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Simplicity was the essence of the earlier Shinto shrines in Japan. The natives believe that the Japanese kami (gods) inhabit all natural phenomena such as volcanoes and rocks; these sacred places were thus marked with only a shimenawa (special plaited rope) and gohei (strips of white paper). The shimenawa will lead one to fences and on to the torii gates, which are now common features of a shrine.

The architecture of these shrines comes in many varieties, but most were developed from storehouses and dwellings of prehistoric Japan. A pair of komainu (stone 'lion') guards the main path leading to the shrine. One will have its mouth open in a roar while the other has its mouth closed.

At the entrance, visitors will find the chozuya (ablution basin). The hishaku (ladle) is used to rinse both hands while the mouth is rinsed with a cupped hand. The resident kami is enshrined in the main building, honden. This place is off-limits to all but Shinto priests on certain occasions. In front of the honden is the haiden or hall of worship. An offering box (saiden-bako) sits in front of it while a gong and a long piece of rope hang above. There is a ceremonial procedure to this offering box; throw a coin into the box, sound the gong twice, make two deep bows, clap loudly twice (once deeply, once lightly), and step back to the side.

The first shrines were built in true native style. Characteristics include natural wood columns and walls. Chigi (horns) protrude over the ridge of the roof and on free-standing columns at either gabled end. Another feature is the katsuogi, which are short logs laid horizontally across the ridge of the roof. Chinese architectural styles were incorporated when Buddhism was introduced in the 6th Century.

The Naiku Shrine, which forms part of the Ise-jingu Grand Shrine at Ise, is the most stunning example of a pre-Buddhist, Japanese-style shrine. Other notable shrines include Meiji-jingu and Yasukuni-jinga in Tokyo, as well as Izumo Taisha near Matsue.


There is an abundance of Buddhist temples in Japan, and just as the religion was imported from China and Korea, so was the architecture. These temples can be divided into three categories, namely the wayo (Japanese style), daibutsuyo (Great Buddha style), and karayo (Chinese style). The pagoda was the principal structure on which earlier temples were built on. Their importance came from India where they acted as a reliquary for enshrining the sacred remains of Buddha.

Japanese pagodas are strongly influenced by the Chinese. They come in the form of elegant terraced structured roofs with a spire. In due time, however, pagodas became another part of the many buildings of a temple. The overall design and look of a temple varies; it depends on the type of schools and historical era of construction. Kyoto and Nara have some of the finest Buddhist temples. Koya-san and Eihei-ji Temple in Nagano and those in Nikko and Kamakura are also among the more remarkable temples.


There are many disadvantages in the structure of prehistoric Japanese castles. Natural terrain was used for resistance instead of structural innovations, thus proving the castle to be inaccessible to both attackers and defenders.

As time passed, however, the defenses became more intricate, with stonewalls, moats, earthworks, and halls and tunnels resembling labyrinthine mazes built within the castles. Joka-machi (castle towns) surround these castles and a tenshu or tower sits in the middle. Larger castles may consist of several tenshu around a central tower and other forms of fortifications mounted on the gates. Buildings are also placed atop stone ramparts, which are made of wood covered with plaster to protect it against fire.

There are a large number of castles left from the war era of the 16th and 17th centuries. Those seen in Japan today are 'plain castles' (hira-jiro), which were built on flatter grounds by chieftains to protect their dwellings. By the Momoyama period, castle architecture had become a work of sophistication and grace. Three such masterpieces are the Himeji-jo, Osaka-jo, and Fushimi-jo castles.

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