Shinto’s Heart: The Unique Architecture of Japan’s “God Havens”

Shinto’s Heart: The Unique Architecture of Japan’s “God Havens”

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Shinto's heart - Shinto architecture
Picture: Yoshitaka / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
How did the homes of the gods of Japan's native religion take shape? A look at Shinto architecture - and its outsized influence in Japan.

Industrial Nagoya, melting between concrete and glassy grey, isn’t known for its parks. But many of the specks of green that dot the boxy cityscape are prime examples of Shinto architecture – havens of the gods.

A few minutes far from where I live, there’s an unexpected burst of lush, old trees in the middle of the low-key neighborhood of Higashibetsuin. Several tall chestnut trees and a flurry of pines and cypress shade a low-lying wooden fence that encloses the area of a small city block. The humble Iseyama shrine.

A gray, twelve-foot torii shrine gate marks the entrance. A footpath leads to a hand-washing station before forking into two. One path that leads through an open, green space to the elevated shrine hall. The other leads into a densely shaded back corner, where a dozen bright-red torii cover the path as it winds once, twice, and a third time around to a second, miniature shrine hall. The rest of the shrine consists a small gravel yard, and a third path that leads to nothing but a view of the trees.

Iseyama is home to a local god affiliated with the sun goddess Amaterasu while creating a public space for quiet, greenery, and prayer. Between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, many of the public green spaces in Japanese cities are religious, but have the secular and practical effect of unclogging cities and injecting them with space for strolling and contemplation. 

Also Read: Shinto – Japan’s Native Religion

Iseyama is, for the purposes of my life, essentially a stand-in for a local park. Architecturally, it has much in common with the most sacred place in Japan, beyond a name: the Ise Grand Shrine. Both separate inside from outside with layers of fences, greenery, and torii. Both have paths that lead past various landmarks towards an enclosed spiritual center. And both fork off into local pitstops for prayer along the way.

The layout and design of Shinto shrines, largely consistent throughout Japan, is no coincidence. They’re chock-full of spiritual symbolism that has not only defined the historical development of the Japanese landscape and architecture, but also continues to inspire and influence Japan’s most cutting-edge building. 


Here’s a closer look at why Shinto shrines are built the way they are and how they continue to define the modern Japanese urbanscape.

Shinto Architecture: Houses for Kami

Almost all Shinto buildings—even the main hall of the grandest-of-the-grand Ise Shrine—are composed purely of rectangles and triangles. Modern Japanese building often follows this same rational simplicity. Click To Tweet

Mimi Yiengpruksawan, a Professor of Art History at Yale University and an expert on Japanese religious art and iconography, explained to me that people don’t always realize that there are the big shrines that we visit as tourists, but also the very small shrines in almost every neighborhood, usually seamlessly integrated into neighborhoods. 

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忍野八海 山梨県富士吉田市の隣の南都留郡忍野村。 富士山から流れ出て地下にしみ込んだ雪解け水が、地下の溶岩の間で数十年の歳月をかけてろ過され、そして湧き出た水が再び湧き出る湧水池が忍野八海です。 はっかいと言いますが、いくつも水源大池はあるみたいです。 その中の一つが底抜池。その池の横に鎮座していたのがこの祠です。スサノオさんが祀られていておりました。 #忍野八海 #底抜池 #神社 #神社好き #神社巡り #神社仏閣巡り #神社仏閣 #御朱印 #ご朱印 #御朱印集め #歴史 #参拝 #鳥居 #日本の風景 #日本の景色 #日本文化 #パワースポット #神社に行こうよ #shrine #temple #japanesescenery #Japaneselandscape #japaneseculture #japanesebeauty #instagramjapan #japanlife #Japan #beautiful

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The core defining feature that links a humble, cobwebbed wooden hut down a side-alley in Nagoya to a tremendous palace complex in a pristine forest behind layers of gold-tipped fences and gates is the architectural function: shrines are simply homes for nature gods.

Also Read: The Lesser-Known Festivals of Japan

“The shrine is understood to be a residence for a deity, which is why you don’t go inside the main sanctuary,” Yiengpruksawan says. “It’s their room. The architecture of these shrines is very similar to [ancient] domestic architecture—a raised floor, wood with a thatch or shingled roof.” 

More impressive shrines like Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, famed for its floating torii gate, are modeled after the upper-class palaces of the Heian period, creating luxury residences for major gods.

The residential nature of Shinto shrines also explains their strict etiquette protocol: hand-washing, bowing, bell-ringing. You’re visiting the kami’s house, after all. In their presence, in their home, it’s only natural that some manners are needed. 

The specific layout of Shinto shrines is thousands of years old, dating back to at least Ise and Izumo Shrines, which historians believe were built before the Asuka period (538 CE). So by this early period, the shrine complex was already mostly developed. Take a look in the following diagram at just how much ritual, spiritual symbolism, and architectural intent goes into a fairly standard shrine layout:

Shinto Architecture: Diagram
This image belongs in the public domain

(1) Romon, Entrance gate that symbolically divides the sacred space of the shrine, marking the entrance to the ‘home’ from the outer landscape

(2)(3) Stone stairs and a pathway that represent spiritual elevation and lead through the space

(4) Chouzuya, Washing place for ritual cleansing 

(5) Tourou, Stone lanterns, which were added to shrines starting in the Heian period

(6) Kagura-den, Kagura dance platform dedicated to Noh or Kagura performances, shows put on for the gods’ viewing pleasure

(7) Shamusho, Shrine office

(8) Ema-den, Votive picture repository where worshippers leave wooden plaques with prayers and wishes

(9) Sessha,Auxiliary shrines for minor spirits

(10) Komainu, Stone lions

(11) Haiden, Worship hall, i.e. the kami’s the sitting room

(12) Tamagaki, Fence surrounding the main shrine, keeping the bedroom private, so-to-speak

(13) Honden, The sanctuary, the most sacred building where the kami is actually enshrined

Each architectural element is first, a practical part of the spirit’s home, and secondly, a feature that invites the visitor to engage with the site, the god, and the landscape. 

