Guide to Shinto


To understand the original religion of Japan, the Shinto, one must throw away all monotheistic concepts and religions like Christianism. It’s always a difficult matter to explain to visitors and people that ask me about Shinto, and assuming some of this religion concepts result confusing. There is no God alone and absolute that reigns over Heaven. In Shinto, the believes are that Gods, known as “kami” inhabit in all things in life, concepts and nature. Forests, wind, water, fertility, family, and the list goes on. This believe is deeply connected into Japanese people, traditions and rituals. There are no absolutes, as nor really right or wrong, but the concept that humans are naturally good, and that is altered by evil spirits. So most of the Shinto rituals are to get rid of that evil force and spirits and purify the human soul.

Shinto torii in Hakone

Shintoism and Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced in Japan by the 6th century, with lots of conflict in the beginning. Time went through, and Buddhism started to co-exist and even share aspects, to the point that the two religions were mixed in the culture and traditions. Still, weddings are done following the Shinto religion, and funerals following the Buddhism. The reason is because death is a symbol of impurity in Shinto faith. During the Meiji period, shinto was declared the Japan state religion, and Buddhism traditions and believes were separated from the original, to make clear what was Shinto and what was Buddhism.

Traditional Shinto wedding at Meiji Jingu shrine
Meiji Jingu

Shinto shrines

In Japan, people visit Shinto shrines to pray for good fortune and to pay respects for the resident Kami. The next list is to understand and see what makes a Shinto shrine. In order of how a visitor sees it for the first time

  • Torii: The traditional Japanese gate, the first entrance that separates sacred ground to the mortals. Mostly made from wood and painted in orange and black, there can be of other colors and materials, like stone.

  • Temizu: Near the entrance, there’s the water fountain, to purify, and clean. The right steps are; Take the ladle with your right hand, pour water and wash your left hand. Repeat with the right hand. Take again the ladle with the right hand and pour water into your left hand, take a sip of water from the hand and rinse your mouth with it, then spit it by the side of the fountain. Leave again the ladle where you found it.

  • Komainu: The guardians near the entrance, the most common are the dogs or lions, but there are many other, like the Inari foxes, and the monkeys. There is one at each side of the entrance.

  • Shimenawa: Seen around trees, torii gates, and stones. This straw ropes with paper strips mark the barrier to a sacred spot.

  • Honden and haiden: The main hall “Honden”, where the Kami is enshrined, and the oratory hall “haiden” where people approach to make their prayers. Depending on the shrine construction might be two separated buildings, or combined in the same. The right ritual of praying. Best is to watch how people (Japanese) in front of you does it and follow their steps; Throw a coin into the large box (a donation to the shrine). Bow, clap your hands twice. Make your pray. Bow and clap your hands again.

  • Kagura-den: The stage “kagura-den” is a building usually nearby the main hall that is dedicated to arts and performances, like Noh theatre and Kagura traditional dance.

  • Ema: This wood plaques are made so people can write their wishes and hang it with the rest, so the kami can read it. There are many shapes and designs all around Japan.

  • Omikuji: The fortune papers. Might differ from shrine to shrine, but the following is the same. When you draw your fortune, the range goes from “the best of lucks” to the “worst of lucks”. If you get one of the bad luck, tie it with the rest of the omikuji you’ll see. The bad luck will be burn later by the monks. If you get good luck, take it home.

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