What Are Shinto's Holy Places?

Shinto followers purify themselves with sacred water  before entering a shrine.
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The Grand Shrine of Ise is the most holy Shinto site in Japan. The shrine has been rebuilt in the same place every 20 years since the third or fourth century. Shinto, Japan's unofficial national religion, is devoted to spiritual beings called “kami.” Shinto shrines were traditionally simple wooden structures built to house the kami and as a place to hold rituals and celebrations. Shinto’s holy places typically include natural formations, such as rocks, waterfalls, caves, forests and mountains.

1 Grand Shrine of Ise

The Ise Shrine in Ise City is associated with the Yamato clan, who are descended from the sun kami, Amaterasu-O-mikami, according to mythology. The inner complex is dedicated to her. The outer shrine is dedicated to the grain kami, Toyouke-no-Okami. A special architectural style used for the main building of the inner shrine is prohibited for other shrines. Both structures are built entirely of Japanese white cypress. The tearing down and rebuilding of the Ise structures every 20 years is a way of purifying the site and represents the natural process of renewal. Most Japanese aspire to make a pilgrimage to the Grand Shrine of Ise at least once in their lifetime. Only members of the Japanese imperial family are allowed access to the main shrine buildings.

2 Taisha Shrine of Izumo

The Taisha Shrine of Izumo is the oldest shrine in Japan. It is located in Izumo province, which was the religious center of ancient Japan. The Izumo shrine was the shrine of the Izumo clan and storm kami, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, who were in conflict with the kami of the Yamato clan. Another myth that may represent actual territorial agreements between the Yamato and other clans tells that the kami Okuninushi-no-Mikoto gave temporal rule of the land to Amaterasu-O-mikami’s grandson. Out of gratitude, the sun kami had the Izumo shrine built to honor Okuninushi-no-Mikoto. According to myth, the kami gather in Izumo every October for great meetings and to arrange marriages.

3 Torii

The torii is a sacred arch through which you enter a shrine complex. As Shinto became more established, shrines grew more complex, with a fence, ritual landscape, main hall for worshipers, a sanctuary that houses the kami and other special buildings. The torii has become a symbol of Japan, representing Shinto practice and serving as a ceremonial entrance to the shrine. Influenced by Chinese Buddhist architectural styles, torii are often painted red.

4 Other Shrines and Natural Places

Many shrines housing kami are still simple structures where the kami are believed to be located. There are more than 100,000 such sanctuaries in Japan. They were traditionally built of wood. although some modern ones were built with cement. Japanese families also make morning and evening offerings at home shrines that include ancestral tablets or photographs and may include amulets from the Ise shrine. Consecrated rocks, trees, waterfalls and other natural objects exist all across Japan, with a sacred rope indicating that kami reside there.

Lisa Jensen grows organic food and lives in an adobe house that she built. She teaches aikido, is an experienced back-country skier and backpacker and is active in her community. A graduate of the University of Calgary, Jensen writes about gardening, home projects, social sciences and sports and recreation.