Shinto & Shrines 神道と神社


@Unsplash/ Snowscat

A guide for travellers to Japan on Shintoism and visiting shrines with information sourced from a 17th generation Shinto Priestess. 

Religion in Japan largely comes in two forms; Buddhism and Shintoism. Buddhism, as many know, is a world-religion that traces its origins back to India and was eventually brought into Japan around the 6th century. 

Though it does cite much influence from Chinese culture and Buddhism, Shinto sees both its origins and practices almost fully in Japan, encompassing the culture’s ancient traditions with its influence still being widely visible into the modern-day. 

Shinto traditions and influence can be seen in almost every facet of Japanese life, from everyday practices and habits to major holidays and celebrations. It is in this way that Shinto occupies a very unique presence within its native land; well-studied and fully understood by few, yet influential to and embraced by almost all.

Travellers can directly experience this presence at the many jinja (Shinto shrines) that can be found throughout Japan, and 17th generation Kannushi (Shinto Priest/Priestess) Moe Wakamiya of the Tokiwa Shrine in Toyama Prefecture has provided us with insight on what visitors ought to see, understand, and experience when visiting a Shinto shrine.

Shinto is cited as Japan’s indigenous religion and is referenced in written records as early as 300 BC, with its development and legends surely being developed way before even then.

Tokiwa Shrine Head, Moe Wakamiya in her Kannushi attire.

Moe Wakamiya

Shinto Shrines in Japan

With the prominence of both Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, one will typically find two types of religious buildings throughout the country. Buddhism is practiced at temples, which in Japanese are called otera (お寺), while Shintoism is practiced at shrines, known as jinja (神社). For notable examples of both, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto and Senso-ji in Tokyo are examples of Buddhist temples, while Ise-Jingu in Mie Prefecture and Meiji-Jingu in Tokyo are examples of Shinto shrines. Throughout the entirety of Japan, there are said to be over 100,000 shrines.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo.


People at Shinto Shrines

One can find a number of personnel tending to and working at Shinto shrines in Japan. Of highest authority is that of the Kannushi, and as we previously mentioned is the title of Moe Wakamiya at her shrine in Toyama. The Kannushi is the main figurehead at a given shrine, leading precessions, conducting rituals and services, along with an array of other responsibilities. They are often seen wearing elaborate robes and headwear, though depending on certain rituals and practices, this attire may change.

Assisting the Kannushi are the Miko, often high school aged girls who service the shrine on their off-time or as part-time work. They can be seen wearing white and red attire, tending to the general needs of the shrine, and also assisting in rituals and ceremonies. At larger temples they can be seen working at stands that sell goods such as omamori (charms that bring upon good fortune or protection) that contribute to funds for maintaining and funding the shrine. 


Mikos and mikos in training at Tokiwa Shrine

Moe Wakamiya

Kannushi and miko

Kannushi and miko at Meiji Jingu.

@World History Encyclopedia

What to experience when visiting a Shinto Shrine

It’s safe to say that Shinto shrines are a rare site outside of Japan, so Wakamiya advocates that travellers take their time and take in as much as they can when visiting a shrine.

Before anything else, it is customary to bow when entering the main torii gate of the shrine and to do so off-center, as the direct center is seen as the primary pathway for the shrine deity. When leaving through the torii gate again, look towards the shrine altar and bow again, once again off-center.

Start by taking the ladle with the right hand and washing the left hand, then switching hands and washing the right hand. Additionally, there are some who choose to cup water into their left hand and sip into their mouth slightly and then spit it out, though if you are not comfortable with this, there is no need.

 For the actual prayer, one must go up to the actual altar often sitting in front of the main building of the shrine. The minute details of prayer practices varies between shrines, but in general, the following guidelines are often accepted:


Wakamiya's grandmother bowing before entering the torii gates at Tokiwa Shrine in Toyama, Japan.

Moe Wakamiya

Student mikos at Tokiwa Shrine

Moe Wakamiya

  1. Throw a coin into the offering box if there is one there. 5 yen coins are often chosen for this due to their association with good relationships. 
  2. If there is a rope-tied-bell, shake the rope to ring the bell, as it is said to ward off impurities and evil. 
  3. Bow twice at around a 90 degree angle. 
  4. Clap twice with straight hands. 
  5. While keeping hands together in front, silently make a prayer and wish. 
  6. Once a wish has been made, bow deeply again at a 90 degree angle, once.

A woman praying at a Shinto shrine.

In the same vein as ema, paper fortunes called omikuji are also common. Ones with favorable luck are often kept, and ones with more unfortunate luck are tied up and displayed at the shrine. 

As previously mentioned, at a number of shrines (especially larger popular ones), goods such as omamori are sold that serve as great personal souvenirs that also help support the shrines.

Wakamiya says that shrines are not just a representation of the Shinto religion, but also the local communities they reside in, often serving as a hub of activity for locals and hosting sites for events.


Omikuji Bad luck

Bad fortune omikuji wrapped up and displayed at a shrine.



Omamori that can be found at a shrine.


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