Home Japan Travel GuideGuide to Shinto Shrines in Japan

Guide to Shinto Shrines in Japan

Most visitors to Japan arrive with a great interest in Shinto shrines. If you make it to Japan, the chances are one of the “must-do” experiences on your list will be to visit at least one Shinto shrine.

Japan is home to 90,000 Shinto shrines. These can be categorized into a few major groups, including imperial shrines, Inari shrines, Hachiman shrines, and many more!

The key to appreciating Shinto shrines is to know a little bit about Shinto, its traditions, and its deities. Read on to discover some interesting facts about Shinto shrines in Japan.

Highlights

  • Shinto shrines play an important role in both traditional and modern Japanese society.
  • Japanese temples usually close around 4 or 5 pm, though shrines often stay open round the clock.
  • Many temples and shrines in Japan are set in well-tended garden spaces and are connected with local festivals and other events.
  • Always follow the etiquette and rules that apply in a shrine.
  • No visit to Japan would be complete without at least one visit to a Japanese shrine.

Features and styles of Shinto shrines

Shinto shrines are typically built using wood (especially Hinoki cypress, i.e. Chamaecyparis obtusa), which may be left plain or painted. The typical Shinto shrine complex or jinja includes some or all of the following common architectural features; torii, komainu, purification fountain, offering hall and ema.

Torii

Torii are sacred gateways which symbolically separate the sacred space of the shrine from the external world. Torii are usually made of wood but they can also be of stone, steel, copper, or concrete. Many torii are painted red. The simplest and most common are merely two upright posts with two longer crossbars (kasagi and nuki), known as myojin tori.

Komainu

Komainu, sometimes referred to as lion dogs, the guardian statues that can be found guarding the entrance to Shinto shrines as well as temples or even secular sites, come in a great variety of styles, shapes and forms. The most common komainu nowadays are the stone ones guarding the approach-ways to shrines.

Purification fountain

No matter what the season, you have to “purify” yourself at a purification fountain, near the shrine's entrance.

Take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands in that water. Then transfer some water into your cupped hands, rinse your mouth and spit the water out beside the fountain.

Offering hall

At the offering hall, throw a coin into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of gong, use it before praying in order to get the kami's (Shinto god’s) attention.

Also you will encounter wooden wishing plaques called ema, which can be found at shrines all across Japan. They are used by people to write their prayers on and hang them up on the shrine grounds.

Shinto Shrines Location Features and Traditions Major Group
Fushimi Inari Southern Kyoto Famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. Inari shrines
Itsukushima Miyajima, a small island outside the city of Hiroshima. The shrine is known worldwide for its iconic "floating" torii gate. Shrine dedicated to the founders of powerful clans
Ise 1 Ujitachicho, Ise, Mie Prefecture 516-0023 Japan's most sacred Shinto shrines. Local shrines, dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu
Toshogu 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture 321-1431 The Toshogu shrine has elements of both Shinto and Buddhist religions. Imperial Shrine
Usa Jingu 2859 Minamiusa, Usa, Oita Prefecture 872-0102 This is the main shrine among thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Hachiman. Hachiman Shrine
Kumano Nachi Taisha Higashimuro District, Wakayama Prefecture The tallest waterfall in Japan, fusion of Buddhist and Shinto can be found here. Local Shrine

Fushimi Inari shrine

Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari's messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. Fushimi Inari Shrine has ancient origins, predating the capital's move to Kyoto in 794 AD.

While the primary reason most foreign visitors come to Fushimi Inari Shrine is to explore the mountain trails, the shrine buildings themselves are also attractive.

Romon Gate stands at the shrine's entrance, while at the very back of the shrine's main grounds is the entrance to the hiking trail, saturated with torii gates; starting with two dense, parallel rows of gates called Senbon Torii ("thousands of torii gates").

Opening hours: always open

Admission: free

Itsukushima shrine

The centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima is the source both of the island's fame and of its name. Formally named Itsukushima, the island is now more popularly known as "Miyajima", literally "shrine island" in Japanese.

The shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water, seemingly floating in the sea during high tide. The shrine complex consists of multiple buildings, including a prayer hall, a main hall and a noh theater stage, connected by boardwalks and supported by pillars above the sea.

Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man in Japan at the end of the Heian Period (784-1185 AD), selected the island as the site of his clan's family shrine and built the Itsukushima Shrine.

The shrine is located in a small inlet, while the torii gate is set out in the Seto Inland Sea. Paths lead around the inlet, and visitors enjoy walking along them while looking out over the sea.

Opening Hours: 6.30 am to 6.00 pm (closing time changes depending on the season)

Admission: 300 yen

Ise shrine

Ise city is home to the Ise shrines (Ise Jingu), Japan's most sacred Shinto shrines. The Ise shrines consist of two major shrines that stand several kilometers apart, the Inner Shrine (Naiku) and the Outer Shrine (Geku), and over a hundred smaller shrines spread across the region.

The Inner Shrine (Naiku) is dedicated to Amaterasu, Shinto's most important goddess, the Sun Goddess. As such, it is considered Japan's most sacred shrine. It fascinates through its simplicity, featuring little more than gravel-covered walkways and wooden, barely-painted shrine structures, surrounded by a serene forest.

The Outer Shrine (Geku) is dedicated to Toyouke, the goddess of food, clothing and housing. The interesting Sengukan Museum stands on the grounds, displaying a 1:1 scale model of a quarter of the Inner Shrine's main building.

Opening Hours: 6 am to 6 pm

Toshogu Shrine

Toshogu Shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Ieyasu is enshrined at Toshogu as the deity Tosho Daigongen, "Great Deity of the East Shining Light".

The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen buildings set in a beautiful forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture.

Visitors may note that Toshogu contains both Shinto and Buddhist elements.

The Toshogu shrine is a 30-40 minute walk or 10-minute bus ride (310 yen one way, 500 yen day-pass, covered by the Nikko Passes) from Tobu and JR + Nikko Stations.

Opening Hours: 8 am–5 pm (opens until 4 pm from November to March)

Admission: 1,300 yen (shrine), 1,000 yen (museum), 2,100 yen (shrine and museum) admission ends 30 minutes before closing.

Usa Jingu

The Usa Shrine, built in the 8th century, is located at the base of the Kunisaki Peninsula. It is the main shrine among thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Hachiman, the god of archery and war, who has also been identified with the legendary 15th emperor of Japan, Emperor Ojin.

The shrine had a big influence on the Kunisaki Peninsula's culture and shaped the local religion of mountain-worship.

The shrine occupies a large compound which includes an upper shrine complex, a lower shrine complex, a treasure hall, a couple of ponds and several auxiliary buildings. Its main hall is a designated national treasure and the prototype of the Hachiman-zukuri style of shrine architecture.

Opening Hours: 5.30 am to 9.00 pm (opens from 6 am from October to March)

Admission: free

Kumano Nachi Taisha

Kumano Nachi Taisha is part of a large complex of neighboring religious sites that exemplify the fusion of Buddhist and Shinto influences peculiar to the Kumano region. The site also boasts the tallest waterfall in Japan.

Directly beside the shrine is the Buddhist temple Seigantoji. The shrine and the temple are both impressive, and among the buildings of Seigantoji there is a three-story pagoda. A short distance from Seigantoji and Nachi Taisha is the 133-meter waterfall called Nachi no Taki. You can find peace and serenity in this place.

Opening Hours: shrine grounds are always open (treasure house: 8:00 to 16:00)

Admission: free (300 yen for the treasure house)

Etiquette for visiting a Shinto shrine

Before entering a shrine, there is a torii gate, signifying entrance into a holy place. It is customary and respectful to bow before going through the gate, and to purify oneself at the purification fountain.

It is considered rude to walk in front of someone who is praying, so please go around or wait until they are done. Wear proper clothing and shoes. In some shrines photographs are prohibited. Please read the signs carefully.

Explore Shinto shrines with Asia Highlights

While a visit to one of the shrines in Japan is a must, visiting a shrine without a professional is rather a waste of time and effort. Visiting one of the shrines in Japan with Asia Highlights, you will learn about and experience Japan's religions, shrines and temples.

We will help you with ticketing, explaining the history of the shrines, visitor-etiquette and much more, to ensure your visit is remarkable and hassle-free. Contact us if you have any inquiries.

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