Teaching Comparative Religion Through Art and Architecture
Sacred Spaces in Shinto: The Shrine Complex


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Torii at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko

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Shinto torii before small shrine with sign asking 
for donations on precincts of Buddhist temple (Ryoan-ji). 

Shinto shrine compounds are entered by passing beneath a torii. A torii is a wooden gate without a door, often painted red. Its origin is assumed to be the simple gate of the early shrine fences. When the fences were later removed, the torii remained as a ceremonial entrance. The torii has become a symbol representing Shinto practices and a popular icon for Japan.

The torii has become a popular icon for Japan.
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Torii at Meiji shrine  (photo credit)

After passing beneath the torii one enters the ritual landscape. Conceived as a religious space invoking harmony between man and the natural universe, each shrine's landscape is unique and reflects the kami enshrined there. However, certain common characteristics can be identified as follows.

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Pathway (Sando)

The sando is a pathway leading from outside the shrine compound to the front of a structure for worshippers. The sando functions as more than a path for circulation; it is also a religious composition, preparing the minds of people for sacred worship. A sando is usually lined with an avenue of trees or otherwise marked in order to be distinguished from regular pathways. Frequently the sando crosses a pond or stream with a sacred bridge called a shinkyo. This crossing symbolizes the purification of mind. In some cases, the shrine pathway is marked with stone stairways and lined with stone lanterns. 

Purification using water at 
Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto  (photo credit)

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Purification using water at Shinto shrine in city of Tomakomai
(Click on image for larger view.)


Purification rituals using salt, water, and fire are part of Shinto and Buddhist practices. Every Shinto shrine provides water for washing the hands and rinsing the mouth before approaching the shrine. 

There are two Japanese myths associated with purification rituals. The first is the myth of the god Izanagi no Mikoto, who follows his consort Izanami no Mikoto to the Netherworld. After he sees her in a state of decomposition, he returns to the world and purifies himself in a stream. Cleansing his left eye gives birth to the solar divinity Amaterasu Omikami. Cleansing his right eye gives birth to the lunar divinity Tsukuyomi no Mikoto, and cleansing his nose gives birth to the storm divinity Susanoo No Mikoto

Two of these children are associated with purification in a second myth. After rampaging through the palace of his sister Amaterasu,  the divinity Susanoo is forced to make recompense by offering up goods and having his beard cut and nails pulled off. 

Izumo Shrine Sanctuary
The Sanctuary (Honden)

The Kami Sanctuary (honden) is the most exclusive part of the Shrine Complex: the space which houses the shrine's kami. Somtimes the Kami Sanctuary is closed to the public and only priests are allowed to enter in order to complete the ceremonies and purification required. In the heart of the honden is a symbolic object which contains the kami's numinous spirit (called the go-shintai). 



Prayer Offering Hall at Izumo    (photo credit)
The sacred ropes hanging over the front entry are twisted together from rice straw. Called shimenawa, they are used to mark a sacred precinct. They are traditionally believed to ward off evil and sickness. At New Year's people hang them over doorways or the front bumper of cars.


As Shinto developed, other special buildings were added to the shrine complex to accommodate the different rituals. These included:

  • sanctuary (shinden)
  • prayer hall (noritoya)
  • offering hall (heiden)
  • worship hall (haiden)
  • culinary hall (shinsenjo)
  • abstinance hostel (sanrojo)
  • shrine office (shamusho)
  • washing place (shozuya)
  • exorcism place (haraijo)
  • entrance gate (romon)
  • votive picture repository (emaden)
  • Kagura dance platform (kaguraden)
  • treasure repository (homotsuden)
  • shrine fence (mizugaki)
click on image for larger view
Ise Treasure Repository (homotsuden)
Worship Hall  (Haiden)

In the case of the active deities, prayers and food are offered before the kami's sanctuary (honden) in the inner temple. However, for the kami of natural phenomena, prayers are offered at the gate or at the outer temple. In ancient times they were offered on the open ground. Later, the Japanese introduced worship halls (haiden) facing the sanctuary to serve this function.

In the case of some special shrines, such as the Great Shrine of Ise, prayers are offered by both priests and laymen sitting on the ground outdoors where a temporary structure is built for offering prayers.

Food Offerings
The most important Shinto ritual for assuring the kami's permanent dwelling in the shrine, is the offering of spiritual flesh. Food offerings are made in different ways at different shrines. The ritual may include placing food on a table, hanging, scattering on the ground, burying it in the earth or releasing it into the water. In case of some active deities, the sanctuary containing the representative object is the focus for this sacred practice and the sanctuary doors may be kept open during the offering. At shrines for the kami of natural phenomenon, the doors of the sanctuary may not be opened. Therefore, special offering halls (heiden) were built for offering food. 

Communion Meals
Partaking of the same meal as the deities is a necessary step in the union between the kami and humans, as it signifies that they are all supported by a universal source of power. This communion repast is called "ainame." Most scholars connect this ritual with the ancient tradition of feeding the dead. In the earliest Shinto complexes there was no structure for this particular function. Food was offered to the kami at the altar or places outside the shrine hall and was eaten by the worshippers in front of the altar. Later, a structure called "naoraeden" was built for the practice of communion meal. The building faced the main hall in the center of the complex. Sometimes Japanese call this structure chokushiden or "the imperial messenger hall."

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Music Platform 

Music Hall (photo credit)

Music Spaces
Music halls and platforms for dancing were introduced during the medieval period. They are elevated platforms for musical performance, placed at both sides of a shrine, temporarily built for each ceremony.  Singing and dancing are thought to increase the harmony between the kami and human beings. In the early period of Shinto practice, all worshippers were required to engage in the sacred singing and dancing; but today, only experts perform these practices in shrine. 

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(Click image for large view.)
Priests entering a Meiji shrine in Tokyo.

Festivals/ Popular Observances
Religious festivals at Shinto shrines reflect early Japanese observances of agricultural seasons with spring and fall festivals associated with planting and harvesting rice as well as periodic purification ceremonies to wash away spritual pollutions. In addition to seasonal observances, Shinto festivals also mark the events of an individual's life. 

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Click photo for large view
A family visiting a Shinto shrine for the one-month celebration of their child. 

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Click photo for large view
Wooden plaque at the Tomakomai Shinto shrine.Worshipers may purchase a prayer board or amulet for protection or assistance.  These boards are most popular with students requesting help in 
school or with exams.


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(Click on photo for  larger image.)

Can you identify Shinto elements in this photo from a Shinto shrine in Fukuoka City?

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