What Exactly Are Japanese Shrines?

If you have been to Japan, you must be familiar with the Japanese shrines. Be it a guided tour or a self-planned trip using web and print resources, the region’s famous shrine is always a recommended attraction.

The shrines or Shinto shrines to be more exact, are places of worship for the Shinto faith. Shinto is a major Japanese religion, and in English, means “the way of the gods”. There is no holy or religious texts or figurehead, but is instead extensively infused in the Japanese way of life. “Kami” are Shinto gods, and are usually characterised as divine spirits that are a representation of the concept of life.

A Shinto shrine, or “place of the gods”, is where the kami reside. Cherished items that represent the kami are safely secured in the innermost dwellings of the shrine.

Locals typically head to a Shinto shrine to pay their respects to the kami, seek good fortune, during festivals or when a there is a key point in their lives, like marriage.

A Torii Gate

In pictures and photos, a common symbol of a Shinto shrine is the large reddish frame-like structures, so much so that the construction is commonly mistaken as the shrine itself. Those structures are in fact torii gates, and are usually placed at the entrance of the dwelling. Walking through a torii gate signals a transition to the outside world to a sacred establishment.

Many more buildings and objects can be found in a Shinto shrine site. The main hall is the principal premise of worship or offering. A purification through, essentially a small water fountain with clean, pure water can be found near the entrance. An Ema is where visitors leave their wishes, written on wooden plaques.

Wooden Plaques

But one cannot be faulted for using the impressive, red torii gates as the backdrop for their customary tourist photo. Because in several Shinto shrines around Japan, the torii gate can be a basis of a brilliant, share-worthy shot.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha

The Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is widely regarded as the “best” shrine in all of Japan. Rows and rows of tori gates lie behind one another, creating a stunning visual landscape.

Torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine

The Itsukushima Shrine is a gorgeous shrine in Miyajima, near Hiroshima, famous for being constructed just above a water surface. The torii gate there attracts all the attention, as during high tide, the water level rises, minimally submerging the gate, but creating a jaw-dropping illusion of a floating torii gate.

Torii Gate at Orai Isosaki Shrine. (Photos above and below courtesy of t. kunikuni)

The Oarai Isosaki Shrine is located along the Oarai coastline. The premises contain three torii gates, but the most famous one has to be the “Gate of the Seas”. Towering over a rocky outgrowth and set dramatically facing the seas, wow, just, wow.  

Torii gate near Lake Ashinoko (Photo courtesy of ume-y)

At the foot of Mount Hakone lies the Hakone Shrine, situated in the vicinity of the Lake Ashinoko, a volcanic crater lake. The torii gate is built at the edge of the lake, with lush vegetation growing behind it. On a clear day, Mt Fuji appears in the landscape.

So next time you fly off to Japan, don’t mistake a torii gate for a Shinto shrine. Head to a Shinto shrine for a short spiritual forage. After being blessed and enlightened, find the area’s most impressive looking torii gate and pose at the camera.

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