5 Etiquette to Observe at a Shinto Shrine in Japan

Exploring the Sacred: Discovering Shinto Shrine Etiquette.

Are you curious about the customs and manners observed within Shinto shrines? If so, uncover the essence of Shinto spirituality by delving into five essential etiquettes that guide visitors in their respectful interaction with these hallowed grounds. From purification rituals to respectful bowing, learn how to navigate this ancient tradition with grace and reverence.

Drawing from my own enriching experience of living in Japan, I invite you to delve into the captivating world of Shinto shrine etiquette. I share the five sacred customs that I personally encountered, practiced, and embraced while navigating the intricacies of this ancient spiritual land. From cleansing rituals that purify the soul to the art of respectful bowing, discover the essence of these time-honored traditions.

Shinto shrine etiquette pin1 timeless travel steps

The Symbol of a Shrine and Temple

Travel to Japan and you are certain to come across the striking sight of those vibrant orange torii gates. Whether standing alone as entrances, sometimes in water, or forming an impressive line numbering in the thousands along hillsides, these gates hold a deep meaning as they mark the threshold of Shinto shrines. An exceptional embodiment of this captivating Shinto tradition can be experienced at Fushimi Inari — a widely acclaimed shrine and a popular tourist spot nestled in Kyoto. Here, an astounding collection of ten thousand orange torii gates embellishes the mountainside, beckoning visitors into a realm of spiritual marvel.

That’s not all – Japan also boasts an array of Buddhist temples. From the serene charm of Nara to the cultural treasures of Uji and the iconic Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, these temples offer an equally enthralling exploration into the country’s spiritual fabric. In total, an astonishing count of around 160,000 shrines and temples are scattered throughout this breathtaking land, illustrating the profound connections between Japan’s culture, history, and its rich spiritual legacy.

During your visit, you’ll undoubtedly come across either a torii gate or a sanmon at a Buddhist temple. And when you step into a Shinto shrine, it’s a great opportunity to embrace the cultural etiquette of Japan. This article presents five essential etiquettes for your Shinto shrine experience — a practical guide to enrich your journey through Japan.

a line of orange torii gates going up an elevation | 5 etiquette at a Shinto shrine  | Timeless Travel Steps
torii gate line up the mountain at Fushimi,Kyoto

Shinto Shrine vs Buddhist Temple

Within Japanese spirituality, two distinct threads intricately weave through the cultural tapestry: the Shinto shrines vs Buddhist temples. These revered places of veneration carry profound significance, each adorned with unique attributes that echo centuries of tradition.

At the core of these spiritual havens, a pivotal distinction emerges: shrines are deeply intertwined with Shintoism, while temples stand as strongholds of Buddhism. The linguistic cues that set them apart are equally illuminating. In Japan’s language, the terms ‘jinja’ or ‘jingu’ evoke the sacred essence of shrines, while ‘o-tera’ reverberates with the solemnity of temples. Such words paint a vivid picture of the diverse paths one might tread upon entering these havens of faith.

With a gentle step through the torii gate of a shrine, often radiant in resplendent orange, visitors traverse a boundary that transcends the ordinary world. This iconic gate acts as a guardian, delineating the sacred realm from the bustling outside. In contrast, temples extend an invitation through their dignified ‘sanmon’ — a structure reminiscent of a house. Here, the presence of Buddhist statues and images imbues the surroundings, a presence absent in the serene expanse of shrines. This poignant contrast underscores a fundamental truth: shrines envelop the divine essence of gods, while temples embrace the spiritual aura of Buddhas.

At the outset, I struggled to differentiate between shrines and temples due to their overlapping etiquettes. However, I soon learnt of its differences and customs specific to each. As a visitor, the choice to partake in these rituals or not ultimately lies with you. Personally, I was drawn to observing the etiquette, driven by a mix of curiosity and respect for Japanese culture. Whatever prompts your decision, having a grasp of the appropriate conduct while at a shrine or temple is truly beneficial.

