Japan has about 160,000 shrines and temples and among the most famous and touristic destinations are the Fushimi Inari and the Kiyomizu-dera, just to name a couple, but there are many more equally popular and less popular ones which are dotted throughout Japan. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish between shrines and temples as the rituals are similar. Briefly, shrines are associated with Shinto and temples with Buddhism. The word for a shrine is ‘jinja’ or ‘jingu’ and for a temple is ‘o-tera’. A shrine is marked by a torii gate, mostly in bright orange, dividing the sacred ground from the outside world whereas a temple is marked by a house-like structure called a sanmon. More often than not, you will find Buddhist statutes and images in a temple but none like that in a shrine. What this means is that a shrine is a place where gods reside, and a temple is a place where Buddhas reside.

Shinto is deeply rooted in Japanese history and is said to be the indigenous religion of Japan therefore, it cannot be separated from Japan or the Japanese people. Unlike Catholicism, where authority is derived from the Vatican, there is no head shrine but there are a collection of shrines honouring local deities. However, during the Meiji period, Shintoism was somewhat consolidated and became the state religion with the emperor as its head. Legend has it that the emperors of Japan are direct descendants of their first Emperor Jimmu Tenno, the great-grandson of Amaterasu-Omikami, who was present at the founding of Japan. All this means is that the Emperor rules Japan, as it should be because the gods wants it that way! Shinto believers’ belief that the gods and spirits (kami) exists in the same world as us, so, they are all around, interacting and existing in places and objects, thus the freedom of their religion.

Japan is a nation of traditionalists, so praying at the temples or shrines is a matter of fulfilling a tradition rather than belief in the religion. During my stay in Japan, I have visited both the shrines as well as temples, so I would just note the etiquettes at a Shinto shrine here, and if you follow these, I am sure that you will be fine.

As mentioned earlier, the entrance to a Shinto shrine is marked by a torii gate, keeping the outside world from the holy ground of the gods. When you are at the torii gate, you must first bow before entering the grounds and proceed to walk either on the left or the right. One should not walk in the middle as this is where the gods walk. Many tourists or visitors (me included!) who are unfamiliar with this etiquette do not observe this.

When you are inside the grounds and on your way to the shrine, you will come across a chozuya. A chozuya is a small pavilion with ladles, usually made of bamboo, which lies on a central rest. This is where you purify yourself before approaching the main shrine to pray to the gods. The etiquette here can be summarised into the following 3-steps:

1. Using your right hand, scoop a ladle of water and pour over your left hand.
2. Do the same but this time over the right hand.
3. Finally, you need to clean your mouth. To do this, using the ladle, pour some water into a cupped hand, swill it in your mouth and spit it out onto the ground. Don’t wash your mouth directly from the ladle.

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When you have completed these steps, make your way to the shrine to pay your respects. Here, the following rituals could be observed:

1. When you reach the shrine, bow slightly

2. Toss a coin into the box in front of you, the offertory box. The amount does not matter.

3. Ring the bell (if one is available), at least two or three times to let the gods know that you are there to pray.

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4. Bow deeply (at a 90-degree angle) twice.

5. Clap twice.

6. Thank the gods, pay your respects.

7. Bow deeply, once.

Once you have paid your respects, you may want to write your wishes on a small wooden plaque, which are called ‘ema’ (which literally means horse picture) and hang them to be received by the gods. It has been said that the kami travelled by horse and the more affluent members of society, at one time, gifted an animal to the shrine to offer them as means of transport and to pray for their coming. However, over time, the customs evolved into offering a picture of a horse instead.

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You can also purchase a slip of paper for 100 yen with fortunes (or misfortunes) written on them which awaits you in all aspects of your life from career, love, health, friendship and education. These are called ‘omikuji’. You can either keep them or tie them to a rope or branches of a tree near the shrines.

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I found observing these rituals were fun and interesting and broke the habit of just taking photographs! You should try them when you next visit a shrine.



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