Architecture and Sacred Spaces in Shinto

Architecture and Sacred Spaces in Shinto

Background image: Roof at Izumo shrine in Japan
Image credit:
Jun Seita via Photopin

Learning about Shinto through Architecture

Shinto - "the way of the kami" - is deeply rooted in pre-historic Japanese religious and agricultural practices. The term kami can refer to Japanese mythological deities, but also can mean divinity manifested in natural objects, places, animals, and even human beings. Shinto rituals and celebrations stress harmony between deities, man, and nature -- a key feature of Japanese religious life and art to the present time. This page uses the architecture of Shinto shrines as a window into Shinto practices and worldview. Materials presented here were developed by teachers in a year-long ORIAS program, Teaching Comparative Religion Through Art and Architecture.

This page is divided into seven illustrated sections:

Harmony with Nature: Shinto Sites

First Structures: Early Shrine Architecture

The Geography of Sacred Space: Shrine Complexes

Influence of Buddhism: Syncretism in Architecture

Organization of Sacred Space: The Ritual Landscape

Ise Shrine: The Holiest Shrine

Izumo Shrine: The Oldest Shrine

Harmony with Nature

View of shimenawa at top of Nachi Falls, Japan

Nachi Falls is a sacred space for Shinto. The falls were originally devoted to kami verneration. Today they are also associated with the Buddhist bodhissatva of mercy, Kannon. The rope over the top of the falls is a shimenawa, marking the site as sacred.

Image of Nachi Falls, Japan, with temple

Seiganto-ji pagoda is a Buddhist temple. Nachi Falls is visible in the background.

Shrine Sites

Reflecting the understanding that kami reside in nature, Shinto shrines were traditionally near unusual "concentrations" of nature such as waterfalls, caves, rock formations, mountain tops, or forest glens. Rather than buildings, shrines of the earliest age were sacred precincts such as mounds, groves, or caves. Rituals were held outdoors, among natural surroundings, with no particular structure for them. For example, the foremost ritual of Shinto priests, the purification (harai) was done with natural water sources such as waterfalls, hot springs and rivers.

The kami can be divided into two main categories: kami of natural phenomena (the object kami) and kami of mythical or historical people (the active kami).  Shrines were erected to house both kinds of kami and accommodate rituals and celebrations intended to maintain harmonious unity between the deities and man. The location of a shrine represented the legendary settlement of that shrine's kami. The resident kami might be represented by symbols or sanctified objects. 

Under the influence of Buddhism, kami can also, though more rarely, be represented by statues.

Stand with cloth strips at Tomakamai Shrine, Japan

A paper or cloth strip affixed to a stand, as here at Tomakamai Shrine, is one example of an ritual object that can embody or summon the spirit of the kami 

First Structures

Imperial shrine at Ise, Japan

The Imperial Ise Shrine is an example of the earliest Shinto design.

Nachi shrine complex

The Nachi Shrine is a Shinto/Buddhist multiplex. Indigenous practices of Shinto gradually incorporated imported practices of Chinese Buddhism. The syncretic history of Japanese religion can be seen in the evolving architecture of sacred spaces.

Early Shrine Architecture

The earliest constructed Shinto shrines suggest the form of single dwelling houses in ancient times and were in fact intended to house ancestral spirits who would be given food offerings. This pre-historic Japanese ancestor worship was incorporated into the Shinto practice of enshrining deities named in the Kojiki and historical heroes as kami.

Like the earliest Japanese dwellings, the shrines were made entirely of wood. For walls, no clay or mud was used, nor was plaster or mortar. Poles set in the ground supported a thatched roof and walls. Thatching consisted of either the barks of the Japanese "hinoki" or miscanthus or thin wooden plates, and the ridges of roofs are made of wood in the shape of a box. The roofs, which shed Japan's heavy rainfall, are built up in a delicate curve from strips of Hinoki bark and then trimmed. The forked timbers on the roof are called chigi. The short logs lying horizontally across the ridge of the roof are called katsuogi.

The Ainu, a hunting and fishing people who once populated the main island of Japan and were gradually driven north by the Japanese, also built with thatch roof and walls. An example seen here is from the Ainu museum in Hokkaido. One controversial fact that might also suggest some relation between their religions is the Ainu name for "divinity," kamui, which sounds similar to the Japanese word, kami.

Ainu building from Ainu Museum in Hokkaido, Japan

Thatched Ainu building at Ainu Museum in Hokkaido.

