What is a Shinto shrine?
A Shinto shrine (Jinja) is a facility that worships gods of the Shinto faith. Shinto is an inherently Japanese religion which formulates the worship of gods from nature, mythology, folklore, and historical fact as well as the spirits of ancestors.
In many Shinto shrines, there is an object called “goshintai” or “Shinto body” enshrined. This can be something inhabited by the spirit of the god but it may also be something that is actually the god itself. The “shaden” in the shrine where the goshintai is enshrined is not open to the public as a general rule. However, depending on the shrine, the goshintai may be a tree, a stone, a mountain or the land itself so there are shrines where you can actually see the goshintai.
The building where the god is worshipped called the “shaden” is often in the forest surrounded by trees but this is derived from natural worship. The inside of a shrine surrounded by trees is wrapped in stillness and removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
It is said that there are currently 85,000 shrines in Japan. There are many kinds of shrines and the scale ranges from the large ones managed by the national government to small ones standing quietly in the mountains, cleaned by the local residents. The shrine which is considered to have the highest ranking in a certain area is called “ichinomiya.”
Shrines such as Ise Jingu Grand Shrine in the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture, Izumo Taisha Shrine in the city of Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, and Fushimi Inari-taisha and Yasaka Shrines in Kyoto, which all have history and status, can be cited as representative large scale shrines. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is a relatively new shrine built in the Meiji period but it has many visitors now and it has become an urban oasis.
About “Omairi,” Visiting the Shrine
1. Sando and Torii
The road up to the shrine is called the “sando,” or approach. Many sando are covered with gravel and have trees planted on either side. In the silence, the sound of gravel being stepped upon echos. At the entrance to the sando and along the way, gates called “torii” are built and they represent the boundary between the normal world and the sacred world. They are often made of wood or stone and many of them are painted red. As you pass through it you will see a building called "shaden" that enshrines the gods.
2. Hand washing
Before worshipping at the shrine, the body must be purified. You can scoop water with a ladle to wash your hands at a place in the shrine called “chozu” (hand water) and you can wash your hands and rinse your mouth here. This is the first etiquette of worship.
3. Monetary offering box and bell
After washing your hands and purifying your heart, head toward the front of the “shaden” where the god is. Most “shaden” have a box for monetary offerings called a “saisen bako” and a bell. You can donate some money and ring the bell. Ringing the bell has the significance of announcing to the god that you have come to worship. Incidentally, putting money in the “saisen bako” is not mandatory. Also, as a general rule, it does not cost any money to enter the shrine.
4. Two bows, two claps, one bow
The popular way to pray is something called “nihai nihakushu ichirei”
nihai: first lower your head to bow two times
nishaku: clap your hands twice
ichirei: finally lower your head to bow one more time.
Making your prayer during the last bow is common.
5. Omikuji Fortune
After praying, try taking “omikuji,” a lot that predicts fortune. Now, picking out the paper that is wrapped up or folded is common. When you open it, there are letters written on them to divide them by rank in order from “dai kichi,” or great blessing, “chukichi,” or middle blessing, “shokichi,” or small blessing, “kichi,” or blessing, “suekichi,” or ending blessing, “kyo,” or curse, and “daikyo,” or great curse. “Kichi” means good luck and “kyo” means bad luck. “Kyo” does not usually come up very often but even if it does you needn’t worry. Omikuji’s true fortune is not in the blessing or curse. Besides the rank on omikuji, there is also advice about things like health, work and marriage. You omit your own work from that advice. You can tie the omikuji you pulled to the tree at the shrine or take it home with you. Omikuji usually cost about 300 yen.
6. Omamori charm
Many shrines sell “omamori,” or charms which protect from misfortune and accidents or make wishes come true. Though bags and stringed items are the basic form, there are others like key rings, stickers, or ones with anime characters. Isn’t it nice to get one as a memory of your visit to the shrine?