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Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

Updated: May 19

Shinto shrines in Japan are categorized into several groups, each with its specific significance and importance. Ranging from small local altars to major complexes, they are ordered based on historical, cultural, architectural criteria, or affiliation with the imperial family. This classification reflects the diversity and richness of these Shinto spiritual traditions.


Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

© O. Robert


The terms 'Jingu,' 'Gū,' 'Taisha,' and 'Jinja' are all used to refer to Shinto shrines in Japan. So, why do they have different names? History, size, deities, and cultural significance are, in fact, among the reasons that define the naming and hierarchy of these shrines. Here are some explanations for photographing them with knowledge of their background.


What Are Shinto Shrines

Commonly called 'Jinja' in Japanese for simplicity, Shinto shrines are places of worship dedicated to the religious practice of Shintoism, which is the indigenous religion of Japan. These shrines house various 'kami' or divine spirits, who can represent natural elements, ancestors, or historical figures. They play a central role in the country's religious, cultural, and social life.


Each Shinto shrine is unique, but some common elements are found in these places of worship, such as:


1. Torii: A traditional gate marking the entrance of the shrine, symbolizing the separation between the secular world and the sacred world. Read the dedicated article on the symbols and spirituality of Torii.


2. Honden: The main building of the shrine, often located behind a more open prayer space called 'haiden'. The honden usually houses the sacred object symbolizing the kami."


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3. Shimenawa and shide: The Shimenawa is a thick and voluminous rope made of braided straw. It is placed in different locations depending on the shrine but most commonly on the Torii or above a main door. Often decorated with paper streamers, called shide, they thus mark a sacred space (photo below). Read the article dedicated to the symbols of shimenawa and shide.


4. Purification: Before entering the sacred space, visitors wash their hands and mouth at a basin (often made of stone) called "temizuya," to purify themselves. This is done using a small metal container with a wooden handle resembling a ladle.


Shinto shrines play an important role in festivals (matsuri), weddings, and other ceremonies. They are places of peace and spirituality, often located in picturesque natural settings, which makes them particularly interesting for photography.

 

Contents of this Article:


 
Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

© O. Robert


Main Designations

1. Jinja (神社)

This is the most common term used to refer to a Shinto shrine. It is a general name that can be applied to any shrine, regardless of its size or importance. "Jinja" can range from small local shrines to large complexes with significant history and cultural meaning.


Meaning of the name Jinja

1. Definition: "Jinja" literally translates to "place of the kami (spirit or deity)." It denotes a sacred space, often delimited by torii (traditional Shinto gates), where the kami are venerated. Each Jinja is dedicated to one or more kami.


2. Architecture and sacred spaces: Jinja typically feature distinctive architecture, with main buildings for worship, altars, and spaces for various rituals and festivals. The sacred spaces are kept clean and are often characterized by an atmosphere of serenity.


3. Community and cultural roles: Jinja serve not only as places of worship but also as centers for festivals (matsuri) and community events, playing an important role in the preservation of local culture and traditions.


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Famous Jinja Shrines Examples

1. Itsukushima Jinja (Hiroshima, founded in the 6th century): Located on Miyajima Island, this shrine is famous for its floating torii gate. It is dedicated to the three daughters of the god of wind and sea. The current structure dates back to the 16th century, although the site has been used for worship for much longer.


2. Yasaka Jinja (Kyoto, founded in the 7th century): Also known as Gion Shrine, this shrine is famous for its annual festival, the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's most famous. Its name literally means "seven slopes," referring to the surrounding geographical area.


3. Shimogamo Jinja (Kyoto, founded before the 6th century): Among the oldest Shinto shrines, it is surrounded by a preserved forest and is known for its traditional rituals and festivals, including the Aoi Matsuri.


4. Kamigamo Jinja (Kyoto, founded around the 7th century): Kamigamo Jinja, also known as Kamo-wakeikazuchi Jinja, is one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan and one of the two Kamo shrines in Kyoto, the other being Shimogamo Jinja.


5. Yasukuni Jinja (Tokyo, founded in 1869): A controversial Shinto shrine dedicated to the souls of those who died serving the Empire of Japan. It is therefore at the center of recurring political and historical debates.


6. Hie Jinja (Tokyo, founded in the 14th century): Located near the National Diet Building, it is known for its red torii gates and its annual Sanno Matsuri festival, one of the three major festivals in Tokyo.


7. Shirahige Jinja (Shiga Prefecture, founded in 420): It is one of Japan's oldest shrines. Shirahige Jinja is located on the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, in Shiga Prefecture. It is a favorite site for photographers for its torii gate set on the water. Read my article on Shirahige Jinja.

 
Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

2. Taisha (大社)

This term literally means "Great Shrine." It is often used to refer to the most important and revered shrines in Shintoism. Historically, "Taisha" shrines had national importance and were the center of large networks of believers and affiliated shrines. A famous example is Izumo Taisha.


Meaning of the name Taisha

1. Historical and cultural importance: "Taisha" shrines are generally ancient shrines of national or regional importance. They are often associated with significant historical events or important legendary or historical figures.


2. Architecture and size: These shrines often stand out for their large size and elaborate architecture. They may include multiple buildings, impressive gates (torii), stone lanterns, theaters for ritual dances (kagura), and other complex structures.


3. Center of worship and pilgrimage: The "Taisha" are pilgrimage centers and sites of major festivals (matsuri). They attract visitors and worshippers from all over Japan and play a central role in Shinto practices.


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Famous Taisha Shrines Examples

1. Izumo Taisha (Shimane Prefecture, founding date unknown): One of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines, Izumo Taisha is dedicated to the kami Ōkuninushi. Although the exact date of its founding is unknown, the shrine is mentioned in Japan's oldest historical texts.


2. Sumiyoshi Taisha (Osaka, founded in 211): It is one of the main shrines in the Sumiyoshi network, dedicated to the kami protectors of sailors and the sea. Its unique structure reflects an ancient architectural style, distinct from continental influences.


3. Fushimi Inari Taisha (Kyoto, founded before 794): Although often called a "Jinja," Fushimi Inari Taisha is also considered a "Taisha" due to its importance. Dedicated to Inari, the kami of rice and prosperity, agriculture, and foxes. It is famous for its thousands of red torii gates and attracts millions of visitors each year.


4. Kasuga Taisha (Nara, founded in 768): This shrine is famous for its stone and bronze lanterns, offered by worshippers (2 photos below). It is dedicated to the kami protectors of the city of Nara and the Fujiwara family, a powerful aristocratic family of the time.

 
Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

© O. Robert


3. Gū (宮) and Jingu (神宮)

"Gū" is a designation that can be used interchangeably with "Jingu," but it is often less formal. Historically, "Gū" referred to imperial shrines or shrines of very high importance but were linked to the male branch of the imperial family.


The confusion between these two designations is quite common, even among Japanese. An example is "Meiji Jingu" in Tokyo, which is also often referred to as "Meiji Gū".


The word "Jingu" itself means "Divine Palace." These shrines are generally dedicated to kami (spirits or deities) who are directly related to the imperial family in their entirety or to Japan's national history.


The most famous of these shrines is probably the Grand Shrine of Ise, called Ise Jingu, dedicated to Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess and mythical ancestor of the imperial family (see below).


Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

© O. Robert


Meaning of the Names Gū and Jingu

1. Imperial association: Shrines designated as "Gū" are often closely associated with the Japanese imperial family or important kami in Shinto mythology related to national history. The word itself means "Palace" or "Residence" and carries a connotation of grandeur and prestige.


2. Historical and cultural role: These shrines often play a key role in national events and in preserving Japanese imperial history and traditions. They are significant centers of worship and sites of celebration for important events related to the history of Japan.


3. Architecture and sacred spaces: Similar to the "Taisha," the "Gū" and "Jingu" often feature impressive architecture and extensive sacred spaces. They may include multiple buildings and special structures for rituals and festivals, designed to reflect their importance and sacred nature.


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Famous Gū and Jingu Shrines Examples

1. Ise Jingu (Mie Prefecture, construction period unknown): Ise Jingu is mentioned as early as the 3rd century in Japanese literature. It is the most sacred of the Shinto shrines, dedicated to Amaterasu-omikami, the sun goddess and mythical ancestor of the imperial family. The shrine is rebuilt every 20 years following an ancient tradition, symbolizing death and rebirth.


2. Meiji Jingu (Tokyo, 1920): Although often called "Meiji Jingu," it is also known as "Meiji Gū." Dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, this shrine was built in 1920, following their deaths. It has become a symbol of the Meiji Restoration and national renewal. The shrine is surrounded by a dense forest, creating a peaceful haven in the heart of Tokyo.


3. Heian Jingu (Kyoto, 1895): Built to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the establishment of Kyoto as the imperial capital, this shrine is dedicated to Emperor Kammu and Emperor Komei. Its design is based on the Heian period imperial palace.


4. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (Kamakura, founded in 1063, rebuilt in 1191): Although this shrine is sometimes classified as a "Jinja," it has also been designated as "Hachimangu Gū." It was founded by Minamoto no Yoriyoshi and is closely linked to the history of the samurai and the Kamakura shogunate.


5. Atsuta Jingu (Nagoya, founded in the 1st or 2nd century): This shrine is one of the oldest and most important after Ise Jingu. It houses the Kusanagi sword, one of the three sacred imperial relics of Japan. It is dedicated to several kami, including Amaterasu-omikami.

 
Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

Fine Art Prints © O. Robert

 
 
Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines

Other Designations

In addition to "Jinja," "Taisha," "Gū," and "Jingu," there are other terms for Shinto shrines in Japan. Here are some of the less commonly used designations:


1. Sha (社): This is a shortened form of "Jinja." It is often used in the names of less significant shrines or in informal contexts.


2. Hokora (祠): These are small shrines, often modest in size, that can be found by roadsides, in street corners, or integrated into natural landscapes. "Hokora" are typically dedicated to local deities or nature spirits and are often the focus of local religious practices and small rituals.


3. Morisha (森社): This term is sometimes used to refer to a shrine located in or near a forest. "Mori" means "forest" in Japanese. These shrines may be associated with beliefs about nature spirits and the sacredness of forests.


4. Ujigami (氏神): This term refers to a shrine dedicated to the tutelary or protective deity of a family or clan (uji). These shrines play an important role in local and community beliefs and practices.

 

 
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The Final Word

The term "Jinja" encompasses a diverse spectrum of Shinto shrines, ranging from small local altars to large complexes with centuries of history. They are central places of worship, celebration, and preservation of Japanese culture and traditions.


The term "Taisha" indicates not just the size or architecture of a Shinto shrine, but also its cultural, historical, and religious significance. These shrines are essential witnesses to Japan's history and traditions and continue to play a central role in the country's religious and cultural life.


The "Gū" and "Jingu" shrines are characterized by their close association with the imperial family or their religious and cultural importance. They often possess grandiose and symbolic architecture. They are pillars of the Shinto tradition and play an essential role in Japan's spiritual and cultural life.


Japan: Jingu, Taisha, Jinja, the Hierarchy of Shinto Shrines
 

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