Before entering a shrine, visitors usually wash their hands and mouth with spring water. Shrines have a fresh spring water pool provided and bamboo ladles with which to pour it.
Visitors write their prayers or wishes and leave them for the kami (spirits or gods) to receive. Originally, actual horses were given as votives, to represent the divine steed, but over time, boxes painted with their image were given instead. These days, messages are written on wooden plaques called ema, which are hung onto hooks provided. Some ema are still painted with horses, but it’s common to find other designs available. Sales of ema help support the shrines financially. They cost a few hundred yen each. We bought some and left our own messages of health, happiness and love at some of the shrines we visited.
Visitors also make small payments in exchange for o-mikuji – paper slips revealing their fortune. At Yasaka Shrine, encouraged by the school girls who had explained to me what they were doing and how it worked, I shook a box until a numbered stick fell out before taking that number to the counter to purchase the associated fortune slip. The girls (and their English teacher) tried to translate for me, but all I really followed was that my fortune was a positive one rather than a curse. I do hope so! As instructed, I folded the paper into a strip before tying it into a knot on one of the walls of string provided.
Entrance into Shinto shrines is usually through a torii. The literal translation of torii is bird perch, though the word now refers to these traditional and distinctively shaped red gates. Large torii gates are usually an indication of a Shinto shrine, where they mark the transition from the profane to the sacred. These days, smaller torii are commonly found in Buddhist temples too. Inari shrines – Shinto shrines dedicated to the worship of Inari, the kami (spirit) of fertility, rice and industry – typically have many torii because worshippers who have been successful in business often donate a gate to show gratitude. Such is the case at Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto.
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto
This Shinto shrine in Kyoto is one of the best known. Indeed it is said that Gion’s prominence as a geisha entertainment district grew from humble beginnings servicing travellers to the shrine. It is located in Maruyama Park, close to our ryokan, Shiraume, which I’ll be posting about soon.
If you wish to learn more about religion and religious sites in Japan, this site is a fantastic resource. Note that although the ema plaques and fortune slips are described as part of the Shinto tradition, they are commonly found at Buddhist temples too.
For Pete, with love in my heart…