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A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house one or more Shinto kami (spirit). A shrine's most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects rather than for worship.

Although "shrine" is the only word used in English, Shinto shrines have a variety of many different names used in Japanese. In particular, gongen, -gū, jinja, jingū, mori, myōjin, -sha, taisha, and ubusuna oryashiro are the nonequivalent names for Shinto shrine.

A Shinto shrine is usually characterized by the presence of a honden, the most sacred building at a Shinto shrine, where the kami is enshrined. The honden may however be completely absent. In this case, when a shrine stands on a sacred mountain to which it is dedicated and is worshiped directly. The honden may also be oblivious when there are nearby altar-like structures called himorogi. These are objects believed to be capable of attracting spirits called yorishiro that can serve as a direct bond to a kami.

There may also be a haiden and other structures as well. Occasionally, miniature shrines (hokora) can be found on roadsides. Large shrines sometimes have miniature shrines (sessha or massha) on their precincts. The portable shrines (mikoshi), carried on poles during festivals (matsuri), enshrine kami and are therefore true shrines.

There is an estimate of around 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan.

photo of hand write Shinto shrine in japan photo of Shinto shrine in japan

Ise Shrine has been the most prominent shrine in Japan since 1871. The Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture is, along with Izumo-taisha, the most exemplar and historically significant shrine in Japan.

The two enshrine a kami who plays fundamental roles in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, two texts of great importance to Shinto. Ise Shrine is the Imperial Household's family shrine because of its kami, the goddess Amaterasu, is an ancestor of the Emperor.

However, Ise Shrine is dedicated specifically to the emperor. Even in the past, his mother, wife, and grandmother needed his permission to worship there. Its traditional foundation goes back to 4 BC, but historians believe it was founded around the 3rd to 5th century.

The Shinto shrine Izumo Taisha (Shimane prefecture) is so ancient that no record of the year of establishment is known. The shrine is central in a series of popular sagas and myths.

It enshrines a kami called Ōkuninushi, translating to “Great Land Master”. It is believed that he shaped Japan before it was populated by Amaterasu's offspring, the Emperor's ancestors.

Due to its physical remoteness, Izumo has been eclipsed in fame by other sites. Although, there is still a widespread belief that all Japanese gods meet there in October. For this reason, it is also known as Month Without Gods (Kannazuki), while at Izumo Taisha alone it is referred as Month With Gods (Kamiarizuki).

The head shrine of the largest shrine network in Japan is Fushimi Inari Taisha, which has more than 32,000 members (about a third of the total). Inari Okami worship started in the 8th century and has continued ever since, expanding to the rest of the country. Located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, the shrine sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari. It also includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines.

Together with Munakata Taisha, Itsukushima Shrine is at the head of the Munakata shrine network. Dedicated to the three daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is a Shinto shrine in the city of Nara called Kasuga Taisha in Nara Prefecture, Japan. It was established in 768 A.D. and has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. It is the shrine of the Fujiwara family. The interior is popular for its many bronze lanterns, as well as the many stone lanterns that lead up the shrine. The architectural style Kasuga-zukuri gets its name from Kasuga Taisha's honden.

Yasukuni shrine, in Tokyo, is dedicated to the soldiers and others who died fighting for the Emperor of Japan.

Difference between Temples & Shrines

Temple and shrine are both used interchangeably because many visitors to Japan can’t tell the difference. To point out, using these terms interchangeably is like saying a church and synagogue are equivalent. In Japan, there are two major religions practiced by the Japanese people. A shrine is where Shinto is practiced and Buddhism is practiced at a temple.

Both Shinto and Buddhism date back to thousands of years. Shinto, a spiritual principle, is an ancient religion of Japan based on the belief that powerful deities called kami (gods) inhabit both heaven and earth. According to mythology, various kanami were worshipped by their own individual clans. They often built shrines dedicated to their chosen kami and utilized a shaman or diviner to help them pray.

photo of Difference between Temples and Shrines

In Japanese, Shinto is referred as kami no michi (the way of the gods), but its Chinese ideogram and pronunciation for the words are ”shin tao” or Shinto.

In the sixth century, China and Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan. It gained wide acceptance in the following century when the nobility advocated it. Bukkyō, a combination of two words, is the Japanese word for Buddhism. Butsu translates to Buddha and kyō means doctrine.

In Japan, most people practice both faiths ambiguously as they are nearly parallel to one another. Shinto primarily focuses on earthly matters, and shrines are often used to host weddings or pray for good fortune. Whereas Buddhism is considered the religion of spiritual beliefs and practices. Temples usually host funerals and are a place to pray for ancestors.

You are probably at a Shinto shrine if you cross the threshold of a torii gate, see a pair of guardians (usually dogs or lions) sitting on each side of the entrance, and cleanse your mouth and hands at a purification fountain before prayer. Shinto shrines have the suffix “jingu”, such as Ise Jingu.

The name of Buddhist temples use the suffix ”ji”, such as Todaiji. You may find yourself at a Japanese temple if you see an image of the Buddha, as this is always housed at a Buddhist temple. A large incense burner is usually located at the front of the temple; it is believed that the smoke has healing properties. On top of that, there is often a pagoda at a Buddhist temple.

