Crash Course: Shinto and Shrines

Temple? Shrine? Shrine? Temple? There are few greater perplexing questions for travelers to Japan than how on earth (or in heaven 🙂 ) to refer to the myriad religious structures dotting the landscape.

The word Shinto, when translated poetically, means “the way of the gods”. It’s Japan’s native religion, though not an exclusive one. Many Japanese claim to be both Shinto and Buddhist (the second major religion of the nation), oftening citing they are “born Shinto but will die Buddhist” (more on that later).

Shinto has no true founder or prophet, no holy book, no overarching church and no real spiritual teachers aside from a loose confederation of priests.  The only buildings associated with Shinto are shrines, both regular and portable (called mikoshi). Not sure if you’re standing at the entrance to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple? A shrine is entered by a torii gate, like this:

An impressive torii gate in Nagano Prefecture

Inside, visitors to a shrine can clean their hands and their mouths (to purify actions and words) at a temizu, or hand washing station. Prayers are offered at the main part of the shrine. If a bell is available, ring it to alert the shrine’s god. A 5 yen coin tossed into the offering box doesn’t hurt if you’re asking the god for a favor. Bow twice, clap twice and offer a silent intercession. When you’re finished bow once more and you’re done.

A temizu, or handwashing station, at a shrine on Mt Takao

So, who are the “gods” in question in Shinto? The Japanese refer to them as “kami” – they can be anything from the spirit of a natural force (wind, water, waves, trees) to the spirit of a deceased human (a former Emperor, a man or woman who did good works in his life, or no one in particular). Until the end of World War II, even the current Emperor was considered a kami who descended from heaven to live amongst the people.

While kami reside mostly in shrines, they can also be found throughout nature, in a gnarled tree, a flowing river or a flowering bush. Most natural objects that house the spirit of a “kami” are marked with a woven straw rope (called a shimenawa) – the rope is just a boundary that indicates a spirit resides in the object encircled. A kami may also leave his shrine in the case of a festival or special event – in this case, he “rides” in a portab’e shrine, or a mikoshi. A ceremony is usually held to officially transfer the spirit from one residence to another, even if only for a few hours.

A ‘shimenawa’ surrounds a tree where a ‘kami’ resides

What do I mean by being “born in Shinto and dying a Buddhist”? Many Japanese will celebrate births, blessings and marriages at a shrine but the traditions of death and burial align more closely with the Buddhist faith.

Have a favorite shrine in Japan? Share your picks in the comments.

Curious to know more about Japan’s original religion? Ian Ropke, a Kyoto resident has a great post on the subject on the blog Deep Kyoto or check out Green Shinto for more in-depth coverage.

4 thoughts on “Crash Course: Shinto and Shrines

Add yours

  1. My favorite (so far, and the shrine repertoire I’ve visited is very limited) is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto!
    1. it’s my first shrine when I visited Japan, so the impact of that made me very very subjective on the matter
    2. Senbon Torii; they make an amazing sight!
    What’s your favorite shrine, Mandyさん?

    1. Oooh, tough call totoryan! Fushimi Inari Taisha is stunning with all of its torii gates. And I love that you can always catch a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu. Ise Jingu in Mie was fairly impressive and I love the location of Naminoue Shrine in Okinawa, as you can see it from the sea. But I think my favorite shrine of all so far is Hayatama Taisha, one of the three main shrines of the Kumano pilgrimage route in Wakayama. I don’t know why, but the colors there seemed so vivid and the grounds were peaceful, despite how many travelers were there.

      1. wow! I’ve just googled all those shrines you listed… so many places to visit in Japan, it makes me want to cry in yearning hahaha…
        Naminoue Shrine’s location is certainly distinctive! It reminds me of Tanah Lot in Bali (I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia, by the way, hehe)
        Ise Jingu and Meiji Jingu don’t have bright red torii, but instead ones of plain wood color. Do you know if there’s a specific reason for that difference, Mandyさん?
        You can call me Yanti 😀 I’m going to show up a lot in your blog posts because as you’ve probably noticed I’m reading from your very first post! They’re very informative and interesting, thank you so much for sharing~

      2. Thanks for your comment, Yanti-san! I’d love to hear more from you. From what I understand, the color vermilion (that specific shade of orangy-red used on many torii gates) repels evil and sickness. It seems to be most popular at Inari shrines, where it’s common to find multiple torii gates, most of which have been donated by people who either support the shrine or feel they have been blessed thanks to the shrine’s “kami”. (The goddess Inari hears a lot of petitions for good luck in business!)

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