Culture Travel Guide

Temple and Shrine Etiquette in Japan

Japan is packed with a lot of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Some are very remarkable and touristic, while many are lesser-known, located all over Japan. Visiting a shrine or temple is one of the most popular things to do in Japan alongside exploring seasonal attractions, traditional gardens, museums, and historic castles.

Shinto and Buddhist’s culture are important part of Japanese culture. To understand their cultural values and traditions in the country, you must pay a visit to a Buddhist Temple and Shinto Shrine.

For example, you can visit Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, a famous shrine in Japan. If you are traveling in the Kansai region of Japan, don’t forget to visit Nara’s iconic Todaiji Temple, one of Japan’s best Buddhist temples.

Nezu Jinja Shrine is very tourists in spring when the annual Azalea Festival takes places in early April. Photo Credit: t.kunikuni at Flickr.

They are sacred places and many devotees regularly visit them. They are to follow the etiquette, manners, and obey the certain rules whenever they pay a visit to a temple or shrine.

And seriously, you have got to learn those things as a result your visit to a temple or shrine becomes more meaningful and interesting.

If you want to know how to visit temples and shrines in Japan including Do’s and Don’ts  then you should read this page, which briefly explains the most important steps and manners with respect to visiting Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines in Japan.

What’s the Difference between a Buddhist Temple and Shinto Shrine in Japan?

Fushimi Inari Shrine torii gates, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Takashi Hososhima at Flickr.

The answer can be very simple though an explanation is needed to understand each part!

A Shinto shrine is where the god resides in, while the Buddha resides in temple. Torii is a gate part of Shrines, which divides the world of gods and human world, while a traditional Buddhist temple in Japan has Sanmon at the entrance that looks more like a house rather than a gate.

Torii gates vary in size and you can see large to small sizes torii all over Japan. Temples have many, both large and small sizes of Buddha statues and a large incense burner.

Pagodas are common in temples and it’s not rare at Shrines either. For example, the famous Itsukushima Shrine has one pagoda on its ground.

Five-storied pagoda of Kofukuji temple, Nara. Photo Credit: Roy Chan at Flickr.

Temple and shrine both have beautiful gardens and walkways to enjoy outdoor nature and seasonal attractions like fall foliage in autumn, plum blossom and cherry blossom viewing in the spring.

Every year in Japan, many tourists come to see hydrangea flowers in the summer. Yatedera temple in Nara is said to be one of the best places to see hydrangea (ajisai) in Japan.

In terms of worship rituals, temples are not strict as shrines. Whether you visit a shrine or temple, it’s a typical manner to behave as calmly and respectfully as possible.

Finally, photography is not prohibited either on the grounds of shrines or temple, but watch for signs as often you will not be allowed to take pictures inside the buildings.

How to visit a Shrine in Japan?

Chozuya! Photo Credit: halfrain at Flickr.

As all shrines have a torii gate, the first thing you will do is passing through it. Even though bowing once in front of the torii gate is not always practiced, you can do it.

When you take a walk under the torii, make sure you don’t walk through in exact center, instead walk through a little to the left or right of the center pathway. The middle of the path is considered holy ground on which the god walks.

On the way to the main Shrine building, you will spot a small pavilion (purification fountain) with a basin filled with fresh water. This place is called chozuya.

A women praying at Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo. Photo Credit: Dimitri Ségard at Flickr.

You will have to purify yourself (both mind and body) here before entering the main shrine.

Take one of the ladles provided, fill it with water and rinse both hands.

Next, clean your mouth and don’t try to wash your mouth directly from the ladle. Instead, pour some water into your left hand and rinse your mouth.

Once your reach the shrine and ready to pay your respects, bow slightly.

Then you throw a coin into the offering box, ring the bell 2 or 3 times, bow twice deeply (90 degree angle), clap your hands twice, then finally pray for a while with hands pressed together and bow once again then walk away.

How to visit a Temple in Japan?

Sensoji Temple’s Pagoda and Sanmon gate. This is Tokyo’s best Buddhist temple to visit. Photo Credit: Teo Romera at Flickr.

When you visit a Buddhist temple in Japan, the first thing you need to do is purify yourself at chozuya and approach the main temple.

At some temples, you may be required to take off your shoes before entering temple buildings.

Sometimes, you will have to remove hats. And wearing a good pair of socks is also recommended.

Osenko at Ikegami Honmonji, Tokyo. Photo Credit: mrhayata at Flickr.

Burning incense at the temple is a typical manner; therefore you can burn incense (osenko) in large incense burners.

You can buy incense sticks at some temples and then light them, let them burn a few seconds and extinguish the flame by waving your hands. You have to do it before you make your prayers in front of the Buddha statues.

You can toss a coin into the offering box and ring the bell (if there is one) 2 or 3 times. Don’t clap here, instead put your hands together and show your respect to the Buddha.

Prayer is done, now what to do?

Ema and Omikuji at Hakone Shrine, Japan. Photo Credit: Natalie Maguire at Flickr.

One thing that you should do after praying and paying respect to the god at Shrines or Buddha at Temples is you will have to purchase ema and omikuji.

These paper fortunes predict whether you will enjoy good or bad time in all aspect of your life of the upcoming years, such as education, relationship, travel, health, career, wishes and so on.

An omikuji is a slip of paper with fortunes written on it. You can keep your omikuji and at some shrines and temples, there are strings set up for visitors to tie Omikuji to. Buying an omikuji usually costs 100-200 Yen.

Ema is different than omikuji. These are wooden plaques in which you can write your wishes and then hang them to be received by the god.

This guide here will definitely give you some ideas on how to visit a Temple and shrine in Japan. So, the next time you visit a Japanese temple or shrine, be sure to follow the above etiquette and manners.

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