Posted in JapanLife

JapanLife: Visiting a Shrine

A trip to Japan is not complete until you’ve visited a shrine or temple.

Japan has two common religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. Both religions have rich cultural and historical importance to Japanese population. There are many similarities and differences between the two religions, but, that is a whole other discussion.

For now, I will explain how a 外人 (foreigner) can enjoy a cultural experience like visiting a shrine.

Shrine Gate (鳥居)

It’s common to bow at the main shrine to show respect to the gods. But you’ll notice that 日本人 (Japanese people) tend to bow at shrine gate before entering the sacred grounds. As a foreigner, you are not expected to do the same, but if you do, it means that you appreciate and respect their culture.

Some shrines have bigger grounds and might take you a couple of minutes of walking around before reaching the main building. Others are on a smaller scale, like the one I visited a few weeks ago: 景行天皇社 (Keikotennosha).

Either way, before you approach the 本殿 (sanctuary) you will see a small structure with flowing water. This is the purification area or 手水舎 (temizuya).

Purification Area (手水舎)

You need to wash before you can present yourself to the gods:

  1. With your right hand, dip the ladle in the fountain. Fill up the ladle, as you can only dip once.
  2. Pour a little bit of water on your left hand. Then switch to your left to wash your right hand.
  3. After both hands are cleansed, pour some water on your cupped left hand. Draw the water to your mouth. DON’T DRINK the water, just swish it inside your mouth and spit out.
  4. Remember to pour and spit out water to the ground. DO NOT MIX USED WATER IN THE CLEAN FOUNTAIN!
  5. Some shrines have hand towels you can use to dry your hands, if there are none, just gently shake your wrists away from the other visitors.

Now that’s done, you can approach the main hall.

Approach to Main Hall
Main Hall (本殿)

There are signage available near the offertory box that show how you can pray. Most of the time it’s in 日本語 (Japanese), but there are pictures. If you’re still a little confused, here are some guidelines:

  1. Take a picture after you’ve prayed. Show a little respect to the shrine and other worshipers. If photography is not allowed, follow the rules.
  2. You start by dropping coins inside the offertory box. You can donate however much you want, it won’t matter.
  3. Ring the bell by pulling the thick cords above the box. It will make either a loud booming sound, or small tinkering bells. This is to attract the attention of the gods so they could hear your prayer.
  4. Show respect by bowing deeply two times. Take your time for each bow.
  5. Then clap your hands twice as well. Slower and more deliberate claps show greater respect.
  6. Silently say your prayer.
  7. End your worship by bowing once deeply. If you can, pause a bit during your bow before bringing your head back up.

Afterwards, you can leave the main hall and wall around the grounds. You can also buy 絵馬 (ema) which are small wooden plaques wherein you can write your prayer and thanksgiving. It usually costs around ¥500.

Ema (絵馬)

Write in English, Nihongo, or any language you want. I even saw some Ema with drawings and sketches.

Afterwards, you can hang the tablets around a sacred tree, or any designated areas around the shrine. You can also buy one and just keep it as a souvenir, but where is the fun in that?

When you leave the shrine, you can also bow at the gate before you go. It’s nice to show respect to the beliefs of other people around you.

And that’s that! You are now ready to explore the different shrines and temples in Japan. Don’t worry if you are still unsure about how to move around a shrine or temple. You can always ask the people working there. They may not speak English, but everyone is extremely kind and helpful. I promise, they’d find a way to help you. 🙂


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