Tokyo Damage Report

small shrines of sadness

When most people – foreigners OR Japanese –  think of shrines, they think of Google Image Search  images like this:

or this. . .


But in my neighborhood, shrines all look like this:

and this . . .!

Small forlorn things, sandwiched between concrete, Western-style buildings.  The spirit world colliding with the mundane suburbs like a patchwork quilt.

Not only is that kind of weird, but even trying to TALK to Japanese people about it is weird.


ME: What do you call those tiny shrines in between houses?

JAPANESE FRIENDS: Those are shrines.

ME: Yeah, but specifically the run-down, meter-wide ones that look jarrlingly out of place?


ME: Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about!  Those things are everywhere.

JAPANESE FRIENDS: Yeah, shrines.

ME: Don't act like they're the exact same thing as the famous shrines in Kyoto!!!!!!


ME: So what's the super-secret Japanese word for that particular phenomenon – the meter-wise shrine?

JAPANESE FRIENDS: There's a word for that???


JAPANESE FRIENDS: Foreigners sure are weird.



As near as I can tell, these tiny shrines used to be full on regular-sized temples, but when Japan industrialized and land in Tokyo became very valuable, the big shrines got sold to homeowners or businesses. Unwilling to totally pave over the shrines, the new land-owners "compromised" by keeping around a square meter of land for the god to live in.  I'm sure to the owners, this showed their commitment to "preserving" Japanese culture, and to the neighborhood people it was more like "destroying" Japanese culture. In any case, it's another example of this Japanese "layering" or "montage" approach to problem-solving.


I tend to root for the underdog. I like these tiny, run-down shrines better than the fancy, sell-out shrines. I like how the spirit world and the mundane world are mixed-up. I like the thought that these very sterile concrete-and-delivery-truck-and-vending-machine encrusted suburbs have something special or other-worldly about them, something that can't be totally paved over and standardized.


So I went online looking for the word for "that type of shrine."

I image-searched, figuring that of all the Japanese with weird, very specific hobbies, there had to be someone whose life work was documenting all these types of shrines. But oddly – no! Not that I could find. Most of the search results were people's blogs about their everyday life that had one single photo of a small-shrine. This shows that clearly the phenomenon is weird EVEN TO JAPANESE. And yet not so weird that there is a word for it. Most of the time, the text accompanying the photo said  露 天神社(つゆのてんじんしゃと読む)tsuyunoten jinja. But this just means "outdoor, roofless shrine." And plenty of big, "normal" shrines also qualify.

The other big phrase that Japanese used in the text accompanying their pictures was ビルの間に神社 (biru no aida ni jinja) : "the shrine between western buildings."


Putting that into Google Image Search is where I got most of the hits. But this still isn't a "real" religious word. The absence of an official word, or an official category of shrines,  suggests to me (and my paranoid mind) that Japanese are not supposed to be thinking about how their shrines got destroyed by their own elites during the period of industrialization.



And yeah, the following images are from google image. I didn't take any of these.

Links to the few blogs that had  more than one of these kinds of images are at the bottom of this article, so please visit them.




























A sub-category of "small shrine" is this:


and this!

These are not old shrines that got shrunk to make room for fancy new buildings.

These are new shrines that got built by wealthy developers, to bring good luck to their fancy new buildings.


Getting back to the first kind of shrines:




















Seriously. Are you seeing how many of these there are? This is TOO a real phenomenon!!!
It deserves a name! And a full-color photo book!
















A third kind of "small shrine" is the  屋上にある神社 (okujou ni aru jinja) : the rooftop shrine.

This happens when the land developer doesn't even want to spare a single meter of land after he tears down the old shrine.

So as a "compromise," he re-builds a small replica of the shrine on THE ROOF!

In this case, the 'layering' is literal!








below:  a serious thing!

They didn't want to tear down the shrine, so they built the new, Western style building OVER it!

Anyone know where that thing is?!?

















A fourth category is this, the REALLY TINY SHRINE, which I also found on google image search.


This kind of 3 inch high shrine is put on corners of buildings, in the hopes that drunks will think twice before urinating on the buildings.  That's so fucking amazing. And I stole the photo from some sucker. Wait- that was my own blog. I just stole from myself. WHAT A DICK!!!!


But for real though,  all these blogs have tons of great images like this. Please visit them.


Excellent blog of all the small hidden shrines in this one city!


 Another  "hidden shrine" blog.



great blog of urban small strange things: architecture, absurd details etc.


  another rad architecture / shrine blog


Shout out to


 A blog of rad urban absurdity,  (lots of unintentionally humorous street or store signs . . .in Japanese)



19 comments Tags: ,

19 Comments so far

  1. Dario July 26th, 2011 4:59 am

    Awesome post Steven, I’ve always loved the small shrines too, and asked the same questions (without avail) to my Japanese friends 😀

  2. Snave July 26th, 2011 9:39 am

    I suspect #13 of the ones stolen from Google is not a real shrine as it a) lacks certain distinctive features b) looks like its made of concrete and c) is imitating a style of rooftop that looks like the one outlawed in regular shrines (reserved for the the Grand Shrine only).

    For those type built into buildings, the craziest of them all is near Gotanda station, up the hill hubward from the stationfront. There's two main roads that pass under the JR tracks. Take the northern one of these up towards Minato-ku. It's on the right-hand side of the street at a part where the hill is particularly steep, near an office for the wacky old Happy Haps. Literally situated u… well, you'll have to go see for yourself. >:D

    I too am shocked there is no nomenclature or numbered, ranked maniac's guidebook series for these shrines. Having said that, I think the opportunity is there to make some mooooooooney~

  3. Snave July 26th, 2011 9:57 am

    Hmm… seems 「ほこら」 could encompass them (and the lead image on the relevant Wikipedia page would suggest so), but the term also covers those tiny-arse mountainside tablets and said tablets dominate Yahoo!JP image results.

