Have you always wanted to visit a Shinto shrine but are too nervous you’ll make a cultural faux pas? What are some of the fun things to do at a Shinto shrine? Read on for all you need to know to visit, pray, and make an offering like a local, and enjoy the other fun activities that shrines have to offer!
Ise Jingū in Ise, Mie Prefecture, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Image via Adobe.
Research your kami
While not strictly required, you can add more meaning to your visit to a Shinto shrine by reading up on the local kami, or deities, enshrined there. There are said to be eight million kami in Shinto tradition. Here are some of the most well-known in Japan:
Amaterasu Ōmikami (天照大御神): The Sun Goddess. The imperial family, including the Emperor of Japan, is said to be descended from Amaterasu.
Susanoo-no-Mikoto (素戔嗚尊): The Storm God, brother of Amaterasu. He is associated with the sea and is known for his tumultuous behavior.
Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (月読尊): The Moon God and brother of Amaterasu known for his serene personality.
Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神): The Rice and Fertility God. Inari is often depicted as a fox. The fried tofu pouch sushi known as inari zushi is named after this kami and it is common to give offerings of tofu at Shinto shrines dedicated to Inari. You can often find an inari tofu pouch on top of kitsune udon!
Hachiman (八幡神): The War and Archery God, considered the guardian of Japan and associated with the samurai class.
Sarutahiko Ōkami (猿田彦大神): The Deity of Crossroads and Patron of the Martial Arts.
Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto (天宇受売命): The Goddess of Mirth and Revelry.
While we won't share them here, we encourage you to read the legends of these kami, as they have shaped Japanese culture and traditions and will enrich your shrine visit tremendously.
Entering the Torii Gate
Torii gates ⛩ are the most iconic symbol of the Shinto religion. Their tall vermillion pillars let you know that you are about to enter a sacred area. The first thing you will want to do is enter enter through the torii gate on the left or right side. Do not walk around the torii gate or straight through it, as it is considered disrespectful to the kami. Some people also choose to make a small bow before entering through the torii gate. Unlike churches, where men are instructed to remove their hats, or mosques, where men and women remove their shoes and women cover their hair, it is not required to remove your hair or shoes when entering through a torii gate.
Shinto shrines have a water basin with ladles at the entrance of the shrine grounds to purify yourself before entering the rest of the grounds. While it is not strictly required, it’s a customary practice that shows respect for Shinto traditions. Here’s how to purify yourself before entering a Shinto shrine like a pro. First, hold the ladle with your right hand to scoop water and pour it onto your left hand (front and back). Next, transfer the ladle to your left hand and wash both sides of your right hand. Transfer the ladle back to your right hand and pour water into your cupped left hand. Take your left hand to your mouth and gently rinse it before spitting the water into a designated drainage area. Finally, turn the ladle vertically and allow water to pour over the handle and return it to where you found it.
Some water basins contain dragon statues for their association with water in Japan. There are also several dragon deities in Japanese mythology, such as Yamato-no-Orochi and Ryujin. Image via Adobe.
Making an Offering at a Shinto Shrine
Making an offering (お賽銭 O-saisen) to the shrine’s kami is a long-standing Japanese custom. Identify where the shrine is on the shrine grounds. There may be several halls on larger shrine grounds or just a simple one on the roadside. First, bow twice before the shrine. Next, place money in a saisenbako, and offertory box. Clap your hands twice, close your eyes, and pray for a wish to come true. Finally, make one final bow before you leave.
The amount you offer is up to your discretion, but it is common to use denominations of 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen, or small bills. Odd numbers are seen as auspicious, and even if you only donate a 5-yen coin, rest assured that your offering will be more than welcome. The pronunciation of “five yen” (五円 go-en) is a homonym for go-en (御縁), the word for good luck.
While monetary offerings (tamagushiryō 玉串料) are most common and recommended for individuals not actively practicing Shinto, you may also find tamagushi (玉串), Cleyera japonica (sakaki) branches adorned with zigzag paper streamers. This type of offering represents one's prayers. Another type of offering is shinsen (神饌), offerings of food (typically fruit and rice) and beverages (often rice wine) that symbolize the sharing of one's blessings with the kami.
