Shinto shrines are one of the popular sightseeing spots for foreign tourists in Tokyo. You’ll find them just about anywhere in Japan along with Buddhist temples. The sizes of these shrines can be varied. The ones with the largest grounds can take about an hour to walk around. On the other hand, small Shinto shrines can be found among the thousands of buildings in the city or suddenly pop out from among the houses of a residential area. One thing in common you’ll find is that they all have a “Torii” gate at the entrance. This is something you can remember so that you can tell a Shinto shrine apart from a Buddhist temple.
Shintoism is the indigenous religion of Japan. They believe that all things, even inanimate objects, have a spirit. The spirits are all worshipped equally and are called “kami” or gods. Shinto literally means the “path (study) of kami”. There is no doctrine nor a founder of the religion and originates from collective native beliefs and mythology. In Shintoism, nature and the gods are the one and the same. And the practices that connect humans with the gods have over time developed into worship rituals.
Though all things are considered to have a spirit, certain places or things are thought to be as especially sacred. If you visit a traditional Japanese home, you may see a “kami-dana”. It’s a shelf created near the ceiling which serves as a simple shrine in the house. There will probably be a “fuda” on the shelf, which is a piece of wood blessed through a worship ritual, which acts like a god watching over the household. You will also see certain large trees within the shrine grounds, with a white rope and decorations around it. It means that the tree is an especially sacred tree.
Most Japanese people visit Shinto shrines perhaps once a year for New Years, or maybe just for sightseeing purposes, or to pray for good luck. Some people hold their weddings in the traditional Japanese Shinto style. They practice Shinto traditions during their everyday lives without even realizing it, just like they celebrate Christmas even though most aren’t Christians. Though Shintoism has merged into the traditions and culture of the Japanese people, only 3 to 4% of the entire Japanese population belong to a Shinto sect.
Top 7 Shinto Shrines in Tokyo
Meiji Jingu Shrine is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Tokyo. It is located right in the middle of a bustling city, but once you enter the grounds, you tend to forget where you actually are. This is because the grounds of this Shinto shrine is like a small forest. There is a huge “Torii” gate at the entrance to this wooded area and the gravel path to the shrine is surrounded on both sides by tall trees. The modern city disappears behind you and the forest swallows you up.
This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and Empress. The Meiji Emperor was the first emperor of modern Japan when Japan opened up its doors to the western world. Unfortunately the original shrine was destroyed during the bombings of World War II, but it was rebuilt again in 1958. Over 3 million people visit this Shinto shrine to offer their first prayers of the New Year and it takes hours to get to the shrine itself from the entrance of the grounds. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see a Shinto style wedding on weekends or little children dressed in kimonos celebrating “shichigosan”, a tradition to pray for the health and growth of children, in mid-November.
Address: 1-1 Yoyogi Kamizonocho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 1 minute walk from JR Harajuku Station or a 2 minute walk from Meiji Jingu-Mae Station on the Fukutoshin Subway Line
Hours: sunrise to sundown
This shrine is a branch shrine of the famous Ise Jingu Shrine in Mie prefecture. In the olden days, one of the life long dream of the people of Tokyo was to visit the Ise Jingu Shrine. Nowadays it’s not difficult to visit Ise Jingu Shrine but when there were no trains or cars, the only way was to walk there on your own two feet. As this was near impossible for the normal commoner, the Meiji Emperor ordered a branch shrine be built in Tokyo. It is now known as a shrine that brings many blessings in for matchmaking. If there’s a certain someone you’re thinking about, you should visit this shrine. You can buy a paper fortune that will tell you about your destiny or you can buy one of the several types of good luck charms to take home with you.
Address: 2-4-1 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 5 minute walk from JR Iidabashi Station
Hours: 6 am to 9 pm
This shrine is a controversial topic among Japan’s neighboring countries and the global community. It was founded by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to commemorate the lives lost in war. This includes the 1068 war criminals, of which 14 are A-Class war criminals (prime ministers and war generals) from World War II. The inclusion of these war criminals in 1978 has caused global controversy as well as controversy among the Japanese people. No emperor has visited Yasukuni Shrine since 1975 and the shrine was planned to be torn down by General MacArthur of the Allied occupation of Japan but the Christian Church argued against it saying that people everywhere had a right to honor their dead. Even today, whenever a prime minister, diplomat, or legislator would visit, there is an onslaught of criticism but on the other hand the nationalists would say that it was unpatriotic to not visit the shrine.
Address: 3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 5 minute walk from Kudanshita Station on the Tozai Subway Line, Hanzomon Subway Line, Toei Shinjuku Subway LINE
Hours: 6 am to 5 pm (Nov.-Feb.) or 6 pm (Mar.-Oct.)
Atago Shrine stands on top of a natural hill in the middle of Tokyo, which is a rarity in itself. This Shinto shrine’s most distinguishing characteristic is the steep staircase at its entrance. It has 86 steps, each about 20cm high, and is called “ the staircase of promotion”. The reason for this is, long ago when this shrine was built, the “shogun” (military commander) saw plum blossoms growing atop the hill and asked if someone would go on horseback to get a plum blossom branch for him. While everyone thought it was an impossible feat, one man galloped up this steep incline on horseback and came back down with the flowers. This man became famous overnight. So now, it’s said that if you climb this steep staircase, you’ll be blessed with advancement in your career. If you have strong legs, climb up the stairs to the shrine, look down and be amazed at how steep the steps really are.
