What I Learned at a Japanese Shrine

Japanese who practice the Shinto religion believe one must be ceremonially clean to approach the god of the shrine.

“Walking through a torri gate is the first step,” my guide explained. The tall red archway stood at the entrance to the Tsuragaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, Japan. Some shrines have dozens of torri gates, but this shrine had only one.

We walked under the gate to a row of metal basins filled with running water. I watched as one woman lifted a bronze ladle, dipped it into the bubbling water, and splashed it onto her hands. She rubbed them together, then shook the water droplets from her fingertips. Dipping her ladle into the water once more, she poured some into her hands, raised it to her mouth, swished it around, and spat discreetly on the ground. She had completed steps two and three of ceremonial cleansing.

As we climbed the tall steps to the shrine, the sweet smell of incense greeted us. To my left was a display that held ribbon-tied “wishes” worshipers had penned in permanent marker on chips of wood. Farther on were more wishes, scribbled on strips of paper and tied to cords that hung like harp strings from a wooden frame.

As I watched the worshipers perform their steps toward purification, I remembered Isaiah 29:13:

"These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”

My heart was sad for the Japanese people, because I know their “wishes” go no further than the wooden frame that keeps them earthbound. The Bible makes it clear that the only way we can approach God is through his Son, Jesus Christ.

The Japanese have one thing right, however—our hands must be clean to approach God. Listen to the words of the Psalmist as he asks, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?

“He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol, or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior” (Psalm 24:3-5).

But how do we become clean? Not by walking through a torri gate or washing our hands in a bubbling basin. We become clean by acknowledging that we are sinners—that within ourselves dwells no good thing. By repenting of our sins and accepting the forgiveness Christ offers as a free gift. And by surrendering our lives to the all-powerful, all wise, all-loving God of the universe.

Then and only then, God promises, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa. 1:18).

And one day, every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. And those beautiful red torri gates? I believe even they will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord:

“Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory?

The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psa. 24:7-8).

Sometimes I’m guilty of taking my relationship with God too casually. I forget that I am approaching not only my Abba Father, but the righteous, holy, all-powerful God of the universe. To give him the honor and respect he deserves, I must come to him with clean hands AND a clean heart.

My trip to the Japanese shrine reminded me how important it is to examine myself regularly, confess sin quickly, and treat God and his house with reverence and respect.

What about you? Do you struggle with the balance between familiarity and respect when approaching God? How do you keep the balance? Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

For the next month or so, I'll be sharing pictures from my trip and Fun Facts about Japan on my Hungry for God Facebook page. From the brilliant to the bizarre, electronic toilets to exotic foods, these peeks into Japan will educate you, surprise you, and even make you laugh. To LIKE my Facebook page, CLICK HERE so you won't miss a single fun fact.

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