Shintō is often regarded as Japan’s indigenous religion. This article introduces the very basic vocabulary and kanji related to Shintō, which can be useful when visiting a shrine.
Caution: depending on the shrine, slightly different vocabulary and kanji are used. Only most common kanji are presented in this article to avoid an overload of vocabulary and kanji.
1. Key kanji and vocabulary
Using 神, many basic words can be formed related to Shintō. 神 is usually not translated into god/deity, but referred to as kami in context of Shintō. The words/compounds with 神 related to Shintō and shrines are the following:
神道 【しんとう】 Shintō; literally “the way of the kami“;
神社 【じんじゃ】 Shintō shrine;
神宮 【じんぐう】 high-status Shintō shrine with connection to imperial family (example: Meiji Shrine in Tokyo)
稲荷神社 【いなりじんじゃ】Inari shrine; type of Japanese shrine used to worship the kami Inari, this type of shrine is said to outnumber any other type of shrine in Japan (example: Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto)
神輿【みこし】 portable shrine (carried in festivals); (also written as 御輿)
2. Structures and buildings at a Shintō Shrine
When entering a Shintō Shrine, there are various structures and buildings, starting with the torii, the iconic gate to enter the shrine. The following list are only the very common and general ones that will come into view.
鳥居 【とりい】torii; Shintō shrine archway; [image]
The iconic gate through which to enter the shrine. There are often a several of these gates before reaching the shrine.
参道 【さんどう】road approaching a shrine; worshipper’s path; [image]
Before reaching the shrine, you walk along the worshipper’s path, a walkway that leads you to the shrine.
狛犬 【こまいぬ】(stone) guardian lion-dogs; [image]
A pair of stone lion-dogs (shishi) can be found near the entrance of many shrines or right before the worship hall. They protect the space from evil.
狐の像 【きつねの像】fox statue; [image]
At Inari Shrines, a pair of fox statues is placed instead of lion-dogs.
拝殿 【はいでん】front shrine; hall of worship; [image]
The shrine building where visitors pay their respects to the kami of the shrine.
本殿 【ほんでん】main shrine; inner sanctuary; [image]
Central structure and most sacred space in which the kami is enshrined. Not accessible for visitors.
神楽殿 【かぐらでん】kagura hall (at a shrine); [image]
Building (with a stage) where the sacred dance (kagura) and music are offered to the kami during ceremonies.
手水舎 【てみずや; ちょうずや】place for ritual cleansing of hands and mouth with water when visiting shrines; [image]
石段 【いしだん】stone stairway; [image]
It’s very common for a shrine to be built a little bit higher than the rest of the surroundings. Most often, a stone stairway leads to the shrine (example: Atago Shrine in Tokyo).
石灯籠 【いしどうろう】stone lantern; [image]
3. Objects at a Shintō Shrine
Besides buildings and structures, a Shintō shrine is full of symbolism and there are many smaller items and objects to see.
紙垂 【しで】zigzag-shaped paper streamer (lightning shape) often used to adorn Shintō-related objects; [image]
絵馬 【えま】votive tablet; wooden tablet filled out with a prayer and one’s name and hung up at a shrine or temple; [image]
柄杓 【ひしゃく】ladle; dipper; scoop; (to be used at the 手水舎 to clean your hands and mouth) [image]
賽銭箱 【さいせんばこ】offertory box; (right in front of the 拝殿 to throw in your money) [image]
標縄【しめなわ】rope used to cordon off consecrated areas or as a talisman against evil; [image]
御神籤 【おみくじ】fortune slip (usu. bought at a shrine); [image]
お守り 【おまもり】charm; amulet; [image]
鈴 【すず】bell (often globular); at a Shintō shrine, it contains pellets that sound when agitated [image]
龍の口【たつのくち】dragon’s mouth; (the spout providing the water at the 手水舎) [image]
三つ巴 【みつどもえ】(emblem of) three comma-shaped figures arranged to form a circle; (often use at the side of tiles) [image]
4. Common kanji in Shintō?
You might have noticed that the kanji used in the short overview of vocabulary above are quite diverse, but there are a couple that are used more than once.
石 means “stone” (N3, kanji details), reading セキ、（シャク）、（コク）、いし. Several structures at a Shintō shrine are in stone, for example 石段 (stone steps) and 石灯籠 (stone lanterns).
参 means “participate” (N3, kanji details), reading サン、まい-る. Any word that has to do with “prayer” includes this kanji, for exampe 拝殿 (hall of worship) and 参道 (worshipper’s path). Also the act of praying at a shrine includes this kanji: 参拝 (visit to a shrine or temple, paying homage at a shrine or temple).
殿 means “hall/mansion/palace” next to the one-word meaning of “Mr.” that is commonly used to identify this kanji (N2, kanji details), reading デン、テン、との、どの. Each building at a Shintō shrine is designated with this kanji: 拝殿 (hall of worship), 本殿 (main shrine) and 神楽殿 (kagura hall).
御 means “honorable” (N3, kanji details), reading ギョ、ゴ、おん and in case of Shintō also み and おみ. This shows that some common kanji have even more readings than are listed in your everyday kanji list or text book when it comes to specific usages. In Shintō this kanji is used in the words 御輿 (mikoshi – portable shrine) and 御神籤 (omikuji – fortune slip).
One characteristic of the general Shintō vocabulary is also the animal characters, we have “bird” 鳥 in 鳥居, “dog” 犬 in 狛犬, “fox” 狐, “horse” 馬 in絵馬and the imaginary animal “dragon” 龍 in 龍の口.
Interested in more Shintō vocabulary? Check the Wikipedia Glossary of Shintō.
Vocabulary and meaning has been shortened for brevity.