  4. Ishihara July 26th, 2011 10:13 am

    Oooooh! Now, this deserves a google maps map! And a coffee table-style book!

  5. AnokPanda July 26th, 2011 12:53 pm

    Awesome post gangsta. But i wonder if at night any of them become dens for homeless people and kids looking for somewhere to get do drugs. How odd of a walking work commute would it be to take like 15 short cuts through the between the buildings shrines?

  6. binky July 26th, 2011 2:26 pm

    Really great post.

  7. 23 Wolves July 27th, 2011 7:42 am

    Beautiful stuff.  Thank you.

  8. François July 28th, 2011 11:05 pm

    祠(ほこら)means a shinto chapel, and it has more of an old vibe, shrine-in-a-cave or hidden-in-the-deep-of-the-forest style, I'd say, so I'm not sure it would apply to those ones.
    Are you sure 露天神社 is not read ろてんじんじゃ? As in 露天風呂=ろてんぶろ, outdoor bath.
    My old company used to have one on the rooftop, where it was stuck in a corner, surrounded by the air conditionning machinery. Gloomy!

  9. mrjohn July 29th, 2011 2:02 am

    I assume that they are part of the businesses & community located in the area, someone must be maintaining them. So in a way their existence is a positive, if only as a place to wave your summer jumbo tickets.

  10. Miles July 30th, 2011 2:17 am

    In Toranomon there's an office-built-around-a-shrine that always freaks me out:
    "This office tower was built on the grounds of Kotohira shrine in Tokyo. The shrine was constructed in 1951 under the supervision of architect Chuta Ito, and it has been designated a site of historical significance. It was essential to construct the office tower while preserving the original shrine's atmosphere."

  11. Miles July 30th, 2011 2:20 am

    Here's a case where the shrine owners themselves built an office building in order to survive financially:
    "In the urbanization of the late 50's and early 60's the Asahi Inari Shrine found the foundation of its existence threatened by the appearance of office buildings in the area and the movement of the local population to the suburbs. In the midst of this situation the Asahi Inari Shrine was able to secure a stable economic foundation by itself becoming an office building, and thus remains as a symbol of the local shrines which are continuing to collapse. Since becoming an office building, visitors to the shrine have shown an increase over the previous levels, and the shrine precincts are bustling with activity. However, the shrine possesses no precinct grounds and consists instead of a hall of worship bored out of a portion of the building and an inner shrine located on the roof of the building, a form which is far removed from the traditonal style of shrine."

  12. admin July 31st, 2011 3:55 am

    @miles: rad! those are classic! thanks for that.

  13. admin July 31st, 2011 3:57 am

    @francois: yeah, you’d think it’s pronounced ろてんじんじゃ,but one of the websites about that kind of shrine included furigana and that’s what i used.
    @ snave: I’ll ask my older friends about ほこら and see what they think.

  14. Snave July 31st, 2011 7:23 am

    Nevermind dude, scrolled back up and saw I'd missed a snapshot of the place I mentioned. But you can thank me anyway because you specifically asked where the fuck it is. It's the one under the building that you call a "serious thing". Yep, it's a serious thing, and it's in Gotanda, right near a Happy Cult office. How's that for ambiguous directions!

    Here's some better ones:
    Tōkyō-to Shinagawa-ku東五反田1丁目2−33

    There's a stone torii on the street as a hint there's something whack inside. Mother of all urban layering.

  15. Snave July 31st, 2011 7:27 am

    Anok: I know of one near the Tamagawa that mysteriously spawns a Maine Coon at midnight. Largest cat you'll ever see.

  16. Snave July 31st, 2011 8:29 am

    Partial success!

    Oinarisan (おいなりさん) are tiny-arse local Inari shrines (稲荷神社). Now, some of the ones above are clearly not of this variety, but some are. At least we know the sect now, right? I've found the most Image Search results by not just slapping in the term, but also a quantifier to rule out a bunch of pics of the grand Inari shrine in Kyoto. Even just 街のお稲荷さん seems to deliver the goods.

  17. François July 31st, 2011 11:05 pm

    稲荷神社 are usually dedicated to protecting business, hence their locations in big buildings & in 商店街. They usually have a lot of 鳥居, harbor the color red a lot and sport foxes at the entrance (Inari's protective fox spirits)
    I remember there was a fucked up shrine close to my old station of 王子, on 京浜東北. Right behind the 荒川線王子駅. Small metal-sheet shacks, too. Run down snack bars, I wonder if they still open. You'd like it.
    Talking about weird religious constructions, the hall of the 霊友会 in Roppongi is huge, open to all, and fucking weird. Their's a statue of Buddha under a Buddha-channeling chimney, with rings on top. BTW, it's a cult. Check it out if you have the chance. Place looks like this

  18. admin August 1st, 2011 12:39 am

    @snave, francois: man, you people are tearing shit up on the knowledge-of-shrines tip! I had no idea this was a popular topic. Thanks for all the informations. I mean “information.” shit, i’ve been here too long.

  19. Snave August 1st, 2011 8:22 am

    Ah cheers Francois, I always wondered what the fuck the spaceship was for. I just assumed it was a ballet hall or something my poor arse would get kicked out of. Wish I ventured in now!

Leave a reply