Anyone who has ever been to Japan has seen the various little stone figures alongside the road or sitting inside a neighborhood shrine. Who are they, and what are they doing there?
Whenever you think of Japans most famous shrines, such as Meijij Shrine in Tokyo, you may have wondered exactly why these shrines are so famous and why so many tourists flock to them. For a Western tourist, just the fact that a site is famous is enough to want to go visit it. The Japanese, however, have different reasons for visiting these places: to pray to the gods at those shrines. It’s considered good form to occasionally visit the gods. Here is a guide to the most famous Shinto gods in Japan and what they are worshipped for.
There are many multi-purpose Shinto gods. A good example is Jizo, the protector of children, expectant mothers, travelers, and pilgrims. He is also the protector of aborted or miscarried children, so women who have lost a child will make offerings to Jizo regularly. Statues of jizo can be found alongside roads where travelers pass. People will often put out an offering of a piece of fruit or a few coins in respect for Jizo. A group of 6 Jizo statues can sometimes be found along busy roads or intersections.
Ujigami are the local shrines you see in neighborhoods. These deities are responsible for protecting the neighborhood and may have connections to the founding ancestors of the village or town. Each shrine has a yearly festival in its honor when the neighboring people will come, leave offerings and donate some money towards the upkeep of the shrine.
Suiten is the goddess of water and is also the deity of fertility, motherhood and easy childbirth. You can often see stones devoted to her in the countryside written with Suiten on them in kanji.
Although the above shrines can be readily seen in any part of Japan, the following are bigger shrines that attract tourists or locals in the area for specific purposes.
There are over 90,000 Tenjin shrines in Japan. These shrines are for those famous people who become deities after their deaths, mainly the Emperor Meiji and Michizane Sugawara. Michizane is the diety of scholarship, learning and calligraphy, so students go to these shrines to pray to pass school entrance exams.
Jingu shrines are noted for their connection with Japan’s Imperial Family. They are dedicated to the deified spirits of the emperor and his family. The most famous is Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, dedicated to emperor Meiji, in which over 3 million people gather each year to make their traditional first prayer of the New Year on January 1st.
Over one third of the shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari, the god (or goddess) of rice and harvests. Inari is the diety for farmers and merchants, especially those dealing with rice. The fox is used as a messenger for this god, so you will always see two foxes guarding the torii gate of an Inari shrine. People will often buy little fox statues as offerings and place them around these shrines. Inari shrines have vermilion torii gates.
So the next time you go to a shrine in Japan, you just might know why everyone else is there.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com