Make Your Own Shinto Shrine

Do It Yourself Kamidana

Hi all,

As part of my last trip to Japan in August 2012, I visited a famous Shinto shrine named Yushima Tenmangu near Ueno Park.1 I visited there in 2010, and prayed that I would pass the JLPT N2 exam, and after 2 years I finally succeeded. So, per Shinto custom, I returned to offer thanks and express gratitude.

While there, I picked up an ofuda (お札), which is something you can sometimes get at Shinto shrines. It’s basically a large card you can put into a Shinto home altar, or kamidana (神棚) and is considered a manifestation of that particular kami. Shinto teaches about the ability for kami to be divided infinitely, so that each “piece” is just another manifestation of that kami, and perfectly valid for an altar. You can read more about ofuda here.

Now, usually, people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines and get a charm or omamori for luck, protection, or just as a charming souvenir. That’s fine when you casually visit temples and such, but if you have been to a shrine repeatedly and feel a certain connection, and are willing to make a commitment, you can build on that relationship by purchasing an ofuda and making your own shrine at home. It’s not required, it’s more like taking that relationship to the next level. For me, I really like that particular shrine, plus I get inspired a lot by the life of Sugawara no Michizane (now “Tenjin”) as a poet and scholar. One nerd to another, I guess. 😉

Anyhow, the ofuda was the smallest one they sold. It was ¥1000 (about $12), and some were as high as ¥3000 or more. It is a heavy card wrapped in a thin, white paper which you can see through.

The shrine included some instructions with this, presumably because anyone who is buying this is probably setting up a new home shrine. One section explained how to enshrine an ofuda:

神札は、南か東に向くようにおまつりします。神棚のないご家庭には、壁掛けにもできる小型のものもあります。また洋室にも合う神棚、「やしろ」等もあります。

My translation skills aren’t very good, but what I believe this says is:

Enshrine the ofuda so that it is facing south or east. For homes that do not have a kamidana shrine, there are also small-sized ones that you can get and hang on a wall, or kamidana for Western-style rooms too.

The kamidana shrines themselves are sold online in places like Rakuten International (helps to know even a little Japanese), among other places. Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America lists them as well, but I am not sure if they sell them online. You might want to contact them about that. They do provide ofuda though for those who live far away.2

But I didn’t really feel like investing in a proper kamidana, and the excerpt above suggested other ideas (wall-hanging kamidana, etc), so I thought I would just make my own. Originally I just propped it high up on my bookshelf, but it just didn’t look very “sacred”, so I decided to do a little more.

I took a large balsa-wood box I once used as my original Buddhist altar, and found that the ofuda fit almost perfectly.3 What luck! However, it still might fall out, so I took some clear tape and made tabs on the top and bottom. The tape is clear, so it doesn’t get in the way, and it bends, so it’s easy to remove the ofuda later.

It’s pretty amateur, but it works. For now.

Regarding offerings, the same instructions provided some basic advice:

神前には、お米や水等の他に季節の初物、お土産等も感謝の気持ちをこめてお供えし、二拝二拍手一拝の作法でお参りしましょう。

Which I believe says:

Before the kami, you offer uncooked-rice, water, the first produce of the season (fruit, vegetables, fish, etc), souvenirs4, or anything that you want to offer in gratitude. Then, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more before the altar.

There’s even a certain way to position the offerings according to the instructions. For the three basic offerings (water, rice and salt): you can position them like so:

  • Uncooked rice (back row, closest to shrine)
  • Water (front-row, left side
  • Salt (front-row, right side)

So, from above, it looks like a triangle, pointing toward the shrine. If you offer alcohol as well (this is done in Shinto, but never in Buddhism), you can put two cups in a “middle row”, further apart, so that from above it looks like a circle, not a triangle.

Although my main altar at home is Buddhist, I am glad to finally setup a small kamidana as well to round-out the spiritual life in our home. I don’t pay respects very often, but I am still glad it’s there. Japanese homes often have both, and this helps complete the setup. The one I setup is very basic, amateur and probably not “official Shinto”, but I did the best I could with limited resources and living far away from Japan. Hopefully others will find this useful.

1 Funny story, it was raining horribly. Thunder, lightning, rain, everything. I couldn’t stay long, and with my umbrella, I was a little worried about being hit by lightning. :p

2 Since Tsubaki Grand Shrine is somewhat close to Seattle, I’ve been there once before a long time ago. Nice people. Since I travel to Japan regularly, I usually am satisfied with the shrines there, but if you can’t go to Japan, definitely check these guys out.

3 I took out the Buddhist image from altar and taped it inside the front cover of a copy of the Amitabha Sutra, which my daughter had put stickers on. Although not my favorite translation of the sutra, that book is dear to me (since it reminds me of my daughter), and I felt it was a safe and appropriate place to put the Buddhist image.

4 The notion of “souvenirs” in Japan is fairly different than in the US. More on that in a later post. Think of them as sweets and such, not silly postcards or t-shirts. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

9 thoughts on “Make Your Own Shinto Shrine”

  1. HI 🙂 what if my situation is like this: i’m a teen. i have sort of “spiritual side” when it comes to things like this and kami’s, ofuda’s and shrines sounds good but is it okay and SAFE to make a basic shrine even without an ofuda. since basically it’s very far and i’m a teen. or can i just bow everywhere because there are a lot of trees around here. hope this question gets answered 🙂

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    1. Hello,

      I was in my teens when I first got into all things “spiritual”, so I’ve been there.

      An ofuda is definitely an important part of a Shinto shrine, but you can definitely improvise. The important part, as written in this book below is to cultivate a reverence for the kami, for life, etc:

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Essence-Shinto-Japans-Spiritual/dp/1568364377/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1379829272&sr=8-1&keywords=shinto+Japan

      So, you can definitely improvise. A mirror, for example, is often used in Shinto shrines, so you can use that as well. A mirror “reflects” the light of kami as well.

      Also, get in touch with a Western Shinto shrine if you can. Tsubaki Grand Shrine, which happens to be near where I live, has a lot of online resources too.

      Good luck.

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  2. Oh I haven’t thought about that. But thanks anyway 🙂 this blog is very helpful, please keep it up!
    and another question: what should i do with the mirror? (cover it with cloth etc.) and what personal tips should i get from you, coz you know “you have been there” (things i should do before starting prayers,general tips and warnings, if there are any)

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    1. I don’t think you’re supposed to cover the mirror or anything. However, from that book I mentioned previously, it is important to keep the shrine neat and tidy (and don’t let offering spoil) or a kami won’t descend. Purity and cleanliness are a big deal in Shinto.

      For prayers and such, the classic formula works: 2 bows, 2 claps, think or say something, then bow again.

      Good luck.

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  3. Hi again 🙂 I never thought this question would come up: is it okay and safe to have a sort of 2 religions into one? I’m really attracted to both Shinto and “conjure working” or working with saints so, specifically into “Folk Catholicism”. Will there be any “dangers”? I would also like to tell you that I saw this video once about making “shinto strips (shide)” and the owner said that trying to make this one would bring consequences unless you are born into the faith or a person of no particular religion. Will this “warning” also apply to making an altar?

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    1. Hello,

      Personally I’ve never really tried that. Plus I’m mostly Buddhist, though I dabble in Shinto a bit. You might want to ask a larger group about how they manage it.

      I used to hang out on Beliefnet a lot and got a lot of useful advice from various people. You might want to get more ideas from there.

      In any case, I can’t answer that question; it’s something you have to work out for yourself. Good luck.

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