I recently got asked, "why do you always have a 5 yen coin in your back pocket?" My response? For luck. Now if you know the value of the yen, you know that 5 yen has no value compared to other currency of the world like 5 pence. So it makes complete sense that I carry this small golden coloured coin, for anything else but its value.
Now I still haven't explained why I always have one for luck but I want to tell you a recent experience of mine first. About two weeks, I went hiking up Mount Takao, a 599m mountain based in Hachiōji which is in the western Tokyo region. This means it's quite accessible for people who live in central Tokyo as it is about an hour journey from Shinjuku Station and therefore it is a great natural recreation area for taking a break from the concrete jungle. Unfortunately, the train ticket costs more than 5 yen so how does this experience explain my response to that initial question?
Well apart from its stunning views and being so close to central Tokyo, Mount Takao is also considered a sacred mountain where people have come to pray for more than 1000 years. The main temple, people come to visit is Yakuo-in temple which was established in 774 by Gyoki Bosatsu, a Japanese Buddhist priest on the orders of Emperor Shomu. Gyoki Bosatsu became a very famous priest in Japan for promoting Buddhism to the general public and lending a hand to improve the social welfare of Japan at the time by helping the construction of roads, bridges, and several temples. He eventually became the first ever Dai-sōjō when the Imperial Court and Emperor Shomu conferred him with that title.
Unfortunately, the Yakuo-in temple had fallen from its former glory until the late 14th century, where it was restored by Shungen Daitoku, a priest from Mount Daigo in Kyoto. After it was restored, Shungen Daitoku performed a very demanding fire ritual known as "Goma" in the main hall of the temple. This ritual now performed daily and is dedicated to the deity Fudo Myo-o (Immovable King). During the ritual, Goma sticks which have prayers written on them, are burned and the participants receive wooden tablets called Gomafuda, which are seen as incarnations of the deity Izuna Daigongen. The reason why the incarnations of the deity Izuna Daigongen is given during this ritual is that originally Shungen Daitoku experienced a living vision of the deity Izuna Daigongen after performing the first Goma ritual where he burned 8,000 Goma sticks. And ultimately this led to the enshrinement of Izuna Daigonge as the principal image of Yakuo-in Temple. While I am on the mountain, I did get to experience the beginning of the ritual and it was quite spine-chilling due to there being sudden heavy drumming booming around the mountainside before the priests walk into the temple to perform the ritual. Unfortunately due to covid, I wasn't able to watch the actual ritual being performed.
Apart from Izuna Daigonge protecting the mountain and its visitors, there are the Tengu (Heavenly dog) which are long-nosed demon-like beings although some have beaks instead of long noses (By chance, you probably have seen the tengu emoji 👺). Traditionally, Tengu has been seen as troublesome demons who are harbingers of war but over the years they've changed to being supremely strong but protective beings associated with mountains and forests. So with Mount Takao being famous for mountain asceticism, it is said the tengu act as the messengers of the deities and buddhas who scare off evildoers and protect the good-doers. Many illusions of tengu are depicted holding an uchiwa (Japanese fan), that sweeps away misfortune and brings about good fortune. In terms of where they are on the mountain, you can found two figures standing in front of the Izuna Gongen-do Hall exemplify the two types of tengu. The smaller tengu is considered to be a pupil who is still undergoing religious training while the larger tengu is seen to be an experienced yamabushi (Japanese mountain ascetic hermits) who has gained spiritual power through religious training at Mount Takao.
