Visiting a Shrine for New Year: A Guide to Shrine Basics

  • Going to a shrine is an essential part of New Year’s celebrations. Japanese people visit shrines at the New Year to pray for good luck as well as grab a fortune that will determine the future to come.

    Let’s take a look at some of the common items you will see upon your visit to the sacred places of worship.

    Torii (Gates)

    These are the first thing you will notice when entering a shrine, after all, they show you where to go in (of course) and are often found along the paths leading up to the entrance. While most shrines have wooden Torii, often painted orange with black accents, many shrines also have concrete versions. After all, wood can rot, concrete is forever!

    Some shrines have lines and lines of gates. One of the most famous being the Fushimi Inari Shrine, in Kyoto. Westerners may be familiar with this row of torii in particular, due to it being featured in the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ or ‘Sayuri’ in Japanese. If you go, feel free to run through with your arms spread out (providing it isn’t crowded), or take a selfie. It is, after all, iconic.

    One of the most famous Torii in all of Japan is located in Hiroshima, at the famous Miyajima Shrine. I don’t get sentimental over shrines at all, it is kind of like visiting churches abroad. A shrine, is a shrine, is a shrine. But, this one got to me. Absolutely breathtaking. I have been back seven times since my first visit, and can’t wait to go again. The torii is just simply beautiful at both high and low tide.

    Omikuji (Fortunes)


    Who doesn’t want to know what the future holds? Fame? Fortune? Perishing prematurely at the hands of deadly mochi rice cakes? Who knows? Oh, wait. The fortune does!

    Typically shrines offer paper fortunes in boxes. There are other options, sticks, figures, love fortunes, etc. However, for the most part, you pay the stated amount (50 Yen – 200 Yen), stick your hand in, swirl it around, and grab the one that suits your fancy. Sadly, the majority of fortunes are only available in Japanese, so if you need to, bring a friend to help you figure out your destiny.


    Depending on the person and area, tying the good fortune to a shrine tree or rope will make it come true while tying a bad one will make it go away. In my particular city, or just family, we keep the good ones in our wallets and tie the bad ones to make them go away. Kind of like a plate of food, eat what you like, and chuck that nasty stuff as far as you can throw it. Don’t worry, my best years have been when I got bad fortunes while some of he worst were when I got the best ones ‘Daikichi’ – Amazing Luck. Either way, we don’t want to play with fate now, do we?


    Chozuya (Purification Fountain)


    These fountains range from beautiful to basic depending on the shrine you visit. The rules, however, are universal. Pay attention! No one wants to be the heathen visitor who doesn’t know the etiquette!

    First, pick up the ladle with your right hand, and pour the purified water over your left hand. Then, switch hands, and purify the right one. Finally, switch hands again, pour the majestic water into your cupped left hand, take a mouthful, and swirl it around in your mouth. DON’T DRINK THE WATER! It is rude. Kamisama’s water is not made to be consumed! Swirl, spit (gracefully) on the rocks below, and be on your merry way. Replace the ladle of course, with your right hand after rinsing the ladle and handle. After all, no one likes a grubby ladle or a ladle thief! Especially at a place of holy worship!


    Honden (Main Halls)


    Now, you are into the shrine, all clean and purified, and good to go get your praying on! The next stop is the main hall with the voluntary offering box.

    Main halls, of course, vary from shrine to shrine. They can be tiny at local shrines, or all decked out and gorgeous at the more famous versions. My favourite in my local city is the Fujisaki Shrine, in Kumamoto. Not too much, not gaudy, not tacky. Just the right amount of beauty and grace, as far as I am concerned.

    You can visit the main halls from the outside, but usually, you cannot enter or take flash photos, unless you are getting blessed in the shrine personally or as part of your company tradition. Either way, entering may be permitted, but the flash is usually not.

    Saisenbako (Offering Boxes)

    These boxes are where you toss in your coins, before praying for good luck, passing a test, finding true love, and whatnot. The rules are fairly simple: toss, bow, and pray, but for the exact protocol just ask a local or use Google. Asking may gain you a new friend while Google will give you the ins and outs quickly.


    The standard amount for offerings is 5 Yen, 50 Yen, or 100 Yen. Of course, you can toss in whatever you like, 500 Yen coins and bills included. Five Yen translates into ‘go en’ – roughly translated into luck or fate, fifty yen translates into ‘go jyu en – so just multiply the previous by ten. Other than that, there isn’t really a meaning to the amounts. I always chuck in five hundred yen, I mean, you get what you pay for, and I am buying luck after all.


    General Rules

    Unlike places of worship in other countries, clothing rules are lax. Wear what you want, but preferably nothing too flashy or revealing. Also, don’t be the jerk with the selfie stick. A lot of shrines forbid them, or, at least, frown upon them nowadays.

    Also, don’t walk up to the shrine down the middle of the path! Choose the left, or the right. The middle is where Kamisama walks. You don’t want to go getting in the way of god’s footsteps!

    In summary, enjoy the shrines, the atmosphere, the culture, and the chance to take pictures of the glorious stuff. It is a once in a lifetime experience you won’t forget! You may walk away with a great fortune to brag about. Or leave traumatised after tying your true fate to a tree, hoping Kamisama will change his mind.

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