Insider’s Guide to Shintō Shrines

“Shintai, Shinboku”: The Divine Object or Tree


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.

The shintai—literally, the body of the kami—is an object in which the spirit of the kami resides. It is located in the inner sanctum of the honden, called the naijin. (The outer space of the honden, where priests perform their duties, is called the gejin).

Examples of shintai (three sacred treasures).

The sacred objects in which the kami reside are typically mirrors, magatama (comma-shaped stones), or swords. These items also make up the Three Sacred Treasures of the Japanese Imperial Household. These objects are carefully preserved in the honden and are never displayed to visitors.

In its most elemental form, Shintō is a kind of nature worship. At quite a few shrines, accordingly, the shintai is not an artifact but a natural object or landmark. Such natural shintai are referred to by a number of different terms. For example, a particularly imposing or beautiful mountain may be worshipped as a kannabi. Some of Japan's best known sacred mountains are Mount Fuji (worshipped formally at the Sengen shrines), Hakusan (Shirayama or Hakusan shrines), and Tateyama (Oyama shrines). Striking or majestic rock formations, called iwakura, are worshipped as yorishiro, places or objects that attract divine spirits. Examples are Gotobiki-iwa in Wakayama Prefecture (Kamikura Shrine), Mitsuishi in Iwate Prefecture (Mitsuishi Shrine), and Iwakura in Mie Prefecture (Hana-no-iwaya Shrine).

The term himorobi is used in reference to sacred forests or conspicuously large, old trees venerated as shinboku (sacred trees). Some of the best known shinboku are the Kamou camphor tree in Kagoshima Prefecture (Kamou Hachiman Shrine), the Kinomiya camphor tree in Shizuoka Prefecture (Sugihokowake-no-mikoto or Kinomiya Shrine), and the Ryūjinboku Japanese zelkova in Saitama Prefecture (Chichibu Imamiya Shrine).

Camphor tree at Kagoshima Shrine, Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture

Maki tree at Awa Shrine, Tateyama, Chiba Prefecture

Shinboku at Tsurugi Jinja, Echizen, Fukui Prefecture

Shinboku at Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture

(Banner photo: The shinboku at Shiogama Shrine, Miyagi Prefecture.)
▼Further reading
Your Virtual Guide to the Shintō Shrine (Series Top) Foreign Tourists Flock to the Gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine A Year in the Life of Ise Shrine (Photos)
Japan’s Religious Ambivalence: The Shaping and Dismantling of a National Polity The Japanese World View: Three Keys to Understanding “Kami”: The Evolution of Japan’s Native Gods

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