Address: 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 5 minute walk from Kamiyacho Station on the Hibiya Subway Line
Yushima Tenmangu or otherwise known as Yushima Tenjin is located near Ueno Park. It enshrines the deified spirit (“Tenjin”) of Michizane Sugawara, a famous scholar from the ninth century. He was a brilliant scholar and a government official. Now, the Tenjin shrines across the country are famous as places that bring good luck in academics. Students come here to pray that they pass their high school or college entrance exams and write their prayers down on “ema” which are picture tablets to write your prayers on. This Shinto shrine is also famous for its plum blossoms. There’s a festival held here in February and you can enjoy 200 blossoming trees with their delicate pink and white flowers.
Address: 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 2 minute walk from Yushima Station on the Chiyoda Subway Line
Hours: 6 am to 8 pm
Tomioka Hachimangu, also called Fukagawa Hachimangu, is located in a part of Tokyo that is known as a merchants area from olden days. So the shrine itself is known to bring good luck to the merchants’ business. It also has a deep connection with sumo. The first sumo tournament was held at this shrine and there are several monuments related to sumo here. When a new "yokozuna" (the top ranking sumo wrestler) is crowned, a sumo performance offering is made at this shrine. This Shinto shrine became infamous a few years ago when a family feud broke out within the shrine's priests. The position of chief priest was fought over between brother and sister, and finally the brother slayed his sister with a Japanese samurai sword before killing himself. This gruesome incident is unfortunate, but makes this ancient shrine much more spookier. If you like creepy ghost stories this is the place to visit. It's sure to give you a thrill.
Address: 1-20-3 Tomioka, Koto-ku, Tokyo (Map)
Access: a 1 minute walk from Monzen Nakacho Station on the Tozai Subway Line
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm
How to Correctly Visit a Shinto Shrine
At a Shinto shrine, there will be a “Torii” gate at the entrance and the shrine is usually a bright red color. At the gate, bow once before entering the home of the gods. Then walk in along the left or right side of the path. The center of the path is where the gods walk so if you want to be religiously correct, you need to walk along the side.
There will be a water basin where people purify their hands and mouth before entering. In doing this you are purifying your soul. There is a correct and very practical way of doing this. Take the handle of the ladle in your right hand and fill the ladle with water from the spout, not the basin. Pour a bit of water over your left hand, then switch the ladle to your clean left hand and pour water over your right hand. Then switch the ladle to your right hand again. Pour a bit of water in the palm of your hand and use it to rinse your mouth. After doing so, pour water over your left hand again. Then with the last of the water, bring the ladle up vertically so that water pours down the handle, cleaning it for the next person. This is normally all done with one ladle full of water, so you only need to use a little bit of water for each process. But if you run out of water, it’s fine to refill your ladle again.
When you pray at the altar of a Shinto shrine, there may be a decorated rope with bells hanging down from the ceiling. If there is one, give it a quick shake to ring the bells and rouse the gods. Then throw in a small offering into the money box. Bow twice, clap your hands twice, and pray with your hands clapped together. Then bow again before leaving. Then when leaving the shrine grounds, walk through the “Torii” gate, and remember to walk along the side of the path again, turn back towards the shrine after passing through the gate and bow. You don’t have to perform all of this process because many Japanese people don’t do it as well. But it’s the thought that counts, so if you want to try to have a true Japanese experience, this is a great way to do so.
It’s a little bit difficult to remember all the steps of visiting a shrine and having a person who can show you makes all the difference in the world. They can teach you how local Japanese people visit shrines. TripleLights provides a service of matching customers with the guides. It’s like a marketplace of guides where you can go shopping.
The guides create their own tours so all of the tours are unique. There are some tours in which you can customize parts of the tour. You can communicate directly with the guide to ask questions or convey requests, for example which shrine is a must see place for you, before actually booking a tour.
And if you don’t find the perfect tour on the list of tours, you can request a tour for half a day, a full day or more. There are numerous shrines in Tokyo other than the ones listed above. So research the shrines you want to visit and make a request. Or you can just say you want to visit as many shrines as possible in one day and the guide can create an itinerary just for you. All of the local guides will be able to see requests like this and the ones that are available during your requested dates will recommend a tour itinerary. Compare what several guides suggest and see which one looks to be the best fit. This way you can create your own customized tour that takes you only where you want to go for however long you’d like.
Most of the tours provided are walking tours, created so that you can use the public transportation system while sightseeing and get a feel for getting around the city. It’s an experience that will give you important insight on how the local people move around the city during their daily lives. Riding a train for about an hour to go to work or go somewhere is the norm for the people of Tokyo, though it probably sounds like a really long ride for people from other countries.
There is also the option of hiring a private car and driver for your tour or just to get around. It’s not a cheap option but it is helpful for people with disabilities or elderly people who aren’t able to walk for hours on end. Catching a taxi is also a good way to get around the city especially for short rides, but sometimes you just can’t find one, so having a car just for you is pretty convenient.
You must also take a look at the guides’ profile videos to see what kind of person they are and also see the reviews they got from other customers. It’s an important step in finding out a bit about your guide before meeting them at the start of the tour. At other websites, you aren’t able to choose your guide nor see what they look or sound like before the day of the tour. But if you know what they look like, it makes you less anxious about being able to find them at the designated meeting place.
Enjoy seeing the numerous shrines in Tokyo with a local guide leading you around. The natural scenery of each season changes the impression of the shrines, and you’ll be able to enjoy the different shrines whether it be in spring, summer, fall, or winter.
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