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 that serve to establish a connection between the past and the present. The kami are said to influence everyday lives, bringing good 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. 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.’ In Japanese however, 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?
Shinto Shrine Wedding
A shinto shrine wedding ceremony is usually a small event. Most Shrines will be able to seat 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. 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 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. 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 god.
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 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.
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.
5.三献の儀（San ken no gi)/三三九度（san-san kudo)
Following the prayer, the couple drink sake, each taking just three sips from three cups offered by the shrine maiden (miko). Since ancient times, food and drink offered to the kami was thought to contain divine power. The couple drink 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.
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!
7.指輪交換の儀 (yubiwa koukan no gi) – Ring exchange
As with weddings the world over, there is an exchange of rings.
It is said, that during this part of the ceremony, the couple are as close to the kami as is humanly possible. Tamagushi, an evergreen branch with a hemp line or a zigzag paper slip, represents the sincerity of those who present it to the kami.
The bride and groom offer up the branch by hand; bow twice; clap their hands twice and bow once more. This shows appreciation for the blessing of the kami.
Offering tamagushi branch requires the bride and groom to follow a certain protocol. This will be taught beforehand.
9.親族固めの杯（shinzoku katame-no hai)
Two families break open the sake to signify unity. (And I guess to let the celebrations commence!)
When is the best time to get married in Japan?
There is no real hard and fast rule for this. However, since Japan lies in a temperate zone, it experiences distinct seasonal and temperature changes. The summers are blazingly hot and humid, and for anyone wearing a traditional, multi-layered kimono, it is quite uncomfortable. In winter it can get bitterly cold, with a chance of snow.
Most people tend to choose spring or autumn for a shinto shrine wedding. Both seasons are astonishingly beautiful: white and pink cherry blossom in spring; red and orange leaves in autumn.
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