Diving into Shintoism during my time in Japan provided me with profound insights into the country’s culture and its people. I shall, therefore be focusing solely on the etiquette and rituals tied to Shinto shrines.

Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan | Timeless Travel Steps
a sanmon: Todaiji Temple, Nara
Torii gate, Heian shrine Kyoto © timelesstravelsteps.com

A Simple Overview of Shintoism in Japan

“Shinto” translates to “the path of kami” (kami meaning gods) in its literal sense. Unlike many other religions, Shinto doesn’t have a clear beginning – no founder or prophets. It lacks a set of written rules defining its beliefs.

In Shintoism, there’s no central shrine, but instead, you’ll find an assortment of shrines dedicated to local deities. Hence, at the core of Shintoism lie fundamental ideas centered around purity, harmony, family reverence, and the notion of placing the group ahead of oneself. Due to its inherent lack of strict definitions, Shinto’s concepts remain adaptable, which might be one of the reasons for its enduring existence.

It’s often stated that the Shinto faith is woven so deeply into Japanese history that it’s essentially the native belief system of Japan. Consequently, it’s inseparable from both Japan and its people; it’s an integral part of Japanese identity regardless of an individual’s declared religious association or lack thereof.

During the Meiji period, Shintoism underwent transformations. It was somewhat unified and embraced as the state religion, led by the emperor. According to legend, Japan’s emperors are direct descendants of the inaugural Emperor Jimmu Tenno, who was the great-grandchild of Amaterasu-Omikami, a presence during Japan’s inception. This belief aligns with the idea that the Emperor rightfully governs Japan because it’s what the gods desire! Shinto followers hold that gods and spirits (kami) coexist in our world, surrounding and interacting with us, which provides the freedom that allows their beliefs to thrive.

Tradition rather than Belief

Japan stands as a nation deeply rooted in its traditions, where the act of visiting temples or shrines is not just a simple action, but a profound commitment to preserving age-old customs, regardless of personal religious beliefs.

Reflecting on my experiences during a nearly six-month stay in Japan, I had the privilege of immersing myself in the cultural tapestry of both shrines and temples. However, it was the enchantment of Shintoism that resonated with me the most. Thus, in this article, I share the insights to ensure your journey within this rich tradition is both respectful and fulfilling. By embracing these steps, you’ll find yourself not just an observer, but an active participant, seamlessly engaging with the practices that have shaped Japan’s spiritual landscape for centuries.

past the torii gate, the frontal view of the entrance to Heian shrine, Kyoto
past the torii gate, this is the entrance to Heian shrine, Kyoto

Etiquette at a Shinto Shrine

Embracing the heart of Shintoism in Japan opens the doors to a world of rich tradition and profound respect. As you step into the serene grounds of a Shinto shrine, the art of etiquette unfolds, guiding your interactions with a centuries-old spiritual legacy, offering you a glimpse into the customs that honour the divine and embrace the essence of Japan’s cultural heritage.

Etiquette 1: Bow and Walk on Either Side

The entrance to a Shinto shrine is graced by a torii gate. This demarcates the sacred realm of the gods from the external world.

Upon reaching the torii gate, it’s customary to offer a bow before stepping onto the sacred grounds, choosing either the left or the right path. The middle pathway is reserved for the gods’ passage. Interestingly, many tourists and visitors (including myself!) tend to overlook this etiquette due to unfamiliarity.

As you venture within the grounds, your destination is the Shinto shrine itself. However, before approaching the gods, the second etiquette needs to be observed. This entails stopping at the chozuya

this is a 12 metre high torii gate at one of the entrances to the famous Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. People, men and women walk through the gates | photo by Georgina of Timeless Travel Steps
This is the 12 meter (40-foot) high Torii gate which marks the entrance to the Meiji Shinto Shrine, Tokyo. There are clear designated footpaths on the left and the right for visitors

Etiquette 2: Chozuya

Purify yourself with a 3-steps ritual.

