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A torii at the entrance of Tatsuta Shrine.

Yasaka Shrine. © Robert Clarke.

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Visiting a Shrine

Visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan comes with certain etiquette, to honour the kami (sacred, vital forces of nature) who dwell there. Usually, you enter via a torii, a gate whereby you leave the ordinary world and enter a sacred space. Before passing through the torii you bow to show reverence.

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The next step is a purification ritual at a constantly refilling trough of water, called the chozu-ya, temizu-ya, or temizu-sha depending on the shrine. By rinsing your hands and mouth in a set order, you purify the body and mind.

Most shrines have a box where people can leave offerings if they wish. It is called the saisen. The offering is usually money, but in the past, hemp cloth was also given.

Since the Second Word War, it has become customary for a hemp bell rope, called a suzuo, to hang near the Hall of Worship at the shrine. The bell is used to purify worshippers, awaken the kami, and ask for them to descend to the hemp suzuo, making it a sacred connection between humans and kami. At the Hall of Worship, visitors will bow and clap to honour, and attract the attention of, the kami. Now is the moment to communicate with the kami, after which you bow once more. You can see how this is done in this video from the Japanese shrine Ise Jingu:

People who serve shrines are collectively called Shinshoku (神職). The English translations of Shinshoku are “Shinto priesthood”, “Shinto priests”, or “god’s employee”. Traditionally, Shinshoku were men, but now they can be people of any gender.

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