The Geography of Sacred Space

Plan of Shinto Shrine

(1) entrance gate featuring a torii or a Chinese-influenced two-storey romon, (2) stone stairs, (3) pathway (sandō), (4) washing place (chōzuya), (5) lantern (tōrō), (6) Kagura dance platform (kagura-den) building dedicated to Noh or the sacred Kagura dance, (7) shrine office (shamusho), (8) votive picture repository (ema-den) where worshippers leave small wooden plaques (ema), (9) auxiliary shrines or under-shrines connected to larger shrines (sessha/massha), (10) stone lions (komainu) - of Chinese origin, (11) worship hall (haiden), (12) fence surrounding the shrine (tamagaki), (13) the sanctuary, most sacred building (honden or shinden).

Shrine Complexes

As Shinto became more established in Japanese society, people needed more convenient access to worshipping the kami, and shrine complexes were built within villages and cities. More convenient methods of conducting rituals were adopted and led to the introduction of the shrine complex with ceremonial buildings in addition to the hall enshrining the kami.

By medieval times Shinto architecture developed a shrine complex surrounded by a fence entered through a sacred arch or torii. The complex included a main hall for worshipers (haiden), a smaller kami hall (honden) and a ritual landscape. Worshippers in the haiden directed their prayers to the honden, which housed a specific kami symbolized by a sacred object from Japanese mythology, such as a mirror or sword.

Bird's-eye plan of Izumo Shrine Complex

Drawing of Izumo shrine complex. The residence of the kami is centrally located in the honden. Pilgrims do not worship within the kami sanctuary. The haiden, or worship hall, for this purpose is considered to be a later addition to the shrine.

Influence of Buddhism

Heian Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

The grand scale of the Heian Shrine in Kyoto shows the influence of Buddhist architecture and the support of noble patronage.

8-post torii at Asakusa Temple

This torii at Asakusa Buddhist temple is an example of an eight-post gate.

Tarumaesan Shinto shrine, Hokkaido, Japan

The curved roof and ornamental detail of Tarumaesan Shinto shrine shows the Chinese architectural influence imported with Buddhism.

Syncretism in Architecture

After the introduction of Buddhism from China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century (552 A.D.) Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples began to be integrated into the same architectural complex. Today you can find Shinto elements in many Japanese Buddhist shrines; Chinese styles, imported with the new religion, likewise influenced the development of Shinto shrines.

The Shinto shrine structure became more elaborate under the influence of the grander Chinese style of Buddhist temples. The rise of a powerful aristocracy in the Fujiwara clan also contributed to the changes. Shrines reflected family honor and noble families commissioned the designs and supported the building of many new magnificent shrines in Kyoto and Nara, cities where one may still find the most beautiful and elaborate shrines in Japan. Curving roofs and accessory structures were introduced, corridors were substituted for fences surrounding shrines, and simple torii were replaced by four- or eight-post gates. Many shrines were painted red - a distinctly Chinese influence. Metal and wood ornaments were added, often with the same decorative motifs found in Buddhist temples. Wood remains the most common building material for the shrines, but considerations of cost and fire prevention have resulted in the introduction of cement in some modern shrines. 

Modern shrine in Fukuoka City using cement in place of wood

This modern shrine in Fukuoka City uses cement rather than wood in traditional designs.

Organization of Sacred Space

Ishidorii (Stone Gate) at Toshogu Shrine complex

The Ishidorii (Stone Gate) at the entrance to the Toshogu Shrine was dedicated in 1618.

Torii in Lake Biwa at Shirahige Shrine

Shirahige Shinto shrine, located on the edge of Lake Biwa, features a torii in the adjacent lake.

Meiji Shrine torii and sando

Torii and sando at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Torii-lined pathway at Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto shrine

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto shrine features a pathway lined with thousands of torii. The pathway connects the main shrine to the inner shrine.

The Ritual Landscape

Ceremonial Spaces

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

These included:

sanctuary (honden or shinden)

prayer hall (noritoya)

offering hall (heiden)

worship hall (haiden)

culinary hall (shinsenjo)

abstinence hostel (sanrojo)

shrine office (shamusho)

washing place (chozuya)

exorcism place (haraijo)

two-story entrance gate (romon)

votive picture repository (emaden)

Kagura dance platform (kaguraden)

treasure repository (homotsuden)

inner-most shrine fence (mizugaki)


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. As noted above, due to the influece of Buddhism and Chinese architectural practices, some Shinto shrines are entered via a two-story, four- or eight-post entrance gate called a romon.


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.

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. 

Shinto torii at Ryoan-ji Buddhist Temple

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

Chozuya at Meiji Shrine

Purification at chozuya before entering Meiji Shrine

Chozuya at Yahiko Shrine

Chozuya (washing place) at the Yahiko Shinto Shrine

Place for Purification (Choyuza)

Purification rituals using salt, water, and fire are part of both Shinto and Buddhist practices. Every Shinto shrine has a chozuya, a place with 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.

