How to do the right thing at shrines and temples in Japan

Shrines and temples aren’t just for snapping nice pix – there’s serious specialized goodness to be gotten from throwing a coin to the proper powers-that-be! Here’s how to take advantage of the local supernatural beings’ odd specialties, and do it right:

First: Wash your hands

It’s polite to ritually purify yourself at the spring near the entrance before entering a shrine or temple

1: Dip some water from the basin with a dipper

2: Holding it over the gravel surrounding the basin (you don’t want to pollute the spring by letting any water fall back into the common pool), dribble water over each hand in turn, finishing with the hand you started with Optional: Pour the last of the water into your cupped hand and touch it to your lips, but don’t drink it or swish it in your mouth and spit it out ewwww!

3: Set the dipper back the way you found it

How to give an offering and make a wish

At a shrine:

1: Step up to the offering box and toss a coin

2: Bow twice

3: Clap your hands twice (or ring the bell vigorously to get the local deities’ attention)

4: Fold your hands and make your wish

5: Bow again

At a temple:

Do the same thing, but don’t clap, because you don’t need to get the Shinto gods’ attention at a Buddhist temple

Note: If you want to be a good Japan traveler, it’s considered polite to pay your respects and make an offering before running around and taking pictures and such. If your own beliefs make it improper for you to acknowledge the deities worshipped at a shrine or temple, when it comes time to fold your hands and bow your head, just give mental thanks to those priests and volunteers who work to keep the place beautiful and running smoothly for all to enjoy.

How much should I give?

As far as the kami-sama are concerned, it’s the thought that counts. Any amount is acceptable, but some people toss combinations of coins that add up to numbers they think are lucky. ¥5 coins are popular because the words for “five yen” (go en) sound like the words for “auspicious connection,” while giving ¥25 (ni ju go en) sounds like “doubly good fortune” and ¥45 (shi ju go en) sounds like “constant good fortune.” I’ve heard others say that giving ¥5 or ¥50 coins are unlucky, though, because they have holes in the middle for the fortune to drain out through. Basically, do what feels lucky to you, and remember that the act of giving thanks and showing respect is more important than how much you give. That said, I do contribute bigger amounts to the shrines and temples where I take pictures and discover good stuff to write about, as a way of supporting places that give me interesting stuff to share.

Sweeten the deal with some incense (temples only)

Bathing in the incense smoke at temples is supposed to be good for your health, as well as currying that little extra bit of favor

1: Buy a bundle of incense at the temple stand, or put a coin in the offering box at the self-serve

2: Find the public lighter (it should be near where you bought your incense, and other people will probably be using it too, so look around until you’ll see them)

3: Press the end of the bundle onto the hot part until it’s smoking nicely

4: Poke your bundle upright in the ash-filled urn, being careful not to burn the underside of your arm on someone else’s burning incense NOT THAT WE KNOW ANYBODY WHO’S DONE THAT shut up

Fortune-telling 101

Check out what the future has in store with an o-mikuji – fortunes based on the I Ching

1: Put a ¥100 coin in the slot

2: Shake the hexagonal box (at some places it’s a thing that looks like a wooden mallet with a little hole in the head for the fortune to come out)

3: Tip the box over until a stick falls out of the little hole

4: Match the character on the stick to the characters on one of the drawers

5: Open the door and take a paper with your fortune on it (it will most likely only be in Japanese, but you can always train the mighty camera eye of Google Translate on it to get the gist!)

If you don’t like your fortune, fold it back up and tie it on a nearby rack. No harm, no foul!

(Or, of course, you could skip all this and just get your fortune told by the Shrine Maiden Vending Machine!)

Get yourself a miracle cure

Many shrines and temples have figures that specialize in healing (some are very specialized, like the Wart Shrine!) so get yourself (or a loved one) back in tip-top shape by making the right offering at one of these:

The Wart Shrine at Nishiarai-daishi temple is (how did you guess?) famous for curing warts. Put a coin in the offering box, grab a handful of salt, then toss it onto the Jizo figure’s head while wishing your wart away
The Scrub Brush Shrine (on the way to Sankei-en garden in Yokohama) is said to cure the common cold. Borrow one of the scrub brushes on the altar, take it home and scrub the outside of your throat with it, buy another one just like it and return both of them to the shrine
Healing figures like the Togenuki Jizo at the temple on Koshinzuka Steet are all-purpose healers, and you can do it for remote loved ones too. Buy a cheap washcloth from a nearby vendor (usually ¥100), put a coin in the offering box, dip some water from the basin and pour it over the figure’s head, rub your washcloth on the figure near the hurty part that needs healing, while thinking of being healed

Because good health is one of the oldest requests made to the powers-that-be, all-purpose healing figures are not uncommon in Japan (I know of others at Nishiarai-daishi temple, and at the Kamakura-gu Shrine in Kamakura) and while the method of asking for healing varies slightly, you can figure it out by standing aside and watching others before stepping up and doing it yourself.

Banish negative people from your life

Getting rid of negative influences is as easy (and satisfying!) as breaking a dish at Kamakura-gu. Put ¥100 in the offering box. Take a dish. Walk around to the place with two big rocks surrounded by pottery shards. Stand before one of the rocks and wish for the negative person to be gone from your life. Throw the dish as hard as you can against the rock. If it doesn’t break, buy another one and try again. And the great thing is, there’s no limit to the number of people you can banish, as long as your laundry money holds out!

Double your money

If you wash your money in the spring at the Zeniarai-benten Shrine in Kamakura, it’s supposed to double within the year

Rent a basket for ¥100 at the shrine booth window, put some money in the basket, take it inside the cave, use the dipper to pour water over it, bring your money back out and let it air dry (do not, uh, try to dry it over the burning incense in the urn, or you may end up with no money instead of more), then return the empty basket

Wish for the moon

If you’ve got a particular burning wish, you can buy a wooden ema prayer plaque and pen your heart’s desire on the back (these, for example, are at the shrine dedicated to lost cats)

Buy an ema at the shrine booth (¥500-¥700), take it to the writing surface nearby, (where there will also be pens), write your wish on it, then hang it on the rack with the other ema

How do I make an offering at a shrine that’s not on this list?

Here’s the universal secret: stand aside and watch other people do it. I guarantee that within sixty seconds, you’ll be able to do the right thing like you’ve been doing it all your life!

For more quirky shrine & temple specialties (along with maps and how to petition the resident kami-sama), you can’t go wrong at the eleven strangest shrines in Tokyo.

The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

 For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly e-magazine Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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