Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, emphasizes the belief in kami -- spirits that inhabit people, places and abstract concepts. Worship takes place at Shinto shrines, where followers venerate enshrined kami through prayer, offerings and other practices. These shrines are spiritual homes and sites of revitalization for Shintoists.
Shintoists traditionally favor shrines near high concentrations of natural beauty, such as waterfalls and forests. However, even urban shrines are sacred. Priests sanctify the grounds by separating the shrine from the external world with torii gates and sacred ropes called shimenawa. Other elements that are common to Shinto shrines are the main worship hall; a pair of stone dog statues that guard the shrine; and a fountain of purifying water that worshipers pour over their hands and faces before approaching the shrine.
Shintoists don't visit shrines on a specific day of the week. Rather, they visit them during festivals, holidays and special moments in their life, such as weddings. These are times where adherents believe that praying to kami will afford them luck and protection. Although people pray to kami, representations of kami are rare. Statues of animals, such as foxes and horses, that protect the kami are more common. Followers attract the attention of a kami by ringing a bell and offering money to the shrine before closing their hands in prayer.
The introduction of Buddhism from China and Korea to Japan in the sixth century radically changed Shinto practice. Following this development, it wasn't unusual to find Shinto shrines on Buddhist temple grounds, and Buddhist priests even took charge of some Shinto shrines, according to the BBC. The intermixing of the two religions didn't only affect practice and belief; the design of shrines also began to take on a more elaborate Chinese style with bright colors, curved roofs and storied gates.
Although followers typically worship at small local shrines, a number of these structures have become destinations for Shinto pilgrims and tourists alike. For example, the Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Tokyo commemorates the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken. Though surrounded by one of the largest urban centers in the world, the shrine lies in a dense patch of more than 100,000 trees. Similarly, the Hach Mangu shrine, built in 1063 in Kamakura, commemorates the warrior clan Minamoto. It has a storied history tied to that of the country itself, and samurai, shoguns and emperors have patronized the site. Although a distinctly Japanese religion, Shintoism is no longer confined exclusively to Japan. As Japanese citizens traveled and emigrated abroad, they brought their religion with them and built shrines such as the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Washington state.
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