Purification at Kiyozumi Temple in Kyoto

Purification using water at the chozuya at Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto.

Izumo Shrine sanctuary

The honden at Izumo Shrine is the tall building on the left. The other buildings are smaller shrines. All of them are surrounded by fences, making them inaccessible to visitors.

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).

Haiden at Izumo Shrine

The haiden at Izumo Shrine. 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.

Mochi offering at Meiji Shrine

Offerings of mochi (rice cakes) at the Meiji Shrine. Each pair of cakes is stacked on top of a sanbo, a wooden stand for food offerings.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine showing ema and omikuji

This image of Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine shows both ema (wooden plaques with prayers written on them) and omikuji (strips of paper with fortunes written on them). Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine complex is now dedicated solely to Shinto, but for most of its history the location hosted both Buddhist and Shinto buildings. This changed with the 1868 Kami and Buddhism Separation Order.

Music Hall (left) and Music Platform (right)

Music Hall (left) and Music Platform (right)

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. 

Offering Hall (Heiden)

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." 

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.

Festivals and 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.

Ise Shrine

Model of Ise Shrine and adjacent lot for rebuilding

Every 20 years the Ise Shrine is rebuilt on the adjacent lot. This model shows the existing shrine alongside the kodenchi, which is the (temporarily) empty site of the previous shrine.

Kodenchi at Ise Shrine, 2018

2013 was a rebuilding year for Ise Shrine. The empty site from the previous shrine, the kodenchi, is marked by a small wooden building. When the shrine is rebuilt again in 2033 this building will mark the center of the rebuilt shrine. 

Entrance to part of Ise Shrine in 2013 and 2018

Two views of the Geku (outer) Shrine at Ise. On the left is a view from 2013, just before rebuilding. On the right is a view from 2018, five years after the new construction. For additional images of the shrine comples, see the official Ise Jingu website.

The Holiest Shrine

According to Japanese popular belief, the Ise Shrine complex is the holiest of Japan. It is located in Ise City in the Mie Prefecture on the South East coast. The shrine is composed of two similar complexes. The earliest complex, said to date from the third century, is called the Naiku, or Inner Shrine. It is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami. The second complex, the Geku, or Outer Shrine, is about six kilometers (3.7 miles) away. It is thought to have been built in the fifth century for Toyouke no Okami, the Grain Goddess. Building material from roof to floors for both structures and finishing comes entirely from Japanese white cypress, Hinoki. The main building of the Inner Shrine is designed in a special form of architectural style, called shinmei-zukuri. This style is prohibited for other shrines. It's simple rectangular design is said to derive from the granaries and treasure storehouses of prehistoric Japan.

The sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami is the mythical ancestor of the Imperial family. She is represented by the sacred mirror, one of the three objects (Imperial Regalia) symbolic of the divine authority of the imperial family. Legend holds that the inner shrine dates from when Princess Yamatohime, daughter of Emperor Suinin, was searching for a final resting place for the sacred mirror. When she reached Ise, she heard the voice of Amaterasu Omikami, saying, "This is a good place, and I would like to stay here."

Every twenty years the buildings at Ise are torn down and new ones are built on an immediately adjacent site. In this way the site is purified and building materials renewed while preserving the original design from the third and fourth centuries. The new shrines, however identical with the old ones, are not considered a replica of Ise, but are "Ise re-created." That is, the recreation process reveals Shinto's understanding of nature which does not make monuments, but "lives and dies, always renewed and reborn." (William, Alex. Japanese Architecture. New York: G. Braziller, 1968.)

Grand Shrine of Ise: Shinto Takes Shape

This slideshow about the Ise Shrine was created in the 1970s by Henry Smith at Columbia University. It walks you through all the architectural elements mentioned elsewhere on this page.

Izumo Shrine

Nishi-jukusha at Izumo Shrine

The nishi-jukusha at Izumo Shrine is a building to house the gods during the Kamiari Matsuri festival in October.

Izumo Shrine sanctuary showing rooflines and hallway

This view of the Izumo Shrine shows the high-floor dwelling style of the honden. Just to the left of the taller building, you can see the slanted roofline of a long narrow hall leading up into the building.

Roof at Izumo shrine in Japan

Note the curved roof line and ornaments of the Izumo Shrine.

The Oldest Shrine

The Izumo Shrine, located in the town of Taisha on the northwest coast facing Korea, is believed to be the oldest shrine in Japan. The Kojiki in the 8th century describes the mythic origins of the shrine in the story of its chief kami, Okuninushi no Mikoto (also Onamochi). In this myth, Okuninushi no Mikoto is developing the world of mortal man when Ninigi no Mikoto (grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami) descends to earth. Okuninushi no Mikoto gives over temporal rule of the land to Ninigi no Mikoto in exchange for control over divine affairs. The sun goddess was so pleased by this gift to her grandson that she had a shrine erected for Okuninshi no Mikoto on the Izumo site. He is traditionally regarded as the god of marriage, good fortune, and agriculture.

