Praying at a Shinto Shrine

Iwaki Yumoto Onsen has been famous for its onsen (natural thermal baths) for 1200 years.

Although I did not have a chance to hunt for fossils, I stayed at Koito Ryokan overnight, and got to experience the town’s legendary onsen first-hand. Iwaki Yumoto Onsen town’s hot springs are special due to their long history and the healing properties of the sulfur in the water.

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Before I left town, Mr Koito introduced me to three local workers, who have lived in Iwaki Yumoto Onsen for their entire lives, including the senior priest at the local onsen shrine.

The priest introduced himself as “Negi-san”, which confused me, as ‘negi‘ means ‘leek’ as well as ‘senior priest’ in Japanese. I didn’t realise he was a priest to begin with, as he was wearing a hoodie and jeans instead of robes.

He taught me the correct way of praying at a shinto shrine.

When you enter a shrine, you should pass through the torii gate(s).

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Wash your hands with water from the fountain (typically near the entrance).

Tip! Make sure not to let the water that has touched your hands fall back into the main basin, where others will take water from.

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After you wash your hands and rinse your mouth with water, approach the front of the shrine.

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How to pray:

  1. Throw money in the offering box. Tip: five yen is the luckiest coin to throw! Ten yen is unlucky…
  2. Ring the bell. You should do this by pulling at the rope and swinging it. This greets the deity.
  3. Bow 2 times. Japanese people bow in many different situations, but the reason they bow two times when they go to a shrine is to alert the deity that they have come to pray, and aren’t just bowing to somebody.
  4. Clap 2 times: This loud clapping expresses your joy at the chance to speak to the gods.
  5. Pray / take time to be close to the deity / think / make a wish.
  6. Bow 1 time: To show respect to the gods for listening to your wish / prayer / meeting with you.

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I was also given the privilege of entering the main part of the shrine, where food and drink is laid out for the gods.

The senior priest explained how this food and drink should be replaced as frequently as possible, and that in big shrines such as in Tokyo, it may be replaced every day.

After showing me the beautiful inside of the main shrine, he took me to the back wall, through which you could exit.

The actual ‘deity’ of the shrine is actually not supposed to be in the main shrine, but in a small room in a separate building.

This separate building’s doors are always locked, except once a year, when the head priest is allowed to enter in order to tidy the inside.

It was quite eerie to know that no one had opened the doors in 8 months! What’s more, these structures stand behind every single shrine I have visited in Japan, and I have never noticed them before.

I thoroughly recommend that the next time you visit a Japanese shrine, that you hunt down a priest and ask them to give you a tour!

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