Haikugirl’s guide to… Japanese Shrines

From time to time, I will be producing some guides to various aspects of Japanese culture. I’m no expert, and I’m not fluent in Japanese, so you might find some mistakes (please let me know if you do!). My posts will simply be a collection of what I have learnt while living in Japan and learning about Japanese culture through people, books and the Internet.

If you have any ideas/requests for future guides, please feel free to leave a comment below or send me a message!

The first in this series is: Haikugirl’s guide to… Japanese Shrines. Enjoy!

There’s a lot of information out there about Japanese shrines. I usually check Wikipedia when I need to know something in detail. My purpose here is not to try to imitate Wiki or any other information site. I want to provide a visual guide to Japanese shrines, explaining what it is you’re seeing when you visit one.

When you enter the shrine, the first thing you will usually see is the “torii” which is a kind of gate, indicating the entrance to the shrine. (Nb. It’s easy to get confused between shrines and temples in Japan. Shrines have “torii”, temples don’t. However, it is common to find a shrine within the grounds of a temple, just to confuse you.) “Torii” come in different colours and sizes, but generally the same shape.

Floating Torii

This is the famous Itsukushima Shrine on the island of Itsukushima, known as Miyajima, which can be seen in most Japanese guidebooks. It’s very beautiful, but often “torii” are much more simplistic.

Meiji Jingu

This is Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. The “torii” is huge. Many smaller shrines have smaller “torii” of course.

Arai: Temples and shrines

And then there’s the famous Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto, which has whole archways made up of “torii”.

Fushimi Inari, Kyoto, 1st January 2009

After entering the shrine, you should wash your hands to purify them. Near the entrance, you will find some kind of water fountain or basin. This is called either a “chozuya” or a “temizuya”. They come in various shapes and sizes and designs, from ornate:

Shimogamo Shrine

…to very simple:

Arai: Temples and shrines

Many fountains include dragon statues:

Seimei Shrine

When at the fountain, you should take one of the ladles, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then pour some water into one cupped hand, rinse your mouth, and spit the water beside the fountain (although I don’t often see people do this part). Warning: don’t pour the water straight from the ladle into your mouth!

Now what? Well, shrines really vary in layout and design, and sometimes you will find many small shrines all gathered in one area. Anyway, you should make your way to the main shrine in order to pray.

At the main shrine building, you will see something like this:

Shrine in Hamamatsu

This is quite a typically designed shrine. You should approach the offering box, or “saisen bako” (which also come in a variety of designs, but usually the same shape):

Saisen Bako

You should throw your offering (just a couple of coins) into the box, then bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow one more time, and pray for a few seconds. (Edit: It might be a good idea to bow one more time at the end, to thank the god for listening.)

Sometimes there is a gong/bell (“suzu”). If there is, you should ring it before praying. This is to get the god’s attention.

Suzu (bell)

Depending on the size of the shrine, you will usually see many other interesting things scattered around. One of the most attractive things as far as I am concerned is “ema“. “Ema” are wooden plaques on which we can write our prayers, wishes and messages. We have to pay an offering to do this, usually between ๏ฟฅ100 and ๏ฟฅ500. I usually don’t bother writing my own “ema”, but I love to look at other people’s ones and take photos of them. They’re very beautiful, and come in thousands of different designs. There are designs for each shrine, and also for each year.

Ema, Meiji Jingu, 15th August 2008

At Meiji Jingu in Tokyo you can often find “ema” written in many different languages. People sometimes draw pictures on them too. Here, at such a touristy shrine, the “ema” act almost like a guest book.

Wakeoe Shrine

You should write your message on the plaque with the pen provided, and then hang it with the others. You shouldn’t take it home.

Nonomiya Shrine, Arashiyama, Kyoto, 31st December 2008

Something else that may catch your eye at the shrine are “omikuji“, which you can buy at these shrine shops:

Meiji Jingu

“Omikuji” are fortunes. You buy one in a sort of lucky-dip, and then read the message to know if you have received a good or bad fortune, kind of like a fortune cookie. If the fortune is bad, it is customary to tie it to something at the shrine. There are designated places…


…but people also use trees.

Wishes on trees

Some people tie the good fortunes too. I don’t think people take “omikuji” too seriously these days. Of course, the fortunes are written in Japanese usually. However, I think I once saw English ones at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.

Finally, while you’re at the shrine, why not by a souvenir? At the shrine shops, you can buy a variety of goods for luck and fortune. The most common is the good luck charm called “omamori“.

Meiji Jingu

“Omamori” come in a variety of styles and designs, with different meanings. Usually the meanings (e.g. “happiness”, “love”, safe driving”) are written in Japanese. However, at Meiji Jingu they are written in English. I’ve also found that if you can speak a little bit of Japanese the staff will try to find what you want. I recently asked for a work one by saying simply “shigoto no omamori ga arimasu ka?”. That might not be the best Japanese, but the staff understood me and found me a good luck charm for work.

Omamori from Kanzanji

You can tie “omamori” to your bag or whatever and carry them around with you. However, I was once told that you shouldn’t really have different ones in the same place (although I do!). I heard that it makes the gods fight with each other…

So, that’s the basic stuff you need to know about visiting a shrine in Japan! Of course, there’s a lot more I could say, but if I continue this handy guide could turn into a bit of a hefty thesis. Needless to say, there’s a lot of information out there on the net if you are interested in the specifics of individual shrines and Shinto practices.

If you have the chance to visit Japan, you simply must go to a shrine or two, whatever your religious/spiritual beliefs are. It’s not like visiting a church, and you don’t have to pray if you don’t want to. But shrines are so interesting and beautiful. Your visit wouldn’t be complete without it! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Shimogamo Shrine
(Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto)

Incidentally, this post is also a Show Me Japan entry for this week. Don’t forget to check out all the other entries – you can see some really stunning pictures of Japan to whet your wanderlust!

12 thoughts on “Haikugirl’s guide to… Japanese Shrines

  1. uhu, just wait till my mister sees this post, LOL! ๐Ÿ™‚
    And speaking of shinto, the main international symposium of the ISF is held next Sunday in Kamakura. We’re going, of course! ๐Ÿ™‚


  2. This is mister commenting. I find it very interesting and am impressed. One thing that I noticed is that ordinary style of praying at the shrine is: (1) two bows (2) clap hands twice (3) MAKE A WISH (4) bow once.
    I understand that the last bow is for expressing gratitude toward Shinto deity for listening to your wish(es)…
    Well, strictly speaking, there aren’t uniform way of praying at Shinto. At Izumo Taisha, you are supposed to crap hands FOUR TIMES! That’s the rule at Izumo Taisha.


  3. I just found your blog through freshly pressed, I’m sad I found you when you’re nearly finished! Your photos are beautiful and so interesting, Japan looks like such a lovely place to be…


    • Hi there!
      Thanks for stopping by. Don’t worry – I’m not nearly finished at all! I have made a promise to post at least once a week this year, even though I won’t be in Japan after April. And anyway – I’ll be back! ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Please keep reading! ใ‚ˆใ‚ใ—ใใŠใญใŒใ„ใ—ใพใ™๏ผ


  4. Wow, I thought I had left a comment a couple of days ago but must have dreamed it… Anyway, I want to say I really appreciate ur tour of the shrine n surrounding area. Very interesting n informative ~ great photographs too!!


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