Engaging in Shinto shrine etiquette involves respecting sacred rituals as you step towards the entrance of a shrine. Just before entering, you’ll encounter a chozuya, a serene pavilion with bamboo ladles resting within. Positioned here is a significant purification process that precedes your approach to the main shrine, where prayers to the gods are offered.

The etiquette at the chozuya can be summarised into three essential rituals:

i) With your right hand, delicately scoop a ladle of water and gently pour it over your left hand.

ii) Repeat the process, this time pouring water over your right hand.

iii) Finally, the last step entails cleansing your mouth. Utilizing the ladle, pour a bit of water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth, and then discreetly release the water onto the ground.

**Remember, it’s important not to wash your mouth directly from the ladle.

Through these thoughtful actions, you engage in a profound tradition, displaying your appreciation for the customs that have shaped Shinto shrine etiquette for generations. Upon completing these meticulous 3-step rituals, proceed towards the shrine to embrace the next facet of Shinto shrine etiquette: paying your sincere respects to the gods. In this sacred space, honour the divine presence through a sequence of 7-step rituals, each embodying a profound connection with Japan’s spiritual legacy.

a group of people at the cleansing station in the Meiji shrine Tokyo observing the ritual at the chozuya | picture by Georgina of Timeless Travel Steps
people observing the cleansing etiquette at the chozuya, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
a row of three bamboo ladles resting on a shelf made of bamboo at a Shinto shrine cleansing station
bamboo ladles at a small purification station situated in a Shinto shrine’s

Etiquette 3: At the Shinto shrine

Paying respects by embracing the 7-step ritual at the shrine.

i) As you stand before the shrine, offer a gentle bow;

ii) Extend a gesture of goodwill by placing a coin into the offertory box, irrespective of the amount;

iii) Gently ring the bell (if available) two or three times, signaling your presence to the gods you’ve come to pray to.

Once the bell’s resonance has echoed your purpose, follow four simple yet significant steps:

iv) Extend a deep bow at a 90-degree angle, twice;

v) Create a resonant rhythm by clapping your hands twice;

vi) Express your gratitude and reverence to the gods;

vii) Conclude with a final deep bow.

Upon concluding this sequence, a sense of tranquility and connection may envelop you, reminding you of the ancient spirits that linger within the sacred space. This ritual serves as a heartfelt tribute, further enriching your encounter with the profound world of Japanese spirituality.

Georgina, ringing the bells observing the third of the five Etiquette at a Shinto shrine, Yasaka shrine in Kyoto
Georgina at Yasaka shrine, Kyoto, observing the etiquette to ring the bell

After paying your respects to the gods, you may want to do Ema.

Etiquette 4: Expressing your wishes

Pen your aspirations on Ema.

The enriching tradition of writing your wishes on Ema simply represents writing your aspirations on a wooden plaque.

A charming wooden plaque, Ema, aptly named “horse picture,” stands as a conduit for your desires, a heartfelt way to communicate with the gods. You buy the Ema to write your wishes and to hang them to be received by the gods. These are available in various sizes. You can buy Ema of various sizes.

Ema’s origin can be traced back to the belief that kami travelled on horseback. In history, the more well-to-do even presented live animals for the gods’ favour, but as time woaved its threads, this evolved into presenting horse pictures instead. Ema has gained popularity, particularly among older teens seeking educational triumphs, couples yearning for lasting joy, and the older generation praying for enduring health. Upon penning your wishes on Ema, a realm of potential unfolds, offering insight into the fortunes that lie ahead. This practice, rooted in ancient tradition, forms an integral part of the captivating journey through appreciating the Shinto shrine etiquette.

written out Ema at a Shinto shrine on display
after paying respects at a Shinto shrine, follow the etiquette on Ema – you buy these wooden plaque to write your wishes and hang them to be received by the gods.

Etiquette 5: Discovering your fate – Omikuji (100 Yen Fortunes)

After experiencing the enchanting practice of Ema, the next stop in the journey through Shinto shrine etiquette brings us to Omikuji, a fascinating tradition that unveils your potential fortunes.