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O-mikuji are a type of fortune that is sold at Shinto shrines for a few coins. They appear as small scrolls of white paper with the details of your fortune printed on them, covering a range of topics, including moving, job opportunities, health, wealth, romance, childbirth, travel, education, personal goals and obstacles, and overall luck. At some well-known shrines, you can find omikuji not only in Japanese, but English, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tagalog and other languages. We recommend using translation software or asking a friend if you need help reading your Japanese omikuji.
1. The best outcome is Daikichi (大吉 Very good luck). It means you will be successful in all endeavours and should pursue your goals with confidence.
2. The runner-up is Chūkichi (中吉 Good luck). You’re still doing very well in the majority of areas with this fortune.
3. Next is Shōkichi (小吉). Success may require some effort on your part and you may encounter some challenges, but it doesn’t mean it’s out of reach.
4. On the downer side of things, we have Kyō 凶. We’re sorry that you have some challenges ahead, but we know you’ll come out on top.
5. And if you’re having a really bad year, Daikyō (大凶) is the worst luck you can get. It may seem a little unfair for shrines to offer this fortune possibility at all, but they’re just being honest. Be cautious and take care of yourself to avoid potential problems down the road.
You don’t have to take omikuji too seriously if you happen to get a dreaded Kyō or Daikyō fortune. Thankfully, shrines have devised a way that you can guarantee a positive outcome for yourself. Visitors often tie omikuji to a designated area of the shrine to welcome good luck and keep away the bad, after which they are burned by the local priest or priestess. No matter if you get Daikichi or Daikyō, you’ll be okay. We won’t blame you if you want to keep the Daikichi fortune for yourself, though.
No matter the outcome of your omikuji, tie it to attract even more good luck! Image via Adobe.
Ema are small wooden plaques with a string attached. While the word literally means “painted horse,” the ema can depict people and other animals depending on the shrine. Why a horse? Horses are considered messengers between the human and divine realms, such as the white horse belonging to the god of martial arts, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto. Ema are offerings in which you can write your very specific wish. These can be purchased at the designated shrine shop. You can use colored markers or a Sharpie to write your wish (All languages are welcome!). It could be anything from “May my family always remain healthy and happy” to “I want a PS5” – The choice is yours, and you can even draw pictures on the ema. Finally, you hang the ema on a designated board on the shrine grounds. By doing so, you are communicating your wish to the kami. One of the most fun activities is to just admire all of the ema that have been placed by other visitors – They can get quite creative!
A.Y. says, "I will become famous!! And rich!!" on this ema. We hope the local kami bless A.Y. to make those dreams come true. Image via Adobe.
Japan loves a stamp rally, and goshuin are the shrine version. Visitors can collect goshuin to commemorate their visit to the shrine in exchange for a small fee. You can also purchase a goshuin notebook, known as a goshuinchō, to keep all of your stamps in one place, but make sure that you don’t write in the book or use it for any other purpose than to collect stamps or the local priest or priestess may chastise you. In addition to the stamp, you can also receive calligraphy with the date you received the stamp and the name of the shrine. Keeping a record of your shrine visits is a lovely keepsake to remember your trip to Japan.
We love o-mamori, little sewn amulets you can hang on your bag embossed with a wish for good luck, health, wealth, romance, and more. Each shrine tends to have its own style and sometimes features a visual representation of the local kami. If you pass by a gaggle of school children, you are likely to see at least a few o-mamori among the keychains adorning their bag. With so many colors and themes to choose from, you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir. It's not recommended to burn or dispose of an o-mamori yourself. After all, they're supposed to protect you and provide blessings! You can return an old o-mamori to the shrine at which you purchased it once it has served its purpose.
Big test coming up? This o-mamori says 合格守り (Gōkaku mamori, or "amulet for passing a test"). Carry it with you for a better chance of acing that upcoming exam! Of course, you do need to study too... Image via Adobe.
Local shrines have held festivals (o-matsuri) and ceremonies throughout the year to worship the enshrined kami, bring the community together, and have a grand old time. Whether it’s the elaborate floats of Yasaka Shrine’s Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, the floating boats of Tenmangu Shrine’s Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka, or Kasuga Taisha Shrine’s Shika no Tsunokiri (Cutting of Deer Antlers) ceremony in Nara, you’re sure to find an entertaining festival throughout the year at a Shinto shrine.
Shinto belief is rooted in the idea of kami and people living together in harmony to maintain balance and harmony. Visit a Shinto shrine on your next trip to Japan for an authentic Japanese cultural experience.
What has been your favorite shrine experience? Where would you like to go in Japan? Let us know in the comments!