So Mount Takao has stunning views, deep spiritual history and is an experience for anyone who wants a break when the concrete jungle of Tokyo. But I still haven't answer that question?!? Why is it 5 yen instead of 10 or 1 or 100 yen? And what does it have to do with luck? Well if you read the title of this blog, you probably know that this blog is aimed at talking about temples and shrines you might come across while exploring Japan. Specifically, my goal of this blog is what to do when visiting one of these magically places from the big proud Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa to the many hidden shrines in the back alleys of Tokyo. So first tip: take a 5 yen coin or many! The reason why is, traditionally people make an offering of money known as "saisen" so many people make the offer of a 5 yen coin. But surely, for the best luck, you would want to make an offering of more? And why a 5 yen instead of a 10 yen? Well, it's wordplay, the pronunciation of 5 yen is identical to "goen" (5 yen = 五 円 = go yen) which means "good luck" or "good connections." Although to be clear, there is no spiritual reason for doing this! But I still do it because I nearly have another use for my 5 yens and it still has a spiritual use when making a prayer/offering to Aizen Myoō, the god of love as it is seen praying for a strong connection to people who you love and care about.
Tip 2: To be honest, this tip is more of a step than a tip: Bow before entering. But where is the entrance? Well, the first entrance of any holy ground of a shrine or temple is a torii gate. For those who don't know what torii gates are, they are arch-like gates that are commonly red and are usually associated with Japan. (Here's the emoji of a torii gate: ⛩️). They act as a separation between the sacred grounds of the shrine/temple and the human world, and therefore you bow to it to greet and show respect to the sanctity of the grounds. So occasionally as you walk past the entrance of a shrine or temple, you will see some people quickly bow towards the gate before (entering) or after (leaving) going through it. Now hopefully people have caught up with what a torii gate looks like and might have just had the thought "Wait, what do I do when there is more than one gate?"
Well, it depends. If there are three torii gates for example, then you can bow each time but if you were going through 10,000 torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine (One of the most iconic views of Japan), then the 2-3 hour hike will become more like 5-6 hour slow bowing walk. So usually you just bow once at the initial starting torii gate. Also, one thing that usually goes unmentioned when entering through a torii is don't walk down the middle of it. The reason for this is the centre space (or corridor as such) is reserved for the kami (gods) to walk through. This also applies later when walking up to the actual shrine/temple. So best practice following for this to walk to the side. Just a quick point I should make is, usually temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto, so therefore there are a couple of differences between the two. For example, the entrance of a temple is called a sanmon which is like a small very decorated house in a similar gateway shape like the torii gates. Some Buddhist Temples have torii gates too. How do you enter a temple then? Well, it is the same rules as entering a shrine through a torii gate.
Tip 3: This is another step! Purify yourself and now for an step: if you are unsure what to do then watch people do it. (or just come back and read this blog again!) So after you enter the grounds, you will see trough/spring (called Chōzuya or Temizuya) which might have a few big ladles. This ladle is what you use to scoop out the water to purify with.
- Scoop some water up with the ladle with your right hand.
- Pour a little bit of water into your left hand.
- Switch the ladle to your left hand.
- Pour a little bit of water into your right hand.
- Then switch the ladle again to your right hand.
- Pour a little bit of water into your left hand again and use the water to rinse your mouth.
- Then pour a little bit more water into your left hand.
- Before pointing the ladle completely upright so the remaining water in the ladle runs down the handle.
- Finally, empty the ladle of any leftover water before returning it to its original place.
After you have done this, you have cleansed yourself and the ladle for others to use. the order is one of the few things you aren't allowed to get wrong. You won't be arrested for doing wrong but the order of doing the ritual is very important!!!
To be honest, now you can just wander around for a bit. When it comes to exploring the grounds of shrines and temples, there are a lot of similar decorations, buildings, and ornaments that can be seen. So after purifying yourself, the first thing you will do is walk. A bit obvious but what I mean is you will walk down the Sandō which is a pathway or road that leads to the temple or shrine. These paths are made up of gravel or flagstones which could be lined with Tōrō (decorative lanterns usually made out of stone) or trees. Nowadays, these pathways just seem like another pathway that we walk down every day but when you think about them and what they mean in terms of Buddhist and Shinto, you realize these simple paths are a key point of pilgrimages made to these holy places.
