Shinto shrine

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A Shinto shrine (神社, jinja, archaic: shinsha, meaning: "place of the god(s)")[1] is a structure whose main purpose is to house ("enshrine") one or more kami.[2] Its most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects and not for worship.[3] Although only one word ("shrine") is used in English, in Japanese, Shinto shrines may carry any one of many different, non-equivalent names like gongen, -gū, jinja, jingū, mori, myōjin, -sha, taisha, ubusuna or yashiro. (For details, see the section Interpreting shrine names.)

Two women praying in front of a shrine

Structurally, a Shinto shrine is usually characterized by the presence of a honden or sanctuary, where the kami is enshrined.[2] The honden may however be completely absent, as for example when the shrine stands on a sacred mountain to which it is dedicated, and which is worshipped directly. There may be a haiden (拝殿, meaning: "hall of worship") and other structures as well (see below). However, a shrine's most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects rather than for worship.

Miniature shrines (hokora) can occasionally be found on roadsides. Large shrines sometimes have on their precincts miniature shrines, sessha (摂社) or massha (末社). The portable shrines (mikoshi), which are carried on poles during festivals (matsuri) enshrine kami and are therefore true shrines.

In 927 CE, the Engi-shiki (延喜式, literally: "Procedures of the Engi Era") was promulgated. This work listed all of the 2,861 Shinto shrines existing at the time, and the 3,131 official-recognized and enshrined kami.[4] In 1972, the Agency for Cultural Affairs placed the number of shrines at 79,467, mostly affiliated with the Association of Shinto Shrines (神社本庁).[5]Some shrines, such as the Yasukuni Shrine, are totally independent of any outside authority. The number of Shinto shrines in Japan is estimated to be around 100,000. This figure may, or may not, include private shrines in homes and owned by small groups, abandoned or derelict shrines, roadside hokora, etc.

Since ancient times, the Shake (社家) families dominated Shinto shrines through hereditary positions, and at some shrines the hereditary succession continues to present day.

The Unicode character representing a Shinto shrine (for example, on maps) is U+26E9 ⛩ .

Early OriginsEdit

Mount Nantai, worshiped at Futarasan Shrine, has the shape of the phallic stone rods found in pre-agricultural Jōmon sites.

Ancestors are kami to be worshiped. Yayoi-period village councils sought the advice of ancestors and other kami, and developed instruments, yorishiro (依り代), to evoke them. Yoshishiro means "approach substitute"[6] and were conceived to attract the kami to allow them physical space, thus making kami accessible to human beings.[6]

Village-council sessions were held in quiet spots in the mountains or in forests near great trees or other natural objects that served as yorishiro.[6] These sacred places and their yorishiro gradually evolved into today's shrines, whose origins can be still seen in the Japanese words for "mountain" and "forest", which can also mean "shrine".[6] Many shrines have on their grounds one of the original great yorishiro: a big tree, surrounded by a sacred rope called shimenawa (標縄・注連縄・七五三縄).[6]

The first buildings dedicated to worship were hut-like structures.[6] A trace of this origin can be found in the term hokura (神庫), "deity storehouse", which evolved into hokora (written with the same characters 神庫), and is considered to be one of the first words for shrine.[6] Hints of the first shrines can still be found here and there.[6] Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara, contains no sacred images or objects because it is believed to serve the mountain on which it stands—images or objects are therefore unnecessary.[6][7] For the same reason, it has a worship hall, a haiden (拝殿), but no place to house the kami, called shinden (神殿).[6]

Architecture and StructureEdit


The following is a list and diagram illustrating the most important parts of a Shinto shrine:

  1. Torii – Shinto gate
  2. Stone stairs
  3. Sandō – the approach to the shrine
  4. Chōzuya or temizuya – place of purification to cleanse one's hands and mouth
  5. Tōrō – decorative stone lanterns
  6. Kagura-den – building dedicated to Noh or the sacred kagura dance
  7. Shamusho – the shrine's administrative office
  8. Ema – wooden plaques bearing prayers or wishes
  9. Sessha/massha – small auxiliary shrines
  10. Komainu – the so-called "lion dogs", guardians of the shrine
  11. Haiden – oratory or hall of worship
  12. Tamagaki – fence surrounding the honden
  13. Honden – main hall, enshrining the kami
  14. On the roof of the haiden and honden are visible chigi (forked roof finials) and katsuogi (short horizontal logs), both common shrine ornamentations.

The general blueprint of a Shinto shrine is Buddhist in origin.[8] The presence of verandas, stone lanterns, and elaborate gates is an example of this influence. The composition of a Shinto shrine is extremely variable, not all features are present. Even the honden can be missing if the shrine worships a nearby natural shintai. However, since its grounds are sacred, they are usually surrounded by a fence made of stone or wood called tamagaki, while access is made possible by an approach called sandō. The entrances themselves are straddled by gates called torii, which are usually the simplest way to identify a Shinto shrine.

