Praying in Japan – part 2

Let’s continue our trip to Japan discovering temples and shrines, today we explore the Shinto shrines. If you missed the first part of the article you can find it here.

Shintoism is the official religion; the Japanese imperial family itself descends traditionally from Shinto deities and specifically from Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

How to tell a Shinto Shrine?

As for Buddhist temples also for Shinto shrines the name is the first clue, if the name ends with the kanji 神社 read “jinja” you are in a Shinto shrine. Even if the name ends with the suffix -mangu you are in a Shinto shrine, in this case dedicated to the god of war (Hachimangu) or the god of knowledge (Tenmangu). Finally, if the name ends with Jingu, you are in a Shinto shrine especially dedicated to the imperial family.

Heian Jingu – Kyoto
Chrysanthemum, the Imperial Family crest

The boundaries of a Shinto shrine are marked by large red gates, called torii and in some shrines you can find a large number of torii one after the other to form a tunnel. Red torii are donated by the devotees to the sanctuary and especially famous sanctuaries have received many over the years, one example over all is Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.

Shrine of the Mt. Fuji 5th Station

There are different types of Shinto shrines depending on the deities, kami in Japanese, worshiped in the shrine, or depending on the clan who founded the shrine. Among the most popular there are the shrines dedicated to the imperial family such as Heian Jingu and Ise Jingu, the shrines dedicated to the kami of knowledge and school as Kitano Tenmangu, those dedicated to the kami of war as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu and shrines dedicated to Inari, the goddess of rice and harvest, like the previously mentioned Fushimi Inari.

Kitano Tenmangu – Kyoto
Fushimi Inari – Kyoto

Classic features of Shinto shrines are the lion-dog statues at the entrance, called komainu 狛犬, the first kanji refers to Korean Goryeo Dynasty that ruled Korea from 900 to 1300 or so and from which the tradition was originally imported, the second kanji is the kanji of the word “dog”.



Almost always one of the statues has its mouth open and the other has its mouth shut, this is because the first one is pronouncing the syllable “a” and the other the “um” syllable which are respectively the first and the last syllable of Sanskrit alphabet and symbolize the beginning and end of everything. In shrines dedicated to Inari the komainu are replaced by statues of foxes since foxes are the messengers of Inari deity.

Shinto Wedding – Kamakura

All Shinto shrines have an outer pavilion, called haiden, dedicated to prayers and offerings and a main pavilion, called honden, dedicated to ceremonies. Depending on the architectural style haiden and honden can be combined in such way that the main pavilion is located inside the outer pavilion and it is accessible only to those who participate to the rites. Other rites and ceremonies, such as weddings, are celebrated on a stage always present in Shinto shrines and used also for performances of Noh theater.

What is the right behavior in temples and shrines?

Temples and shrines share the ritual of purification that visitors are required to perform before entering.
At the entrance of Shinto shrines there is a basin with running water called chozuya or temizuya 手水舎. At the disposal of visitors there are some ladles that are used to wash hands and rinse the mouth (actually the mouth wash is increasingly in disuse). Take the spoon with your right hand, fill it with water and wash your left hand, then, take the ladle with the left hand and wash also the right hand, finally fill the ladle again and held it vertically to let the water flow out so that it rinses the handle, finally store the clean ladle ready for the next visitor.



At the entrance of Buddhist temples there is a basin for ablutions called tsukubai 蹲踞. The same basin is located at the entrance of the rooms devoted to the tea ceremony. If you want to know more about tea ceremony you can read Matcha and Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The tsukubai is usually made of stone and inscribed with four kanji that, if read individually, have no meaning, instead they have a meaning if they are read combined with the kanji of the mouth 口 (kuchi) represented by the opening at the center of the basin. When combined the four kanji form the sentence 吾 ware = I, 唯 tada = only, 足 taru = plenty, 知 shiru = know. “I only know plenty” or “I’m satisfied with what I own”, a concept of not desiring anything typical of Buddhism.


In Buddhist temples there are also large censers where devotees burn incense sticks and then draw the smoke towards themselves with their hands to purify and call for luck and prosperity.



In Shinto shrines instead worshipers ensure their luck by drawing the attention and good will of the kami before the altar for offerings located at the entrance of the main pavilion.

The offer should be made with a 5 yen coin which in Japanese is called go-en that can also mean “luck in relationships.” To offer 5 yen is therefore a good omen for future relationships.

After making your offer draw the attention of the kami by ringing the bell above the altar, make two bows, clap your hands twice, bow down again and express your desire.


In shrines and temples you can buy different amulets to ensure luck, prosperity and protection, and even predictions of the future.

Ema are votive tablets on which visitors write their wishes to be realized by the kami.



Omamori are amulets for protection and to ensure healing, the successful completion of school exams, love and more. They are small colored and embroidered bags containing a prayer written on paper or wood, they can be hanged to the bag, the phone, the car or simply kept in the wallet.


Omikuji are small papers where there is a prediction of the future. To peek at your future take a stick out of the omikuji box, on top of the stick you will find a number that corresponds to a drawer where you can find your paper, in some cases you can open the drawer yourself and take the paper, other times the priestess of the shrine or temple will give it to you.


If the prediction is not positive, do not worry, you can tie the paper to the provided wooden structures and the gods will take away your bad luck. Sometimes the omikuji can be found in English for foreign visitors who do not read Japanese (and also for those who can read Japanese because omikuji tend to be written in a way that sometimes is complicated even for native speakers).


That concludes our small journey to discover more about religion in Japan. If you liked this article feel free to share it with your friends and to leave a comment below.

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