Tamagushi means a branch of sakaki tree decorated with shide (paper cascade) and yu (strips of cloth) and offered before the gods by Shinto priests and visitors during Shinto rituals. Branches of Japanese cedars, fir trees, and oaks are sometimes used instead. In some cases, tamagushi was taken home as proof of having visited a shrine, like Haraigushi (wands used in Shinto rituals to cleanse and purify) of Jingu taima (Shrine amulet), and used when conducting Sendo barai and Mando barai (a Shinto purification rite in which words for purification are repeated one thousand times ("Sendo") or ten thousand times ("Mando"), respectively).
Making an offering of tamagushi before the gods is called tamagushihoten. Tamagushi is offered in the following manner.
When tamagushi is handed by a Shinto priest, the base of tamagushi is held from above by the right hand, and the leaf apex is supported by the left hand. In doing so, one should keep the left hand (leaf apex) at a higher position than the right hand.
Step forward to the front of the desk to make an offering of tamagushi, and carry out ichiyu (a little bow once).
Pull back the right hand so that the base of tamagushi looks your direction (the leaf apex pointing the altar), and shift the left hand to hold the base, and pray.
Hold the leaf apex of tamagushi by the right hand, move tamagushi clockwise so that the base points the altar.
Place tamagushi on the desk, perform nirei nihakushu ichirei (bowing twice, clapping hands twice, and bowing again), make ichiyu, and return to the original seat.
* Some shrines make an offering of tamagushi in a totally different manner from the above description. Furthermore, there are other manners such as 'tamagushihairei', 'kendamagushi', and 'tatetamagushi' (which may have different styles of offering).
The origin of tamagushi is said to be the description in Japanese Mythology mentioning that when Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) hid in Ama no iwato Cave, Futodama (another god in Japanese Mythology) held Ihotsu no masakaki, a branch covered with foliage and decorated with balls and mirrors, reverently with both hands. In reality, yorishiro (object to which a spirit is drawn or summoned) of divine spirit is considered the origin of tamagushi.
There are different theories as to the origin of the word 'tamagushi'. Atsutane HIRATA and others maintain that 'tamagushi' came to be called so because it was decorated with balls like in the description of the mythology, whereas Norinaga MOTOORI maintained the word meant 'tamukegushi' (literally, 'pointing towards the altar'). Another theory has it that 'tama' refers to 'tamashii' (spirit).
There is a poem by SUGAWARA no Michizane, or Kanko (a title of address used for SUGAWARA no Michizane), in 'One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets' which reads: 'I am too busy on this trip to make an offering, but at least please allow me to offer these colored leaves of Temukeyama Mountain instead, as they are beautiful like brocade'. The above poem depicts colored leaves, which have no shide or yu, as being tamagushi.
Sometimes the money paid to the shrine when requesting a prayer is written as 'tamagushi-ryo' (shrine fee) in addition to 'hatsuho-ryo' (ceremony fee). Hatsuho-ryo also refers to the money paid in exchange for Ofuda (paper charm) and Omamori (personal amulet), whereas the term tamagushi-ryo is used only for the money paid upon requesting a prayer since it is paid instead of tamagushi. Furthermore, tamagushi-ryo (or osakaki-ryo) is written on the cover of the bushugi-bukuro (envelope for a condolence gift) upon a Shinto funeral.
There is a place called 'Tamagushi' in Osaka which is written using the same kanji (Chinese characters).
In 754, kushige (a container used to hold hair accessories, including decorative combs) was floated down the old Yamato River from upstream in the hope of calming wind and flood damage in the Kawachi Province. Tamakushi-meigu Shrine (present Tsuhara-jinja Shrine) was built in the place where the Kushige drifted to, and the surrounding area came to be called Tamagushi. Today, it is a town name in Higashiosaka City, and while the bus stop of Yamamoto Line, Kintetsu Bus, is read as "Tamagushi", the reading of "Tamakushi" is rooted in the vicinity of the local elementary school (the river is called Tamakushi-gawa River).