I was nervous the first time I visited a Shinto shrine in Japan. I mean, I have a passing familiarity with Western religion, so I generally know what is and isn’t acceptable in a church or synagogue. But a shrine? I didn’t know what to do, what to say, and I had Ricky Bobby-esque anxieties about what to do with my hands. I certainly didn’t want to make anyone angry by bowing or clapping at the wrong time, or by accidentally treading on sacred ground. Heck, I didn’t even know what the sacred ground looked like, much less how to avoid trampling it.
If you’re reading this, you are probably in a similar situation. You’d like to visit one of those magnificent Shinto shrines that you have heard about, but you want to be careful to do it the right way and not give offense. And not only are we here to help, we got some expert help ourselves! For this article, we visited the Shinagawa Jinja in Shinagawa and were expertly assisted by Negi-Sama Suzuki, a Shinto priest.
Can you take pictures at a Shinto shrine? Many shrines have beautiful architecture and artwork, and it would be a shame not to snap a memento, right? In general, it is acceptable to take photos on the temple grounds using small cameras or smartphones. There are some areas where photos are not permitted (such as the inside of the shrine itself), and those areas are labelled with the international “no photos” sign.
Also, shrines would prefer if you didn’t show up with professional equipment (TV cameras, tripods, etc.). Such things tend to get in the way of other visitors and detract from the shrine’s peaceful atmosphere.
Arriving at the Shrine
So you’ve entered the shrine and the first thing you see is a long, flagstone path with torii gates at regular intervals. And now you have to make your approach to the shrine proper.
The first thing you need to know (and Mr. Suzuki was especially quick to point it out, so it must be a pet peeve of his) is that you are not supposed to walk in the center of the path. The center of the path is reserved for the kami (gods and spirits) only, like a spiritual fast lane. I saw no gods coming and going during my visit, but I doubt that I would want to be in their way if they decided to return (or depart) while I was there.
The next thing you need to know is to bow at each torii gate. If you spend any time at all in Japan, you will be doing quite a bit of bowing when talking to other people. However, the shrine bow is a little different; every time you bow, you want to bend your body all the way to 90 degrees (see the video if you are unsure how to do this). Please note that this isn’t a Bruce Lee movie or a martial arts competition; there is no opponent to keep your eye on.
The Purification Fountain
At Shinto shrines, you will usually see a purification fountain somewhere in the vicinity of the shrine itself. Many people skip these, but it might be good to have a surprise up your sleeve if people think you’re just another out-of-town visitor.
First, you’ll pick up the ladle with your right hand and fill the cup in the fountain. Now back up! You don’t want to commit a faux pas like I did in the video and allow water to drain back into the fountain. So with the water in the ladle, first wash your left hand (allowing water to spill into the drain below), then your right hand. You will then put water in your left hand and use that to wash out your mouth (spitting into the drain next to the fountain). After that, you will wash your left hand again. If there is any water left after all of this, tilt the ladle upwards to drain, then replace it where you found it for the next person.
The Main Shrine
The main shrine will be the largest building on the grounds. Depending on your timing, there may or may not be a line leading up to the shrine area.
When you get to the front, the first thing to do is bow (remember, 90 degrees). You then put your monetary offering in the box (10 yen is okay, but you can do more if you like) and ring the bell one time. Now you bow twice, clap twice, and pray (the folded hands being similar to the Christian tradition). Once you are finished, you bow once more and then back away. Be careful not to turn completely around; apparently the gods find the view of your posterior offensive, and may be inclined to give it a good kick if no one is looking.
Another thing you will see at a Shinto shrine is an Omikuji fortune box. For 100 yen, you can select one fortune. At larger shrines (such as Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa) you would be able to get one in English, but in smaller places you will only get one in Japanese (this is where having a Japanese friend comes in handy). If your fortune is good, keep it! If it is bad, you can tie it to the nearby tree or other designated place and leave your bad luck behind.
Shinto shrines usually house more than just the one main shrine. There are many smaller shrines on the grounds of the Shinagawa Jinja, each dedicated to a kami or some other aspect of human concerns (such as the fox shrine for business). These smaller shrines have coin boxes for offerings, so be sure to have yen ready when you stop (10 yen is an appropriate amount to offer).
Most shrines are simply of the bow-and-pray-and-donate variety, though there are some that require a little more from the visitor (such as the coin washing shrine in the video).
At the end of your visit to the shrine, you can buy an omamori at the administrative building. Omamori are small charms devoted to one aspect of human concern or another, offering protection for the holder. Some are for protection from illness, protect travelers, and success in business, while others have more practical goals (such as the round “bumper sticker” that protects your car from accidents). Omamori are not particularly expensive (500 yen and up) and are wonderful souvenirs of your visit.
And Other Things You Might See
Beyond the shrines, there is another feature you might notice about the Shinagawa Jinja and similar shrines. These shrines have large mounds, studded with small shrines, leading to a larger shrine on top. These are fujizuka, and are stand-ins for Mount Fuji. In the past, climbing Mount Fuji was a religious devotional rite, but some worshipers grew old or infirm and were unable to complete the journey. Fujizuka were established at many shrines to enable worshipers to complete the rites that they would otherwise be unable to perform.
If you visit a shrine around the New Year, you will find it to be very crowded. You have encountered everyone at hatsumōde, their first trip to the Shinto shrine in the New Year. It’s a great time to go to the shrine, so don’t let the long lines put you off of your visit! The Shinagawa Jinja conducts blessings, mochi
poundings, and sells many omamori and omikuji.
Shinto shrines are also the focal points for matsuri festivals. If you’re in town at the right time, you can join in the festivities and help carry a mikoshi shrine! See our Matsuri How-To article for details.
One thing I found surprising about shrines were the large number of food and game booths on the temple grounds during festivals. I had visions of Jesus making a whip of cords and laying a beatdown on money-changers and dove-sellers, but this is normal for shrines during festivals. Feel free to enjoy yourself without fears of spiritual wrath!
I hope that we have made you a little more comfortable with the idea of visiting a Shinto Shrine in Japan. I’d like to close by thanking Negi-sama Suzuki and the Shinagawa Jinja for helping us out. So get your camera and coins ready and be sure to visit a shrine during your trip to Japan!
Shinagawa Jinja Shinto Shrine Information
Estimated Price: Donations (10 yen per shine is appropriate); Omamori can be purchased for 500 yen and up
“Why Go?”: See a beautiful and accessible example of a Shinto shrine; climb a fujizuka if you don’t have time to go all the way out to Mount Fuji. Get an omamori and omikuji as a memento of your trip!