October 7, 2017

How to Visit a Shrine

This guide will tell you all that you need to know to follow the proper etiquette that's expected when one visits a Shinto shrine in Japan.

A girl wearing a kimono visits Fushimi Inari Taisha, one of Kyoto's most iconic Shinto shrines

I visit A LOT of Shinto shrines while gathering content for this blog. From derelict and dilapidated hidden gems to the ultra-famous Fushimi Inari shrine pictured above, I’ve seen all manner of shapes and sizes. After all, visiting a shrine often ranks high on the must-do lists of foreign travelers so it’s only natural that they be a primary focus. In my many years of expeditions though, the one thing that continues to astound me is how few foreigners follow proper etiquette. Whether taking photographs where one shouldn’t to drinking sacred purification water, I’ve seen way too many faux pas to count.

When it comes to the behavior of these offensive guests, I have a confession to make. For some time, I actually felt pretty irritated whenever I witnessed someone defiling proper shrine protocol. While popular with tourists, these settings are religious sites (that are still in use) and deserve to be honored as such. I was dumbfounded as to how there could be such a lapse in respect while traveling in Japan. You wouldn’t barge into a church and start washing your nape with holy water so why do it at a shrine?

After several (possibly intoxicated) sessions bemoaning the lack of manners, the answer eventually dawned on me. Most visitors simply do not know any better! And, to think I had been judging them as if they were informed travelers. Perhaps a couple reasons account for the misinformation. First, the tourism boards have been somewhat lax when it comes building out the awareness needed. And, let’s not also overlook the long standing dilemma of limited access to proper English instructions on-site.

Despite my admitted quickness to condemn this apparently rude behavior, I actually do expect more from my readers who are committed to getting off the beaten path. To help you avoid feelings of embarrassment when visiting a shrine, I’ve put together the following step-by-step guide to proper shrine protocol. Just follow the guidelines as detailed below and you’ll pay the gods their due respect.

Torii’s Demarcate Consecrated Ground

The main torii of Meiji Jingu near Tokyo’s Harajuku area

When approaching a shrine, the first structure you’ll often encounter is a torii gate. These often vermillion archways signify passage into divine territory and denote the boundaries of a shrine’s consecrated grounds. The proper procedure holds that you should bow slightly just before passing under the torii gate. Then, at least to the extent possible, enter through either the right or left side of the pathway. The center pathway is reserved for the enshrined deities and you’re not one of them!

While this may seem simple enough, a major faux pas I see many foreign travelers make is passing on the outside of of the torii gate. Doing so is a major blunder and must be avoided at all costs! After all, the torii gates are there to invite you onto the gods’ sacred territory. Avoid incurring their divine wrath and enter through the proper gateways.

Purify Thyself Before Visiting a Shrine

A woman purifies herself at the temizuya in front of Hakone Shrine

After passing through the first gate, but before the main shrine, you’ll also encounter a small pavilion with a water basin. This is known as a known as a temizuya (also called a chozuya) and is used to purify one’s body before approaching the gods. In bygone days, the ritual originally required cleansing oneself in a nearby body of water but the process has been simplified over the years. Be thankful that you need not go find yourself a lake.

As with most shrine-related etiquette, there is a proper order you must follow. First, grab the ladle with your right hand and fill it with some water. Use this liquid to cleanse your left hand. Then, pass the handle to your left hand and repeat the process by washing your right hand. It’s critically important that you do not allow any of the water to splash back into the temizuya basin. Doing so will only contaminate the water for everyone!

After cleaning both hands, pass the ladle back to your right hand. Pour some water into your left hand then take it into your mouth from your hand. Never, never, never cleanse your mouth directly from the ladle itself. Also, be sure not to swallow the water either. Just politely spit it out at the base of the temizuya basin. Finally hold the ladle vertically, allowing for the remaining water to trickle down and cleanse the handle. Take note travelers, you are not excused from performing this final step just because it’s cold in winter!

OK, I’m sure you want to look cool and culturally aware. With that said though, you don’t need to go as far as actually “washing” your hands or mouth. There’s no need to get to scrubbing like you would at an onsen; a little sprinkle will more than suffice here. Above and beyond, the temizuya is a ritualized purification. Following the proper procedure is more important than ensuring your hands are actually clean.

Hopefully the above explanation was easy enough to follow. While this ritual may seem rather complicated, if you watch Nippon.com’s video it should all make sense. If by chance, you forget what to do, just allow some locals to step ahead and copy whatever they do. In my opinion, that’s probably the best way to learn anyway!

Study Up on How to Pray at a Shrine

A couple ascends the stairs at Shinjuku’s Hanazono Shrine

OK! You have rightly entered the sacred grounds and cleansed yourself. Now it’s time to actually do your omairi, the Japanese word for the act of praying at a shrine. As you probably guessed, there’s a complex procedure here too that you will need to follow. Hopefully, you still have a pen and notepad handy; thankfully, this is the last ritual you’ll need to commit to memory.

As you approach the shrine, gently toss a coin into the offertory box. For the billionaires out there, please note that it does not matter if you throw in a 1 yen coin or a 10,000 yen bill. It has no effect on whether or not the deity will listen to you. At a Shinto shrine, it truly is the thought that counts. Many Japanese people opt to use a 5 yen coin because it is homophonous with the world for “relationship” but this is nothing more than a urban legend.

Once you’ve quite literally paid your respects to the enshrined gods, ring the bell two or three times to alert the spirits of your presence. Note that some of the smaller and/or remote shrines do not have bells. In this case, you’re safe to just omit this step. Oh, before you ask, I have no idea why one is supposed to offer money BEFORE alerting the gods. Maybe it’s so they don’t know if you’re a cheapskate or not?

Anyway, after getting the god’s attention, you’ll want to show your humility. Bow deeply twice until you reach about a 90 degree angle. Then, clap your hands twice while making sure to keep your left hand slightly more forward than your right. Supposedly, this is a symbolic way of showing the enshrined deity your appreciation for paying attention to your ungrateful, meager existence (either that or the Japanese just like clapping).

Once you’ve clapped for the second time, keep your hands pressed firmly together and pay your respects to the god enshrined. Additionally, if you have any specific wish or request, now is the time to silently convey it. Be sure to remember to thank the deity for their time too. After a few seconds of prayer it will be time to wrap up the ritual. Bow one final time and then walk away.

And by the way, don’t fret if you see someone not following the exact protocol. There are actually a variety of regional customs yet most Japanese people generally conform to the above steps. I guess this means that if you make a mistake you can blame it on one of the locals from the boonies…

Before Leaving a Shinto Shrine

Enma are displayed at a Shinto shrine in Japan

Once you’ve paid your respects to the enshrine deity or deities, there are a few other things you can do at some of the larger shrines. Perhaps you have a wish you would like to come true? Well then, consider buying a small wooden plaque called an enma. These tokens are yet another way of conveying your desire to the gods. Many shrines will also have some unique items that you can purchase to ward off evil spirits or grant protections. What’s more, some shrines even have commemorative stamps known as shuin that act as physical proof of having paid your respects!

In addition to the aforementioned offerings, you can also purchase an omikuji. These slips of paper are essentially a means of telling fortunes and will have one of a number of results written on them. These fortunes have been known to run the gamut from a great blessing to a great curse (see Wikipedia for more information). As a side note, most omikuji are written in Japanese only but these days, some shrines are beginning to offer English interpretations as well.

If you happen to pull a bad result, don’t worry. One of the cool things about omikuji is you can simply tie an unfavorable outcome on a nearby rope or branch to rid yourself of the bad luck. Talk about convenience! Now if only I could do that with my credit card bill…