The main gate to Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Japan

Shinto is more than just a religion in Japan; it's an intrinsic part of the Japanese way of life. While most Japanese don’t consider themselves religious, millions visit Shinto shrines every year.

On my last visit to Japan, I decided to learn more about Shinto and the act of worshipping at local shrines. So, with that in mind, I spent a few days visiting various shrines to learn more about their importance in everyday life in Japan.

After just a couple of hours, it was clear that not all shrines are the same. After visiting the expansive Meiji Jingu shrine in Toyko, my guide took me to several smaller, local shrines, which were much more modest.

He took the time to explain to me that the shrines or 'Jinja', are sacred spaces, regardless of whether they are grand architectural wonders or small roadside structures. While there are several significant shrines, the vast majority of the 80,000+ shrines in Japan are much simpler.

Each shrine is dedicated to specific kami (more on this later), and their presence is believed to reside within the shrine's sacred space. People often choose which shrines they visit based on what they need at a particular time. Many shrines are associated with historical events or figures, preserving tales and traditions which are integral to Japan's cultural heritage.

Shrines are also centres for festivals and rituals, vital for maintaining the bond between kami and the community. In modern-day Japan, Shinto shrines continue to be relevant, offering spaces for reflection, celebration, and a deep connection with nature and tradition.

A visit to a shrine is called omairi. When visiting a shrine, it’s customary to follow a strict routine designed to bring inner peace to the visitor and please the resident kami.

Zuishin-mon, the main gate of Kanda Shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo

Shintoism at a glance

Literally meaning "the way of the gods," Shinto is a polytheistic faith that venerates kami, spirits associated with natural elements, animals, and ancestors. These kami represent various aspects of nature, such as mountains, rivers, trees, as well as ancestral spirits.

Unlike many world religions, Shinto does not have a founding figure or canonical scriptures. Its teachings and myths are passed down through oral traditions and ancient texts like the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, which also provide insights into early Japanese history.

Ultimately, it's an experiential faith, focused more on rituals and practices than doctrines.

Central to Shinto is the concept of purity and pollution. Rituals and ceremonies are often focused on the purification of followers, spaces, and objects, maintaining harmony between humans, nature, and the kami.

In Japan, Shinto is integrated with Buddhism. Many Japanese people practice customs from both religions harmoniously, such as celebrating Buddhist Obon alongside Shinto matsuri.

Japanese people purify their hands and mouths with water before entering Fushimi Inari Shrine on New Year's Day.

How to pray at a Shinto shrine

Visiting a Shinto shrine is not just a cultural experience but also a spiritual one. For those unfamiliar with the rituals, understanding how to properly pray at a shrine can enhance the experience and show respect for Japanese traditions.

Japanese will make a small bow as they pass the torii gates and you are welcome to do the same. This is also a time for taking a deep breath and clearing your mind before you enter the shrine.

If you want to experience praying at Shinto shrine, here’s an outline of the process.

Purification at the Temizuya

Upon entering the shrine grounds, visitors will find a temizuya, or water pavilion, near the entrance. Here, you perform a purification ritual using a ladle provided at the pavilion. Take the ladle with your right hand, fill it with water, and pour some over your left hand. Switch the ladle to your left hand and repeat the process for your right hand.

Traditionally, you would pour water into your cupped hand and use it to rinse your mouth – without drinking directly from the ladle. However, since the pandemic, this part of the ritual isn’t observed and there are signs cautioning against drinking the water.

Prayer hall of Yasaka shrine in Nagasaki, Japan

Approaching the shrine

As you approach the main hall (honden), you may see a bell with a rope. Ringing the bell is believed to attract the kami's attention and announce your presence. However, not all shrines have a bell, so this step may not always apply.

Offering a coin

Once in front of the offering box (saisenbako), toss in a small offering. Coins of any denomination are acceptable, but it's customary to use a 5-yen coin, as "go-en" in Japanese can also mean "good luck."

It’s best to have your coin ready before going up to the box – don’t be like me the first time I visited a shrine, searching my bag for coins while a queue formed behind me.

The prayer ritual

After making your offering, bow deeply twice. Then, clap your hands twice at chest level to further signify your presence to the kami. After clapping, keep your hands together in front of your chest, silently offer your prayers or thoughts. This is the moment for personal reflection and to make your wishes known to the kami. This typically only takes a couple of minutes.

Conclude your prayer by bowing deeply once more. This final bow signifies respect and gratitude towards the kami.

Etiquette tips:

  • Speak quietly and move calmly within the shrine grounds to maintain the serenity of the space.

  • Photography inside the main hall is typically frowned upon, so it's best to take photos from a respectful distance.

  • Avoid walking in the centre of the pathway leading to the honden (main hall), as it's believed to be the path for the kami.

Two Japanese girls dressed with colourful kimonos praying in a shrine.

Purchasing prayers and talismans in Japan

Typically, you’ll find a shop by the shrine, selling colourful items. These shops are known as "Omamori-ya," and sell various religious items, talismans, and prayer offerings which play a significant role in Shinto practices and beliefs.

These items offer a tangible connection to the shrine and its kami, as well as serving as reminders of the experience and the blessings sought after. For visitors, they also make for unique souvenirs that carry deep cultural significance.

Omamori: protective amulets

Omamori are small, colourful amulets sold at shrines, intended to provide protection and blessings in specific areas of life. Each type of omamori has a distinct purpose: some are for general good luck, while others may be for more specific intentions such as health, safe childbirth, success in exams, or even smooth driving.

