Guide to a Japanese Shinto Shrine Wedding
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
What is a Shinto Shrine Wedding? What do all the elements mean? Can non-Japanese get married at a Shinto Shrine? In this article, we will examine these questions and more, as we pull back the layers of mystery that surround this beautiful exotic part of Japanese culture.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a shinto shrine wedding ceremony has its roots in ancient Japanese history. After all, shinto itself, the religion of Japan, was codified way back in the 8th century. However, a shinto shrine wedding is a recent invention. The earliest was performed little over 100 years ago for the nuptials of Crown Prince Yoshihito to Princess Kujo Sadako. Before looking at the wedding, let's explore a little bit about Shinto itself.
What is Shinto?
Shinto (神道), sometimes referred to as kami-no-michi (kami - god, michi - road) or “way of the gods” focusses on ritual and ceremony to establish a connection between the past and the present. The kami are said to influence everyday lives, bringing good and/or bad fortune.
Though codified 1200 years ago, the earliest writings did not refer to it as a religion. It was instead thought of as a collection of beliefs and myths that governed a way of life. These days however, it is considered a religion and has over 81,000 beautiful, ornate shrines across the country. Each shrine devotes itself to the worship and honor of a great number of spirits or deities.
In English “kami” translates to ‘spirits’ or ‘gods.’ But in Japanese, it is an all encompassing term. It includes the sacred essence that takes the form of rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places or even people. Furthermore, according to the shinto belief, kami and people occupy the same world and plane of existence.
Almost 80% of Japanese people regularly participate in Shinto practices or rituals. However, only a few would identify themselves as true believers. Like westerners who only attend church at Christmas, many Japanese only attend a shrine at New Year or for Shichi-go-san (a special event for the blessing of children). Now we know a little bit about Shinto, what about the wedding itself?
Can non-Japanese couples get married at a Shinto Shrine?
Short answer: yes!
The long answer is that it depends on the shrine. Some shrines are ok as long as one of the couple is Japanese.
Luckily, more and more shrines are opening to the possibility of performing weddings for non-Japanese couples. We only work with those that do!
Portfolio Read: Japanese Shinto Shrine Elopement
A Guide to a Shinto Shrine Wedding
A shinto shrine wedding ceremony is usually a small event. Most Shrines will be able to accommodate between 10 and 20 people; few shrines can cater for beyond 30. For this reason, the ceremony is usually attended by just close family and friends. However, the reception is open to larger groups.
Unlike western weddings, that incorporate the legal signing of the marriage certificate, a shinto ceremony is not legally binding. As with all weddings in Japan, there is no administrative link between the wedding ceremony and the marriage. All marriage applications must be applied for at a city hall on a separate day.
Some shrines will draw up a certificate for the couple to sign, but this is merely a keepsake rather than anything of legal value. The ceremony is a purification ritual designed to bring blessings on the couple and their families. It takes about 20 ~ 30 minutes to perform and is divided into nine parts:
1.参進の儀（Sanshin no gi) - Procession to the altar
A shinto shrine wedding starts with a procession through the grounds of the shrine. The first port of call is the 手水 (temizu), to ritually wash (purify) your hands in preparation for standing in the presence of kami.
The procession is part of the ritual and is led by the priests and hand maidens, who lead the wedding group slowly towards the place of kami.
The idea is that with each step the heart and mind is cleansed of impure thoughts. By the time the party reaches the altar, each person is prepared to stand in the presence of the kami.
2.修祓の儀（Shubatsu no gi) - Bow - signifies the start of the wedding ritual
Once the party reaches the altar, the wedding can start. A shrine attendant signals the start of the ceremony with an impressive Taiko Drum role.
Then the saishu (the lead priest of the ritual) offers a bow, which is then reciprocated by the couple and other guests.
Each person must offer a deep bow to both the priest and the kami.
3.祝詞奏上（Norito-sojo) - Report of the marriage to the shrine deity
The leading priest will bow again, this time to report the marriage of the bride and the groom to the kami. He will also offer a prayer for this purpose, which is spoken in a form of classical Japanese that only priests and the kami can understand.
Through the prayer, the priest asks for the kamis' eternal blessings on behalf of the married couple and their relatives.
During this stage, it is customary for no photos to be taken. It is quite a reverent moment, one that has great meaning to followers of shinto.
4.鈴弊の儀（Suzu hei no gi) - Bell ringing
The priest's assistant rings the ceremonial bell. It is thought that the sound of the bell brings blessings from the kami.
While the bell is rung, the couple should bow their heads reverently, to receive the blessings bestowed on them by the grace of the kami.
5.三献の儀（San ken no gi)/三三九度（san-san kudo)
Following the prayer and bell ringing, the couple drink sake. The couple each takes just three sips from three cups offered by the shrine maiden (miko). This is known as the san-san-kudo. This basically means, three cups, three sips, three times. It could probably be likened to holy communion in the catholic church.
Since ancient times, food and drink offered to the kami was thought to contain divine power. The couple drinks the sake, withdrawn from the alter, from the same cup. By drinking the divine-powered sake from the same cup, the bond as a couple is strengthened and they are blessed by the kami.
If you are not alcohol drinkers, you don’t need to ingest the drink, merely touching it to your lips suffices.
The priest will present the first of the three cups to the groom, who will take three sips before handing it back to the priest. The priest will then have the same cup refilled before handing it to the bride. Once she takes three sips, and hands it back to the priest, a shrine maiden will fill a second cup which the priest will hand to the bride for the process to be repeated. E.g.
Groom three sips - hand back to Priest - Bride three sips
Bride three sips - hand back to Priest - Groom three sips
Groom three sips - hand back to Priest - Bride three sips
Now for the fun part!
Up until this point, the priest and maiden have lead the procedings. Now, the bride and groom stand in front of the kami by themselves, and recite the wedding oath. In Japanese!
We will provide a romaji (alphabetized) script for you to practice beforehand, and you can read from this during the ceremony. You don’t need to do anything from memory!
Just note, each shrine is different: sometimes only the groom needs to read out while at others both need to read the script. At shrines we use, usually both bride AND groom read the oath together.