A Shinto shrine for beginners

Centers of worship, for different reasons, are usually on a tourists’ itinerary. Our Japan trip was not an exception. We visited a couple of temples or shrines. Some of them were at our list, some smaller ones, we visited rather by accident. A shrine is just a sacred place, so shrines may be located in bigger temple complexes, or itself form a bigger complex; but they can also be small spots that you recognise by a presence of a torii (a gate to a shrine).

At the first sight, those bigger temple or shrine complexes, seemed to us quite similar in construction patternwidespread premises with many buildings and more or less complex gates. Now sitting at home comparing the pictures, recalling memories and reading information available in the Internet I realise that they were not that similar at all. Some had statues inside, like those of the Buddha, or just gods or goddesses (deities), and the whole temple seemed to be organised around them. The others however, were just sanctuaries with some objects inside, the figures (statues) even if present did not play a central role. It turns out that these are the basic difference between a Buddhist and a Shinto temple or shrine.

Buddhism that roots in India came to Japan from the continental Asia. It is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and his successors. Shinto on the other hand is originally a Japanese ‘traditional religion’ based on ancient believes in ancestors and deities. For centuries, the two confessions overlapped. Japan had times (XIX century, the so called Meiji Restoration) of intensive politics to split the Buddhism from Shinto or even disroot Buddhism as not originally Japanese religion. Those efforts finally failed. Shinto and Buddhism coexist in the Japanese culture. Many Japanese declare even being tied to both confessions. This religious coexistence is however not easy to tackle for an outsider.

Shinto shrines are sacred places, where a deity (kami) is present within objects stored there or in an object, around which the shrine was built (like a tree or a mountain). Contrary, to Buddhist temples, you may not find a reflection of a deity (god or goddess) in a form of a sculpture inside a Shinto shrine. The very exception are animal guardians, usually in pairs, like lion-dogs, monkeys and foxes, who are told to be the messengers of the deity. If you approach them, they will convey the message to the deity. Contrary, in the Buddhist temples you will find bigger or smaller statues of Buddha, as well as some other symbolic figures and deities.


Foxes guarding the gate in the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto.

It is told that both, shrines and temples may have so many common characteristic features that only those well oriented are able to recognise the very specific features at the first sight.

To get to a Shinto shrine you have to cross a torii gate (>>>). Beyond torii you are on a sacred ground.


But to begin prayers you still have to purify the body, at least symbolically. (The ritual is performed also in the Buddhist temples.) There different kinds of purifying rituals. The most popular is of course that with water. In all shrines, we saw stone sinks/basins, in which the worshipers or visitors could wash their hands and mouth. You take a kind of a wooden spoon (see pictures), hold it in the right hand and pour water onto your left hand, then the other way round. Holding water in hand you can also rinse your mouth. (For hygienic purposes, it is forbidden to take the spoon direct to your mouth.)


The cleansing facility in the Koyosan cemetery (Buddhist).


Cleansing facility in Ozaki shrine, Kanazawa.

Paying respect to a deity and praying includes ringing a bell and clapping hands. You do so by shaking a rope hanging down. Afterwards you have to bow and clap your hands. First you ring, then you bow twice, clap your hands twice so that the deity is hearing you, then bow once. At the end do not forget to put a coin into the offering box.



Young people paying respect to deities in Shinto Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, Kyoto.

In a shrine or a temple (for a fee) you can also obtain luck charms in form of protective amulets and make wishes by hanging wooden votive plaques on special stands or discharge misfortune by leaving fortune telling pieces/rolls of paper in the temple. We saw all of those practices in both Shinto and Buddhist temples (the exceptions I remember was the Zen Buddhist temples, but I can be wrong). I suppose this is a way how the temples finance some of their expenses.

protective amulet (called omamori) you simply buy, take with you, keep it by yourself or hang in your car, etc. This should protect you from a bad fortune, but also helps you to fulfill your wishes, find love, prosper in marriage, etc.


Amulets offered in an independent (Buddhist) temple Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

On a votive plaque (called ema) you can write a wish (or it is already pre-written for you) and you hang it onto a special stand.


A young woman hanging an ema in Kiyomizudera temple.  

The rolls of paper (called omikuji) are a bit more complicated. Through some kind of a lottery (even if done by a vending machine) you obtain a small piece of paper. It reads you your fortune. If it is good fortune, you take it with you. If it reads you bad fortune, you are supposed to leave it in the shrine to shed of bad luck. You look for a special stand or a place and hang the roll onto it.


Ozaki (Shinto) shrine, Kanazawa. The omikuji stand is located close to one of the lion-dogs guarding the temple (look at the right hand side). Omikuji message will be passed by the guardian-messenger to the deity of the shrine.

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