As you go further down the Sandō, you might see a roofed area known as Kagura-den which is dedicated to the performance of the kagura dance that is a piece of classical ceremonial music and dance, before the deity of the shrine/temple. Then you probably will see a small building that looks like it has a couple of small shop stalls embedded in the front side of the building. This building is the shrine's administrative office, Shamusho and this is where you can buy an omamori (Charm).
These colourful pocket-sized talismans are one of my favourite things to bring back to the UK as gifts to friends and family. (It's ranked third most common item that I bring back on my visits. 2nd is sake and 1st is Kitkats so no surprise there.) Omamori is made up of a written prayer on a piece of paper that is wrapped in a brocade bag and then blessed by the temple or shrine priest. I still remember getting my first omamori in 2017, it was a crimson red, medium-sized one for good luck with exams and studies. Those kinds of charms are called "gakugyou-jouju". I remember accepting it with both hands and a slight bow like how I handle meishi (Business cards) nowadays. One of the great things about omamori is they cover a wide range of things from warding off evil to traffic safety.
So if you ever get the chance to be overwhelmed by a collection of omamori at the booth connected to Shamusho, then I do highly recommend at least, considering to buy one (They are about ¥400-500 depending on where you get it from and what it is for). If you do get one then you should make sure that it is looked after as it is a blessed object. But don’t be afraid if it has some wear and tear as wear and tear shows that it is doing its job of protecting you. If there is one rule with omamori, it is NEVER open the omamori!!! Because if you do open it, then you will be releasing the blessing and saying goodbye to all of that luck and protection of the omamori. When it comes to Shinto, omamori is said to have an expiration date of about a year or until its purpose has been fulfilled. So when they finally expire, people usually return to the shrine or temple they got it from and they’ll dispose of it in a sacred fire with others. But there is no rule saying you need to do that and many people keep their old omamori which are passed down through generations.
Omamori isn't the only thing you can buy, Omikuji are another small paid wonder of these holy places. Omikuji are a strip of paper that predicts your future fortune. Everyone loves a bit of fortune-telling, how do you get one? Well, usually you can find Omikuji drawers with a couple of octagonal cylinders (made out of wood or metal) either next to the Omamori booth or nearby to the booth.
Now for the lottery, you pay about ¥100 into a box before picking up the cylinder and shaking it. Give it a good old shake (the addition of a whirl might help!) for a few seconds before slowly tipping the cylinder so that one of the numbered sticks in the cylinder can slide out through a small hole. And there's your number that will decide your fate. Now for those of you who haven't read my blog on Japanese numbers, you are about to play a game of match the symbols as the numbers usually are written in kanji characters. As soon as you find the drawer with the number on the stick, return the stick to the cylinder before opening the drawer and taking one Omikuji. Then you will have the pleasure of looking down at your fortune in your hand and seeing a wall of Japanese characters, but I want to give you a quick warning before you translate it, this is a lottery of luck, there are levels of luck and you can get bad luck!
So let's say you translate it and overall, it is medium luck with varying levels of luck in areas like love, money, health, etc, that isn't a bad result to be fair and the Omikuji will tell you things like how to improve your luck or warn you about things that will make your luck worse. But what about if you get cursed?!? Never fear, the monks are here! Unlike the good fortune Omikuji, you shouldn't keep bad fortune ones with you so look around and you will probably see a load of Omikuji tied to a tree or something that as a wire cooling rank called a musubidokoro. This is where you tie your bad fortune up to leave it behind and therefore doesn't follow you. So when do the monks come into this? Well every year, the monks collect up all the bad fortune Omikuji that were tied up and then burn them to release the bad luck! To be clear, you can't go straight back and get another one after you get a bad luck one! But if you are a lucky one then it might be an idea to keep your Omikuji as a reminder of your trip or you tie it up with bad luck, this doesn't mean anything bad. It can be seen as your good fortune will be waiting for you!
