Japanese Language Blog

Shintoo Shrines Posted by on Sep 24, 2009 in Culture

So now that you a little about the Shintoo belief system (from the previous post) let’s talk about Shintoo shrines. The best way to experience or see Shintoo practices is to visit a Shintoo shrine, especially on festival days. There are several famous Shintoo shrines. Each shrine may be different in the sense that it may house a different kami (かみ) or spirit. For example the Ise Jinguu (伊勢神宮) or the Ise Shrine is dedicated to the goddess Amaterasu (天照) or the sun goddess, while the Meiji Jinguu (明治神宮) is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji.

Although the shrines may be different in the spirits they house, a lot of the shrines open to the public have similar architectural features. Before you enter a shrine you’ll see torii (鳥居) or a red gate. Torii gates marks the entrance of sacred space in Japan. The major shrines have a gate from which the public can enter and a different gate from which the priests and other holy people can enter.

There are some basic protocals for when you omairi (おまいり) or visit a shrine. Before you enter a temple, take a bow first. When you enter, you may see a temizuya (てみずや) or a place where you can wash your hands and rinse your mouth. This washing ritual is to purify your actions and the words that come out of your mouth. You’ll see some ladles and a communal basin of water. When you’re done, leave the ladle facing downwards.

There are some general prohibitions when entering a shrine. Japanese people abstain from visiting a shrine when a relative has died. Being around a corpse is thought to be unclean. Also, certain areas of the shrine may not be open to visitors. Even lower level monks are not allowed in the honden (ほんでん) or the worship hall, and only a high level priest is allowed to enter. This is because the honden (ほんでん) is the place where the kami (かみ) or spirit is housed. If you enter in any room on the shrine’s premises, such as the haiden (はいでん) or the public hall of worship, remember to remove your shoes before you enter the room.

My general recommendation for first time visitors to a shrine is to be cautious and aware of every action performed in a shrine. If you have doubts about doing something, try watching others and copy after them. Also, behave in a way that you would behave if you were at a formal establishment. Chances are, you probably wouldn’t talk in a raised voice and chew gum at a formal event, so the same rule should apply to a shrine as well.

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  1. Tatiana:

    Amazing! I once went to a sakura festival and there was a torii gate at the entrance of the path. Now I’m wondering if I did anything wrong, although I don’t remember doing much except quietly walking along in awe, haha!

    I wonder, at the temiyuza, if you wash your hands and rinse your mouth, is there a designated place to spit the water out, or do you just…?

    Thank you so much for this post!

  2. Tim Upham:

    Torii means “perch,” and it was suppose to be where birds perched and crowed into the sun. It is not quite sure where the tradition of the torii comes from, because Japan did not have literacy until the 5th century C.E. But is could come from Siberian tradition of welcoming the sun after a long and cold winter.