Japanese love to talk to the Kami-sama (Gods), either to express gratitude, or to ask a favor.  For this reason, they often visit temples or shrines, at least several times a year! But before you can have your voice heard, there are a few things you need to know and do… 

Purification is an essential practice of Shintoism and the ritual finds it origins in the myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the two Gods co-creators of the world.  On his way back in the world of the living, Izanagi immerses himself in water to get rid of the impurities from the realm of the dead. This purifying bath healed his body and bruised heart.

Purification of the mind and the body play an important role in Shintoism and are performed in many different forms, such as ablutions (misogi), with prayers under a waterfall (mizugori) or during ceremonies where the priest waves a wand cover with paper streamers (onusa). 

The purification fountain

Have you ever wondered what the fountains at the entrance of a shrine or temple are for? That’s right! To purify yourself before entering the sacred location! Some of the fountains, called chôzuya (手水舎) in japanese, have the inscription: "wash my mind, clean my heart".

Often, the water flows from a dragon with the image of Ryujin, the god of the Sea. But sometimes, it comes from a turtle, a deer or even a boar. Whether it's a simple stone basin or fancy pavilion made of wood, the ritual remains the same:


 The Omamori Shop Chozuya

  • Take the hishaku (traditional ladle) in your right hand and fill it with water (usually with water coming from the fountain .
  • Clean your left hand over the drain (and not the water).
  • Then clean your right hand by holding the ladle with your left hand.


 The Omamori Shop Chozuya

  • Take the ladle back in your right hand. Pour water into the palm of your left hand to rinse your mouth. be careful not to touch the ladle with your lips! 
  • Spit the water quietly at the foot of the fountain. Don’t drink the water and don’t spit it back in the basin!

 The Omamori Shop Chozuya

  • Clean your left hand again. 
  • Place the ladle upright to flush the remaining water and rinse the handle.
  • Return the ladle to its original location, scoop side down.

 The Omamori Shop Chozuya


Now you’re ready to talk to the Kami-sama (Gods)!

How to pray

On the way to the shrine, walk on the side of the road. The center part is reserved for the Gods! At the main gate, bow once to great the Gods. Welcome to the home of Kami-sama!

The room inside the main hall is used for complicated ceremonies conducted by a Shinto priest. But you can pray from the outside! In front of the haiden (hall of workship) is an offertory box called a saisen-bako.

  • First, put a little change into the saisen-bako. The amount is not very important, but superstition dictates that certain coins bring good or bad luck. The five-yen coin is considered a good choice because it sounds like ‘go-en’, the Japanese word for luck (ご縁).The ten-yen coin, however, is considered unlucky despite being worth twice as much. Avoid it!
  • If there is a bell in front of the haiden, take hold of the rope with both hands and give it a firm shake to call the kami-sama. Traditionally, the ringing of the bell was believed to ward off evil spirits. So ringing also helps to purify the space for the kami-sama’s arrival. Some shrines may not have a bell, in which case you can skip this step. 
  • Bow twice.
  • Clap your hands twice to signal your presence to the local Gods. 
  • Offer your silent prayer to the kami-sama. Thank the Gods and/or make your wish (in that order).
  • Bow one last time

Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time! As you will probably notice, sometimes even Japanese get confused in front of the haiden! The important part the sincerity of your prayer and the kindness of your spirit.

At a Buddhist temple, the approach is similar. First bow when you pass the main gate, purify yourself at the fountain. Near the main temple there may be candle stands and incense burners available. If so, before you pray, please light a candle or incense stick there. Do not hesitate to fan the incense smoke around your head and body.  It is believed to have purifying properties! In front of the haiden, put a little change into the saisen-bako, ring the temple gong (waniguchi) if there is one, press your hands together, bow once and pray!


Shrine, Temple... What' the difference?

By the way, do you know how to differentiate a Shinto Shrine to a Buddhist temple? Don't worry, a lot of Japanese have no clue either!

In terms of belief, the difference between Shintoism and Buddhism is quite simple. The first one is a polytheistic system with thousands of different Gods kami deities. It is also the oldest religion in Japan. Shinto (神道) means “path of the divine”.

Buddhism is a religion based on Buddha's teaching and the hope of attaining enlightenment by breaking the cycle of reincarnations.

For a long time the two religions evolved and mixed together in Japan. The cohabitation ended when Shinto became a state religion during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Shinto shrines were "purified" and Buddhism was persecuted and accused of being a foreign religion. 

How to visually differentiate Shrines and Temple?

Usually, when you enter the workship area, the difference is obvious. At the Buddhist Temple, the access is notified by a red torii (sacred portico), which delimits the sacred space, as well as a shimenawa (a rope made of rice straw). The Buddhist temple will open on a covered building, the mon, housing the statues of the protective deities Agyô and Ungyô, or the protective deities of the four directions.

The Shinto sanctuary consists mainly of two buildings: the haiden, where the ceremonies take place, and the honden, a closed building reserved for the Gods and the objects that personify It. There are no statues in sanctuaries, since the Shinto deities are not represented.


In doubt, you can always refer to the name they are refereed to! 
Buddhist temple is designated by the word dera (Kyomizu-dera) or will receive the suffix -ji (Kinkaku-ji).

Shinto shrine will be called jinja (Yasaka-jinja), taisha (Fushimi Inari Taisha), jingu (Heian-jingu) or will be followed by suffix -gu (Tosho-gu).

That is probably the easiest way! (*^_^*)