The red/orange gates of shrines can be seen everywhere in Japan. They are impossible to miss unless you walk around with your eyes closed. Some are big and some are small, but they are absolutely everywhere. For this reason I’ve decided to compile a guide to what you may see at a shrine (or pictures of shrines) while in Japan.
me at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
Lets start with the gates: Torii Gates. According to Japan-Guide the gates mark the entrance to a shrine. Some of my students once told me that they mark the beginning of the spiritual realm surrounding the shrine. Many of the torii gates are reddish/orange but I’ve seen ones that were just wood or cement. One of the most impressive displays of gates I’ve seen has been at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. The Fushimi Inari Shrine has thousands of gates which line a trail up the side of the Inari mountain. The gates have been donated by individuals and companies and have their names inscribed on the corresponding gate. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was made popular in America by the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.
Komainu: According to Japan Guide, the Komainu are a pair of guard dogs or lions that are found near the entrance to a shrine. I’ve seen both lions and fox, but I don’t know that I’ve seen dogs, unless they are fox-like dogs…
Temizuya – The temizuya is a water fountain of sorts where you clean your mouth and hands. According to HubPages, this is the process: pick up the ladle with your right hand and scoop some water, pour some of the water on your left hand to wash it, move the ladle to your left hand and use it to wash your right hand, return the ladle to your right hand and bring the ladle to your mouth to clean it – don’t drink the water – either just touch your mouth to the water or, if you take the water in your mouth, spit it on the ground (most people just touch it to their mouths, at least that’s what I’ve seen). Last, clean the ladle by scooping some more water in it and tilting it up right so the water falls out of the scoop and onto the ladle and your hands. (I don’t see many people do the final step) I always try to do this when I see a temizuya, out of respect for the people who worship there.
Main Hall – There may be many different buildings at a shrine, depending on its size. Bigger shrines can be found in bigger cities and they sometimes will have community buildings, refreshment centers, bathrooms, reception areas, etc. But in my little town of Nishiakashi, we have a tiny little shrine with a small main hall that’s about the size of an efficiency apartment! It really just depends on the shrine. According to Wikipedia, the main hall ‘enshrines’ sacred objects.
Interior of the Minatogawa Shrine Main Hall in Kobe
Ema – Decorative wooden plates people purchase at the shrine and write their wishes on. Each shrine seems to have their own version.
Omikuji – Papers with fortunes which people tie to trees or stands on the shrine grounds. (photo and info from PlayJapanese)
Shimenawa – According to Japan Guide, the shimenawa marks the the beginning of something sacred. I’ve seen them on torii gates and entrances to buildings at shrines. They are zig-zag papers attached to ropes.
You can just barely make the shimenawa out, hanging over the entrance to a building in Nara. They are the white paper zig-zags hanging on the rope above the door.
From what I’ve seen at shrines in Japan, people will just drop into a shrine on their way to or from somewhere and make an offering – its not a planned event like going to church on Sundays. If you are lucky, you will either get a sign (in English) such as the one below, or you’ll get to see someone make an offering so if you then can make a proper Shinto offering.
For a quick and easy article on Shintoism, check out Tofugu. I don’t know all the ins and outs of Shintoism, but it is such a huge part of everyday life in Japan that its definitely worth learning about if you spend any time in Japan!