While shrines, or jinja as they are known in Japanese, are becoming popular sightseeing spots, it is important not to forget that they are originally sacred sites where gods are enshrined. While in most cases, if you show a feeling of respect towards the gods, that will be enough, but we do recommend learning the basic manners for worshipping, so be sure to check the following points before you go to a shrine.
1. Firstly, a light bow to the torii gates
Worshipping at a shrine starts as soon as you enter the grounds of the shrine. After arriving in front of the gates at the entrance to the shrine, known as torii, you should lightly bow in the direction of the torii, before passing underneath them and entering the shrine.
2. Cleanse your hands and mouth at the chozuya
Next is a ritual for cleansing the body carried out before worshipping in order to avoid any disrespect to the gods. In the shrine, there will be something that looks like a drinking fountain known as a chozuya. This is not actually a drinking fountain, but a place to cleanse both your mouth and hands, known as chozu in Japanese.
First, take the ladle, known as a hishaku in Japanese, in your right hand and pour water over your left hand. Then switch the ladle to your left hand and wash your right hand. Take the ladle once again in your right hand, and pour some water into the palm of your lightly cupped left hand, which you should then bring to your mouth and lightly wash your mouth. You should then dispose of the water in a drain or somewhere nearby while covering your mouth.
The water used to wash your mouth and hands is not clean, so be sure to dispose of outside the chozuya. Touching the ladle directly on your lips is also bad manners. It is ok to wipe up any remaining water on your hands or around your mouth with a handkerchief.
3. Make a donation in the offertory box, ring the bell, and “two bows, two claps, one bow”
Further into the shrine, you will come across the Haiden, or place of worship, so please prepare a saisen, or money offering. While it is a money offering, it does not need to be much. For example, the giving of a saisen of 5 yen, or go-en in Japanese, is popular, as the word goen could also refer to the connection between people which is an important part of Japanese culture and is seen as a lucky.
Once your turn has come and your are now in from of the Haiden, first of all put your money offering into the offertory box, known as the saisenbako. It is best to put it in as closely and as quietly as you can - throwing it in from as distance should only be done when there are a lot of people around.
Next, if the Haiden has a large bell hanging from it, shake the rope attached to it and ring the bell. It is said that doing so calls the gods before your begin to pray.
After the bell has rung, bring your hands together to pray. Without saying anything, bow slowly twice, then clap your hands together twice, and bow once more. Generally, this “two bows, two claps and one bow” is a set.
There are some shrines that do not have a bell, so in these cases it is ok to start the “two bows, two claps, and one bow” straight away. Incidentally, after the second clap, your should leave your hands together, close your eyes, show your respect to the gods in your heart and make your promise or wish. After your final bow has finished, you should move away from the Haiden to make room for other worshippers.
4. Receive an “omikuji,” an “ema” and an “omamori”
With this, your worshipping at the shrine is finished for now, but seeing as you have come, let’s look at some more of the unique culture of Japanese shrines.
Typically, need the Haiden you will find a counter that looks similar to a souvenir store with small items out on display. This is known as the shamusho, or shrine office, and is the place where the omamori, or lucky charms, are laid out.
Omamori from a shrine are usually small cloth bags with a wish such as “health,” “traffic safety,” “passing exams” written on them. There are also other types of omamori as well, including stickers that you can stick onto your motorbike or car or key chain type omamori, and the shape varies with the shrine.
Omikuji are fortune telling lots which rank a person’s luck from daikichi (大吉), kichi (吉), chukichi (中吉), shokichi (小吉), kyo (凶), with daikichi being the best and kyo the worst. By the way, while shokichi and kyo are the worst, they only mean that your luck at the moment is bad, but this may change in the future to try and be positive. The omikuji also usually includes some advice about your health, love and business (but this is usually only in Japanese.) In the shrine, there should be a place to tie the omikuji to after reading it.
Ema are wooden plaques with pictures drawn on them onto which you write a wish or your thoughts and offer to the gods. In the old times, people would donate horses to the gods for good favor, and over time these horses were replaced by the ema wooden plaques. The shape and pattern of ema varies depending on the shrine, so it can be fun to compare them.
By the way, the omamori and omikuji handled by the shrines are not bought like souvenirs - they are given in response to the receipt of hatsuhoryo, or ceremony fees which are dedicated to the gods.
5. If you want to learn more
In addition to the above, there are many other examples of shrine manners and customs.
For example, it is said that one’s luck grows as the sun rises so it is best to visit a shrine from the morning to midday, until 14:00 at the latest.
The path from the torii to the haiden is known as the sando. It is said that the gods travel alone the middle of the sando, so it is polite to avoid walking along with middle of the sando. In addition, trees or rocks etc. with the shimenawa, a rope used to indicate the borders and prevent people entering, wrapped around them are enshrined as gods so the mustn’t be touched.
If you would like to worship at the shrine with a more solemn feeling, these points would also be good to learn.
The way of worshipping and manners at a shrine are not strictly enforced with punishment, but each and every action is made out of respect for the gods. Why not take this opportunity to understand the spirit behind the worshipping as well?