A visit to Japan is not complete without appreciating and taking in the experience of being in a temple and shrine. Large and iconic, or small and local, they are all unique and it is worth taking the time to visit.

Best Shrines in Japan

photo of Hokkaido Shrine

Hokkaido | Sapporo

Hokkaido Shrine

Famous Shinto temple built to enshrine three deities that helped to develop of Hokkaido.

photo of Yudono-San

Tohoku | Yamagata | Dewa Sanzan


Yudono-San is the most sacred mountain out of the three in the Dewa Sanzan located in the Yamagata Prefecture.

photo of Gas-San

Tohoku | Yamagata | Dewa Sanzan


Gas-san has the tallest peak out of the three in the Dewa Sanzan and is known for its beautiful mountain view.

photo of Haguro-San

Tohoku | Yamagata | Dewa Sanzan


Haguro-San is the easiest to access out of the three in the Dewa Sanzan and is open all year round.

photo of Toshogu Shrine

Kanto | Tochigi | Nikko

Toshogu Shrine

Toshogu Shrine is the place where the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, are enshrined.

photo of Meiji-jingu Shrine

Kanto | Tokyo | Western Tokyo

Meiji-jingu Shrine

Meiji Jingu, also known as Meiji Shrine, was built in 1920 to enshrine the souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

photo of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Kanto | Kanagawa | Kamakura

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the most important shrine in Kamakura and is listed as an Important Cultural Property.

photo of Atsuta Shrine

Chubu | Aichi | Nagoya

Atsuta Shrine

Atsuta Shrine houses the sacred sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, one of the imperial regalia.

photo of Fujisan Sengen Shrine

Chubu | Yamanashi | Mt Fuji

Fujisan Sengen Shrine

Fujisan Sengen Shrine is the head shrine out of the 1300 Sengen and Asama shrines in Japan.

photo of Ise Grand Shrine - Geku & Naiku

Kansai | Mie | Ise

Ise Grand Shrine - Geku & Naiku

Ise Grand Shrine is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan and is rebuilt every twenty years while using traditional techniques.

photo of Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine is located in the southern part of Kyoto and is one of the important Shinto shrines in the city.

photo of Heian Shrine

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine was built to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation and is dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei.

photo of Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Kasuga Taisha Shrine is the shrine for the Fujiwara clan. The interior is famous for the many stone and bronze lamps, along with Kasuga-zukuri architectural building style.

photo of Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine

Kansai | Wakayama | Kumano

Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine

Kumano is located in the Kii Peninsula and spans into the Wakayama and Mie Prefectures. The Hongu, Nachi and Hayatama Taisha are the three famed shrines of the area.

photo of Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine

Kansai | Osaka | Osaka City

Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine

Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Japan and is the head shrine for all Sumiyoshi shrines.

photo of Yoshimizu Shrine

Kansai | Nara | Yoshino

Yoshimizu Shrine

Yoshimizu Shrine is a Shinto Shrine located on Yoshino Mountain located in Nara, Japan.

photo of Mikumari Shrine

Kansai | Nara | Yoshino

Mikumari Shrine

Mikumari Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in Nara Prefecture, Japan. In 2004, It was designated as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

photo of Izumo Grand Shrine

Chugoku | Shimane | Izumo

Izumo Grand Shrine

Izumo Grand Shrine is located in Shimane Prefecture, west of the city Matsue. It is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan.

photo of Itsukushima Shrine

Chugoku | Hiroshima | Miyajima Island

Itsukushima Shrine

The Itsukushima Shrine is best known for its floating torii gate, which is built in the sea.

photo of Motonosumi-Inari Shrine

Chugoku | Yamaguchi | Nagato

Motonosumi-Inari Shrine

Like the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, except smaller, stands a total of 123 red torii gates.

photo of Kompirasan Shrine (Kotohira-gu Shrine)

Shikoku | Kagawa | Kotohira

Kompirasan Shrine (Kotohira-gu Shrine)

One of the most popular and hardest shrines to approach consisting of 1,368 stone steps.

photo of Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

Kyushu | Fukuoka | Dazaifu

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

A Shinto Shrine dedicated to Sugawara Michizane who was associated to Tenjin, the god of education

photo of Takachiho Shrine

Kyushu | Miyazaki | Takachiho

Takachiho Shrine

The venue for Yokagura performances most famous for the story of Amaterasu hiding in a cave causing worldwide darkness from Japanese Mythology.

photo of Amano-iwato Shrine

Kyushu | Miyazaki | Takachiho

Amano-iwato Shrine

A power spot by the Iwato River close to the cave associated in Japanese Shinto mythology where Amaterasu hid from her brother Susanoo.

photo of Nagasaki Confucius Shrine

Kyushu | Nagasaki | Nagasaki

Nagasaki Confucius Shrine

The most famous Confucius Shrine located in Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan constructed by the Chinese residents of the area.

photo of Usa Shrine

Kyushu | Oita | Kunisaki Peninsula

Usa Shrine

The head shrine among 40,000 branches dedicated to the Shinto God Hachiman located in Oita Prefecture, Japan.