One thing I love about Japan is how the country is its ability to mix the traditional and the mordern together almost seamlessly. A perfect example of this mixture is readily apparent in the form of shrines, which can be found all throughout the country. Japan is home to literally thousands of gods and goddesses–generally known as kami (神)–many of which have at least one or two, if not many, shrines dedicated to them. You’ll never find a shortage of shrines in the country.
Shrines in Japan are almost exclusively Shinto in nature, and many are breathtakingly beautiful. If you are visiting Japan, I definitely recommend taking some time out of your trip to visit a few different shrines to experience the tranquility and beauty of this traditional part of Japanese culture.
However, entering the shrine grounds, you should be aware of a few key things–from the names and functions of different parts of the shrine, to how to behave, anv even the best times to go (as well as the times that should be avoided).
First things first: You do not have to be a follower of Shintoism to visit a shrine; it is perfectly acceptable for anyone of any denomination, or even none at all, to pay a visit to shrines in Japan. A vistit to a Shinto shrines can be thought of as a way of taking part in the life and energy of the shrine, rather than a means of actually praying to a religious deity.
Culture Fact: Most Japanese are actually not religious—and do not claim to be Shinto, Buddhist, or any other denomination—but would be more aptly described as “ritualistic”. This means that, while most people do not necessarily believe in any particular religion, they still follow old traditions that are deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
While one does not have to religious to enter a shrine, it is good to brush up one’s knowledge and learn about the god or deity of a particular shrine. Why should you do this? Apart from simply being able to learn some awesome history and cultural points about Japan, you can also learn why people are going to that particular shrine and what they are praying for—such as good fortune in studies, health, money, etc.—and make your visit all the more engaging.
Parts of a shrine
You may have noticed those giant, red gateways, known as torii (not all torii are red though), at the entrance of each shrine. These torii are meant to separate the shrine from the rest of the world, making it a sacred and holy place. It is customary to bow before actually passing through the torii gates to show respect to the god(s) of the shrine.
Next, there is the sando (参道), or “approach”, to the paryer hall known as the haiden (拝殿). This includes the seichu (正中), or “god’s pathway”, which is comprised of the exact centre of the pathway from the torii. This is important to remember because walking on the “god’s pathway” is considered taboo! A;so, one should never walk in the middle of the torii, especially one that is directly before the main prayer hall; visitors to a shrine should walk closer to the sides of the gate.
Even when trying to take a photo, avoid standing in the middle of the pathway! Be sure to stand off to the side, even slightly off center, to take your photos while in the pathway. As a fellow photographer, I know how tempting it is to try to get that perfect shot, but it’s important to respect the traditions and customs of the place you are visiting! I personally try to hold my camera slightly in the centre while I stand off just to the side to get my shots.
Along the pathway, there will be a fountain known as a chozuya (手水舎) at which you are meant to cleanse and purify yourself (namely your hands and mouth) before entering the main grounds.
How to use the chozuya:
1. Use your right hand (never grab it with both hands) to pick up the water ladle with some water.
2. Pour some water onto your left hand to wash it.
3. Switch the ladle to your left hand and repeat the process, washing your right hand.
4. Next, switch the ladle back to your right hand, pour some water into your left hand, and then wash your mouth. Do not wash your mouth directly from the ladle or spit the water out into the basin (the water should be spat out onto the rocks directly below you, not just anywhere).
5. When you are finished, hold the ladle straight up to let the remaining water wash the handle of the ladle before you place it back on the fountain.
Now you can move onto the prayer hall, where you will find a box for offerings called saisenbako (賽銭箱). Normally, it is preferred to offer a five- or fifty-yen coin, however, any amount of money is acceptable (although coins are generally peferable over bills)—it is, after all, the thought that counts the most.
An interesting cultural note to learn is that the god said to be enshrined at a shrine is not actually inside the prayer hall where the offerings are made. These deities are traditionally said to be found inhabiting an object known as a goshintai (御神体)–which could be literally any inanimate object (some toilets are even said to house these gods)–which is kept inside the honden (本殿), or main hall. The main hall in a shrine is usually closed to the general public, although they are sometimes opened for special events.
How to pray at the shrine:
1. Take off your hat when stnading in front of the prayer hall!
2. Toss in your coin offering into to offering box.
3. If there is a bell in front of the prayer hall, proceed to ring the bell. This is meant to call the god into the shrine.
4. Bow deeply twice.
5. Make your wish/prayer (silently).
6. Clap your hands twice.
7. Finally, take one last deep bow.
Shintoism takes being clean to a whole new level and it is vital to maintain the purity of the shrine. In Shintoism, it is believed that impurity may come from sickness or contact with death, which is why you should not visit a shrine if you are sick or in mourning over the loss of a friend or relative. This concept of impurity and purification is seen in tales about the god Izanagi (伊弉諾), who purified himself by bathing—which is why shrine visitors today wash their hands and mouth at the chozuya.
The oldest extant Japanese chronicles is the Kojiki (古事記) (711-712 CE), which is a collection of myths about the Japanese gods and the origins of Japan itself. The tale about Izanagi was originally contained here.
Also written in the Kojiki is the concept of sound. It is written that the sound of clapping was what divided the heavens from the earth and created the Japanese archipelago. It also states that sounds, like ringing bells, has the power to drive away evil spirits and summon the gods.
Another good guideline to remember is that the time-old phrase “silence is golden” is key to avoiding disturbing the deity enshrined in a shrine.
You should not talk in front of the prayer hall, especially when there are other visitors there to pray.
Visiting a Shinto shrine is truly a great way to both experience old Japanese traditions and bask in the serenity the grounds have to offer. Armed with this knowledge of Shinto shrines in Japan, I hope you can make your next visit even more enjoyable and learn a deeper appreciation of the local customs.
Article originally published on Izanau, Jun 1, 2016 . Edited from original version.