I was born in Nagano, Japan. I moved to America when I was 2, where I received a BA from Connecticut College before returning to Japan.
What to Do at a Japanese Shinto Shrine (Jinja)
Even to many Japanese people, the proper way to go about paying your respects at a shrine is shrouded in mystery. What do you do at this weird water fountain? Why are people clapping and ringing a loud bell at this otherwise serene location? My goal is to guide you through, step-by-step, the most enjoyable and important parts of a Shinto shrine visit.
The Water Fountain Contraption (a.k.a. Temizuya)
At the entrance of Japanese Shinto shrines, you'll find a water fountain-like thing that has ladles made out of bamboo or wood laid out on it (see above). It's called a temizuya, and the whole point of it is to clean and purify your body by washing your hands and your mouth. Here's the process:
Step 1: Pick up the ladle with your right hand and scoop up some water from the top portion.
Step 2: Pour a third of the water into your left hand and wash it first. Swap the ladle into your left hand, and then pour another third of the water into your right hand and proceed to wash it. All of this should be occurring in the bottom part of the temizuya, not where you initially scooped the water.
Step 3: Now that your hands are clean, you'll need to wash your mouth. Pass the ladle back into your right hand, and then (hopefully you have some water left) pour some water into your left hand. With the water in your left hand, bring your hand to your mouth and rinse with the water, finally spitting into the little area on the ground. Whatever you do, just don't put your mouth directly on the ladle, or spit back into the top area where you drew the water.
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Step 4: Finally, you need to wash the ladle for the next person. To do this, draw some more water into the ladle, and now holding it with both hands, tilt the ladle scoop side up so that water falls down the handle and onto your hands. This essentially cleans the ladle, your hands, and the handle. You're now all set to make your way to the shrine itself.
This can be pretty troublesome, and difficult if you're bad at portioning water, but all in all, it's a pretty fun experience. In winter, most shrines have this water heated, so it can be a nice place to warm the body (until the water starts evaporating), and in the summer it's a good cool-down spot. Now that you have the water fountain part down, on to the more meaty shrine visitation process.
What to Do at the Actual Shrine
Normally you'll see stairs leading up to the shrine, a box with a grated opening in front of it, and a bell and a rope attached to it hanging down from the ceiling. You'll get to use all of the above, so don't fret.
Step 1: Walk up the steps so that you're in front of the box and the rope, and bow deeply once (go down so you're making a 90-degree angle at the waist). After you bow once, you'll want to ring the bell (It's more like a dull thud than a ring though). The purpose of this is to purify yourself of evil spirits. Although I describe the money-giving process below, some people prefer to put money in before they ring the bell.
Step 2: Now that you're purified via the water fountain and the thudding bell, you're ready to pray. Gently place, not 3 pointer launch, some money into the box (normally a 5 yen coin will do). After this, you'll have to bow twice more, nice and deep like you're trying to make a 90-degree angle at your waist. Upon coming up from your second bow, put your hands together in front of you like you're trying to kill a fly, and then separate them and clap twice. When you're done with your second clap, keep your hands together, and then pray.
Step 3: After you're done praying, separate your hands and do one more bow (some people like to do two at the end, with the first one right after your prayer being deep, and the last one being a less intense bow). You're all set at this point, and you can apply this basic technique at any shrine in Japan.
You Know the Basics Steps Now
Here I outlined the basics of Shinto shrine visitation, from when you first walk up to the gates and see the temizuya (water fountain/cleaning station), to the more complicated ordeal in front of the main shrine (where you're on display). Depending on the region however, the process may vary, but if you use these steps you should never stray too far from what the people around you are doing. If there are any questions regarding why certain things are done the way they are, or the history behind any of the processes, I'd be happy to answer them in the comments section! Mata ne!