Translated by Verity Lane
How To Visit A Japanese Shrine
Written by Mako Hayashi
While in Japan, we highly recommend visiting both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. This article introduces the proper way of visiting a shrine and what kind of manners one should pay heed of when on the shrine grounds.
Visiting a Japanese Shrine
The act of visiting a shrine is called sanpai in Japanese. In Japan, be it the city or countryside, you will find various Shinto shrines of all sizes.
Needless to say, anybody can enter the shrine grounds and pay their respects, regardless of the religious belief they may hold. If you visit a shrine in Japan, why not try paying your respects like the Japanese?
There are a few simple rules that you need to consider when visiting a shrine. In this article, we will go over the basic process of sanpai.
The Process of Visiting a Shrine
1. Pay Your Respects in Front of the Gateway to the Shrine (torii).
In front of the gate too the shrine grounds, bow respectfully once. This is the way of greeting the guardian deities of the shrine and asking permission to enter.
2. Perform the Purification Ritual
Before going toward the main hall, it is customary to purify oneself in a symbolic way by touching the water in the spring at the entrance.
Close to the entrance gate you will see a purification trough like this one. It is called chouzuya in Japanese.
There is a big spoon-like ladle called hishaku, so please use this to spoon out a generous amount of water.
The order is important! Pour a little water onto each hand, starting from left to right. Please keep in mind that it is a symbolic purification, and it doesn't mean that you should actually wash your hands.
Using your left hand, ladle some water and touch your mouth slightly with it. This is a symbolic purification of the mouth. Afterwards, pour some water on your left hand again.
After you have finished cleansing your hands, lift up the mouth of the ladle and lay it down like this, allowing the leftover water to run down the handle. This gesture represents the act of purifying the ladle.
3. Ringing the Bell at the Main Hall
The main shrine building (honden) is the place where the gods reside. When you enter the grounds, please stand in front of this structure. When you look up at the structure, there should be a large bell suspended. Grab the bundle of suspended cords hanging down from the bell, and give it a big shake.
The bell will chime quite loudly, so be prepared.
4. Make an Symbolic Offering
In Japan, money that is offered to the gods is referred to as "saisen". Many people offer 5 yen coins, which is a very small amount, but not because they want to save money. The Japanese pronunciation for '5 yen' is identical to 'goen' which means "good luck" or "good connections", so this wordplay is used to convey a wish for good fortune.
Put your offering in the box placed in front of the main shrine hall. The amount of money you place into the box is optional, and there are no strict rules stating that it has to be a 5 yen coin.
5. Pay Your Respects
Firstly, bow twice.
Ring the bell twice, then clap your hands twice.
When you have finished clapping, join your hands in prayer position by straightening your fingers and placing your hands together. This position is called "gasho" in Japanese. When you have finished your prayer, bow once more.
This process is referred to as "nirei nihakushu ichirei", which means two bows, two claps, and a bow, which is an altogether easier way to remember the order of flow.
6. Lastly, Face the Main Hall From in Front of the Gateway and Bow
When you exit the grounds through the gateway, face towards the main shrine building and bow once. This last gesture implies a feeling of giving thanks to the gods for allowing you to enter the shrine.
Visit a Shinto Shrines When You Have the Occasion!
The precinct of a shrine is a place where you can completely relax within a quiet and tranquil atmosphere. It's a good resting place, where you can take a time out from walking.
Whether it be for sightseeing or for rest, if you have the chance to visit a Japanese shrine, do try to pay your respects according to the sequence of gestures introduced here!