If you’re travelling to Japan, the chances are you will visit at least a couple of sites significant to the country’s native religion Shinto. We visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto (or ‘the one with all the red gates’) and the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima on our Japan tours. Here we bring you a quick guide to the religion, so that you can make the most of visiting these beautiful and fascinating landmarks.
What is Shinto?
Shinto means ‘the way of the gods’ and can be traced back to the beginnings of Japanese civilisation. Practice revolves around the honouring of kami – spirits believed to possess or inhabit objects or natural landforms. Points of connection between the spirit world and the human world (most often unusually shaped rocks, rivers or trees) are housed within shrines.
Japan has always been a particularly secular country and currently less than 40% of the population identifies with an organised religion. However, on public holidays many people, (including atheists) choose to visit a Shinto Shrine – jinja – or a Buddhist temple – otera – to honour their cultural heritage.
How is Shinto practised?
Shinto practice focuses on the way that people interact with their surroundings while they are alive rather than preparing followers for an afterlife. The practice is, for the most part, limited to a series of practical rituals. The standard ritual, performed by visitors to Shinto shrines is as follows:
Wash hands in the Shrine basin, first the left hand, then the right
Drop a coin into the cashbox at the front of the shrine
Take hold of one of the long ropes that hang in front of the shrine and sound the gong
Take two deep bows
Clap hands together twice
Take a deep bow
Take a shallow bow
Walk backwards away from the shrine
How to spot a Shinto shrine
Shrines range hugely in terms of size and grandeur but there are a few visual signifiers to help you spot them while you’re in Japan.
People often leave offerings of fruit, sake and other consumable items at the foot of shrines.
These long white zigzags made of paper typically hang from shrines. They are also attached to wands or haraegushi during Shinto ceremonies.
These striking red gates are the most recognisable feature of a Shinto shrine – there’s even an emoji of one! ⛩
Animal guardian statues
These stone statues are usually located at the gates of a shrine, typically examples of these statues are lion-dogs, or shishi and foxes, or kitsune.