How to Pray at Japanese Shinto Shrines

how to pray at a shrine Cultural tips

Shrine is a center of Shinto religion but not only religious site but also it’s served as one of the most popular tourist attractions where you can experience traditional aspects of the country and enjoy the beautiful architecture. However, you should keep it in your mind that it is a sacred place for many people, and you want to avoid any trouble by doing something wrong or offensive.
Learning the basic rules and manners beforehand helps you get rid of your worries. Here are some useful tips and some things you should know when you visit a shrine including how to pray properly at a shrine!

How to purify yourself

Before praying at shrines, you need to purify yourself with clear water that is prepared at Chozuya. It is a water pavilion that can be found at any shrines where you can purify your mouth and hands. Here are the basic steps to follow;

  1. Take the ladle with your right hand
  2. Fill it from the running water and pour it over your left hand
  3. Wash the other hand
  4. Take the ladle with your right hand again and pour the water over your left hand
  5. Cup your left hand and pour the water and wash your mouth lightly (or more likely touch the water with your mouth)
    *When you do that, don’t directly touch your moth to the ladle
  6. With the remained water, water the ladle to purify

Make sure to bring a handkerchief with you so that you can wipe your hands and mouth with it. In addition, be careful not to get your clothes wet with the water!

You often see water coming out from dragons at Chozuya. The dragon is a god of water who controls the rain and cloud, so the water coming out from the dragon’s mouth is believed to be sacred and ward off the evil spirits. You can see the different animals sometimes such as a turtle, snake and rabbit.

How to pray

There are different rules applied to how to pray at a temple and shrine.
The general way to pray at a shrine as follows;

  1. Toss a coin into an offering box called Saisen-bako 
    *Many people toss 5 yen coin since it is said to make a good relationship
  2. Shake a rope to ring a bell (If there is no bell, you can skip this step)
  3. Bow deeply twice 
  4. Clap your hands twice
  5. Pray and make a wish 
    *Put your hands together in front of your body
  6. Bow deeply once again

Unique things to do at the shrine


Ema (“絵馬” in Japanese) is a small wooden plate that you can get at shrines or temples in Japan. It generally has a picture of a horse or Chinese zodiac, but there are many different patterns depending on the shrine. There is even Ema with an anime character on it!
On the back, you can write down your personal wishes and dedicate them to the shrine.
Originally people offered the real horse since the horse was believed to be a ride of deities. But gradually the custom changed, and people started offering the picture of horse painted on the wooden pieces.
Today, you can find a number of Ema dedicated by visitors lining the shrine. If the shrine enshrines a deity of academics, you will find many Ema wishing to pass the entrance exam!


Omamori (“お守り” in Japanese) is a lucky charm you can get at shrines and temples along with Ema. People get it for a protection and making their wish comes true. There are various types of Omamori ranging from the one wishing for the good health to romantic relationships. Sometimes you see people attached Omamori with their bags and hanging it at the rearview mirror for a safe driving.
Many people get Omamori even though they are not religious. It is one of the interesting culture of Japan!


Omikuji (“おみくじ” in Japanese) is paper slip that tells your fortune and predictions about your future. The fortune result can be usually classified into 7 categories: “Daikichi (大吉)” means the best luck whereas “Daikyo (大凶)” indicates the worst. It also gives you some helpful advice for your future according to several aspects that include your wish, business, marriage, travel, study, moving and more. Some people keep their Omikuji in their wallet to look back at the advise.
If your Omikuji shows the worst result, you can tie it up to the strings that ca be found at shrines.

Other rules to remember

Once you enter the shrine ground, it is considered as a sacred place that is separated from our world. Torii is a symbolic gate that plays a role to separate the two different worlds. Some people bow in front of it to show their respect as they pass through it.

If you want to follow more detailed rules strictly, there is one that even Japanese people forget sometimes. The main approach (called Sando in Japanese), a pathway that connects the Torii gate to the main shrine, is believed that the God passes through the center of it. So visitors have to walk on either side!

Do you know the difference between shrine and temple? If you want to know the difference, please read An Overview of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan.

*All the visitors to shrine or any public spaces are supposed to follow guidelines not to spread COVID-19. Make sure to practice the preventive measures such as wearing a mask or wash your hands frequently. In addition, please remember shrines sometimes get crowded especially on weekends or winter holidays. We strongly recommend that you should avoid these high seasons to make the most of your time at shrines while protecting yourself!

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Just following a couple of basic steps allows you to visit shrines without stepping on someone else’s toes. You can make the most of your time there by trying unique experiences and parts of the shrines such as Ema and Omamori. They are both affordable and easy to try even if it feels strange to you at first. Many people also get them as a small gift for their family, wishing the best luck for their future. If you forget the steps you learned today, there is no need to feel guilty. What matters the most is not whether you can follow the rules perfectly, but that you are being respectful.

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