For just 100 yen, you can secure a slip of paper bearing predictions about various aspects of your life, ranging from career and love to health, friendship, and education. These special papers are aptly known as ‘omikuji’. Once in your possession, you have the choice to either hold onto them or attach them to a rope or the branches of a nearby tree within the shrine’s vicinity. This captivating practice offers insights into what the future holds, a delightful continuation of your immersive encounter with the rich tapestry of Japanese spiritual customs.

What observing Shinto shrine etiquette means

Embracing the essence of Shinto shrine etiquette is an integral facet of delving into the cultural tapestry of Japan. Adhering to these customs is a way to engage deeply with Japanese spirituality. From bowing respectfully twice to purifying oneself at the chozuya, you demonstrate profound respect and show your understanding of the significance of these sacred places. As hands come together and a deep bow is performed, a connection is forged between the yourself, the vibrant traditions, and the spiritual energies that linger within shrines across the beautiful landscapes of Japan.

So, whether you’re at a bustling temple or a tranquil shrine, let the etiquette guide your steps, enhancing your journey while honoring the essence of these hallowed sanctuaries.

Omikuji - 100 Yen fortunes or misfortunes written on paper tied to branches of trees near the Heian shrine Kyoto
Heian shrine, Kyoto: Omikuji – 100 Yen fortunes or misfortunes written on paper tied to branches of trees near the shrine.

Shinto shrines at major cities in Japan to visit

Here are three Shinto shrines in each of the major cities in Japan where you can practice Shinto shrine etiquette:

Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi Inari Taisha — Renowned for its vibrant torii gate path, this shrine offers a captivating journey through a tunnel of gates.

Kiyomizu-dera — Set atop a hill, this iconic shrine provides panoramic views of Kyoto and is famous for its wooden stage.

Yasaka Shrine — Located in the Gion district, this historic shrine hosts the Gion Matsuri festival and exudes traditional charm.

READ: Complete Guide to Kyoto City: Where to stay and best things to do in Kyoto.

Tokyo, Japan

Meiji Shrine — Nestled within the heart of Tokyo, this shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, surrounded by a tranquil forest.

Asakusa Shrine (Senso-ji) — Adjacent to the bustling Senso-ji Temple, this shrine is a symbol of the Asakusa area’s rich history.

Hie Shrine — Overlooking the city, this serene shrine offers a peaceful escape and a glimpse into Tokyo’s spiritual side.

READ: Complete guide to Tokyo 3-day itinerary including a visit to Mount Fuji.

Kobe, Japan

Ikuta Shrine — One of Japan’s oldest shrines, Ikuta Shrine provides a serene oasis amidst Kobe’s urban landscape.

Nunobiki Shrine — Located within the Nunobiki Herb Garden, this shrine offers scenic views of Kobe and a tranquil setting.

Sumaura Sanjo Shrine — Situated on the slopes of Mount Rokko, this shrine offers a unique blend of nature and spirituality.

READ: One day in Kobe from Kyoto.

Hiroshima, Japan

Itsukushima Shrine — Located on the iconic Miyajima Island, this shrine’s “floating” torii gate is a must-see sight.

Hiroshima Gokoku Shrine — Honoring those who lost their lives in wars, this shrine provides a reflective space within Hiroshima.

Mitaki-dera — Nestled in the hills, this secluded shrine offers a serene retreat and picturesque surroundings.

READ: Complete guide to Hiroshima City including 2-day itinerary in Hiroshima and One day on Miyajima Island.

floating torii gate in Miyajima at high tide, Hiroshima
floating torii gate in Miyajima Island, Hiroshima at high tide

Nara, Japan

Kasuga Taisha — Known for its lantern-lined paths, this shrine is a symbol of Nara and is surrounded by the tranquil deer park.

Wakamiya Shrine — Located within the expansive Nara Park, this shrine is part of the larger Kasuga Taisha complex.

