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I always look forward to connecting with Japanese traditions and one of the best ways to do this is by visiting shrines in Japan.
Shinto shrines in Japan are respected places of worship, rich with spirituality and superstition. Here you can witness age-old rituals and discover beliefs that are the foundation of many Japanese customs.
For that reason, I included several shrines on my 2 week Japan itinerary. Even though I visited many Shinto shrines on that first trip to Japan, I still make a point to see more each time I return to the country.
There are so many beautiful shrines in Japan that it feels kind of silly to try and make a list of the best Japanese shrines. Still, I wanted to share some of my favourite shrines to visit in Japan, along with some tips and etiquette for visiting shrines in Japan, so you can get some ideas for your own trip.
Before I share what I consider to be the best shrines in Japan to visit, here’s a brief look at the history and beliefs of Shinto, along with the main components of Shinto shrines in Japan.
Shinto in Japan- History and Beliefs
Shinto originated in Japan and is the county’s oldest religion.
Shinto’s core belief system is that deities, called kami, inhabit all things in nature whether they be living, dead, or inanimate. These spirits take the form of mountains, trees, rocks, waterfalls, wind, rain, fertility, and anything else that is natural or important to life. In Shinto, it’s believed that humans become kami after they die.
Practitioners of Shinto worship kami at shrines. It’s believed that the spirits can be both generous or destructive to human beings, so offerings are given to secure their blessings. Shinto rituals, like purification and prayer, are a way to ward off evil spirits.
Unlike other religions, Shinto does not have a founder, scriptures, and absolutes. There is no preaching or strict rules and expectations, but rather a focus on traditional rituals to maintain spiritual health and good fortune.
Shinto was Japan’s state religion from the 1870s-1940s. During that time steps were taken to make it independent from Buddhism, as the two religions had become intertwined. After WWII, Shinto was separated from the state.
Today, Shinto is practiced almost exclusively in Japan and endures as the country’s major religion, alongside Buddhism. Shinto-based values remain at the heart of Japanese culture, society, and way of life.
Features of Shinto Shrines in Japan
Shrines are considered to be the residences of kami (Shinto gods) and are used as places of worship. The names of Shinto shrines in Japan can end in –jinja, -jingu (for Imperial shrines), or taisha.
There are several different categories of shrines in Japan but some of the major groups are:
- Imperial shrines- funded and overseen by the government
- Sengen shrines- dedicated to the Shinto deity of Mt. Fuji
- Hachiman shrines- dedicated to the kami of war
- Inari shrines- dedicated to the kami of rice
- Kumano shrines- dedicated to the three Kumano mountains
- Tenjin shrines- dedicated to the kami of Sugawara Michizane, a politician and scholar
- Shrines dedicated to powerful clans’ founders.
The easiest way to identify a Shinto shrine is by the torii gate marking the entrance to the sacred precincts. These gateways are generally made of wood and painted orange and black, but they are sometimes crafted from stone.
The architecture of a shrine typically includes a main sanctuary (honden), where the shrine’s sacred object is kept, and a worship hall (haiden), where people make prayers and offerings. Some shrines may have treasury buildings and stages for dance or theatre performances.
Other items you will see at Shinto shrines in Japan are shimenawa ropes marking the boundary to something sacred, komainu guardian statues (dogs, lions or foxes), ema (wooden plaques) for writing down wishes, omikuji (slips of paper telling fortunes) tied around posts or railings, and stacked sake barrels.
Best Shrines in Japan to Visit
I’ve been lucky to see many of Japan’s top shrines, as well as some lesser-known ones, during my three trips to Japan.
Even though I’ve visited many beautiful shrines in Japan, there’s an incredible amount left to discover on future trips. Since there’s estimated to be around 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, I’ll never come close to visiting them all!
After reminiscing about my travels, I’ve picked out what I think are some of the best shrines to visit in Japan. These aren’t all the shrines I’ve seen in Japan, just the ones that I found particularly interesting and or/beautiful.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, famous for its tunnel of torii gates that shade the 4 km path up Mount Inari.
As the head of thousands of shrines in Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake, Fushimi Inari is the most influential and revered of all the Inari shrines.
Most people that include Fushimi Inari on their Kyoto itinerary are coming to walk along the avenue of torii gates, but there are also several stone statues of foxes that are prominently on display. Traditionally, foxes are seen as sacred animals in Japan because they are considered to be messengers of Inari.
Even though this shrine can get crowded with tourists, the thousands of torii and cultural importance of Fushimi Inari make it a must-see shrine in Japan.
Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
Meiji Jingu, the Imperial shrine, is the grandest Shinto shrine in Tokyo, and one of the top shrines in Japan.
Upon its completion in 1920, the shrine was dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern Japan, and his wife, Empress Shoken.
Surrounded by a thick forest of 100,000 towering trees, Meiji Shrine is a peaceful pocket in a busy city, making it the perfect place to experience both the optimism of Shinto and restorative powers of nature.
At Meiji Shrine, you can make offerings at the main hall, write a wish on an ema, visit the Inner Garden, and admire a long wall of sake barrels. You might even see a traditional Shinto wedding taking place.
Meiji Jingu is especially popular at the start of the New Year, welcoming more visitors than any other Japanese shrine (over 3 million people come here for the year’s first prayers).
The tranquil, forested location, spacious grounds, and natural, unadorned appearance of Meiji Jingu makes it one of the best shrines in Japan to visit. It should definitely be included on any Tokyo itinerary.
