How to Visit a Shinto Shrine: Part 1

Shrines and temples COVER the Japanese countryside. I have been to hundreds of them and they all started to look the same until I went to Ise-Jingu in Mie Prefecture. Because Ise-Jingu is one of the holiest shrines in all of Japan I was amazed at the amount of people, the size of it, and the respect that people showed visiting there.

I was inspired by my trip to Ise-Jingu to learn a few things about the religions that surrounded me here in Japan and I thought I would share them with you. This post is going to be split into 2 parts. This week I am posting part 1 where I’ll talk about how to tell the difference between a temple and a shrine, the religious ideas behind Shintoism, and how to behave when you visit a shrine. In the second post next week (Part 2) I will write all about my experience visiting Ise-Jingu in Mie-ken.

Temples and Shrines: What’s the Difference?

A shrine (jinja) is associated with Shintoism which is native to Japan. Shrines feature more Japanese-style decorations and architecture. For example, If you see a tori gate you know that you are at a shrine.

Giant tori at the front of Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto at sunset. Sunset is my favorite time at Fushimi Inari. I recommend you go before sunset. Climb to the top of the hill and watch the sunset over Kyoto. Then climb back down through the gates in the night. The gate’s lanterns turn on and it is a very eerie place at night. Bring bug spray with you though. tons of mosquitos at night!

 

 

Yuki and Nigel looking up at the first tori at Fushimi Inari. this is the beginning of the hike uphill through the tori tunnel.

 

Shrines also always have troughs of water outside for cleansing your hands and your mouth before entering.

Water before the entrance to a shrine.

Shinto shrines are dedicated to various gods native to the region of Japan that they are in. There are often different animal guardians associated with major shrines. Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, for example, is associated with foxes. In general deer are the most important animal to the Shinto religion because they are thought to carry messages to and from the gods.

Nigel and one of the fox guardians at Fushimi Inari shrine.

 

Temples are associated with Buddhism which is not native to Japan. Buddhist Temples center around statues of buddha. Often times there is incense burning outside which is used to purify the people as they enter the temple.

An easy way to tell if you are at a temple is by the name. In Japanese, the last character of the name of a temple is the kanji character for temple. The temple kanji character is pronounced “ji”. Therefore, if the name of the place you are at ends in a ‘ji’ sound, you are at a temple.

Buddhist Temples’ architecture looks more universally Asian since Buddhism didn’t originate in Japan. The architecture contains things like pagodas and tiered towers. They also tend to have muter colors and a quieter atmosphere.

Notice the more muted colors of Eiheiji temple and the difference in architecture.

 

It can be tricky telling shrines and temples apart because if there is a temple there is a good chance right behind it there is a small shrine. The two are usually built right next to each other and it can be confusing knowing when you are leaving one and entering the other. Hopefully, these tips will help you notice the differences when traveling around Japan.

The Shinto Religion

The Shinto religion is best compared to Native American mysticism. These days very few people take Shintoism seriously as a religion in Japan. For Japanese people praying at a shrine is more cultural than religious.

Shintoism an action-oriented religion in which ceremonies and rituals are observed that connect the people to the god. Each shrine has a local culture and tradition that is unique to it.

Kami, the Japanese word for god, doesn’t always refer to a being and doesn’t have a plural form. It refers to divine essence or quality. So, a shrine could be dedicated to anything from a mountain’s divine essence to a particular being with a face and name, or to a group of rocks.

At the top of this rock, there is a small shrine. The “god” of this shrine is the rock itself. You can climb to the top and have a small prayer there. This shrine is on the Echizen coastline.

 

 

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The view of the Echizen coastline from the shrine at the top of the cliff pictured above

 

It is common for Japanese people to hold events for children and weddings at shrines but observe Buddhist funerals. Mainly that is because the Shinto religion’s version of death is much grimmer than the Buddhist version.

In the Shinto religion, there is a place where the dead go called, “yomi.” It is neither heaven nor hell. It’s similar the underworld of Hades from Greek myths and legends.

In Japan, I think Shintoism is mainly an expression of culture rather than beliefs. I’m sure there are Japanese people who DO feel particularly spiritual and close to a “god” or divinity at certain shrines which mean something to them. However, they are the extreme minority.

 

You will notice at larger shrines like Miyajima and Nara that deer wander freely. This is because in the Shinto religion deer are the messengers of the gods and are considered sacred animals.

Some shrines are covered with deer. They aren’t shy about wanting to take some of your food either! They are quite used to people.

 

 

So You Want to Visit a Shrine?

Here are some tips for visiting a shrine so you aren’t disrespectful or rude accidentally.

First, dress properly. It should be noted that Japan is far more conservative than most western cultures when it comes to dress. This is a religious place so you should try to cover up. Shorts are probably ok in summer (Japan is hot yo!), but sleeveless shirts or too much chest showing is not ok. Cover your shoulders with a sweater or a shall.

Secondly every time you pass under a gateway, both entering and exiting, you should turn to the direction of the main shrine and give a short bow. This is general etiquette for any shrine, however, I have only ever seen it done at really important shrines or local family shrines. If you don’t do this no one will think you are rude because many Japanese people don’t do it either. If you do bow toward the main shrine while passing under tori the Japanese people will be impressed with your cultural knowledge!

A giant tori in Kyoto

 

Thirdly you should know what to do at the water stations at the front of the shrine. Note, these are not drinking fountains. They are used to wash your hands and your mouth. You should fill the cup with water. pour the water over one hand and then the other. Then you should cup your right hand fill it with water. Put the water from your hand to your mouth. Sish the water around in your mouth for a few seconds then spit it back onto the ground. Do not swallow the water and do not bring the cup to your mouth. This is to clean you before walking into the shrine.

This picture was taken 2 weeks after arriving in Japan while visiting a shrine in Kanazawa. My friend and I were still new and didn’t know what to do here. We definitely drank from the ladle. oops. At least I know now what to do!

 

When Japanese people go to shrines they often purchase fortunes and charms to ward off evil. If you want to buy a fortune for yourself you should ask if they sell English fortunes because sometimes larger shrines will. Its traditional that if you buy a fortune and it is bad you should tie it in a knot around a branch or bamboo and leave it at the shrine. Doing this makes sure that the fortune will not come true.

bad fortunes tied up and left at the shrine on Miyajima

Lastly, you should learn to properly say a prayer at a shrine. First if you are wearing a cap or a hat take it off. Then throw money into the offering box, just a small amount of change should do fine. Next ring the bell. The bell is supposed to call the God to the shrine to hear your prayer. Bow twice deeply. Make a wish or say your prayer silently to yourself. Clap 2 times and bow one last time to finish.

Brett giving the bell at the shrine in Kyoto a nice loud ring!

 

I hope you found learning about the native religion of Japan interesting. I find the interpretations of mysticism by the local community surrounding different shrines make visiting each shrine a unique experience. I particularly love finding small shrines tucked away in corners of places you never would have thought existed. I have found shrines hidden on top of mountains and in tiny caves. They are always the most exciting shrines to visit! Discovering one in an unexpected place is like stumbling upon a little piece of history.

In the next post (Part 2) I’ll discuss visiting Ise-Jingu the most important and influential shrine in Japan. Until then!

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