People usually visit shrines for a few specific reasons including sightseeing, studying religion or to ask the kami (deities) for help with a specific thing such as wishing for good luck in exams or praying for a speedy recovery for a sick family member or the delivery of a healthy baby.
A lot of shrines are associated with a specific Kami such as Ebisu the god of commerce and fortune, who helps with business ventures and work and Tenjin the god of scholarship who helps at exam time as well as many others, even some more obscure Kami.
So it pays to look for the appropriate shrine if you have a very specific thing you wish to pray and ask for. But you can pray at any shrine you wish, and the gods may pass on your wish to the proper parties.
The first thing you see as you approach the shrine (or Jinja) is the red Torii gate, it is believed the red colour is to ward off evil spirits, danger and any bad luck (apart from having a spiritual function, the red colour has a preservative function. Red paint is usually made using mercury, which has been used as a preservative for wood since ancient times),
The torii gate marks the separation between the world of humans and that of the gods.
To pay your respects you should bow at the gate before entering and as you pass under the gate make sure you don’t walk close to the posts and not in the direct centre, as this path (Sei-chu) is reserved as the passageway for the gods to come and go. The same goes for walking along the pathway (sando) towards the main shrine (Haiden).
Before arriving at the main Haiden there will be a large communal water pavilion called a temizuya, this is where you must perform misogi, a ritual where you purify your mind and body before coming face to face with the deity.
To purify yourself, pick up one of the ladles resting on the temizuya and fill it with water. (the entire ritual should be performed using a single ladle of water) Using your right hand, pour some water over your left hand, then repeat the process with your left hand pouring onto your right hand.
The final step is to rinse your mouth with the water, fill your left hand with some water from the ladle but do not swallow, you should spit it out in the area to the outside. Finally empty the remaining water from the ladle over your left hand and then hold the ladle upright so the handle gets rinsed also.
There may also be a large burner nearby with many incense sticks where you can use the smoke to purify your body.
The haiden is where you pay your respects to the kami-sama. Inside the hall, more complicated ceremonies are conducted by a Shinto priest, but you can pray from the outside. From here you will see a large offering box (saiken-bako).
Again, standing off centre as to not block the Kami’s passageway place or gently toss your offering of a coin or note into one of the slots on top, this should be done quietly and humbly to not draw negative attention.
The amount you offer will not affect the outcome of your prayers it is more about the sincerity of your prayers, but superstition dictates that certain yen amounts bring good or bad luck. The 5-yen coin is considered a good choice because it sounds like ‘go-en’, the Japanese word for luck. The 10-yen coin, however, is considered unlucky despite being worth more because it sounds like ‘tou-en’, which means that your luck will be far away.
If there is a bell in front of the haiden, take hold of the rope with both hands and give it a firm shake to call the kami-sama. Traditionally, the ringing of the bell was believed to ward off evil spirits, so ringing also helps to purify the space for the kami-sama’s arrival. If there is no bell you can just skip this step and make your prayer.
Firstly, you greet the kami-sama by bowing deeply two times.
Next, clap two times with your hands at chest hight and open to shoulder width to express your appreciation to the kami-sama. When your palms come together, your right hand should be positioned just slightly below your left, as the left hand is said to represent the kami-sama, while the right hand represents you, clapping also helps to ward off evil spirits.
Then, offer your silent prayer to the kami-sama. If it’s your first visit to the shrine, you should tell them your name and address and give thanks before proceeding with you requests and wishes.
At the end of your prayer, excuse yourself with a final deep 90-degree bow and you’re done.
Around the Shrine
For an extra bit of luck or good fortune for the rest of the year you should purchase a omamori from the store near to the shrine, omamori mean “to protect.” There are so many different varieties of design for different functions, such as for traffic safety, better fortune, passing examinations, prosperity in business, finding a soulmate, healthy pregnancy, etc.
They are purchased at the beginning of the year and are to be kept with you throughout the year, then burned, not disposed at the end of the year.
Another option is an omikuji, Omikuji are fortune-telling paper strips that can be purchased for around 100 or 200 yen, depending on the shrine. Some come in the form of vending machines, and others use a pillar box with long, thin sticks that are shaken, and one stick will appear out one of the holes. This stick will show a number, and this will match a piece of paper which will show your fortune ranking from excellent luck all the way down to bad luck.
If the luck is good, then generally people take home their omikuji so that they can keep the luck with them. If you draw back luck however, you must tie it to a designated place within the grounds of the shrine to keep the bad luck away.
Lastly is Ema, literally picture horse, small wooden prayer plaques that you write your prayers and wishes on and then hang up at the shrine where the gods receive them. In ancient times people would donate horses to the shrines for good favour; over time once this wasn’t feasable this was transferred to a wooden plaque so everyone could ask their wishes regardless of wealth or status.
When its finally time to leave don’t forget to bow to the Torii on your way out to show your final respect and thankyou to the kami.
So that’s your guide, and now you know how it all works I promise your visit to a Shinto Shrine will be a whole lot more fulfilling and enjoyable. I find knowing what your doing brings a whole new experience to the visit and you leave feeling very spiritual and cleansed.