Insider’s Guide to Shintō Shrines

Amid all the change that has swept Japanese society in modern times, the position of the Shintō shrine remains rock-solid. There is always something drawing local residents to the neighborhood shrine, whether it be an annual celebration like New Year’s Day or just the hope of warding off bad luck. Foreign tourists also feel the pull of these hallowed spots, which somehow instill a sense of awe in even the most casual visitor. Through images and words, this series offers information and insights that will challenge your preconceptions and make your own shrine visit that much more meaningful.

Shintō’s Sacred Forests and Japanese EnvironmentalismToya Manabu

Toya Manabu explores the historical and spiritual connections between Shintō shrines, the sacred forests that surround them, and environmentalism in Japan.

Nature Worship in Old ShintōToya Manabu

Before Shintō came to be practiced in constructed shrines, it was centered on the direct worship of nature itself. Toya Manabu surveys the various objects of worship that formed the original focus of Shintō belief.

“Shōzoku”: The Shintō VestmentsToya Manabu

The clothing worn by priests and priestesses at Shintō shrines is unlike anything you will see elsewhere in Japan. Here we describe the styles of traditional vestments that are part of the Shintō experience.

“Shamusho”: The Shrine OfficeToya Manabu

When not engaging in religious rites, priests and shrine personnel may rest in the shamusho, or shrine office. Here visitors can also obtain talismans to protect their homes and selves with the blessing of the shrine’s kami.

“Shintai, Shinboku”: The Divine Object or TreeToya Manabu

At the heart of the shrine, never viewed by visitors, is the shintai, the “divine body” of the kami. At some shrines this is an object, like a jewel or sword; at others, it is a natural feature like a mountain or shinboku, a divine tree.

“Honden”: The Main Sanctuary StructureToya Manabu

The structure called the honden is the heart of the Shintō facility, where its kami is enshrined. Observing the details of honden architecture can tell the visitor much about the nature of the shrine and its deity.

“Tamagaki”: Fence Around the Sacred SpaceToya Manabu

A fence called the tamagaki encloses the shrine's innermost sanctum, setting it off from the outside world and marking a border between the sacred and the profane. Some shrines feature more than one tamagaki, which in its earliest form was a living hedge surrounded by a brushwood fence.

“Haiden”: The Hall of WorshipToya Manabu

At last we come to the haiden, where visitors pray or pay their respects to the kami, or gods of the shrine. Here worshippers put money into the donation box, ring the bell, and perform the prayer ritual described in this article.

“Komainu”: The Shrine’s Guardian FiguresToya Manabu

Stone statues called komainu depicting shishi, "lion-dogs," stand at either side of the entrance to the shrine or the haiden worship hall. These fierce guardians are meant to protect the shrine from evil.

“Temizuya”: The Cleansing RitualToya Manabu

The temizuya at the entrance to the shrine's innermost grounds is a place to purify the body before entering. Here worshippers wash their hands and mouth with the cool, flowing water in an act of ritual purification.

“Shimenawa”: The Sacred RopeToya Manabu

The rope tied around a shrine space, or across its entrance, to mark its sacred nature is called the shimenawa. Traditionally woven from hemp, but nowadays more frequently rice or wheat straw, this rope and its shide paper streamers is a common part of New Year decorations as well.

“Sandō”: The Worshipper’s PathToya Manabu

The sandō, literally the “worshipper’s path,” is the route leading from the outermost torii entrance to the shrine itself. Worshippers walk along the sandō to make a complete pilgrimage of the entire shrine grounds.

Torii: Gates to the Sacred SpacesToya Manabu

The torii gate at the entrance to a shrine's grounds is a sight known to everyone who has visited Japan. Whether made of wood or concrete, unvarnished or painted bright red, the torii is a sign that the worshipper is leaving the profane world behind.

Your Virtual Guide to the Shintō ShrineToya Manabu

Every component of a Shintō shrine exists for a reason, and understanding the significance and function of each part is key to a more meaningful shrine experience. In this series of illustrated guides, Shintō priest and writer Toya Manabu introduces the elements of the Shintō shrine in the order in which they appear to you, the visitor, from the distinctive torii gate to the shamusho, the shrine office.

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