There are thousands of Shinto shrines throughout Japan, but if you ask a Japanese person what the most important one is, they’ll turn their head slightly askance and suck their breath in through their teeth. “I don’t know,” is what that gesture means. Shinto isn’t like Catholicism, where authority trickles down from the Vatican. In the Meiji era the Japanese government consolidated the religion into a short-lived theocracy with the emperor at its head called “State Shinto,” but prior to that it was an unknit collection of shrines honoring local deities. Japanese scholars usually refer to it as the indigenous religion of Japan.
There is no “head shrine,” but a few could be at the top of the pyramid. (Although it’s more of a pyramid with an uneven, flat top.) These either enshrine some of the highest deities, are historically prominent, or their god’s domain is critical to the nation. If you do ask a Japanese person what the most important Shinto shrine is, they will probably settle on one or both of the top two in this piece. The others also have a place among Shinto’s most important, though importance is being measured a bit differently. Later, I’ll make a sequel that includes other important shrines, but are more narrow in their fields. That one will be fun, so stay tuned.
5 Itsukushima Shrine
Japan is enthusiastic about the World Heritage Lists, to say the least. Two years ago both Mt. Fuji and Japanese cuisine both won a place on UNESCO’s lists, which was hoped to improve tourism to Japan and exports. Another long time member of Japan’s World Heritage sites is the Itsukushima Shrine. It’s best known for its giant orange-red gate, which, along with the shrine itself, appears to be floating in water at high tide. It’s been burned down several times, though, and while it was founded in the sixth century, its current architecture dates to the tenth.
It was established on the island of Miyajima to enshrine the three daughters of Susano-o. A short ferry ride takes you there now, but in the past commoners could not even set foot on the island. Purity is of the upmost concern in Shinto, which in the past helped lead to the rise of Japanese Buddhism. Since dead bodies were not allowed anywhere near Shinto shrines, it unintentionally handed funeral rites over to rival Buddhist priests. Even now it could be said that Japanese grow up Shinto and die Buddhist.
Though now everyone is allowed on the island, births and deaths are still prohibited. Pregnant women near the end of their labor as well as anyone close to death are not encouraged to go, but stay on the mainland. But besides the lack of death and birth, another feature of the island is its many deer, which are dehorned and allowed to roam freely, although they usually just sit and watch tourists go by without paying them any mind. The site is also prominent in the famous Tale of Heike. The shrine in its current incarnation was built at the behest of Tiara no Kiyomori, one of the tale’s central players. It is a triumph of ancient Japanese architecture because of its focus on harmony with nature, thus an extremely popular site for foreign and Japanese tourists alike.
4 Fushimi Inari Taisha
Inari Okami is the god of everything the Japanese love–agriculture, industry, tea, foxes, fertility, but primarily rice. Rice being so important in Japan, about 1/3 of Japan’s Shinto shrines (about 30,000) are devoted to her/him. A solid image of Inari is hard to pin down, as he/she’s depicted in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s an old man, other times it’s a beautiful woman. Still other times the deity is androgynous or takes on the likeness of a fox. Inari is so popular that the deity even makes frequent appearances in shrines not devoted to Inari in the form of white fox statues.
In ancient Japan, a person suffering from a metal illness might be said to be possessed by a fox. Foxes were considered tricker spirits that you generally wanted to avoid, though at times they could serve as protectors if you managed to get on their good side. However, people could also be possessed by either Inari or one of his fox servants. If the local priest decided that was the case, they afflicted person would be held in high esteem as a prophet instead of a madman.
Inari’s main shrine is in Kyoto and is a favorite spot for photographers due to its long tunnel of thousands of orange-red torii (gates.) Each gate was paid for by either a private donor or a business that bears their name. Fushimi Inari Taisha is extremely popular with Japanese businesses, which will often send a representative there to pray for their company’s prosperity. Aside from the famed torii, fox images are also spread throughout the shrine.
Third in terms of importance but first in terms of controversy is the Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni was founded by the Meiji Emperor to enshrine the spirits of those who died in service of the Japanese emperor during a series of wars ending in WWII. This includes those who participated in war efforts like medical and factory workers. And this is where the controversy starts. It enshrines foreign workers without their families’ consent and sometimes against their wishes.
