Shrines: a brief manual for dummies

Visiting a shrine for the first time, one can feel a bit lost, sometimes even confusing a shrine for a temple. Respecting these places of worship and their believers means understanding a few of the following basics. In this post, the focus is on shrines.

Shinto religion and shrines:

Two primary religions are practiced in Japan, Shinto (“kami no michi”, or the way of the gods) which is practiced at a shrine (jinja) and Buddhism (bukkyō, from “butsu” for Buddha and “kyō” for doctrine), which is practiced at a temple.

Shinto is the Japanese native polytheist religion which worships nature and ancestors: it is based on the belief that gods (kami) inhabit both heaven and earth. The respect of the ancestors implies that not only gods can be enshrined, but also people with great achievements. Instead of faith, Shinto is based on the respect of the gods, shown when Japanese bow to the shrine. They pray for the deities to protect them and support their lives.

In feudal Japan, each clan identified with its own kami. Dedicated shrines to the kami would be built on the holy spot where the spirits of gods were believed to be enshrined. The Shinto religion was unified in the 8th century when the mythology was documented and consolidated.

How to behave:

Approaching the shrine through the Torii:

A shrine can be recognized by its Torii or gates leading to it. The center line from the Torii to the main shrine is the Sei-chu, path of the gods. It is important to not walk on it (and obviously, to not take a picture from it). Shintoists bow before entering the main Torii to show respect to the gods of the shrine.

Cleaning your body and mind:

Before visiting the main shrine, believers clean their body and mind at a water basin (chozuya):

  1. Take the ladle (hishaku) with your right hand to scoop water,
  2. Pour it over your left hand above the ditch (to avoid the dirty water to contaminate the chozuya),
  3. Switch hands and wash your right hand,
  4. Switch again and hold the ladle with your right hand, pour water over your left hand, and then wash your mouth (careful, not directly from the ladle),
  5. With the remaining water, hold the ladle vertically with both hands to wash its holding stick and put it back in place.


Out of respect, only priests can see the spirits of the gods, and this is why the holiest place of the shrine is always out of reach to people. The hall of worship (haiden) is past the main hall (honden):

  1. Take off your hat or cap,
  2. Throw a coin into the offering box (the heart is important, not the amount),
  3. Ring the bell by pulling on the thick rope: the sound of the bell calls gods into the shrine,
  4. Bow twice, deeply,
  5. Make a wish in your heart,
  6. Clap twice,
  7. Bow once, deeply.

We enjoyed our visits much better after understanding these basics! What makes a big difference as well is to check out the enshrined gods and benefits of each shrine. They are very open places and each is unique with specific details: feel free to walk up the stairs, venture around, and take in the peacefulness.

Marcella and Claire

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4 thoughts on “Shrines: a brief manual for dummies

  1. Pingback: Japanese religions: Temple or Shrine? | Best regards from far,

  2. Pingback: Temple hopping in Kyoto: our top chart | Best regards from far,

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