A woman carefully pours (invisible) water on the hands of another woman, while a third woman is arriving at the gate. The water is ladled from a wash basin called temizu bachi.
All are wearing gorgeous kimono as if they are going to attend a tea ceremony, or a similar special event. Notice the intricate design of the obi that the woman on the left is wearing and the perfect hair of the women.
Temizu (手水), literally hand water, is the the custom of using water to purify your hands and mouth. Although this photo shows a domestic scene, temizu is actually a very important aspect of worshipping at a Shinto shrine, where purification is done before entering the shrine precinct. The special shrine structure containing the wash basin is called a temizuya (手水屋).
Purification, misogi, 禊) defines Shintoism, which strongly emphasizes purification of body and soul. Such purification can be quite extensive and intense, starting the day before a matsuri (religious festival) or visit to the shrine.1 The purification ceremonies are meant to remove impurities (穢れ, kegare) and sins (罪, tsumi). These include bad luck, disease, guilt or even exposure to blood or death. Purification also ensures that the kami will not be offended and stay away.
Even when praying at a small altar at home, many Japanese will do some form of purification beforehand. Some may even take a shower. It is a wonderful non-verbal way to show respect and consideration.
Shinto’s emphasis on purification and cleanliness made a big impression on the American orientalist William Elliot Griffis, who lived in Japan between 1870 and 1874. He wrote about this aspect in The religions of Japan2:
Although Griffis wrote about these customs in the past tense, many of them, temizu for example, are still observed. Temizu etiquette is quite simple:
- Pour a ladle of water over your left hand.
- Do the same with your right hand.
- Pour a little water in your left hand and use this to rinse your mouth. Empty your mouth in front of the trough.
- Rinse the ladle before putting it back.
Although Shinto in origin, temizu can also be found at Buddhist temples. However, most Buddhist temples use a huge brazier full of incense instead of temizu. To purify themselves, visitors wave the smoke over their face and body.
Interestingly, although temizu water is ostensibly used to purify oneself, the water is not necessarily pure itself. In a study of the quality of the sacred temizu water at shrines in Kyoto, published in 1991, researchers found that “contamination of temizu by Escherichia coli or Aeromonas hydrophila was observed in some shrines.”
Another interesting finding in the same survey was that half of the respondents actually drank the water instead of spitting it out as intended. This totally defeats its ceremonial purpose of purifying the mouth.
The water being sacred, you expect it to come from a sacred well carefully looked after by priests, but the survey found that quite a few shrines used the municipal water supply. However, this didn’t make the water any cleaner. “The free residual chlorine concentration.” says the report, “was lower than that in the municipal water supply itself.”3
Does all this mean you can get actually sick from purifying yourself?
2 Griffis, William Elliot (1896). The Religions of Japan : From the Dawn of History to the Era of Méiji. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 84-85.
3 Yokoi K; Nawata R; Furui S; Nagasawa T; Yanase S; Kimura M; Itokawa Y (1991). “A report on the hygienic status of sacred ‘temizu’ water in shrines.” Nippon eiseigaku zasshi. Japanese journal of hygiene 1991;46(5):1009-13.
4 Temizu illustration courtesy of Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Temizu, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on January 20, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/259/temizu
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