Translated by Verity Lane
Japanese Shrine Etiquette - How To Visit One Properly
Written by Mako Hayashi
While in Japan, we highly recommend visiting both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. This article introduces the correct way of visiting a shrine and what kind of manners one should pay heed of when on the shrine grounds, from bowing to washing your hands.
How to Visit a Shinto Shrine in Japan
The act of visiting a shrine is called sanpai in Japanese. In Japan, be it the city or the 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 Japan, from famous ones like Meiji Jingu to tiny, local shrines you may find on a side street. In this article, we will go over the basic process of what to do at a shrine.
The Process of Visiting a Shrine
Below details the steps necessary to visit a Japanese shrine properly.
1. Pay Your Respects in Front of the Gate Entrance to the Shrine
Just before the torii gate to the shrine grounds, bow respectfully once. This is the way of greeting the guardian deities of the shrine and asking permission to enter. When proceeding towards the main shrine after the torii, be sure not to walk in the middle of the path, which is reserved for the guardian deities.
2. Perform the Purification Ritual
Before going toward the main hall, it is customary to purify oneself in a symbolic way with 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 and is used for cleaning the hands and mouth of those visiting the shrine.
There will be a big, spoon-like ladle called hishaku used to scoop out the water. Take it with your right hand and get a generous amount of water.
The order is important. Pour just a little water onto each hand: first, on your left hand, and then on your right hand. Please keep in mind that it is a symbolic purification, so you don't actually wash your hands. Calmly pour some of the water onto your hands.
After washing your hands, using your left hand, ladle some water and bring your mouth to your palm, so that your lips get a little wet. This is a symbolic purification of the mouth. Do not drink the water.
Afterwards, pour some water on your left hand again to rinse off.
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 handle so other visitors can use it, too.
3. Ring the Bell at the Main Hall
The main shrine building (honden) is the place where the gods are thought to 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 shake. The bell will likely chime quite loudly, so be prepared.
4. Make a 5-Yen 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." 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. How much money you place into the box is up to you: there are no strict rules stating that it has to be a 5-yen coin or an expensive amount.
5. Pay Your Respects
After getting up to the main shrine building, bow twice.
Ring the bell twice, then clap your hands twice.
When you have finished clapping, join your hands in a prayer position. Press both hands and palms together, straightening your fingers. 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. Remember this combination of two, two, and one when visiting other Shinto shrines.
6. Bow Before the Torii When Leaving
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 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!
Main image (Tokyo Daijingu) by Pixta