The layout of Shinto shrines creates a unique architectural experience for the visitor. The visitor walks a path that undergoes many spiritual and physical shifts: passing through gates, rising up stairs, winding around fences, and facing rows of lanterns and guardian lions. A visitor takes time to cleanse themselves, to offer prayer, to invoke ritual, to consider their own dreams. They also move further away from the road and society into a more secluded location within the trees. 

These spiritual and ritual transitions create a journey through deep rather than flat space. Shinto spaces are built to be experienced and lived-in, not observed, and the visitor can undergo spiritual and emotional change in the span of a confined architectural space.

This complex architectural experience has turned into many aspects of traditional and modern Japanese architecture—some of which are defining features of the elegant modern building that turned Japan into a global architectural powerhouse.

Shinto Concepts in Modern Spaces

Half of Japanese homes are demolished within less than forty years, and one calculation says that Japanese homes lose all of their value by the age of 30. While much of the impetus for this 20th century trend has to do with low-quality construction materials, booming postwar demand, and continually revised earthquake building codes, it also invokes one of the core concepts in Shinto architecture: rebuilding and renewal. Ise Shrine, in particular, is rebuilt once every twenty years. Itsukushima Shrine requires constant rebuilding and upkeep to withstand its treacherous position on the water.

The shrine is understood to be a residence for a deity, which is why you don’t go inside the main sanctuary. It’s their room. Click To Tweet

But there are other major Shinto architecture features that persist in modern Japanese building. One is simple forms. Almost all Shinto buildings—even the main hall of the grandest-of-the-grand Ise Shrine—are composed purely of rectangles and triangles. Modern Japanese building often follows this same rational simplicity. Take the Sugamo Shinkin bank building in Kawaguchi and the famed transparent house in Tokyo.

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Sugamo Shinkin Bank. This bank has a modern and colourful design which is compatible with its target: to make people aspire to stay longer and to naturally pay a visit again. It was designed in 2014 by Emmanuelle Moreaux Architecture+Design. Credits: @archdaily #architecture_best #architecturephoto #architecturedesign #architecture_greatshots #architecture_view #architecturephotography #archdaily #architectures #architecture #architecturelovers #architecture_lovers #architecture_hunter #architecturedesign #architect #design #designer #interiordesign #building #buildings #bank #bankoffice #skyscraper #skyscrapers #tower #towers #sugamoshinkinbank #japan #japanese #日本 #japanesearchitecture #japanarchitecture

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Modern Japanese building more broadly also tends to follow Shinto’s use of unadorned, undecorated materials. The use of wood, thatch, and gold in Shinto building creates surfaces that are simultaneously textured and smooth, simple and unrefined, just as how many modern Japanese architects use primarily wood, concrete, and glass.

Modern Japanese architecture borrows structural elements from Shinto architecture as well. Rather than yards, well-to-do Japanese homes have internal gardens, guarded from the outside by layers of fences or the structure of the house. Even simple etiquette like taking shoes off in a genkan, or entrance area, loosely resembles the process of purification involved in entering a shrine.

Other times Japanese architects have taken inspiration from the nature itself that Shinto deifies, using engineering and inspiration from the natural world to create buildings. Take the Sendai Mediatheque, which looks like a huge glass cube from the outside, but uses tubular structural components based on trees and grasses that allowed the building to move around and  survive the 3/11 earthquake practically unscathed.

Of course, Shinto architecture is only one of many, many inspirations and traditions that define Japanese architecture. Plenty of Japanese buildings ignore it altogether, and deliberately go in all sorts of wild directions. Still, many iconic buildings have decidedly Shinto elements, such as Ando Tadao’s Chichu Art Museum and Kuma Kengo’s Nezu Museum below.

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The Tadao Ando designed Chichu Art Museum, Benesse Art Site Naoshima | “Chichu Art Museum was constructed in 2004 as a site rethinking the relationship between nature and people. The museum was built mostly underground to avoid affecting the beautiful natural scenery of the Seto Inland sea. Artworks by Claude Monet, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria are on permanent display in this building designed by Tadao Ando. Despite being primarily subterranean, the museum lets in an abundance of natural light that changes the appearance of the artworks and the ambience of the space itself with the passage of time, throughout the day and all along the four seasons of the year. Taking form as the artists and architect bounced ideas off each other, the museum in its entirety can be seen as a very large site-specific artwork.”

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While it would take a book of many volumes to accurately describe all the reasons why Japanese buildings and cities look and feel the way they do, there’s no doubt that Shinto is one important factor. Japanese buildings’ take their focus on the natural, the geometric, and the residential from Shinto. 

Even better, taking note and being mindful of the experience of passing through a Shinto space is bound to boost your appreciation of Shinto architecture, and of the experience. 

Check out a great compendium of modern Japanese architecture here.

Shinto: Japan’s Native Religion

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Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a writer, translator, and book editor based in Nagoya. His investigative features on Japan have been published in The Japan Times, The New York Times, Vox, Slate, and more.

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