Unusual and interesting toilets from all around the world.

Shintō Toilets

Toilets at Shintō Shrines


Just as we find with toilets at Buddhist temples, the toilets at Shintō shrines are simply representative of the local culture. With Shintō, that culture is going to be Japanese.


Shintō is distinctively Japanese. It's more than that, you could say that it is definitively Japanese. Shintō is the basis of how Japan defines itself.

Shintō belief and practice predate recorded history. It is a folk tradition of animism, a belief that anything can possess a spiritual essence — animals, plants, natural phenomena such as rivers and lakes and mountains, and even weather systems and human-made objects.

Animism includes the belief that all material phenomena have agency, that something makes things happen. It includes the belief that humans have a soul or spirit. But it also says that so do other animals, and plants, rock formations, mountains, rivers, lakes, weather-like entities like winds and thunder and shadows, and even certain views and soundscapes of natural scenes. Animism makes no sharp distinction between the spiritual world and the physical world.

Kiyotakainari shrine at Kōya-san

Kiyotaka Inari shrine at Kōya-san.

Shintō and
in Japan

The word "Shintō" is usually translated into English as "the way of the gods", but these aren't gods as that term is usually understood in English. The Japanese term is kami, for which "spirits" is a less confusing translation. A kami is the spirit or animating agency of a place or thing.

The kami are nothing like Buddhist ideas of gods or deities, supernatural beings beyond the Bodhisattvas or enlightened beings. Neither are they at all like the Supreme Being of the Abrahamic religions.

Shintō and Proto-History


In the early 8th century, the Emperor of Japan was really just the leader of the most prominent group of clans, the Yamato, based around today's Nara. There were Imperial genealogical legends and native lore, making up what we call Shintō belief today.

Emperor Tenmu was the 40th Emperor of Japan according to the traditional list, which was largely legendary at least half-way to him. Tenmu commissioned two compilations of supposed history. For the most part they were collections of myths and legends. The first of these was the Kojiki (or Records of Ancient Matters), written in 711-712 CE. The second was the Nihon Shoki (or Chronicles of Japan), written around 720 CE.

Unlike the corresponding Chinese writings, these chronicles begin before the creation of the world, connecting the origin of the Imperial lines to the deities existing before the world was created.

These books maintain an entirely mythological view throughout their descriptions of the early godlike and later heroic human figures. They describe how Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first Emperor said to have founded Japan in 660 BCE, was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and the storm god Susanoo.

Emperor Ankō of the 5th century AD, traditionally the 20th Emperor, is the earliest ruler who historians agree probably existed.

Emperor Kinmei, who was born about 509 and died in 571, supposedly Emperor #29, is the first Emperor for whom historians feel they have some verifiable dates.

In what the Allies called "State Shintō" during and immediately after World War II, the Emperor was seen as an Arahitogami, a living god. If the entire human population of Japan had to be sacrificed to preserve the position of the Emperor, well, that was just what had to happen. The Allies are going to invade, so try to fight them off with shovels and rakes.


The Imperial household moved from Nara to today's Kyōto in 794 CE. The new city was initially called Heian-kyō.

Starting in 1185, military warlords called Shōguns held temporal power while the Emperor remained in Kyōto in a mostly ceremonial role. Some Shōguns were based in Kyōto, but the most prominent were based in Kamakura and Edo. Edo was a former fishing village that was renamed Tōkyō in 1868, when the last Shōgun fell from power and the Emperor resumed power.

The Heian Shrine or Heian Jingū was built in Kyōto in 1895, as a 5/8-scale partial reproduction of the Emperor's palace as it was back when the city was called Heian-kyō. It was the centerpiece of an industrial exhibition.

After the industrial exhibition, the building was kept and converted into a Shintō shrine in memory of Emperor Kanmu, the 50th Emperor, who moved the Imperial house from Nara to Heian-kyō. In 1940, Emperor Kōmei, the last Emperor based in Heian-kyō or Kyōto, was added to the list of dedications.

Shintō says that certain kami or spirits are enshrined here. That would have been the terminology up through World War II, that Emperor Kanmu, Emperor Kōmei, and other kami were enshrined here, housed within the core of the shrine.

* A Japanese Emperor adopts a name for their reign. While reigning as Emperor, they are known simply as "The Emperor". After death, their posthumous name is that of their reign. So, Hirohito was born in April of 1901. From 25 December 1926 until 7 January 1989 it was the Shōwa period and he was The Emperor. Today, anyone in Japan would refer to him as Emperor Shōwa.

