A serene shrine, elegant kimonos, and a solemn priest: you might think of images like this when imagining a Japanese wedding. Although many modern couples do get married in the Shinto tradition, Japan's native polytheistic religion, couples often choose a mix of elements from both Japanese and Western traditions that suit them best. According to recent trend surveys on Japanese wedding sites, Western or Christian-style weddings make up about 50 percent of ceremonies, while secular ceremonies and Shinto ceremonies account for around 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Regardless of the style of wedding, there are customs—like choosing a date and giving gifts—that are practically universal. Other rituals may depend on the type of ceremony, and there’s plenty of room to mix and match. For example, a bride might choose to wear both a white wedding dress and a bridal kimono for different parts of the ceremony. We consulted Toyohiko Ikeda, the chief Shinto priest at Sugawara Shrine in Machida, Tokyo, for insight into the Shinto rituals that accompany more modern rites.
Meet the Expert
Toyohiko Ikeda is the chief Shinto priest at Sugawara Shrine in Machida, Tokyo.
Pre-Wedding Plans and Rokuyo
Before the wedding, the couple orchestrates a dinner for their families so that parents have the chance to formally meet.
When setting a date, most couples look at the lunisolar calendar, or rokuyo, to choose an auspicious date. Dates designated as "great luck" are in high demand, especially when they fall on a weekend. However, canny wedding companies often offer discounts on less lucky days, and un-superstitious couples can save money this way.
Attire tends to match the style of the wedding that the couple chooses, so look for a white dress and tuxedo at a Christian-style wedding, and resplendent kimonos at Shinto-style weddings. However, it’s common for a couple to go through a number of costume changes in a formal wedding, moving from kimonos to wedding gowns and suits to more colorful clothing for different sections of the ceremony, regardless of the venue.
The groom’s kimono is five layers, with white inner layers and a solid black outer robe, embroidered with the family crest. The bride may wear a shiromuku, a pure white, embroidered silk kimono. An alternative is the iro-uchikake, or colored robe, which is brightly colored, often with red as the main color, and intricately embroidered in gold and silver threads. This kimono is accessorized with an elaborate headpiece, either a tsunokakushi, which means “hides her horns” and is said to keep jealousy at bay or a voluminous wataboshi, a domed hat that covers an elaborate hairdo. The bride also conceals a dagger in her robe, to protect her family.
Traditional ceremonies are often held at a Shinto shrine, the native Japanese religion, and are officiated by a priest in a ceremony called shinzenshiki, or "marriage before the gods." Another popular choice is to hold a wedding at a hotel or dedicated wedding venue. In the case of a "white" or Western-style wedding, the officiant and venue are often set to resemble a priest and church, though unless the couple is Christian (around two percent of Japan's population is), these are likely to be facsimiles.
The ceremony, which is often witnessed only by close family and friends, is followed by a reception in a banquet hall, including a formal meal and a number of toasts from key family members and important colleagues such as bosses. The reception is usually attended by a wider circle of guests. There is often yet another party after the formal reception, called a nijikai, or second party, which is more casual and tends to include friends rather than, for example, great-aunts, and might be held at a nearby bar or restaurant. This is where most of the dancing, drinking, and revelry occur.
The Shinto belief system holds that at the beginning of Japan's existence, the primordial Shinto gods Izanagi and Izanami came down from the heavens to a newly created island on Earth. Here they set up residence and conducted marriage rites to mark their union. From this union, Izanami birthed the islands of Japan along with numerous other deities.
It is these gods and deities witnessing your marriage in a shinzenshiki, explains Shinto priest Toyohiko Ikeda. “Connection is the central idea of a shrine,” says Ikeda. “Shrine ceremonies are focused on connection, between people, between places,” he explains. “So it’s natural for a wedding ceremony to be conducted at a shrine.”
Ikeda explains some of the steps in a shrine wedding. “First, we cleanse the hands and the mouth with water. This stands for the cleansing of the heart and body. Then the ceremony can begin.”
The priest leads a purification ceremony, then food and alcohol are offered to the gods. Next, the priest leads a prayer notifying the gods of the marriage and asking for the couple’s protection, and then vows are exchanged. After that, the couple does the sansankudo, or the nuptial cups, literally meaning “three-three-nine.” In this ritual, the couple drinks three sips of sake each from three cups. The first, smallest cup, represents the couple’s past and gratitude to their ancestors. The second, a medium cup, represents the present, and the couple as they are now. The third, largest cup represents the future, and the health of the couple and their descendants.
“After the nuptial cups, there is an exchange of rings,” says Ikeda, though he notes that ring exchange was not part of the traditional ceremony, but is a more modern addition. Finally, there’s an offering of a branch of a sacred tree, followed by more food and wine.
Guests are expected to give gift money, called goshugi, when attending a wedding. This gift money is presented in a special envelope called shugibukuro, and it is often adorned with decorative gold or metallic knotted wire and other embellishments. The money should be given in new bills, symbolizing the couple’s new beginning, and odd-numbered amounts are the rule, symbolizing the couple’s indivisibility. The standard amount for friends to give is around ¥30,000 (around $225 at the current exchange rate) and goes up for family members or higher-ranking colleagues.
Guests also receive gifts in the form of wedding favors from the couple. These are hikigashi (sweets and pastries) or hikidemono, which are larger gifts like ceramics, glassware, or luxury towels. In recent years, you may be given a gift catalog from which you can choose your own item, and choices run the gamut from tea kettles to toiletries.
Finally, it’s customary for the couple to give gifts of gratitude to their parents, for raising them and bringing them along life’s path to this moment. The gifts can vary from useful everyday items to travel vouchers but are often accompanied by a heartfelt letter of thanks on this momentous occasion.