), and may also have additional buildings like a “kaguraden” (hall for rituals and dance) or a “heiden” (hall of offerings).
  • Subsidiary Shrines: “Subsidiary shrines” are smaller shrines within the precincts of a main shrine. There are two types: “sessha” and “massha.” Sessha shrines are related to the main deity, while massha shrines are dedicated to unrelated deities. Shrines are often classified according to the hierarchy of their relationship to the main shrine. The Ise Grand Shrine, for instance, comprises the inner shrine and the outer shrine as the main shrines, along with numerous other subsidiary shrines, totaling 125 shrines.
  • Shinbutsu-shugo (Coexistence of Shinto and Buddhism): At certain shrines and temples, the coexistence of Shinto and Buddhism is evident. This practice, known as “shinbutsu-shugo,” combines elements of both religions in one place. You might find a shrine and temple situated side by side, sharing the same grounds. This syncretism reflects the historical influence of Buddhism on Japanese religious practices.

Shrines: Related Cultural Practices

  • Ema (Prayer Plaques): Worshippers can write their prayers or wishes on small wooden plaques called “ema” and hang them at the shrine. These plaques are believed to convey one’s desires to the deities.
  • Omamori (Amulets): After visiting a shrine, it’s common to obtain “omamori,” which are amulets or charms. These are believed to bring protection, good luck, blessings, and assistance in various aspects of life, such as love, studies, health, and safety. Omamori come in various designs and are typically small cloth bags or charms.
  • Omikuji (Fortune-Telling Strips): In addition to omamori, you can also draw an “omikuji,” a fortune-telling strip, after visiting a shrine. These strips provide insights into your fortune in various aspects of life, such as finance, love, academics, travel, work, or health. Various shrines offer unique omikuji designs.
  • Goshuin (Seal Stamp): Collecting “goshuin” is a popular activity for many tourists. Goshuin is a seal or stamp that serves as proof of your visit to a shrine. The shrine’s priests or priestesses handwrite blessings and inscriptions before stamping your goshuin book or special paper. You can collect these goshuin as a memento of your shrine visits. In recent times, some shrines have provided pre-written goshuin on paper due to health and safety concerns.
  • Festivals: Shrines often host various festivals and rituals to celebrate or give thanks to the deities. These events can vary by region and shrine. Common festival elements include processions with mikoshi (portable shrines) and decorative floats, traditional music and dance performances, and special religious ceremonies. Some famous shrine festivals include the plum blossom festival at Tenmangu Shrine and the wind chime festival at Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine.

Visiting Japanese shrines offers not only a cultural experience but also an opportunity to connect with Japan’s rich spiritual traditions. Whether you’re exploring ancient rituals or enjoying the serene beauty of shrine architecture, each visit provides unique insights into the country’s diverse culture. The next time you encounter a shrine in Japan, remember to appreciate its significance beyond the picturesque facade. Dive deeper into the mysteries of these sacred spaces, and you’ll find a profound cultural journey waiting to unfold.

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