Small shrines along the road


A woman is living in a traditional house facing the expressway. A small shrine on a stand is installed next to the left door of her white car. We encountered a lot of these very small shrines on our daily walks in the neighborhood. Always a bit off set from existing structures like parking lots, telephone boots, highways, gardens. Which gods are the little shrines worshipping? Why are they installed on these specific locations?  And when are they being used?

Interviews in Itabashi-ku, Tokyo, December 5, 2010

“We renewed the shrine this year, it was in a very bad shape. When we restored it, we also put it on a new stand. It is not really a matter whether we use it or not, it is just there. But I do put fresh water in the shrine every day. Inside our house we also have a small shrine and a tiny temple. We mainly use the indoor shrine to keep the firegod happy and to worship ancestors. The shrine in the garden worships Hikawa, the same deity as the shrine in the neighbourhood. The deity originally comes from Kyoto. On special occasions we get talismans from the neighbourhood shrine to put in our own shrine. And we offer special tofu, sake and rice on these occasions. The shrine could be anywhere in the garden, but we choose the spot on the car park, because it was still empty and we didn’t need to take away any plants. The only thing that really matters is that the shrine faces the south. Sometimes shrines also faces other directions, but this is rare, it is ideal when they face the south. There is one shrine in Nagano that faces the north. This is indicated in the name, which proves how unusual this really is. Having my own shrine in the garden and visiting the neighbourhood shrine helps me to keep up a good relationship with the local deity. It makes me feel secure.”

Woman living in a traditional house facing the expressway 

“This small shrine used to face the south, but recently we changed the garden and made it face the east, as we heard this is better. I put fresh water and rice in the shrine every day. On the 1st and 15th of every month, we also offer special tofu and leaves. The shrine has been here for a very long time, we don’t really know where it comes from. I also go to the Hikawa shrine in the neighbourhood, but we think our own shrine is also important, as the deity protects the land of our household. When we redesigned the garden, we planted many trees around the shrine, so it represents a shrine in a forest. It used to be lower, but we lifted it a little so it can look over the land.”

Woman living in a small apartment block with a garden

This shrine is not part of a particular sect, but it is dedicated to a specific lower deity (Hikawa). The small shrines in people’s gardens are only meant to worship the deities that belong to the house. But this shrine is a protective shrine for the local area. The hierarchy between the gods is not very important, there are only minor differences between their levels. The foxes are always lower than the rest, the ministry of shrines (Jinja-cho) manages the levels of the foxes in all the shrines throughout the country. It doesn’t really matter which direction a shrine faces, as long as it doesn’t face the northeast. This is the direction where the demons come from. The ministry of shrines doesn’t describe a specific direction, the reason why the south and the east are most popular is because of folk legends. The phone booth was installed on the ground of the shrine, because the telephone company couldn’t find any other empty place in the area. Children also use the premises of the shrine as a playground.”

Caretaker of the Hikawa shrine, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo

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