Omiwa Shrine — Revered as the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, Omiwa Shrine is nestled at the foot of Mount Miwa and offers a mystical atmosphere.

READ: Guide to one day and best things to do in Nara, Japan.

Himeji, Japan

Himeji Tegarayama Shrine — Situated on Mount Tegarayama, this shrine offers scenic views of Himeji and a peaceful atmosphere.

Engyoji Temple — While primarily a Buddhist temple, Engyoji also features Shinto elements and offers a serene escape.

Shirahama Jinja Shrine — Located near Himeji Castle, this shrine holds historical significance and a connection to the region’s past.

READ: One day in Himeji from Kyoto.

Osaka, Japan

Sumiyoshi Taisha — Known for its distinctive architecture and iconic taiko-bashi bridge, this shrine is one of Osaka’s oldest.

Osaka Tenmangu Shrine — Dedicated to Tenjin, the deity of scholarship, this shrine is a hub of educational aspirations.

Hokoku Shrine — Part of Osaka Castle Park, this shrine offers a peaceful respite and a glimpse into Osaka’s history.

Nagoya, Japan

Atsuta Shrine — One of Japan’s most important shrines, Atsuta Shrine is home to the sacred Kusanagi Sword and exudes reverence.

Osu Kannon Temple and Shrine — This unique site features both a temple and a shrine, allowing visitors to experience both traditions.

Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine — Known for its annual festival, this shrine is located within Nagoya Castle grounds and offers cultural insights.

Nagasaki, Japan

Suwa Shrine — Located on the charming Glover Garden hill, this shrine offers splendid views of Nagasaki’s harbor.

Sanno Shrine — Known for its impressive red torii gate, Sanno Shrine stands as a hidden gem amidst Nagasaki’s urban landscape.

Sofukuji Temple — While primarily a Zen temple, Sofukuji also features Shinto elements and offers a tranquil ambiance.

These shrines in various cities provide wonderful opportunities to practice Shinto shrine etiquette and immerse yourself in Japan’s rich spiritual heritage.

Books on Shintoism

To learn more about Shintoism in Japan, you may like to purchase one of these books. These selected books offer an in-depth illustration of Shintoism and how it is represented in the people and culture of Japan.

Peruse Books on Shintoism

As a deliberate escapist, embracing slow travel…

In the serene embrace of these Shinto shrines scattered across various cities, the art of Shinto shrine etiquette comes to life, connecting us with the intricate threads of Japan’s spiritual and cultural heritage. Each bow, every step, and the whispers of wishes written on Ema create a symphony that resonates through time, weaving our presence into a tapestry that spans centuries. As we navigate the rituals and customs within these hallowed grounds, we become part of a legacy that continues to shape the vibrant soul of Japan. Through these respectful gestures, we find ourselves not just travellers, but participants in a timeless dance that bridges the past with the present, enriching our understanding of the world and its countless wonders.

Exploring Japan’s vast landscape adorned with over 160,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, I’m certain you’ll find yourself drawn to at least one during your visit. Through my own journey, I delved deeper into Japanese culture and unraveled the nuances distinguishing these two religions, all while immersing myself in the embrace of countless shrines and temples throughout my stay. For the Japanese, embracing etiquette at these sites is more about tradition than strict religious adherence. Thus, there’s no pressure to follow these customs if you don’t wish to.

Georgina, standing next to the torii gates that line up the mountain at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Georgina, at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Personally, I discovered that adhering to these practices added a layer of excitement and intrigue. It shifted my perspective from merely capturing photographs to actively participating in a living tradition. So, when you embark on your next adventure to a Shinto shrine, why not try out these etiquette practices? And remember, I’m here eagerly awaiting to hear about your experiences upon your return.

Happy and safe travels, wherever travel takes you.

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One glass of water doesn’t equal another. One may just appease the thirst, the other you may enjoy thoroughly. In Japan, people know about this difference. – Jil Sander