This article explores Shinto shrines.
Last updated 2009-09-16
This article explores Shinto shrines.
A shrine (jinja) is a sacred place where kami live, and which show the power and nature of the kami. It's conventional in Japan to refer to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples - but Shinto shrines actually are temples, despite not using that name. Every village and town or district in Japan will have its own Shinto shrine, dedicated to the local kami.
The Japanese see shrines as both restful places filled with a sense of the sacred, and as the source of their spiritual vitality - they regard them as their spiritual home, and often attend the same shrine regularly throughout their lives. Shrines need not be buildings - rocks, trees, and mountains can all act as shrines, if they are special to kami.
A large shrine can contain several smaller sub-shrines. Shinto shrines can cover several thousand acres, or a few square feet. They are often located in the landscape in such a way as to emphasise their connection to the natural world, and can include sacred groves of trees, and streams.
Various symbolic structures, such as torii gates and shimenawa ropes, are used to separate the shrine from the rest of the world. Some major shrines have a national rather than a local role, and are visited by millions of people from across Japan at major festivals.
Japanese people don't visit shrines on a particular day each week. People go to the shrine at festival times, and at other times when they feel like doing so. Japanese often visit the local shrine when they want the local kami to do them a favour such as good exam results, a good outcome to a surgical operation for a relative, and so on.
Many Shinto shrines are places of intense calm with beautiful gardens. They possess a deeply spiritual atmosphere, as Jean Herbert has written...
The best explanation I can offer is that the Shinto shrine is a visible and ever-active expression of the factual kinship - in the most literal sense of the word - which exists between individual man and the whole earth, celestial bodies and deities, whatever name they be given.
When entering it, one inevitably becomes more or less conscious of that blood-relation, and the realisation of it throws into the background all feelings of anxiety, antagonism, loneliness, discouragement, as when a child comes to rest on its mother's lap.
A feeling of almost palpable peace and security falls upon the visitor as he proceeds further into the holy enclosure, and to those unready for it, it comes as a shock. Epithets such as kogoshi (god-like) and kami-sabi (divinely serene) seem fully justified.
Jean Herbert, Shinto, At the Fountain-Head of Japan, 1967
Shrines are made of natural materials (cypress wood is very common) and are designed to provide a home for the particular kami to whom they are dedicated. (A shrine is not restricted to a single kami.)
Although shrines are a focus for kami and their devotees, it is very rare for shrines to contain statues of kami. (Shrines do often include statues of animals such as foxes or horses - these are not statues of the kami but of animals that serve the kami in various ways.)
The connection between the shrine and the natural world is emphasised by the way many of the objects within a shrine are made with as little human effort as possible so that their natural origins remain visible. The design of the shrine garden is intended to create a deep sense of the spiritual, and of the harmony between humanity and the natural world.
The entrances to shrines are marked by torii gates, made of wood and painted orange or black. The gates are actually arches with two uprights and two crossbars, and symbolise the boundary between the secular everyday world and the infinite world of the kami. Because there are no actual gates within the torii arch a shrine is always open.
There is often no wall or fence associated with the gates.The most spectacular torii are at Fushimi-Inari shrine where the 2 ½ mile path behind the shrine is lined with more than 10,000 red torii gates.
A shimenawa is a traditional rope made of twisted straw that is often hung between the uprights of a torii. Straws, and paper or cloth streamers hang from the shimenawa. A shimenawa can also be used to mark off sacred or ritual areas within the shrine, or outside.
These entrances may be guarded by paired statues of dogs or lions, called komainu. Their job is to keep away evil spirits.
Japanese believe that it is wrong to go near the kami in a state of impurity, so every shrine includes a temizuya or chōzuya (a place for purification with a water trough and ladles for washing hands and face), near the entrance. The route (sando) that leads to the shrine buildings is a visual and aural journey that prepares visitors for worship. It may also involve a bridge across water, which provides a further step of purification.
The shrine will contain a main hall (honden), a worship hall (haiden) and an offering hall (heiden), which may be separate buildings or separate rooms in the same building. The honden is the kami sanctuary - the place where the kami are thought to live. Only priests are allowed to enter the honden.
The offering hall is used for prayers and donations, although people only go into it for special ceremonies. Routine prayers to the kami are made at the entrance to the hall, where there is a trough in which offerings of money can be thrown, and a bell to attract the attention of the kami.
The presence of the kami is marked by a symbolic object called a shintai.
A shintai can be a man-made object - often a mirror - but can also be a natural object such as a stone. The object itself has sometimes been concealed in wrappings for centuries (wrapping and packaging have long played a major part in both sacred and secular Japanese culture), and so no one knows what it actually is. Natural objects on a larger scale, such as rocks, trees, mountains, waterfalls can also be shintai.
A stick with hanging streamers placed vertically in front of the doors of the honden. It symbolises the presence of the kami (and so is carried when the kami is in procession), but can also be the shintai or even be an offering to the kami.
Most shrines are managed by committees made up of priests (kannushi), parishioners and parishioner representatives.