Toshogu Shrine, Nikko
Most shrines in Japan are modest and simple in design, but Toshogu Shrine in Nikko is the exact opposite, and that’s what makes it so fantastic.
Glittering and shining under layers of gold leaf and bright colours of paint, Toshogu’s buildings are an ostentatious display not usually seen when visiting shrines in Japan. There are elaborate wood carvings, gilded roof tiles, and dragon paintings decorating the shrine’s halls, storehouses, drum towers, and gates.
In addition to the lavish adornments, another unique thing about Toshogu Shrine is that it has elements of both Shinto and Buddhism that are so intermingled they weren’t able to be separated during the Meiji Restoration, when the two religions were deliberately divided.
The richly ornamented architecture and artistic craftsmanship make Toshogu one of the most unique shrines to visit in Japan and the highlight of a day trip to Nikko.
Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima
Itsukushima is the main shrine on Miyajima Island and a top tourist attraction because of its large torii gate standing in the Seto Inland Sea. In fact, the entire shrine appears to be floating on water when the tide is in.
Itsukushima Shrine dates back to the late 6th century and went on to become an important place of worship, attracting visits from members of the Imperial Court. In more recent times, the shrine was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Itsukushima Shrine is a fine example of Shinden-zukuri, a Japanese architectural style where structures are connected by covered corridors. The shrine also includes an old Noh drama stage.
Itsukushima’s exceptional architecture and eye-catching location are why it’s one of my favourite shrines to visit in Japan.
Nezu Shrine, Tokyo
Nezu Shrine is a bit of a hidden gem in Tokyo. It combines some of the best features of Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto and Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, but without the big tourist crowds.
Like Fushimi Inari, there’s a tunnel of torii gates, though much smaller in size and number. The torii-lined path leads from a scenic secondary shrine overlooking a koi pond to the main shrine precinct.
The shrine’s main buildings are brightly decorated with red paint and golden accents, similar to Toshogu Shrine but less extravagant. There’s even some shining gold dragons. You can also see some Buddhist influences on the shrine’s main hall.
Nezu is one of the most beautiful shrines in Japan during the springtime, when its hillside of azaleas bloom into vibrant colours.
Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine, Mt. Fuji
Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine is not as grand as some other shrines in Japan, but it’s an interesting place to visit because of its historic and cultural significance.
Concealed in an ancient forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, this shrine was historically used as the starting point for climbing the sacred volcano. It still attracts pilgrims coming to worship Mt. Fuji and hosts a ceremony to kick-off the Mt. Fuji climbing season.
Some of the shrine’s highlights include one of the tallest wooden gates in Japan, three sacred trees, and its lantern-lined approach.
Arakura Sengen Shrine, Fujiyoshida City
Another shrine worth visiting in the Fuji Five Lakes area is Arakura Sengen Shrine.
This small shrine offers a quintessential, postcard-perfect view of Japan- a five story red pagoda backed by Mt. Fuji. In April, the pagoda is surrounded by blossoming cherry trees and in November a sea of red leaves.
The Chureito Pagoda was added to the shrine in 1963 as a memorial of peace. Since it’s located on the side of Mt. Arakura, almost 400 steps above the main shrine buildings, there’s a panoramic view of Fujiyoshida city and Mt. Fuji in the distance.
If you want to capture a classic photograph of Japan, then this is the Japanese shrine to visit!
Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, Nachisan
Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine is the head shrine of about 4,000 Kumano shrines in Japan. It’s part of a historic area of worship on Nachisan, a scenic mountain on the Kii Peninsula.
As one of the three ancient shrines that form the Kumano Sanzan, Nachi Taisha is a primary point of worship along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. Here, and from its auxiliary shrine Hiro-jinja, pilgrims can pay homage to Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan.
Kumano Nachi Taisha’s prominent status, long history, and picturesque location make it one of the best shrines in Japan to visit.
Final Thoughts About My Must-See Shrines in Japan
Every shrine that I chose for my list of must-see shrines in Japan has something that makes them stand out from the rest. Whether it’s a stunning location, outstanding architecture, historic significance, or cultural contribution, each of these shrines in Japan is worth visiting.
I always enjoy visiting shrines in Japan and hope that I’ll travel there again so I can add more beautiful Japanese shrines to this list. Another top shrine in Japan I hope to visit one day is the Inner Shrine (Kotai Jingu) at Ise, since it’s the most sacred and respected of all Shinto shrines in Japan.
Customs and Etiquette for Visiting Shrines in Japan
The customs for visiting shrines are similar to those that apply to temples in Japan. Here are some points for proper shrine etiquette in Japan:
- At the shrine’s entrance, use the purification fountain to cleanse your hands and mouth. First use the ladle to rinse both hands, then to put some water into your cupped hands so you can rinse your mouth (spit it out next to the fountain). Do not drink from the ladle, swallow the water, spit into the basin, or return any water in the ladle back to the basin.
- At the hall of worship (haiden), it’s customary to ring the bell or gong (if there is one) to summon the resident kami, toss some coins into the offertory box, bow twice, clap two times, then bow for a few moments of silent prayer.
- Show respect by not being noisy and obeying all signs.
Tips for Visiting Shrines in Japan
- Admission to shrines in Japan is usually free, but some of the more famous ones charge an entrance fee.
- Photography is usually allowed, except inside buildings.
Accommodations in Japan
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