The amulets, often made of cloth and sealed, contain prayers or blessings and are typically kept close to the person, in a wallet, bag, or hung in cars.

Ema (wooden plaques) in the Shinto shrine in Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan

Ema: wooden prayer plaques

Ema are small wooden plaques on which visitors write their prayers or wishes before hanging them at designated spots within the shrine grounds. These plaques often have unique designs, sometimes specific to the shrine or the type of prayer. The act of writing and leaving the ema is thought to communicate the wishes to the kami.

Ofuda: Shrine talismans

Ofuda are talismans that are purchased from shrines for the protection and blessing of homes or businesses. These are typically inscribed with the name of the shrine and the kami, and are placed in home altars or kamidana (household shrines). They are renewed annually to ensure continued blessings and protection.

Omikuji: fortune-telling slips

Omikuji are fortune-telling slips that predict the purchaser's future in various aspects such as health, love, and success. After reading their fortune, visitors usually tie the omikuji around trees or designated frames in the shrine. If the fortune is bad, tying it up is believed to leave the bad luck behind.

Buying a prayer or talisman

Purchasing these items is straightforward. Shrine shops or kiosks are typically near the entrance or within the shrine grounds. Visitors browse and select the items that resonate with their needs.

Payment is usually made at the counter. Handling these items with respect is important, as they are considered sacred. Buying from these shops also supports the maintenance and preservation of the shrines.

People visiting Kato Shrine in Kumamoto on New Year's Day.

Rituals and ceremonies at Shinto shrines

Shinto shrines, are not just sanctuaries for prayer and worship. They are vital cultural hubs where rituals and ceremonies take place

If you are lucky enough to see one of these rituals or events, you'll have a rare glimpse into Japanese culture and tradition.

Hatsumode: The first shrine visit of the New Year

In Japan, the practice of Hatsumode holds a significant place in the country's culture, marking the first shrine visit of the New Year. This is a time for making wishes or resolutions for the year ahead.

People pray for good health, happiness, and success. It's also a family event, where relatives dress warmly to brave the cold January weather and spend time together, often enjoying food from the yatai (food stalls) that are set up around larger shrines.

Upon arrival at the shrine, visitors engage in the customary rituals of purification (see above) before praying at the main hall. As part of Hatsumode traditions, people make offerings, buy new omamori (charms or amulets) for the year, and return the old ones to the shrine so they can be burned, which is believed to release the blessings they contain.

Buying omikuji, or fortune-telling strips, is also popular during Hatsumode. These strips can predict the person's fortune for the coming year and are tied to trees or special frames in the shrine if they predict misfortune, in the hope that the bad luck will remain there instead of following the person.

The most popular shrines and temples during Hatsumode are often crowded, with some of the most famous being Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura. However, many choose to visit local shrines, seeking a more intimate setting for their prayers.

A traditional Shinto wedding at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo, Japan.

Shinzenshiki: Shinto weddings

Shinto weddings are popular and you may see a bride bride and groom, dressed in traditional Shinto wedding attire, sedately walking through a shrine. The bride wears a "Shiromuku," a pure white kimono symbolizing purity and maidenhood, and the groom a "Montsuki," a formal black kimono bearing the family crest.

The ceremony includes rituals such as the "San-san-kudo," a ceremonial sake sharing where the couple takes three sips each from three different sake cups, symbolizing the sealing of their vows and the bonding of their families. The exchange of nuptial cups represents the mutual dependency and respect that are the foundations of a harmonious marriage.  

Miyamairi: The blessing of new life

"Miyamairi" is a traditional Shinto rite of passage for infants, usually conducted within the first month after birth. This ceremony marks the child's first visit to a shrine, symbolizing their introduction to the kami and the community.

Parents and relatives dress the baby in special clothing, often a white kimono for purity, and bring them to the shrine to receive blessings for health and happiness.

The priest performs a ritual which includes prayers and offerings to the kami, asking for protection and a prosperous life for the child. Names are often officially announced during this ceremony, and families may receive a talisman or amulet from the shrine for the child's protection.

A family celebrating Shichi-Go-San at Atsuta Shrine in Japan.

Shichi-Go-San: celebrating childhood milestones

"Shichi-Go-San," translating to Seven-Five-Three, is a charming and colourful festival held on November 15th. It celebrates the growth and well-being of children at ages three, five, and seven — key milestones in a Japanese child's life. The festival is rooted in ancient customs where childhood diseases were common, and reaching these ages was considered auspicious.

On this day, girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five are dressed in traditional attire — kimonos for girls and hakama for boys. They visit a shrine with their families to give thanks to the kami for their healthy growth and to pray for their future well-being.

The children often carry "Chitose Ame," a long, thin, red and white candy, symbolizing longevity and growth. Shichi-Go-San is not just a religious observance; it's a fun family occasion, often followed by a photo session and food.

Matsuri: Shinto festivals

Each shrine has its own matsuri or festival, usually linked to the agricultural calendar, honoring specific kami associated with the shrine. These festivals range from small local gatherings to large, famous events attracting visitors from all over Japan and the world.

A typical matsuri involves a procession where the kami's spirit is believed to be temporarily enshrined in a portable shrine (mikoshi) and carried through the town. This is accompanied by traditional music, dance, and sometimes floats or parades depicting scenes from mythology. The atmosphere is lively and festive, with food stalls, games, and performances.

Larger festivals, like Kyoto's Gion Matsuri or Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri, are elaborate affairs with intricate rituals and spectacular parades, showcasing the rich tapestry of Japanese culture and history.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 22 February 2024

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