Guide to Shrines in Japan

When visiting Japan it's likely we're going to see at least one shrine, probably more, and I find that knowing about the places I visit always helps me enjoy them more. So here's a few things about shrines that I've learnt with my visits.
The main difference between a temple and shrine is that temples are buddhist and shrines are shintoist. But Samantha, you say, what is shinto really about?
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Shinto basics

Shinto is the indigenous belief of Japan. Sometimes it isn't really considered a religion since it's more a set of values and attitudes that are engrained in the Japanese culture. With the arrival of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century, the two managed to mix together well and even complement each other, that is until the Meiji Period when they were obligated to separate. Even so, it's common to see little shrines in temples and common elements, as well as practises like Shugendo that exist as a mix of the two.

Shinto is based on the worship of a multitude of gods -- the so-called kami. Even though it's the word everyone uses, "gods" may not be the most adequate translation. Kami are more like a divinity, a sacred essence, a spirit, a something special that usually manifests itself in many forms important to life: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, waterfalls, mountains. Ancestors are also kami. To understand this better, think of the manifestation of kami as something that inspires wonder or awe when you look at it, or something that holds enough personal value to make it important in itself. The feeling you get when you describe something as "beyond words". This "something special" is what shinto defines as sacred.
Shrines are meant to house these kami and create a separation between the "ordinary" world and the sacredness of that place or object. Shinto rituals are mostly done as a means of purification, offerings to the kami or to keep away evil spirits.

Things you might see at shrines

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- Torii: a torii is a gate, such as the one in the photo above, that is placed to separate the "ordinary world" from the "sacred place" of the shrine. These are usually placed at the entrance. Some people bow before passing through and others make sure to only walk on one side through the torii rather than right through the middle (the center is reserved as the "path of the kami" and not to be trodded on by us humans), however I haven't actually seen anyone do these two things in person.
- Komainu: In the same photo you can see two animal statues on either side of the torii. These are komainu, lion-dogs, and serve to ward off evil spirits. Often one will have the mouth open and the other closed, this is actually a characteristic inspired by Buddhism: the open mouth is saying the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced "a", while the closed one is saying the last letter, pronounced "um", they represent the beginning and the end of all things.
- Shimenawa ropes: usually around trees or rocks, or hanging from the shrine itself, shimenawa indicate a sacred or pure space and can also ward off evil spirits. The pieces of paper are called shide and I think they are more for purifying.
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Both of these are shimenawa ropes
There are many amulets and things sold at the shrines, including omikuji (like fortune telling), omamori (good luck charm), ema (boards where you write a wish and hang it at the shrine), but we might get into this another time since there's a lot to say about them.

Kagura dances

Kagura is a form of traditional Japanese dance (also has only male actors like in Noh and Kabuki) focusing on the dancing aspect. To better understand the significance of kagura, a story is in order!
Once upon a time, Susanoo (kami from Japanese mythology, god of the sea and storms) destroyed his sister Amaterasu’s land out of jealousy, Amaterasu fled and hid in a cave taking with her the light from the world for she was (is?) the sun goddess. With the earth in darkness the land soon became infested with demons and evil; people came from far and wide to try and get Amaterasu to return and shed her light once again. After many attempts to convince Amaterasu to leave the cave, it was Uzume who finally managed. She hung a mirror and jewels (two of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan) outside the cave and danced — the cheers of the other people made Amaterasu peek outside to see what was worth so much noise… when she saw her own reflection in the mirror she was startled enough that the others could pull her out of the cave. Uzume’s performance is said to be the origins of Japanese dance and more specifically a kagura dance.
Kagura is danced in shrines to appease the gods, however it is also a folk dance that has many variations by region.
Since most of these folk dances are hard to see unless you are at a certain place, usually rural, at a certain date, and many times inaccesible without a car, it can be hard for a visitor to Japan to see kagura.
However, a very easy way to see one is to visit the regular performances they do in Hiroshima every Wednesday. I was there last year and you really just have to stand in line at 5pm to buy the tickets that same day. It's still relatively "secret" so there aren't too many people. Another possibility is to visit Takachiho Shrine in Miyazaki in the evening.
Kagura dance in Hanamaki(Image from japan-iwate)

Shrine etiquette

It's important to have in mind some things when visiting a shrine. Beyond the obvious "don't yell", "don't litter" and the like, near the entrance you'll usually find a small fountain. This is used to purify your body and mind before reaching the main building. The steps to follow may seem complicated at first but you'll get used to it quickly!
- Take one of the ladles filled with water with your right hand and pour some water over your left hand to clean it.
- Swap hands! Now with the ladle in your left, clean your right hand.
- Changing hands once again, pour water over your left hand to help clean your mouth (the water is not drinkable!). Be careful that the water you use to clean doesn't fall back into the fountain, it must fall to the ground or on some stones in front of the fountain.
- Finally, turn the ladle so that the remaining water falls over the handle in order to clean it.
- Put it back where it was at the beginning!
I found out later that you're only supposed to fill the ladle up once with water to do all this. I've seen some people skip washing their hands (especially tourists), but I always make sure to do it. Many shrines frequented by foreigners will have signs on what to do.
The ladles at the fountain

Names for shrines

Shrines have many more names and suffixes than temples and one or another is used depending on the sect and status of the shrine. The most common one is jinja and is seen in most shrine names (such as Haruna Jinja, in English we'd say Haruna Shrine). However, it's not uncommon to see jingū if it's a high ranking shrine (Meiji Jingu) or taisha (I think this is usually given to ancient shrines, like Izumo Taisha). -gu is also used but usually together with another suffix, for example you'd say Toshogu (Nikko Toshogu) or Hachimangu (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu), between others; they belong to different sects. You don't have to memorize any of this, of course, it's simply a quick trick to know whether it's a shrine or temple when you're still not used to differentiating them.
Small inari shrine inside Hasedera Temple, an example of shinto and buddhism coexisting.

Okay, I think I'm done. If you think I've forgotten something important please mention it in the comments!
This was a quick guide to shrines in Japan, I hope some of this information will stick with you and you'll be able to enjoy even more your visits to shinto shrines on your next trip :).  I’ll probably post another one about temples too.

Sam Lesmana