Furthering the controversy was the decision to include war criminals (Classes A, B, and C) after the last of the living ones were released from prison on parole. Their enshrinement was done in a secret ceremony by the priests, and once it was discovered, Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the shrine in protest. No emperor has visited since, but a number of Prime Ministers and politicians have made highly publicized trips. Former prime minister Koizumi once visited the shrine just before a meeting with Chinese officials, which was taken as an insult resulting in the meeting’s cancellation. In fact, any prime minister visiting the shrine causes controversy in Asia, especially China and Korea since the war criminals enshrined carried out some of the worst atrocities against those two countries. Making matters worse, the shrines’ priests take a revisionist stance of history, making claims that the US forced Japan in to the war, Japan colonized Asia to protect it from the West, and that those atrocities everyone talks about never happened.
That said, Yasukuni has done a lot for the world of Japanese swords. Prior to WWII, Japan’s Army Minister founded the Nihonto Tanren Kai (Japanese Sword Forging Center) there. It was done to revitalize the dying Japanese sword making culture. Around the time of WWII the need for quality swords was very low and the traditional methods were dying fast. The organization rediscovered the old methods, which did to a lot to save Japanese swordsmithing from extinction.
2 Grand Ise Shrine
According to legend, the Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture was founded by the daughter of the eleventh emperor of Japan. She decided on the site’s location after hearing the voice of Amaterasu Omikami (the sun goddess) saying she wished to dwell there. Since the sun goddess is one of the highest-ranking deities in Shinto, Ise is a candidate for the most important shrine in Japan. It’s only in an abstract sense, though, since the nature of Shinto doesn’t really allow for that designation.
Anyway, the main shrine is rebuilt every twenty years according to ancient construction methods, which is thought to keep the shrine forever both new and old. The new shrines are built next to the existing structures, but are guarded by three surrounding fences that visitors are not allowed to pass. The construction method, which is centered around a sacred pillar, is well documented, but all visitors ever see is the thatched roof. Fortunately, Ise is a large complex with more that enough visible shrines to give tourists an eyeful.
There are two areas. One is the naiku, which enshrines the sun goddess and a number of other important deities. The other is called the geku, which enshrines, among others, Toyouke no Omikami, a deity of agriculture and industry for a total of 125 shrines within the complex. Within the naiku is said to reside the Yata no Kagami, a sacred mirror given to the first emperor of Japan by the sun goddess herself. And becauase Amaterasu is said to be the ancestor of the Japanese emperor, only members of the imperial family are allowed to serve as chief priests or priestesses.
1 Izumo Taisha
There is no record of when exactly Izumo Taisha was established, but it was mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest, half-mythological chronicles Japan. It is said that Izumo Taisha was built in honor of Okuninushi, the mythological first ruler of Japan. According to the Chronicles, Okuninushi was the son of Susano-o, the god of storms and seas. He fought his evil brothers to claim rulership over the land, slaying them with his father’s weapons. After this, Amaterasu sent her descendant to administer the land, claiming it had become unruly. Okuninushi gave control over to him and instead became the ruler of magic and spirits as compensation. He is the god of nation-building, farming, business and medicine.
Izumo Taisha is administered by the Senge family, who are said to trace their lineages back to the second son of the sun goddess. (Many families of importance in Japan are said to be the ancestors of the Shinto gods.) Recently, the eldest son of the current administrator married Princess Noriko, the daughter of the Emperor’s cousin, who had to give up her royal status to do so.
Why the shrine of the god who handed over his kingdom at the behest of Amaterasu is number one on the list is the very month of June. Aside from it’s normal translation of “rokugatsu,” June is also known as Kannazuki, or “the month with no gods.” It is said that during the month of June all the Shinto gods (save Ebisu, the slightly deaf god of fishing, who doesn’t hear the summons) leave their shrines and go to Izumo Taisha for a month-long meeting. Of course, since all the deities are present at the shrine at once, June is known locally as Kaniarizuki, the “month with gods.” Traditionally, except for Ebisu, during the month of June the only shrine with any gods to pray to is Izumo Taisha.