Some scholars have suggested that this myth might represent a pre-historic territorial agreement between the Yamato (Japanese) invaders and another racial group previously in control of this northern approach to Korea. The design of the present shrine may date back to the first century. It has been periodically rebuilt. The last honden, built in 1744, is the twenty-fifth building since the original.

One of the main festivals held at Izumo Shrine is Kamiari Matsuri (the "gods being present") in October. It is believed that at this time gods throughout Japan come to Izumo to discuss their respective kingdoms. For this reason one ancient name for October in many parts of Japan is Kanazuki,"month without gods." During this festival small box-shaped houses are placed in the shrine precincts to house the visiting gods.

The architectural style, taisha-zukuri, provides a different style from the the flat roof and almost square shape of the Ise Shrine. The Izumo Shrine is composed with two levels of roof curves and a long narrow hall. During the Nara period, when Buddhism was popularized, changes were made to the design of Izumo Shrine. The roof was made curved and the Chinese style gable-end boards and ridge-end ornament were added to the original structure. Legend holds that the high-floor dwelling style of the Izumo Shrine is meant to resemble the shape of the emperor's palace. A central post probably symbolizes "the august central pillar," a pillar with which Izanagi and Izanam-I, the first deities of Japanese, stirred the ocean as they created the islands of Japan.

Image Credits & Bibliography


Header: Jun Seita DP0Q0641 via photopin (license)

View of falls with shimenawa: inefekt69 Nachi Falls - Wakayama, Japan via photopin (license)

View of falls with building: Laruse Junior Seiganto-Ji Pagoda via photopin (license)

Imperial Ise shrine: Bernhard Sheid Ise, Old and New via flickr

Nachi Shrine Complex: David Z. Nachi Taisha via flickr

Ainu Museum building: Saldesalsal Purotokotan Ainu Museum via flickr

Plan of Shinto Shrine: wikiwikiyarou Plan of Shinto Shrine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Drawings of Izumo Shrine Complex: Robert Treat Paine and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981. P. 283.

Eight-post torii at Asakusa Buddhist Temple: Nelo Hotsuma Asakusa via flickr

Heian Shrine in Kyoto: Zhang Wenjie Heian Shrine via flickr

Ishidorii at Toshogu: Images George Rex Ishidorii/Nikko via flickr 

Torii in Lake Biwa at Shirahige Shrine: inefekt69 Takashima, Japan via photopin (license)

Torii pathway at Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto Shrine: Dariusz Jemielniak ("Pundit") [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Meiji Shrine torii and sando: Yasuyuki Hirata The Grand Shrine Gate of Meiji Jingu via flickr

Purification at Meiji Shrine: FujiChallenger Meiji Jingu Chozuya via flickr

Purification at Kiyomizu: Donna Kasprowicz

Chozuya at Yahiko Shrine: jpellgen (@1179_jp) Yohiko Shrine: Chozuya via flickr

Honden at Izumo Shrine: u-dou jap2016 nov 08 izumo (57) via photopin (license)

Haiden at Izumo Shrine: Miya.m - Miya.m's photo, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Mochi offering at Maiji Shrine: Gautsch Mochi, detail via flickr

Ema and Omikuji at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu: Gilles Vogt Temple shinto à Kamakura via flickr

Music Hall and Music Platform: ORIAS archives

Wooden model of Ise Shrine: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Sanctuaire shintoïste Ise Jingu (exposition Fukami, Paris) via flickr

Kodenchi at Ise Shrine: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra Le futur site du sanctuaire intérieur d'Ise (Japon) via flickr

2013 View of Geku at Ise: Ye-Zu Ancien et nouveau via flickr

2018 View of Geku at Ise: nobu3withfoxy 外宮 Geku/Ise Jingu via flickr


Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Third Edition. California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1982.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd. 1993.

Nelson, John. 2000.  Enduring Identities: the Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Paine, Robert Treat and Alexander Soper. The Art and Architecture of Japan. Yale University Press, 1981. 

William, Alex. Japanese Architecture. New York: G. Braziller, 1968.

Site Authors

Vimalin Rujivacharakul, graduate student University of California Berkeley, Architecture Department

Donna Kasprowicz, photos taken during Fulbright Memorial Fund trip to Japan, Summer 2000.

Photo contributions to original version of this page from teacher participants in the Oakland-Japan Project, Summer 2000.

Michele Delattre, former ORIAS Web Editor and Program Coordinator

Special thanks to Professor John Nelson, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco.