Shinto is a belief system that is a deeply local in origin.
When Buddhism and Confucianism came over it sort of melded with Shinto in different ways which created new ways of worship.
Generally speaking shrines are places that are honoring an ancestor or a kami (a god). There is usually some sort of enshrined object that is the focus of the shrine but that does not need to be the case. There is a shrine where the sacred object is the mountain itself.
(some sacred rocks are even good for finding you love)
Kami are a bit like Voldemort because their spirits are often split into many parts (sorry for the analogy, but this is what you get from me). The same kami could be in a bunch of shrines simultaneously and it is said that there is a part of their spirit in each shrine.
I wrote “greatest” shrines of Japan, but I am not trying to pick any fights. There are some great little-known, diminutive shrines that are pretty great. It is just that there are 79,335 shrines in Japan.
If you went and saw 3 shrines a day, everyday, it would take you 72 and a half years to have seen them all. It is almost impossible.
(not daring you to do it, but I kind of am)
In case you were wondering the prefecture with the most shrines is Niigata. The least, is unsurprisingly Okinawa. Okinawa only has 11 shrines…Niigata has 4,778!
To try to help you keep your sanity I decided to put together a list of major shrines that I feel are particularly special. I might be missing some, feel free to tell me what you think should be on the list!
Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingu)
A must-see shrine for anyone coming to Tokyo. The souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort reside here, even though their earthly bodies are in Kyoto. 100,000 indigenous trees from all over Japan provide a diverse forest that surrounds the shrine. The shrine was established in 1920, making it pretty new and making the trees about 100 years old or older.
Hours: opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. If you see the sun is almost down, you probably won’t make it in time.
Closest station: Harajuku Station, Meiji-jingumae Station
Ise Grand Shrines (Ise Jingu)
This shrine is estimated to have been founded over 1500 years ago. It is one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Amaterasu Omikami’s spirit is here, she is said to be the ancestral spirit of the Imperial Family. Shrines that are called “jingu” usually have a connection to the Imperial Family of Japan.
Hours: sunrise to sunset
Closest station: Ujiyamada Station
Atsuta Shrine (Atsuta Jingu)
Second largest shrine after the Ise Grand Shrines. Nobunaga Oda prayed here to help win a war. There is a house of treasures that has valuable artifacts on display. It is worth taking a look. There is a part of Amaterasu (the deity of Ise Shrine) here, but she is in the form of a sacred sword.
Hours: Shrine is 24 hrs, treasure hall is 9-4:30 pm (300 yen entrance)
Closest station: Jingu-Nishi Station, Jingu-Mae Station
Itsukushima Shrine (Itsukushima Jinjya)
This shrine is actually featured on our current website banner! It is famous for its floating red-orange gate. It has over 1,400 years of history and is an absolute must-see for visitors to the Hiroshima area. The idea of Miyajima is believed to have a spirit of a goddess.
Hours: sunrise to sunset (300 yen entry, 500 yen if you also want to see the treasure hall)
Closest station: Miyajima Guchi Station, this is where the ferry departs
Toshogu Shrine (Toshogu)
This shrine was long revered to be one of the greatest architectural accomplishments in Japanese history. It was established as a place to enshrine the spirit of the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. He is credited with unifying the country and bringing in a 260 year period of peace to Japan. This is a very lavishly decorated shrine in the middle of the mountains.
***Admission is 1,300 yen***
Hours: 8 am to 5 pm in the summer and spring, closes at 4 pm in the winter and late fall
Closest Station: Tobu Nikko Station, JR Nikko Station
Izumo Grand Shrine (Izumo Taisha)
O-kuninishi-no-okami is enshrined here. He is the main deity of en-musubi (human relationships). Come here if you are looking for help finding a lover or repairing ties with that family member you fell out of contact with. It is so old that nobody quite knows when it came into being.
Hours: 24 hrs, treasure hall is open 8:30 am – 16:30 pm (costs 300 yen to enter)
Closest Station: Izumo Taisha-mae
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (Dazaifu Tenmangu)
“Tenmangu” shrines are shrines that contain a part of the spirit of Sugawara Michizane, a scholar in the Heian Period. Because of this, they are often a pilgrimage spot for students looking to pray for academic success. Another symbol of Tenmangu shrines are plum trees because Michizane was said to love plum trees. Another popular Tenmangu shrine is in Kyoto. It is called Kitano Tenmangu, and I would highly recommend that one as well!
Hours: 6 am to 7 pm
Closest Station: Dazaifu Station