So what even is Shinto?
Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion that commits to worship of nature and ancestors. It holds a belief in a sacred power in both inanimate and animate things. It has many gods and creatures. To any foreigner who learns about Shinto folklore and stories, it is something new and exciting. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. Some would even call it a religion based around being Japanese, as it was once believed their Emperor was a descendant of the gods.
There are thousands of Shinto shrines in Japan from ones that take over an entire mountain to little ones you can pass without a second thought. Out of the thousands, here are 10 that are definitely worth a visit. Also, note that this is a list of Shinto shrines, not Buddhist temples. The two are easily confused for one another by tourists.
10 Ise Grand Shrine (Ise)
Part of what makes this shrine so famous is that it's the home to one of Japan's most important gods, Amaterasu. She is known as the guardian deity of the sun, Japan itself, and the foundress of the Imperial Family line.
The shrine is over 2,000 years old. However, tradition has it so that the shrine is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. While it is enough to just visit on its own, there are also many ceremonies and performances that occur throughout the year that you can schedule a trip around. The shrine is particularly crowded around New Years.
9 Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
While many gods reside in Fushimi Inari, the main one is Inari, the God of Fortune. Fox spirits known as kitsune serve the gods of this shrine. So you will see fox statues everywhere.
This shrine is also famous for its many torii gates. Each gate has been purchased and placed by a company or business as a token to the gods. You can see the names of the gates donor on the back of each gate.
Being one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto, the base shrine is typically crowded. However, Mt. Inari is full of wonderous small shrines scattered around. You can climb the entire mountain and explore to your heart's content.
8 Izumo-Taisha (Izum0)
This shrine is considered to be the oldest of all, predating even Ise Grand, though its foundation date is unknown. It is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, a Shinto god of marriage. There are two big festivals that happen at this shrine: The Imperial Festival and the Grand Festival. Both are held in May.
There are many restaurants and shops near the shrine. Also if you see the shrine trail divided into three paths, refrain from taking the center path. That path is for the gods.
7 Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima)
This shrine was built in 593 for the daughters of the storm god and sun goddess. It's also widely known as the "floating torii gate" as it was built over the water instead of on land. In high tide, it appears as though it's floating on the water. During low tide though, you can walk up to gate. So it is a good idea to time your visit based on the tides.
At night, the whole shrine lights up over the water. It is beautiful to see, but the shrine is closed after sunset. You can possibly see it at night from a boat cruise.
6 Meiji Jingū Shrine (Tokyo)
This shrine was built for the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. So yes, they were real people and it is not uncommon in Shinto for real people to achieve godhood after passing away depending on their accomplishments. There is a misconception that the Emperor and Empress are buried here. However, Shinto belief dictates that death and disease are impure, so no dead bodies would be on the premise.
The original version of this shrine was destroyed in World War II, but it was rebuilt. Emperor Meiji is known as the first Emperor of modern Japan and he died in 1912. Around 3 million visitors come to this shrine on the first 3 days of the New Year.
5 Nikko Toshogu Shrine (Tochigi)
This is an unusual Shinto shrine because it does actually hold the remains of someone dead. This may be why the shrine has both Shinto and Buddhist elements, as Buddhism deals more with death than Shinto does.
The shrine has the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the first shogun of Tokugawa Japan. Like Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken at the Meiji Jingu Shrine, he has been deified into a Shinto god.
The shrine is lavishly decorated and set in a beautiful forest.
4 Yasukuni Shrine (Tokyo)
This shrine is worth visiting due to its controversy. It is dedicated to all who lost their lives on behalf of the emperors. It memorializes over 2 million people.
The controversial side to all this is that it enshrines some infamous war criminals. So when important figures much as the Prime Minister in Japan come to pay respect to the dead in this shrine, it is unsettling to neighboring countries like South Korea and China who experienced the Nanking Massacre and the kidnapping of Comfort Women from some of the figures that this shrine is respecting.
3 Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine (Yamanashi)
If you plan on visiting the famous Mt. Fuji, then this shrine should be on your list of places to visit. It enshrines all the gods and goddesses of Mt. Fuji. With Mt. Fuji being as famous as it is, there are actually many shrines around the base. This one is particularly beautiful as it resides in a dense forest of cedar trees. There is also a beautiful path of stone lanterns.
Climbers to Mt. Fuji used to start their ascent at this shrine. However, now most visitors start at the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station since that cuts about 5 hours from the hike.
2 Sannō Shrine (Nagasaki)
This shrine is famous for getting its torii gate exploded in half from the 1945 atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The gate was only 800 meters away from the blast location. Today, Sannō is known as the "one-legged" shrine.
There is more to see than just the torii gate. The trees around the shrine are a demonstration of destruction and regrowth. Despite being scorched and twisted from the bomb's destruction, they are still alive to this day.
1 Yudono-San Shrine (Haguromachi Touge)
Located at one of the Three Mountains of Dewa is Yudono-san Shrine. It is known to be one of the most secretive and mysterious shrines in Japan. There is a strict ban on all photography at the location. However, the shrine is easy to visit through a toll road.
It is important to note that this shrine is closed throughout the winter months. Yudono-san is the mountain of rebirth and is often the last of the Three Mountains of Dewa that pilgrims would visit (visiting the mountains of birth and death first). Of the three, it is Yudono-san that is seen as the most sacred.