In Japan, the term “shrine” refers to a religious building associated with the religion of Shinto. Represented in many aspects of daily life, especially in customs and traditions, Shinto belief is an important part of daily life in Japan.
Japanese Shinto Deities
Japanese Shinto deities, called kami, are responsible for a variety of different powers and are believed to exist in all kinds of natural phenomena and even man-made things, such as the wind, mountains, or even in someone’s kitchen. Since there are quite literally countless kami in Shinto, they are referred to as “Yaoyorozu no Kami,” an expression that literally translates to “eight million deities” but the “eight” is synonymous with “countless.” In the past, Japanese people regarded occurrences such as abnormal weather as the wrath of a kami and felt the existence of kami in every part of nature, far beyond human knowledge.
At shrines, believers pray to goshintai, objects believed to contain the spirit of a deity. Goshintai are typically gigantic natural stones or trees, as well as mirrors or swords, but it varies according each individual shrine. Generally, the goshintai is stored deep within the shrine and regular worshipers aren’t able to see it.
The torii is a gate the separates the human world from the world of kami. The furthest torii from the main shrine, where the kami resides, is called ichi no torii (the first torii), followed by the ni no torii (the second torii). Since you are said to be entering the realm of kami, bow once every time you walk through a torii to show respect to the deity.
The Chozuya: Purifying Your Body
At the chozuya, the basin for cleaning yourself before entering a shrine, you cleanse your hands and mouth lightly in order to clean the dirt from your body before going to the main shrine where the kami resides.
Sessha and Massha
The auxiliary shrine called the sessha enshrines a Shinto deity that is deeply connected with the kami of the main shrine. At the massha, the subordinate shrine, the kami of the local area is being worshiped. When visiting a shrine, it is custom to greet both kami.
Komainu, the Shrine Guardians
In front of the worship hall or main shrine, a pair of komainu, or lion-dogs, are placed on either side of the building, acting as the shrine’s guardians. As such, they specifically protect the shrine’s entrance and keep anything evil from entering the precincts. Certain shrines are guarded by animals other than the komainu, such as foxes or cattle.
Annual Events at Shrines
Throughout the year, Shinto shrines host a large variety of different events. Some prominent ones include Shichigosan, a festival to pray for the healthy growth of children aged seven, five, and three; as well as hatsumode, the traditional prayer for good fortune and happiness between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. On the 3rd of February, another event called setsubun takes place in which soybeans are thrown to symbolically drive out evil and bring happiness and health to one’s home. Hinamatsuri, the Girls’ or Doll Festival, as well as Children’s Day follow after, both celebrating children. The summer festival Shichigosan, celebrates children of the age of three, five, and seven. All of these festivals have Shinto roots.
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