A shrine may include within its grounds several structures, each built for a different purpose.[9] Among them are the honden or sanctuaries, where the kami are enshrined.[9] The heiden or hall of offerings, where offers and prayers are presented.[9] The haiden or hall of worship, where there may be seats for worshippers.[9] The honden is the building that contains the shintai, literally, "the sacred body of the kami". Of these, only the haiden is open to the laity. The honden is usually located behind the haiden and is often much smaller and unadorned. Other notable shrine features are the temizuya, the fountain where visitors cleanse their hands and mouth, and the shamusho (社務所), the office which oversees the shrine.[9] Buildings are often adorned by chigi and katsuogi, variously oriented poles which protrude from their roof.

As already explained above, before the Meiji Restoration it was common for a Buddhist temple to be built inside or next to a shrine, or vice versa.[10] If a shrine housed a Buddhist temple, it was called a jingūji (神宮寺). Analogously, temples all over Japan adopted tutelary kami (鎮守/鎮主, chinju) and built temple shrines (寺社, jisha) to house them.[11] 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 and is still visible today.

Architectural StylesEdit

The defining features of a shrine are the kami it enshrines and the shintai (or go-shintai if the honorific prefix go- is used) that houses it. While the name means "body of a kami", shintai are physical objects worshiped at or near Shinto shrines because a kami is believed to reside in them.[12] In spite of what their name may suggest, shintai are not themselves part of kami, but rather just symbolic repositories which make them accessible to human beings for worship.[13] It is said therefore that the kami inhabits them.[14] Shintai are also of necessity yorishiro. The most common shintai are man-made objects like mirrors, swords, jewels (for example comma-shaped stones called magatama), gohei (wands used during religious rites), and sculptures of kami called shinzō (神像) They can be also natural objects such as rocks, mountains, trees, and waterfalls.[12] Mountains were among the first, and are still among the most important, shintai, and are worshiped at several famous shrines. A mountain believed to house a kami, as for example Mount Fuji or Mount Miwa, is called a shintai-zan (神体山).[15] In the case of a man-made shintai, a kami must be invited to reside in it (see the next subsection, Kanjō).[14]

The founding of a new shrine requires the presence of either a pre-existing, naturally occurring shintai (for example a rock or waterfall housing a local kami), or an artificial one, which must therefore be procured or made to the purpose.

The first duty of a shrine is to house and protect its shintai and the kami which inhabits it.[14] If a shrine has more than one building, the one containing the shintai is called honden; because it is meant for the exclusive use of the kami, it is always closed to the public and is not used for prayer or religious ceremonies. The shintai leaves the honden only during festivals (matsuri), when it is put in portable shrines (mikoshi) and carried around the streets among the faithful.[14] The portable shrine is used to physically protect the shintai and to hide it from sight.[14]

The honden's roof is always gabled, and some styles also have a veranda-like aisle called hisashi (a 1-ken wide corridor surrounding one or more sides of the core of a shrine or temple). Among the factors involved in the classification, important are the presence or absence of:

  • hirairi or hirairi-zukuri (平入・平入造) – a style of construction in which the building has its main entrance on the side which runs parallel to the roof's ridge (non gabled-side). The shinmei-zukuri, nagare-zukuri, hachiman-zukuri, and hie-zukuri belong to this type.[16]
  • tsumairi or tsumari-zukuri (妻入・妻入造) – a style of construction in which the building has its main entrance on the side which runs perpendicular to the roof's ridge (gabled side). The taisha-zukuri, sumiyoshi-zukuri, ōtori-zukuri and kasuga-zukuri belong to this type.[16]

Proportions are also important. A building of a given style often must have certain proportions measured in ken (the distance between pillars, a quantity variable from one shrine to another or even within the same shrine).

The oldest styles are the tsumairi shinmei-zukuri, taisha-zukuri, and sumiyoshi-zukuri, believed to predate the arrival of Buddhism.[16]

The two most common are the hirairi nagare-zukuri and the tsumairi kasuga-zukuri.[17] Larger, more important shrines tend to have unique styles.


The flowing style (流造, nagare-zukuri) or flowing gabled style (流破風造, nagare hafu-zukuri) is a style characterized by a very asymmetrical gabled roof (kirizuma-yane (切妻屋根) in Japanese) projecting outwards on the non-gabled side, above the main entrance, to form a portico.[17] This is the feature, which gives the style its name, the most common among shrines all over the country. Sometimes the basic layout consisting of an elevated core (母屋, moya) partially surrounded by a veranda called hisashi (all under the same roof) is modified by the addition of a room in front of the entrance.[17] The honden varies in roof ridge length from 1 to 11 ken, but is never 6 or 8 ken.[18]The most common sizes are 1 and 3 ken.The oldest shrine in Japan, Uji's Ujigami Shrine, has a honden of this type. Its external dimensions are 5×3 ken, but internally it is composed of three sanctuaries (内殿, naiden) measuring 1 ken each.[18]


Kasuga-zukuri (春日造) as a style takes its name from Kasuga Taisha's honden. It is characterized by the extreme smallness of the building, just 1×1 ken in size, this translates to 1.9 m × 2.6 m.[19] The roof is gabled with a single entrance, decorated with chigi and katsuogi, covered with cypress bark and curved upwards at the eaves. Supporting structures are painted vermillion, while the plank walls are white.[17]

After the Nagare-zukuri, this is the most common style, with most instances in the Kansai region around Nara.


