I follow a certain Japanese taxi company (MK Taxi) based in Kyoto, Japan on Twitter, and they recently posted these photos of rubber ducks swimming in a pool of water.
But this is no ordinary pond or pool, this as an ablution pool at Awata Shrine, a small Shinto shrine in Kyoto, Japan. Almost every Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine in Japan will have a pool with running water for doing ablution. This is an optional but customary step, and is thought to cleanse oneself, mentally and physically, before going to the main object of veneration at that temple or shrine. As a visitor, you may want to remember to do this too. When in Rome…
The process of ablution (called temizu 手水 in Japanese) literally means to wash one’s hands with water,1 but the process is a bit more involved.
The venerable Ise Jingu shrine has nice video on the how to do temizu here:
The gist of the process is:
- With a scoop of water, pour some over your left hand to clean it.
- Now, using your left hand, take the ladle and pour some water over your right hand to clean it.
- Now, using your right hand, pour a bit of water into your left hand, and use it to clean your mouth.
- Next, tip the ladle up, so the remaining water washes over the handle, cleaning it for the next person.
- Finally, put the ladle back on the rack.
To be honest, my wife and I skip the mouth-washing step, for hygiene reasons. You’ll often see older generation Japanese rinsing their mouth like mouth-wash before spitting out on the ground, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Sometimes, I’ll just go through the motions of washing my mouth without actually contacting the water. It’s up to you.
In some circumstances, you may also see a large outdoor brazier with bundles of incense inside. Asakusa Temple (a.k.a. Sensoji) has one of these outside the main hall entrance. This is another ablution step you can do whereby you fan some of the incense smoke onto yourself.
Although Shinto and Buddhism are entirely different religions, the fact that both of them have essentially identical ablution traditions shows the power of local culture in shaping religion (and vice-versa).
1 The book The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century clarified that in 14th century England, most people couldn’t afford bathing daily (weekly if they were lucky), but they washed their hands pretty often, especially when going to church. I suppose the concept of “ablution” was pretty universal at least in medieval times.