When visiting a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple in Japan, it’s customary to toss some coins into an offering box that’s positioned in front of the altar before saying a short prayer. If you ask most Japanese people, they’ll tell you that the best offering to make is one of just five yen.
This isn’t because of any societal value of humility or enlightened detachment from material possessions, however. It’s because the way you say “five yen” in Japanese, go en, sounds just like goen, the Japanese word for “auspicious connection” or “good fortune.”
Since most of the prayers said at places of worship in Japan contain some sort of wish for divine help finding romance, passing school entrance exams, achieving economic success, or maintaining physical health, the logic is that offering five yen will give you a little push from the gods towards your ambitions. There are also some alternative lines of thinking, which recommend offering:
● 25 yen (nijugo en: Sounds like niju goen, “doubly good fortune.”
● 45 yen (shijugo en): Sounds like shiju goen, “constant good fortune”
● 500 yen: The largest coin (kouka in Japanese), which presumably should also have the largest effect (also kouka)
But while you’ll hear that these are numerological keys to a happy future from lots of people in Japan, you won’t hear that from the priests at Izumo Taisha.
▼ Izumo Taisha
Izumo Taisha is widely considered the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, plus is the site where Japan’s millions of gods are said to gather each fall. Despite a history that stretches back over a thousand years, though, Izumo Taisha is also modern enough to have an official website, and listed in its FAQ question you’ll find:
Q: Is there a certain amount of money visitors are supposed to offer?
A: We sometimes hear tour guides say that offering five yen ensures good fortune, or that you should offer 25, 45, or 500 yen [for the reasons discussed above], in order to make a fun or funny story. This has no spiritual basis whatsoever, and their advice is nothing more than puns for entertainment.
What is important is to convey your sincere thoughts and feelings to the gods through your prayer, and to hold on to those feelings in your daily life. A heart filled with prayer is not one to be controlled by amounts of money or strange wordplay.
So there you have it: Izumo Taisha itself says that the amount of money you offer is the least important part of your visit to the shrine, in a distant third beyond piety and a genuine commitment to being a good person.
That said, Japan has long had something of a playful attitude about religion, with secular reasons for visiting shrines and temples, such as an interest in history, architecture, and local cuisine being as big of a draw for modern travelers as spiritual concerns. Since, as Izumo Taisha says, there’s no set amount you’re supposed to give, there’s nothing wrong with tossing a five-yen coin into the collection box if it puts a smile on your face, a spring in your step, and a new Japanese vocabulary word in your head. Just don’t expect that specific donation to act as a cheat code that unlocks all of life’s hidden bonuses to your luck stat.
Source: Izumo Taisha official website via Twitter/@hen_manner via Jin
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