Guest Writer: Meeploo#0005


If you’ve seen enough anime, then you know that shrines and temples are common all throughout Japan. They’re very intriguing and full of history, so it’s no surprise why you might wonder what exactly is the history behind shrines and how they came to be what they are today. How important were they and how important are they now? So, let’s talk briefly about the history of shrines!


What are Shrines?

First off, let’s talk about what makes a shrine. Also known as a Shinto shrine, it’s a sacred place where kami live. Kami is the japanese word for “God,” so in other words, a shrine is a place where a god lives, and which shows the power and nature of that god. Shrines are basically everywhere in Japan; you’ll find one in every district or town. Japanese see these shrines as a spiritual home and visit often in their lifetimes.

Ikuta Shrine, in Kobe, Japan

Shinto, the religion that started it all

Shinto is one of the main religions of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried out in order to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient history, since it has been a very important figure in Japanese culture and life throughout its long and rich history. It is also the religion that shrines are tied to, also known as Shinto shrines.

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Before there were shrines

It all started in the Yayoi-period (from 300 BC–300 AD). In these times, the village council sought advice from their ancestors, which were seen as gods at the time. They developed an instrument called a yorishiro that was used to attract the gods and give them physical space so they can be accessible to the living. These yorishiros were natural objects (such as trees) which were turned into sacred places as they gradually evolved into the shrines we know today. Some shrines still have the original yorishiro tree surrounded by a sacred rope called a Shimenawa.

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When shrines came to be

Actual shrines started to become a big deal around the same time agriculture started: the people wanted to attract kami to help assure good harvests. Although these “shrines” were just temporary structures only built for a certain purpose, it’s a tradition that is still used in some rituals. To this day, there are still some examples of the first shrines built and even some that still model what the first shrines used to look like.

Nara’s Ōmiwa Shrine

The rites and rules surrounding Shinto

In 905 CE (“Common Era”), Emperor Daigo requested a compilation of the rules and rites of Shinto. There seems to have been previous attempts to do so before but none of them succeeded. This new version had its own downfalls since it was the first project of its kind. Its director, Fujiwara no Tokihira, passed away and left the project incomplete in April, 909 CE. It was later picked up by his brother in 912 CE. In 927 CE, it was finally completed and produced in fifty volumes under the name Engishiki.

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Introducing Buddhism

Buddhism now entered the mix, causing some changes that led to “permanent shrines.” A lot of the buddhist temples were built next to existing shrines creating mixed complexes called Jingu-ji, meaning shrine temple. During the shrine’s evolution, they started being called Miya, meaning palace, therefore signifying that they were already considered very important, just as much as they are today.

As the first permanent shrine was built, the shinto had shown a tendency to resist agricultural change which developed through a tradition called Shikinen sengū-sai. Shikinen sengū-sai is the tradition of rebuilding shrines faithfully at regular intervals that were like their original designs. This is also why these ancient styles have been replicated to this today, an example being Ise shrine which is rebuilt every 20 years.

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The Meiji Period

Until this period, Shrines were not the same as they are today. Most were just shrine temples that were controlled by Buddhist clergy. During these times, they thought the gods would be subjected to karma, and therefore in need of salvation that only Buddhism could provide. The shrine temples first appeared in the Nara period but remained common for a long period of time, until most of them were destroyed.


Final words

That is all for this article! I hope you enjoyed it. Now you’re all up to date with how these shrines came to be and maybe it even made you want to visit Japan even more so you can see these lovely places for yourself! Personally I might visit one myself in the future to really get a feel for how things are now compared to how they were in the past. Learning the history of things that have lasted for centuries is very intriguing and definitely worth learning about.

Further reading:

One thought on “Japanese Shrines

  1. Pingback: Kimonos – Tsukei

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