5 Etiquette to observe at a Shinto shrine in Japan
The 5 etiquette to observe at a Shinto shrine which you find here is just a helping hand for when you visit Japan. As a visitor to Japan, you are certain to visit one of the 160,000 shrines and temples and may wish to observe the etiquette that goes along with the culture here.
The Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu-dera are among the most famous and touristic destinations in Kyoto, Japan. You can read more on Top 5 Places to see in Kyoto here. There are many more equally popular and less popular shrines which are dotted throughout Japan.
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When you visit one of these shrines or temples, you may wish to observe the etiquette, either because you simply want to or out of respect for the Japanese culture. Whatever your reasons may be, it is good to know what to do when you are at a shrine or a temple.
There is a slight difference in the etiquette and the rituals you need to observe when you visit either a shrine or a temple. The next paragraph gives a brief overview on the differences between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. However, this post is aimed at etiquette and rituals that relates to a Shinto shrine only.
If you are interested in finding out more on Shintoism in Japan, I have selected a few books that provides a good degree of information. You can find them here
For now, come along with me and allow me to share my experiences with you.
Difference between a Shrine and a Temple
Initially, I found it hard to distinguish between shrines and temples as the etiquette are similar.
Shrine v Temple
Briefly, shrines are associated with Shintoism 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.
Shintoism in Japan
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. With Shintoism, there is no head shrine but there are a collection of shrines honouring local deities.
Shintoism went through some changes during the Meiji period. It 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 want 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.
Tradition rather than belief
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 for almost 6 months, I visited both shrines and temples, so I would just note the etiquette at a Shinto shrine here, and if you follow these steps, I am sure that you will be fine.
Etiquette at a Shinto shrine
Etiquette 1 – Bow and walk on either side
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, make your way to the Shinto shrine but before you come before the gods, you need to observe the 2nd etiquette at the chozuya.
Etiquette 2 – Purify yourself with 3-step ritual at the chozuya
Just before the entrance to the Shinto 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-step rituals:
i) Using your right hand, scoop a ladle of water and pour over your left hand;
ii) Do the same but this time over the right hand;
iii) 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.
When you have completed these 3-step rituals, make your way to the shrine to observe the next etiquette – to pay your respects to the gods. Here, observe the following 7-step rituals:
Etiquette 3 – Pay your Respects with this 7-step ritual at the shrine
i) When you reach the shrine, bow slightly;
ii) Toss a coin into the box in front of you, the offertory box. The amount does not matter;
iii) Ring the bell (if one is available), at least two or three times to let the gods know that you are there to pray;
iv) Bow deeply (at a 90-degree angle) twice;
v) Clap twice;
vi) Thank the gods, pay your respects;
vii) Bow deeply, once.
After paying your respects to the gods, you may want to do Ema.
Etiquette 4 – Write your wishes on Ema
Once you have paid your respects, you may want to write your wishes on a Ema. Ema, literally means horse picture, is a small wooden plaque, which you buy to write your wishes and to hang them to be received by the gods. You can buy Ema of various sizes.
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.
Ema, is a rather popular activity among older teens who are keen to wish for their education success or career prospects, couples who wish for long-term happiness and older generation who wish for good health.
After Ema, you may want to find out about what fortunes lies ahead.
Etiquette 5 – Omikuji (100 Yen fortunes)
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.
In a nutshell
With over 160,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples dotted all over Japan, I am sure that you will visit one when you are there. I learnt more of the Japanese culture and the differences between the two religions as I continued to visit as many shrines and temples as I could during my stay in Japan. For the Japanese, observing the etiquette at the Shinto shrines or the Buddhist temples was more of a habit than being religious. So, there are no strict rules to observe these etiquette and you do not have to if you do not want to.
I found observing these etiquette were fun and interesting. It broke the habit of just taking photographs! You should try them when you next visit a Shinto shrine and return here to share your experiences.
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January 2020, Update
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One glass of water doesn’t equal another. One may just appease the thirst, the other you may enjoy thoroughly. In Japan, people know about this difference. – Jil Sander