Shinto shrine

A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house ("enshrine") a Shinto kami, and is usually characterized by the presence of a (also called )) or sanctuary, where the kami is enshrined. There may be a haiden (拝殿), or hall of worship, and other structures (see below).

The number of Shinto shrines in Japan is estimated to be around 100 000.

Interpreting shrine names

The term "Shinto shrine" is used in opposition to Buddhist temple to mirror in English the distinction made in Japanese between Shinto and Buddhist religious structures. This single English word however translates several non equivalent Japanese words, including as in Yasukuni Jinja, as in Tsubaki Ōkami Yashiro, as in Watarai no Miya, as in Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, as in Meiji Jingū, as in Izumo Taisha, , and .

Shrine names are descriptive, and a difficult problem in dealing with them is understanding exactly what they mean. Although there is a lot of variation in their composition, it is usually possible to identify in them two parts. The first is the shrine's name proper, or . The second is the so-called , or "title".

The meishō

The most common meishō is the location where the shrine stands, as for example in the case of Ise Jungū, the most sacred of shrines, which is located in the city of Ise, Mie prefecture. Very often the meishō will be the name of the kami enshrined. An Inari Shrine for example is a shrine dedicated to Inari. Analogously, a Kumano Shrine is a shrine that enshrines the three Kumano mountains. A Hachiman Shrine enshrines kami Hachiman. Tokyo's Meiji Shrine enshrines the Meiji Emperor. The name can also have other origins, often unknown or unclear.

The shōgō

The second part of the name defines the status of the shrine.

  • is the most general name for shrine. Any place that owns a is a jinja. These two characters used to be read either "kamu-tsu-yashiro" or "mori", both meaning "kami grove". Both readings can be found for example in the Man'yōshū.
  • is a generic term for shinto shrine like jinja.
  • A is a place where a kami is present. It can therefore be a shrine and, in fact, the characters 神社, 社 and 杜 can all be read "mori" ("grove"). This reading reflects the fact the first shrines were simply sacred groves or forests where kami were present.
  • The suffix , as in Shinmeisha or Tenjinja, indicates a minor shrine that has received through the kanjō process a kami from a more important one.
  • is an extremely small shrine.
  • is a shrine of particularly high status that has a deep relationship with the Imperial household or enshrines an Emperor, as for example in the case of the Ise Jungū and the Meiji Jungū. The name Jingū alone, however, can refer only to the Ise Jingū, whose official name is just "Jingū".
  • indicates a shrine enshrining a special kami or a member of the Imperial household like the Empress, but there are many examples in which it's used simply as a tradition.
  • indicates a shrine enshrining an imperial prince, but there are many examples in which it's used simply as a tradition.
  • A (the characters are also read ōyashiro) is literally a "great shrine" that was classified as such but the ancient system of shrine ranking, the , was abolished in 1946. Many shrines carrying that shōgō adopted it only after the war.

Structure of a Shinto shrine

A shrine may include within its grounds several structures, each destined to a different purpose. Among them are the or sanctuary, where the kami are enshrined, the or hall of offerings, where offers and prayers are presented, and the haiden (拝殿) or hall of worship, where there may be seats for worshipers. The honden is the building that contains the goshintai (御神体), literally, "the sacred body of the kami". The goshintai is actually a temporary repository of the enshrined kami. Of these, only the haiden is open to the laity. The honden is located behind the haiden and is much smaller and unadorned. Other notable shrine features are the torii, or sacred gates, that delimit the sacred grounds and have become the symbol of Japan, the temizuya (手水舎), the fountain where visitors cleanse their hands and mouth, and the shamusho (社務所), the office that administrates the shrine.

It was not uncommon for a Buddhist temple to be built inside or next to a shrine, or viceversa for a shrine to include Buddhist subtemples. If a shrine housed a Buddhist temple, it was called a jinguji (神宮寺). Analogously, temples in the entire country adopted tutelary kami (and built temple shrines to house them. After the forcible separation of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines (shinbutsu bunri) ordered by the new government in the Meiji period, the connection between the two religions was officially severed, but continued nonetheless in practice.

Other structures they may be present within the grounds of a shrine are:

  • The kaguraden (神楽殿), a stage for Noh or kagura ritual dance
  • The koma-inu 狛犬, or lion-dog statues at its entrance
  • The maiden/maidono (舞殿), where dances and music are performed
  • The rōmon (楼門), or two-storied gate
  • The sessha (摂社), or auxiliary shrine dedicated to a deity closely related to that of the main shrine
  • The suesha (末社), or subordinate shrine
  • The tamagaki (玉垣) or fences surrounding the shrine
  • The tōrō (燈籠), or stone lanterns

The evolution of Shinto shrines

We know that in the Yayoi period the Japanese did not have the notion of anthropomorphic deities, and felt the presence of spirits in nature and its phenomena. Mountains, forests, rain, wind, lightning and sometimes animals were thought to be charged with spiritual power, and its material manifestations were worshipped as kami, entities closer in their essence to Polynesian mana than to a Western God. Yayoi village councils sought the advice of kami and developed instruments to evoke them called , a word that literally means approach substitute. Yorishiro were conceived to attract the kami and give them a physical space to occupy, thus making them accessible to human beings.

Village council sessions were held in a quiet spot in the mountains or in a forest near a great tree or other natural object that served as a yorishiro. These sacred places and their yorishiro gradually evolved into the shrines of a religion that did not have yet a name for itself. The origin of shrines can be still seen in the Japanese words for "mountain" and "forest", which can also mean "shrine".

The very first buildings at shrines were surely huts built to house some yorishiro. A trace of this origin can be found in the term , literally meaning "deity storehouse", which evolved into hokora (also written with the character 神庫), one of the first words for shrine. Many shrines have on their grounds one of the original great yorishiro: a big tree, surrounded by a sacred rope called and now itself an object of worship. Analogously, many other sacred objects we find today in shrines (mirrors, swords, comma-shaped jewels) were originally yorishiro, and only later became kami themselves by association. Some time in their evolution, the word meaning "palace" came into use, indicating that shrines had by then become the imposing structures of today.

Today's Shinto shrines, with their main hall (and prominent religious images, came into being under the strong influence of Buddhism, but hints of what the first shrines were like can still be found. Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara, for example, contains no images because it serves the mountain on which it stands. For the same reason, it has a worship hall (a ), but no place to house the deity ().

The Kannushi

The or is a priest responsible for the shrine's maintenance and for officiating ceremonies. He generally does not proselitize. Traditionally, most shrines did not have a Kannushi and were maintained by a committee of parishioners called Ujiko (氏子). In a jinguji, a Buddhist monk had of course to maintain both his shrine and his temple.

Popular kami

A kami worshipped at a shrine is generally a Shinto kami, but sometimes Buddhist or Taoist deities are worshiped, as well as other kami not generally considered to belong to Shinto. Some shrines are established to worship living people or figures from myths and legends. In recent centuries, especially significant kami have come to be enshrined throughout Japan. Some kami and shrines that have widespread geographic distribution are:

Shrines designated as National Treasures

See also



External links

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