10 of the Most Important Shinto Shrines

Itsukushima Shrine - Hiroshima
Itsukushima Shrine stands on March 29, 2010 in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima, Japan. The Shinto shrine was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, with several buildings designated as national treasures by the Japanese government. Junko Kimura / Getty Images

Shinto is the oldest indigenous religion in Japanese history, a fact that is made evident by the sheer number of Shinto shrines throughout the country. There are at least 80,000 public Shinto shrines currently standing in Japan, a number that does not include the private shrines on personal property or inside homes.

Shinto shrines are built to honor individual kami: the essence of spirit present in natural phenomena, objects, and human beings that is worshipped by Shinto practitioners. The shrines can be grand and ornate or simple and unassuming, but they all share certain elements. What follows is a list of some of the most important Shinto shrines in existence today.

Ise Grand Shrine

Ise Grand Shrine Naiku
Ise Grand Shrine. z tanuki / Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons  Attribution 3.0 Unported license 

Built to honor the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu, the Ise Grand Shrine is widely considered to be one of the most sacred spaces in Japan. It consists of a network of 125 shrines and sees more than six million visitors and religious pilgrims each year.

According to legend, the Ise Grand Shrine is home to the Sacred Mirror, given to the first emperor of Japan by Amaterasu to establish him as descendent from deities and therefore the rightful leader of the country. According to custom, the shrine is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, but the complex as a whole has existed since the 3rd Century.

Itsukushima Shrine

Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
Nigel Killeen / Getty Images 

Located in Hiroshima Bay, the Itsukushima Shrine is famous for the widely recognized “floating torii gate.” It was built in 593 to honor the daughters of the storm god and the sun goddess. The shrine was constructed on the water rather than on land so as not to damage the kami of the Itsukushima Island.

In addition to the stunning architectural design, the shrine features a noh theater that dates from 1590, constructed over the water (see main article image). The shrine became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and it is one of the Three Views of Japan.

Meiji Jingu Shrine

Meiji Jingu Shrine
 PictureNet / Getty Images

Completed in 1920, the Meiji Jingu shrine is dedicated to the kami of Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji is representative of the Meiji Restoration in Japan, a time period when the country rapidly westernized and became an imperial power in the modern world.

It is a common misconception that Emperor Meiji is buried at the shrine. The Shinto belief in purity directs that no bodies can be buried in or near shrines.

The shrine was destroyed during World War II, but was reconstructed in 1958 and now sees around ten million visitors each year, with around three million visiting in the first three days of the year.

Izumo Taisha Shrine

Izumo Taisha main shrine
 oonamochi / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 

Though there is no official record of the date of construction, the Izumo Taisha Shrine is considered to be the most ancient shrine in Japan. It takes its name from the architectural style of the main shrine building and is dedicated to the kami Okuninushi, who created the Japanese land and later became known as the kami of marriage.

According to Shinto beliefs, every kami from around Japan meets at the Izumo Taisha between the 10th and 17th days of the 10th lunar month, usually falling in November. As part of purification, shrine visitors usually clap twice, but visitors to this shrine clap four times: twice for themselves and twice for their partners, as Okununishi is the kami of marriage.

Toshogu Shrine

Pagoda at Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine
Pagoda at Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine. Historic building. National Treasure of Japan. Flickr Vision / Getty Images

Similar to the Itsukushima Shrine, the Toshogu Shrine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the Toshogu Shrine is distinct because of the presence of remains, an unusual occurrence considering the strong Shinto beliefs surrounding purity. The shrine is home to the physical remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shōgun of Tokugawa Japan.

Tokugawa is also the kami of the shrine, which was constructed as a simple mausoleum but was expanded 20 years later to the ornate structure that stands today.

During Edo period, the shogunate would host processions from Edo (the capital of Japan at the time) to the shrine. This practice is honored in the present day during fall and spring.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Thousand Torii Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Puripat Lertpunyaroj / Getty Images

Built in 711, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is most famous for its thousand torii gates along a network of trails behind the shrine structures. Each of the gates was donated by a business, as the kami of the shrine, Inari, is widely recognized as the kami of business and merchants (as well as the kami of rice).

The fox is recognized as the helper or the messenger for Inari, and as such, the shrine (as well as the many smaller shrines dedicated to Inari throughout the country) features fox illustrations and statues throughout the grounds. The shrine is located at the base of a mountain, which is also called Inari, and is frequented by hikers and adventure travelers looking to explore the trails.

Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Tsubaki Grand Shrine
 Wikimedia Commons / Nesnad / CC BY 2.0 license

Though constructed fairly recently in 1987, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine is significant because of its location: Granite Falls, Washington. The Tsbbaki Grand Shrine is the only public Shinto shrine in the mainland United States (though there are others located in Hawaii). It is a Tsubaki Okami Yashiro shrine, one of the oldest shrines in existence in Japan.

The shrine is home to several kami, including Sartahiko-no-Okami, the kami of all earthly kami, Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, kami of entertainment and the arts, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and America Kokudo Kunitama-no-Kami, the kami of North America.

Yasukuni Shrine

Statue of Masujiro Kimura, Yasukuni Shrine
Statue of Masujiro Kimuro outside of the Yasukuni Shrine. Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

Though not the oldest or most impressive shrine, the Yasukuni Shrine is fascinating because of the controversy that surrounds it. Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the shrine is formally dedicated to the kami of millions of men, women, children, and even family pets who died for the emperors of Japan since then.

This extensive list includes over a thousand names of Class-A, Class-B, and Class-C war criminals from World War II, people who committed heinous crimes against humanity, including people who forcibly kidnapped Comfort Women and participated in the Rape of Nanking.

Sengen Jinja Shrine

Arakura Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida
Arakura Sengen Shrine in Fujiyoshida, part of the Sengen shrine complex.  Yuga Kurita / Getty Images

The Sengen Jinja Shrine is the official site of the housing of the kami of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain and one of the most famous mountains in the world. The shrine is one of three in a collective network at the base of the mountain.

The name “Sengen” dates back to the animistic ancestry of the Shinto language, relating the mountain to the worship of volcanoes. The shrine is said to have been built in the 700s, though it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 1700s. The most recent renovation was in 2009.  

Sanno Shrine  

Sanno
 Christian Ender / Getty Images

The Sanno Shrine, or the “one-legged shrine” is famous for withstanding the blast from the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki. At the time of the bombing, the torii, or the shrine’s gate, was only 800 meters from the center of the blast.

The one-legged torii still stands in Nagasaki.