The Allies insisted that Japan end so-called "State Shintō" after the war. Emperor Hirohito* famously addressed the nation in the Ningen-sengen or the Humanity Declaration on New Year's Day in 1946. The Allies believed he denounced godhood, or at least that was the interpretation they promoted to the public. Actually, shortly before the address, Hirohito told his vice-grand chamberlain, "It is permissible to say that the idea that the Japanese are descendants of the gods is a false conception; but it is absolutely impermissible to call chimerical the idea that the emperor is a descendant of the gods."

So, no, Hirohito didn't really renounce godhood. But, he said some things about democracy and the separation of religion and government that pleased Douglas MacArthur and Allied governments.

Let's visit Kyōto's Heian Jingū and its public washroom:


Torii or gates mark passages into increasingly sacred space. You pass through at least one torii as you approach a shrine. The torii at Heian-jingū is large! In this view we're looking back out through the torii to the shrine's neighborhood.

Torii at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.


This gate is actually a Buddhist structure. But then Buddhism and Shintō got all mixed together. Shinbutsu-shūhō was the concept that one structure could be used as both a Shintō shrine and a Buddhist temple, as the Shintō kami were manifestations of Buddhas. Most Buddhist temple complexes contained a Shintō shrine, and vice-versa.

Main gate at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

Shintō shrine architecture is largely based on Buddhist temples. Shrines were temporary structures before the arrival of Buddhism from China.

The Emperors were Shintō, of course, as it said that they were descended from the gods.

The Shōguns were Buddhist. The Shōguns and samurai were especially into Zen Buddhism.

U.S. Navy Commander Matthew Perry forced the Shōgun to open Japanese ports to foreign ships. The people lost confidence in the Shōgun. The Emperor came back into power in what was called the Meiji Restoration. The cult of the Emperor began growing stronger, and Shintō and Buddhism were forcibly separated. The official explanation was that Shintō was the native Japanese religion, flowing through their Emperor, while Buddhism was a foreign import from China.

Shintō and Buddhism use the same ablutions rite, but with different specific names. In Shintō the purification rite is temizu, the water reservoir is chōzubachi, and the shelter is chōzuya or temizuya.

Now we're getting into plumbing details!

Chōzuya or pavilion holding the ablutions basin or chōzubachi at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

The proper way to clean yourself is:

  1. Pick up the dipper with your right hand, filling it from where water is pouring in or dipping water out of the reservoir.
  2. Pour the water over the fingers of your left hand, being careful to make sure that the water falls into the gutter around the reservoir.
  3. Transfer the dipper to your left hand, get more water if you need it, and pour water over the fingers of your right hand.
  4. Transfer the dipper back to your right hand, again getting more water as needed, and pour water into your cupped left hand.
  5. Take water out of your cupped left hand into your mouth, swish it around, then spit it into the gutter around the reservoir.
  6. Raise the dipper up so that the remaining water runs down over the handle and your right hand, falling into the gutter, and return the dipper to the fountain.
The Essense of Shinto
Amazon 1568364377
Shinto The Kami Way
Amazon 0804835578

The main courtyard represents the palace grounds of old Heian-kyō. The main hall of the shrine is at left.

Main courtyard at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

There was a small castle within the palace grounds, so there is a smaller castle here.

Replica castle at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

Many visitors have tied prayer ribbons to these bushes outside the main hall, with its haiden, heiden, and honden.

Bush with prayer ribbons at the hondo or main hall at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

The haiden is the hall of worship, the only part of a Shintō shrine open to the laity. The heiden is the hall of offerings, where offerings and prayers are presented. The honden is the sacred core, the structure that contains the shintai, literally "the holy body of the kami."

But Where is the Toilet?

Most Shintō shrines are austere, with no public washrooms. This one is a little unusual, because of its history. It has public washrooms! They feature the common triangular tanks that mount in the corner to save space. Notice the toggle-style flush handle. Push it left for 大 or Large flush, right for 小 or Small flush. Those are in the set of 80 kanji symbols children learn in first grade. I only know those two plus 円 for "yen" because the visitor to Japan frequently sees those three in contexts that make their meaning fairly obvious. 3 out of 80, that's 3.75% of the way to first-grade knowledge!

Corner toilet tank at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.
Corner toilet tank at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.
Skidmarked toilet at Heian-jingū in Kyōto.

According to Jisho.org, 痕 is the kanji for "skidmark". It's taught in junior high school.

This one was, unfortunately, skidmarked. 痕! It needs many more 大 or large flushes. This was unusual, as most everything in Japan is so clean and orderly. Well, this was at the end of a busy Saturday.