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Meiji Shrine

Delving on What’s Behind Shinto Shrines in Japan

Numerous temples and shrines in Japan give visitors a glimpse of the unique culture and rich history of Japan and its people.  Shinto is the predominant religion practiced by majority of the population. Shinto (神道 Shintō, “way of the gods”), is the ethnic religion of Japan focusing on ritual practices carried out diligently to establish a connection between the ancient past and modern times. The most obvious difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple is that a shrine’s entrance is marked by a large torii gate which reminds you that you are in a sacred place.

Fox Statue Water fountain in Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fox Statue Water fountain in Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The home of deities

A Shinto shrine (神社, jinja, “place of the gods”) is where Japanese deities or kami of the Shinto religion are enshrined. Shinto practices can be traced all the way back to the Kojiki (the oldest extant chronicle in Japan from the early 8th century) and Nihon Shoki (the second oldest book of classical Japanese history). These ancient Japanese writings are historical records of a collection of Japanese mythology and native beliefs. Modern Shinto focuses on public shrines devoted to the worship of the thousands of Shinto gods (kami), each one having a specific purpose. Shinto is mostly referred to as nature worship or animistic. People who follow Shinto believe that kami exist in almost everything such as natural elements and even people.

What makes a shrine

Shrines can be a simple building or a massive complex. The number of buildings can vary but there will always be a building (honden) to house a kami. The inside of a honden is usually hidden with the shrine priest being the only one who can enter. It houses the goshintai, a physical object for the kami to enter. These are usually sacred treasures like mirrors, swords, or jewels called magatama.

A haiden or hall of worship is another main building in a shrine. People normally stand in front of this building to pray. Priests hold ceremonies such as Shinto weddings and other events. A shrine complex can also have sub-shrines for related kami, a treasure hall, and a kaguraden for sacred dances.

Shimenawa(a sacred straw rope), Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine

Shimenawa (a sacred straw rope), Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. Shimane, Japan.

Embellishments of a shrine

Aside from the torii, other markings inside the shrine grounds further emphasize just how sacred an object or a place is considered. A woven straw or hemp rope called a shimenawa is used to point this out. A shimenawa can be small or massive. There are also zigzag shaped streamers called shige that hang from the shimenawa.

Shinto shrines have statues of a pair of guardian lions or dogs (shisa or komainu) that often greet you at the entrance of the honden. This tradition came from China’s Tang era via Korea. The statues are similar to each other with one main difference, one of the statues has its mouth open while the other is closed. Other shrines have different animals instead of the komainu. The kitsune or fox is the most common and are normally seen at Inari shrines. Other animals include wolves, deer, and mice.

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