If you wanted to make a wish before making an offer to the Kami then you could write an ema. Ema (絵馬) are small wooden plaques that have wishes written on one side while the other side has a colourful picture. People also write an ema when their wish comes true to thank the Kami. These plaques came about from the fact that people used to dedicate a live horse to Kami when their wish came true but horses were quite expensive so only rich people could regularly give horses. So the custom slowly developed from a live horse to a figure of horse made of clay or wood and then eventually changed to a board with a picture of a horse. This is where ema gets its name from 絵馬 = picture horse as 絵 translates to picture and 馬 translate to horse.
Although nowadays, the picture on the ema varies depending on where you got it from. So how do you write an ema? Well, there aren't any rules on how to write one. Usually, people will write their name or initials as well as the wish so the kami will know who's wish it was. For anyone wondering if you need to write it in Japanese, you don't need to.
So you have written your ema, what do you do now? Well if you look around, you will probably see a load of ema tied up on a musubidokoro, so you should tie them up with the rest and they will be burned at the ritual after hatsumode (The first visit at the New Year) by the monks to release the wish. One thing I hear people asking all the time about them is if they take them back home? You can but there is a condition of you haven't written your wish on it.
Right, you have wandered around the grounds a bit and tested your luck with an Omikuji, what do you do next? Well, it's time to approach the heart of the grounds, as you walk towards the Honden which is the main hall enshrining the kami, you might see some amazing stone statues dotted around like Kitsune (foxes like statues), Komainu (lion-dogs statues) and Jizo (a small statue of a person). You might also see some small shrines which are called Setsumatsusha (They are also known as Sessha: (摂社) auxiliary shrine or Massha: (末社) undershrine). These small shrines are usually used to worship a specific blessed object or another kami that is affiliated to the one the Honden is dedicated to.
Finally, you will reach the Haiden which is where visitors pray to the kami. Below the eaves of the Haiden, there might be a rope hanging with paper tassels that are folded into zigzag shapes. This rope is called the Shimenawa which denote the sanctity or purity of an object or space. One other commonplace to see them is on torii gates.
It is common to see Shimenawa around big trees that are seen as sacred. Traditionally they were made out of hemp but nowadays, rice straw and wheat straw are used.
Finally, it's time for the main event, paying your respects. But this is where a difference between Shinto and Buddhist in terms of paying your respects.
- Bow slightly.
- Gently toss a coin into the box in front of you. The amount of money does not matter; just because you used a 500 yen coin, it does not mean that there is a higher chance of your wishes coming true.
- Ring the bell (if there is one) 2 or 3 times to signal to the gods that you have arrived.
- Deeply bow twice (until you reach a 90-degree angle).
- Clap twice, with your left hand slightly in front.
- Pay your respects, remembering to thank the gods as well.
- Deeply bow once.
- Gently toss a coin into the box in front of you.
- Press your palms together without linking your fingers
- Bow the upper half of your body.
- Pay your respects, remembering to thank the gods as well.
As you probably noticed the main difference is that you don't clap your hands at a temple.
Now you paid your respects and done your duties, it's time to let the gods rest. There is one last thing you have to do is a bow at the sanmon or the torii gate.
I am not religious but every time I visit one of these beautiful places, I always make an offer to the kami. These places can be very popular tourist attractions but if you ever want somewhere peaceful to visit at night, they make very nice places to rest and reflect on things. During my time in Japan, I have occasionally visited a local shrine late at night when I need somewhere peaceful to go. Unfortunately, I lost my first ever omamori about 2 years ago while at university. As much as I was sad when I discovered I lost it, it is said that the charm has been doing things, like absorbing bad luck. And maybe someone else found it, so it will be looking after them instead.
So, it is time to say a big thank you to everyone reading this week's blog. In terms of the next blog, we will have to wait and see because I will be releasing my roadmap of blogs soon. So until next week, arigatou gozaimasu and sayōnara!