Praying at the temples and shrines in Japan is largely out of tradition rather than a full-blown belief in the tenets of each religion; Japan is a nation of traditionalists rather than believers in the church-going sense. Today there are about 160,000 shrines and temples throughout Japan. Shrines are associated with Shinto; temples with Buddhism.

Shinto is indigenous to Japan. A polytheistic religion, believers hold that gods or spirits (kami) are all around us, existing in the same world and interacting with, and residing in, natural objects and places. Such is the freedom of the religion that you can buy a kamidana—a small shrine for the home designed to house a god (Amazon even has a selection). Shinto is rooted in Japan’s earliest history and it is likely that the title of emperor derived from the role of chief Shinto priest.

A kamidana

Buddhism came to Japan via Korea in the middle of the 6th century, and today there are six major sects. Buddhism’s successful rooting in Japanese society, despite an already dominant indigenous religion, owes much to its adoption by the Soga during the 6th and 7th century, as well as the Kamakura era when two of the most popular sects—Jōdo-shū and Zen—were formed.

To the uninitiated, shrines and temples can be quite hard to distinguish. The easiest way to tell is often from the Japanese name. The word for shrine is jinja (神社) and for temples it is o-tera (お寺), and the kanji will be suffixed to the name of the shrine or temple. For example, Nezu Shrine in Yanaka is called Nezu-Jinja (根津神社) and Asakusa’s most famous temple—Senso-ji (浅草)—takes its final character from the word for temple. In the case of Shinto shrines you may also see the character (宮) being used instead, e.g. Meiji Shrine near Yoyogi Park is called Meiji-Jingu (明治神).

Etiquette at the Shrines & Temples

As mentioned above, many Japanese visit the shrines and temples out of tradition. But they nevertheless do observe the rituals for entering and praying at each. Generally speaking, the rules for visiting a Shinto shrine are slightly more defined.

Shinto shrines

Perhaps the biggest give-away for a Shinto shrine is the presence of a torii (鳥居), a gate that demarcates the boundary line between the holy ground of the shrine and the world outside; pass under the gate and you are now on the terrain of the deity. Because this is the entrance to the shrine, we, as mere humans, should first bow and then pass under the torii by walk to the left or right near either post because the middle is holy ground on which the god walks, and we should not tread of their footsteps. As a matter of fact, most visitors to the shrines do not following this particular custom.

The torii gate at Meiji Jingu

Once inside the grounds you should see the chozuya (also pronounced temizuya) (手水舎). This is an ablution pavilion, above which ladles lie on a central rest often constructed from bamboo. The idea is to purify yourself (both mind and body) before praying to the gods.

  1. Scoop a ladle of water with your right hand and pour it over your left.
  2. Do the same but the other way round.
  3. Pour some water into a cupped hand and swill it in your mouth before spitting it out on the ground beside the temizuya (many omit this last step).
A chozuya at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa

You can now approach the main shrine to pray and remove any headwear before you pray to the gods. The correct way is known as nirei-nihakushu-ichirei (二礼二拍手一礼)–two bows, two claps, one bow.

  1. Bow slightly once you approach the front of the shrine called the haiden (拝殿)
  2. Throw a coin into the offertory box (a box with a grill-like top formed by parallel wooden bars)
  3. Ring the bell 2-3 times to let the gods know that you have come to pray (at some shrines there is no bell)
  4. Bow deeply twice
  5. Clap your hands twice
  6. Bow deeply once more
  7. Bow slightly to excuse yourself and walk away from the front of the shrine

Buddhist temples

The rules for the Buddhist temples are more or less the same. The entrance is called a sanmon (山門), which, unlike the torii, this has the appearance of a small house and is often far more stately and ornate, but again you should pass through the entrance at the sides.

Hozomon Gate before Sensoji in Asakusa. Hozomon is a good example of a sanmon

Purify yourself at chozuya and approach the main temple. The rituals for praying to the gods are essentially the same as those at the shrines with less bowing; however you should not clap at the temples—just put your hands together to pray. At some temples you will also be able to purchase incense sticks which you can burn as an offering before you make your prayers.

O-mikuji

In both the shrines and temples you will often be able to buy o-mikuji for ¥100. These are small pieces of paper that reveal the fortunes (or misfortunes) that await you in all aspects of your life from love, health, friendship, career, education, and so on.

Discarded mikuji twisted on wooden poles

Close to the o-mikuji drawers which contain your fate, there will be a hexagonal box with a small hole at one end. Shake it until a stick pops out, note the number, and put the stick back inside. Then find the drawer with your number on it, take one piece of paper from inside, and all will be revealed.

A man takes an o-mikuji from the drawer at Sensoji

There are twelves levels of fortune (from “Great blessing” to “Great curse”). But if fate is not on your side, fear not! The decree of the gods can be annulled by twisting the o-mikuji around the tree or fence located nearby (the location will be obvious from the thousands of other unwanted o-mikuji fluttering in the wind). One explanation for this custom is that “pine tree” and the verb “to wait” are homophones in Japanese (both pronounced matsu) and thus by twisting your o-mikuji around the branches of the tree you can make your bad fortune “wait” for ever.

Ema

Literally meaning “horse picture”, ema are little wooden plaques which people hang in the grounds of the shrine or temple after scribbling their hopes and wishes on the surface.

Ema hang from a board at a shrine in Yamanashi Prefecture

In times gone by it was believed that the kami travelled by horse, and so some of the more affluent members of society gifted an animal to the shrine to offer them a means of transport and pray for their coming. But such generosity was beyond the reach of many and over time the custom evolved into offering a picture of a horse (or some other imaginary gift like a fish) instead.

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