Signs and Symbols

What are the main architectural and ritual elements of a major Shinto shrine?

At the heart of a major shrine is a complex of three units called the hongu (for a jingu, honsha for a jinja). This central area, all oriented to the south as in Chinese sacred structures, houses the shrine’s principal deity. Within the hongu are the haiden, heiden, and honden arranged front to rear along the south-north central axis. The outer and most public of the spaces is called the haiden, or worship hall, where devotees gather individually or in small groups for blessings and other rituals. Most people who come to the shrine without prior arrangements for ceremonial ministrations from the priestly staff perform their brief prayers in front of the haiden. But if the staff are performing rituals inside, those outside are welcome to observe. From that hall, worshippers can look across an interior courtyard to the central structure, the heiden or offering hall, where only the priestly staff perform more sacred rituals. From there, in turn, the celebrants can see (sometimes across yet another courtyard) the honden, the Shinto equivalent of the “holy of holies.” There, behind closed doors and visible to no one, the kami reside. Also on the grounds of many large shrines one may find subordinate shrines called bekku, which house related major deities. Massha house lesser deities. Some shrines also have small Buddhist temples (called jingu-ji, “shrine-temples”) on the property, remnants of the ancient connections between the two traditions.


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