Often the opening of a new shrine will require the ritual division of a kami and the transferring of one of the two resulting spirits to the new location, where it will animate the shintai. This process is called kanjō, and the divided spirits bunrei (分霊, literally: "divided spirit"), go-bunrei (御分霊), or wakemitama (分霊).[20] This process of propagation, described by the priests, not as a division but similar to the lighting of a candle from another already lit, leaving the original kami intact in its original place and therefore does not alter any of its properties.[20] The resulting spirit has all the qualities of the original and is therefore "alive" and permanent.[20] The process is used often—for example, during Shinto festivals (matsuri) to animate temporary shrines called mikoshi.[21]

The transfer does not necessarily take place from a shrine to another: the divided spirit's new location can be a privately owned object or an individual's house.[22] The kanjō process was of fundamental importance in the creation of all of Japan's shrine networks (Inari shrines, Hachiman shrines, etc.).

Rebuilding of Shinto shrinesEdit

Once the first permanent shrines were built, Shinto revealed a strong tendency to resist architectural change, called shikinen sengū-sai (式年遷宮祭), the tradition of rebuilding shrines faithfully at regular intervals adhering strictly to their original design. This custom is the reason ancient styles have been replicated throughout the centuries to the present day, remaining more or less intact.[23] Ise Grand Shrine, still rebuilt every 20 years, is its best extant example. The tradition of rebuilding shrines or temples is present within Shinto, playing the significant role in preserving ancient architectural styles.[23]

Izumo Taisha, Sumiyoshi Taisha, and Nishina Shinmei Shrine in fact represent each a different style whose origin is believed to predate Buddhism in Japan. These three styles are known respectively as taisha-zukuri, sumiyoshi-zukuri, and shinmei-zukuri.

Shake familiesEdit

The Shake (社家) is the name for families and the former social class that dominated Shinto shrines through hereditary positions within a shrine since ancient times. The social class was abolished in 1871, but many shake families still continue hereditary succession until present day and some were appointed hereditary nobility (Kazoku) after the Meiji Restoration.[24]

Some of the most well-known shake families include:


See alsoEdit




  1. ^ Picken, Stuart D. B. (1994). Essentials of Shinto : an analytical guide to principal teachings. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-36979-7. OCLC 642205675.
  2. ^ a b Iwanami Kōjien (広辞苑) Japanese dictionary
  3. ^ Bernhard Scheid. "Religiöse Bauwerke in Japan" (in German). University of Vienna. Retrieved 27 June 2010.
  4. ^ " Engishiki" in Stuart D. B. Pecken, ed., Historical Dictionary of Shinto. Second edition. (Lanham, MD, USA: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011) p. 92.
  5. ^ Japanese Religion: A Survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Abe Yoshiya and David Reid, translators. (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1972) p. 239.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tamura, page 21
  7. ^ "English | Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine | 大神神社(おおみわじんじゃ)". April 17, 2014.
  8. ^ Tamura, page 21
  9. ^ a b c d e The History of Shrines, Encyclopedia of Shinto, retrieved on June 10, 2008
  10. ^ See Shinbutsu shūgō article
  11. ^ Mark Teeuwen in Breen and Teeuwen (2000:95-96)
  12. ^ a b Shintai, Encyclopedia of Shinto
  13. ^ Smyers, page 44
  14. ^ a b c d e Bernhard, Scheid. ""Schreine"".
  15. ^ Ono, Woodard (2004:100)
  16. ^ a b c Jinja Kenchiku, Shogakukan Nihon Daihyakka Zensho, accessed on November 29, 2009
  17. ^ a b c d History and Typology of Shrine Architecture, Encyclopedia of Shinto accessed on November 29, 2009
  18. ^ a b JAANUS, Nagare-zukuri, accessed on December 1, 2009
  19. ^ JAANUS, Kasuga-zukuri, accessed on December 1, 2009
  20. ^ a b c Smyers (1999:235)
  21. ^ Sonoda (1975:12)
  22. ^ Smyers (1999: 156-160)
  23. ^ a b Fujita, Koga (2008:20-21)
  24. ^ Encyclopedia Nipponica. Shogakukan. 2001. Shake (社家). OCLC 14970117.
  25. ^ a b c d Gibney, Frank B (1991). Britannica International Encyclopædia. TBS Britannica. Shake (社家). OCLC 834589717.
  26. ^


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit