I recently visited Iwaki Yumoto Onsen Town and was lucky enough to be given a tour of the town by Mr Koito, who is the owner of a hotel called Koito Ryokan.
Iwaki Yumoto Onsen has been famous for its onsen (natural thermal baths) for 1200 years and is also well-known as being the area where a high school student discovered a new species of dinosaur after he excavated a skeleton!
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.
I only stayed one night, but I decided to take a dip in the onsen twice during my stay! I often find hot onsen difficult to stay in for longer than 15 minutes or so, but the outdoor bath (rotenburo) was such a perfect temperature for me – that I could have stayed there for many hours quite happily.
Before I left the town, Mr Koito introduced me to three of the local workers, who have lived in Iwaki Yumoto Onsen for their entire lives, including the senior priest at the local onsen jinja (a Shrine shrine whose diety is connected with hot springs).
He introduced himself as “Negi-san”, which made me very confused, as Negi means spring onion in Japanese, but also has the meaning of senior priest…. I also didn’t realise he was a priest to begin with, as he was wearing a hoodie and jeans instead of the robes you would normally picture a priest wearing.
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).
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.
After you wash your hands and rinse your mouth with water, approach the front of the shrine.
How to pray:
- Throw money in the offering box. Tip: five yen is the luckiest coin to throw! Ten yen is unlucky…
- Ring the bell. You should do this by pulling at the rope and swinging it. This greets the deity.
- 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.
- Clap 2 times: This loud clapping expresses your joy at the chance to speak to the gods.
- Pray / take time to be close to the deity / think / make a wish.
- Bow 1 time: To show respect to the gods for listening to your wish / prayer / meeting with you.
I was also given the very special privilege of entering into the main part of the shrine, where food and drink were laid out for the gods.
The senior priest explained how really 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 around the beautiful inside of the main shrine, he took me to the back, which you could walk through.
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 has doors which are locked, and only the head priest is allowed to enter once a year in order to clean up the inside.
It’s actually a pretty small wooden structure, and it was quite eerie to look on at it and know that no person had opened the doors in 8 months! What is even more interesting is that, there are these structures behind every single shrine I have ever visited in Japan – which is a lot! – and I have never noticed them before. It did feel quite spiritual standing before it.
I chose not to take many photos during my visit to the shrine, seeing as I’ve been told by Japanese friends and coworkers before that it is disrespectful, or that you should ask the permission of the deity during your opportunity to pray before taking photographs. But I thoroughly recommend that the next time you visit a Japanese shrine, that you hunt down a priest of some sort and ask them to give you a tour!