A Japanese Shrine is, just like temples, a place of worship. Whereas temples are connected to Japanese Buddhism and hence to the Buddha and other such personas, Shrines are dedicated to Shinto Gods, the kami (神).
Shintoism is Japan’s (日本) second big religion which is unique to the country. Before Buddhism came over from Asia’s mainland, Shintoism was the only prominent religion in Japan.
Contrary to religions like Christianity, the Shinto faith has lots of different gods. Almost every aspect of life has its own deity, such as love, fortune, food or health.
Every shrine is dedicated to one of the many kami. Therefore, people come here in times of need or crisis. If a family member is ill for example, relatives come to the shrine connected to the deity of health, and pray for their well-being.
Furthermore, shrines have deep roots in Japanese tradition which is why Japanese people visit Shrines on important events such as New Years.
Couples wanting to hold a traditional wedding can also do so at a Shinto Shrine.
Japanese Shrine Grounds
While temples and shrines share similarities in terms of their overall feel, there are some major details that lets you distinguish one from the other.
Shrines are known for their large bright-red/orange (they can have other colors as well) torii gates at their entrances/exits. The purpose of these is to separate the rest of the world from the shrine’s holy grounds.
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If you encounter one of these, you can be sure it’s a Japanese shrine.
Also at the entrance, you will see a purification trough that you are supposed to use before entering further. I’ll tell you about the process down below.
At some Shrines there are Statues of Guardian dogs (or foxes) placed at the entrance. These share their purpose with the torii gates.
The Shrine’s main or offering hall is often placed in the center.
Other than that the Japanese Shrine grounds are pretty similar to those of a temple, sometimes having small shops for talismans and the like.
You can also purchase Omikuji (御神籤) here, which I described in my article about the temple.
Same as with temples, you have to pay an entrance fee to some shrines, usually around 300-500 Yen (2,31€/$2.73 – 3,85€/$4.55). Most also have opening hours ranging from 9-10am to around 3-5pm.
Visiting a Japanese Shrine
Being a sacred place of worship, the general rule to be quiet and respectful also applies here.
Just like a temple visit, the prayer plays a big role at a Japanese Shrine as well. But before that, you need to purify yourself at the entrance.
The aforementioned purification troughs are placed at every entrance of a temple. Grab one of its ladles and fill it with the water provided. Proceed to rinse both of your hands with said water.
Afterwards you may fill some of the water into your cupped hand and rinse your mouth with it. Don’t swallow the water or spit it back into the trough but instead spit besides it.
Also don’t transfer it directly from the ladle, use your hand for it.
Many visitors (even Japanese people) skip the mouth rinsing part (I mostly skip it as well), so don’t pressure yourself into it.
However I would advise to at least rinse your hands. It shows that you learned a bit about the topic and value the traditions.
After the purification process you may head towards the inner shrine grounds and its main/offering hall to say your prayers.
The process of a prayer is the same as with the temple:
- Bow as you approach the Shrine’s deity (a statue or another kind of sacred illustration most of the time) and the offering box before it
- Offer a small amount of money by throwing it into the case (5 is the holy number in this regard, so try to do it with 5 or 50 Yen)
- Bow again
- Clap your hands twice, fold them, close your eyes and think of a wish you want to have fulfilled
- Once done, bow one last time
Now you may explore the rest of the area and/or purchase Omikuji or souvenirs such as talismans (not every Shrine has this though).
Cultural hotspots like Kyoto (京都), Nara (奈良) or Kamakura (鎌倉) have loads of shrines to visit, you definitely won’t get bored.
Popular Shrines to visit
And that shall be it for the Japanese shrine!
In a nutshell: A Shrine visit does not really feel all that different from a temple for the average tourist. However if you are deeply interested in either Shintoism or Buddhism it can make a difference.
Important to note here is that while there are overnight stay opportunities available for temples, I do not know of any for shrines. Since there are no monks of Japanese Buddhism present at shrines there may be little charm to it anyway.
As always, see for yourself! I’m just here to provide you with useful information, now it’s your turn to make use of it in reality. Japan has just as many shrines as it has temples so you won’t have any difficulties finding one.
Thank you very much for reading my article! I hope you could learn something useful and use it for your next trip!
Stay tuned for my next article which is going to be about the very convenient IC-Cards (Suica etc.)!