During my time in Japan last semester, I visited a large assortment of shrines for the Shinto religion. These shrines are plentiful throughout the country. My first visit was in Akita City, eight miles away from my host university. Then, in Tokyo, I saw Meiji Shine and Yasukuni Shine, the most politically controversial shrine in Japan. I visited the most famous shrines of Kyoto, the spiritual capital of Japan. I even ran into a few smaller shrines, some in the heart of Osaka, others within walking distance of the university.
During my first shrine trip in Akita City, a tour guide demonstrated proper shrine etiquette to some of the other students and me. As it was my first time at a shrine, I was worried that I would fumble a custom, but the two most important -cleaning hands and the praying procedure- were quite simple.
Typically, just past the shrine gate is a pool of water and a ladle. First, you pick up the ladle by the handle with your right hand, fill it up, and pour the water over your left hand, making sure not to get any water back in the pool. You repeat the process for your right hand, then cup one of your hands to pour some water into it. You drink it from your hand, swish it around in your mouth, and then spit to the side. Finally, you tilt the ladle vertically so the water spills down the handle to wash it.
Prayers take place at the shrine itself, where there is an altar with an offering box. Visitors throw coins into the box, bow twice, clap twice, bow once more, and then pray.
One of my favorite parts of visiting shrines was the small houses or stands that sell omamori. Omamori are Japanese “luck charms. Westerners who have heard of omamori tend to think of them as such, but in the context of the Shinto religion, they mean much more on a spiritual level. They are small cloth pouches that are tied together at the top, and hold something inside (usually some wood or tough paper with “lucky” phrases on it). Most shrines sell them, just as many churches sell holy water, but they aren’t meant to be general souvenirs–they should be specific to the person who will carry the omamori. For example, I would get a sick friend an omamori specifically for health, as indicated by the calligraphy on the front of the omamori. (My favorite omamori was in Kyoto at Fushimi Inari shrine, where they had unusual omamori that were shaped like white foxes and orange arches, for which the shrine is famous.)