How to Say “Arigatou” to God
Take two bows, two claps, put your hands together, and take one bow!
No, not part of a dance choreography, but steps to praying at a Shinto shrine (known as jinja) in Japan. Though not a hard and fast rule that applies to every Shinto shrine, most shrines follow this ritual (unless you’re at Izumo Taisha, which is four bows instead of two). Shinto is a polytheistic religion that is closely related and intertwined with Japanese culture. Going to a shrine on New Year’s Day, or going to a matsuri (festival) are some of the events associated with Shinto shrines.
Most people would know the general steps to make wishes at a shrine, and with the Olympics coming up in Tokyo, instructions on how to pray at the shrine in English have sprouted up at major shrines that are popular tourist spots.
What do you do though, if through divine intervention, your prayers are answered?
Last week I made my routine visit to Yushima Tenmangu, where Sugawara no Michizane, the deity of scholars and academia, is enshrined. Up on a slope next to this building looks like something from a 90s drama, the entrance is flanked by plum blossom trees, the scholar deity’s favourite flower.
After my usual purchases of an ema (a wooden plaque that you can write your wishes on that you hang after with other ema – somewhat a bulletin board for the deity) and an omamori (charm), I was just about to leave before I noticed a sign about giving thanks to the God if you got what you asked for. The shrine is immensely popular amongst students and getting your prayers answered usually means that you got into the school of your choice. I too recently enrolled into a university in Tokyo and was extremely psyched to say my thanks.
Running between two offices because a confused me was not following instructions to the T, it took me three rounds of shuffling back and forth before I finally went up the stairs into the main hall. Taking off my shoes, a priest in his glorious jade green Heian era wear greeted me. Normally one doesn't get to have such personal interactions with these priests unless you have requested for a particular ritual to be performed so this was a pretty rare experience.
Another priest in white robes, a junior ranking priest from what I understand of Shinto priest ranks, handed me a piece of paper to fill in – my name, address and the name of the school I gained admission to. With that finished, I headed towards the priest with those gorgeous green robes for the ritual.
Holding a green leafed stalk with a white piece of paper tied to it fashioned like a thunderbolt, I took a bow together with the priest, before putting the stalk on the altar. The priest then took a wand-like branch that had a bunch of that thunderbolt paper tied to it and waved it over me. The Shinto fan and Japanese culture buff in me did a mini joy jump. The entire ritual added to the mystical environment of the shrine.
And with the wand-waving finished, I was done saying thank you to Sugawara no Michizane for listening to me whine about how difficult Japanese university admissions are and giving me that much needed push to get in! I was given a congratulatory present from the shrine – one calendar and one mini-dictionary. Very apt gifts for a freshman.
The giving thanks ritual at Yushima Tenmangu requires a donation of 2,000 yen and above, and is conducted in Japanese. If you’re not confident of your Japanese speaking skills, it may be wise to bring a friend along who can so you don’t miss out on any important Godly details.