How to Visit Shrines

If you saw my earlier post about Iwakiyama Jinja, then you probably already know my deep love for visiting shrines! However, I didn’t have a chance to explain how to visit a Japanese shrine, so I’d like to explain how to best enjoy shrines. It is also important for me to note that there are really no set rules but rather general guidelines for worshiping at shrines…

So you walk up to a big red torii and you hear two claps in the distance, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I got this it’s a Shinto shrine,’ then all of a sudden the torii come to an end and you are greeted by a giant statue of Buddha towering above you. You begin to panic, sweat drips down your forehead you’re thinking, now what do you do?! Honestly, in that situation I wouldn’t even know myself, but here are a couple ways to tell the difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple.

First, shrines typically have torii which are the red gates that are at the front of shrines, these are there to symbolize the separation of the human world and the spiritual world.

Temples also have gates but they are called sanmon and tend to look like small buildings rather than gates.

Secondly, shrines are dedicated to kami and temples are dedicated to Buddhas, meaning that you will typically find images of buddhas on temple grounds unlike their shinto counterparts.

Lastly, if the place ends with -in, -do, -ji, or -dera it is most likely a Buddhist temple and if it ends with -jinja or -taisha it is a Shinto shrine. 

Now that you can spot the difference between a shrine and temple, let’s go visit one!

When visiting a shrine it is called omairi (お参り) unless you are visiting on the first day of the year than it is hatsu moude (初詣). 

1.) When coming up to a shrine you will most likely come upon a big torii. At this point in time, it is respectful to give a slight bow. When proceeding through the torii you should walk on the sides and not directly down the middle. The middle of the path is designated for the gods, so it is seen as disrespectful to walk through the center.

2.) Next you will come upon the chozuya (手水舎). You will notice a basin of water with ladles laid on top of it and some form of fountain. The purpose of the chozuya is to purify yourself before walking on sacred grounds (even in winter when the water is freezing you shouldn’t skip this step).  

a.) First take the ladle with your right hand and fill it with water.

b.) Next Rinse your left hand, and switch the ladle to your left.

c.) Next Rinse your right hand and switch the ladle back to your right hand.

d.) (Optional) Pour some water into your left hand and rinse your mouth, DO NOT drink the water, just rinse and spit out the water (don’t spit it back into the basin) 

e.) Turn the ladle vertically and let the remaining water cleanse the ladle you just used, and put it back to dry

Now you can go to the shrine!

3.) First you want to bow slightly and throw a coin into the box at the front of the shrine. (The amount of money you throw doesn’t matter, but people will sometimes use a 5 yen coin. This is because go-en sounds like the word for “good fortune”).

4.) If there is a bell or a gong you would first ring this 2 to 3 times (this is to wake up the kami that lives in the shrine).

5.) Then you should deeply bow 2 times

6.) Clap your hands 2 times

7.) At this point you can either bow slightly and say a quick prayer, or you can just bow to pay your respects.

8.) Deeply bow one last time before leaving and you’re done! You successfully faked it till you made it!!

9.) (Optional) I’ve occasionally seen people do this, but you can turn around and do a slight bow after exiting the front torii at the entrance of the shrine.

So you successfully did omairi !! What do you do now? 

There are quite a few things that people do when they visit shrines. Most of it revolves around buying things that will bring good fortune and protection. 

Some of these good luck charms include: omamori, hamaya, ema, omikuji, and shuin

Omamori (お守り)

These are purchased for numerous reasons, but it is all centered around some form of protection or luck. Just like “there’s an app for that” there is most definitely ‘An omamori for that’. Here is a list of some of the most common omamori that you’ll see. 

  • katsumori (勝守) – Success
  • yakuyoke (厄除け)–Ward Away Evil
  • shoubaihanjou (商売繁盛) –Money
  • gakugyou-jouju (学業成就) – Education & Learning
  • koutsuanzen (交通安全) –Traffic Safety
  • enmusubi (縁結び) –Love
  • kaiun (開運) – Luck-Boosting
  • shiawase (幸せ) –Happiness
  • kenkou (健康) – Good Health
  • byouki heyu (病気平癒) –Get Well Soon

If you want to learn more about omamori here are some useful links:

Hamaya (破魔矢)

This literally translates as ‘demon breaking arrow’ these are a popular purchase around New Years. They are purchased with the purpose of warding off misfortune and supposed to attract good luck. Originally they were given as gifts to boys around the new year, but they are still commonly purchased for both boys and girls nowadays. Hamaya are still highly regarded as a gift for children. The reason the arrows are given is because Japan has many fairy tales that include gods driving demons away with a bow and arrow, so it is thought that the sound of the arrow alone will drive away any demon, and thus any bad luck. 

Ema (絵馬)

These are plaques of wood that you can purchase at shrines. People write wishes on the back and hang them up in hopes that their wishes will come true. There will be an area dedicated to hanging the plaques up, but if you want to keep the plaque you can opt out of writing on it and hanging it up at the shrine. Ema is comprised of two kanji 絵 “e meaning painting and 馬 “uma which means horse. During the Nara period people would donate a horse to a shrine for good fortune or rather so the gods would be more likely to listen to their prayers, however as you can imagine horses were very expensive limiting this practice to the wealthy. People instead would carve wooden horses or make them from clay or paper, which eventually lead to the practice of ema. Nowadays not all ema have a picture of a horse. They actually come in a variety of shapes and have patterns that are specific to each individual shrine. 

If you want to learn more about ema here are some links:

Omikuji (おみくじ)

These are strips of paper that have fortunes on them, that you can purchase at shrines. These fortunes range from great luck all the way to very bad luck. These fortunes are very cheap and you select them randomly. If you have good luck you can keep the fortune, but if you get bad luck you should tie it up at the shrine. The saying is that once the paper falls off your bad luck has ended. In most big cities the omikuji have rough English translations, but in most places they will be all in Japanese. So here are the words to look for to know whether you need to tie the omikuji up or not.

  • dai-kichi (大吉) great blessing
  • chuu-kichi​ (中吉)middle blessing
  • sho-kichi (小吉)little blessing
  • kichi (吉) blessing
  • sue-kichi (末吉) ending blessing (you have luck but you have to work for it)
  • kyo (凶)bad luck
  • dai-kyo (大凶) terrible luck

If you want to learn more about omikuji here are some links:

Shuin (御朱印)

These are my favorite thing to purchase at shrines. (I am still confused because some people say you can only buy these at temples, but I have definitely purchased them at shrines as well. I might do a separate post about shuin later!!) Shuin just means seal, meaning the hanko of the shrine. You can purchase a book to collect these seals called 御朱印帳 goshuinchou. These stamps are written with an ink brush by hand by a shrine miko or priest, and then stamped with the red seal.

Now that you are a pro at omairi go out there and visit some shrines!!

3 thoughts on “How to Visit Shrines

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