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Top Etiquette Tips when Visiting Temples and Shrines in Japan

With over a hundred thousand sacred sites, shrines and temples count among the most popular tourist spots in Japan. Learn the proper etiquette when you visit.
Top Etiquette Tips when visiting Temples and Shrines in Japan

Visiting shrines and temples is one of the activities you mustn’t miss when you travel to Japan. With over a hundred thousand shrines and temples scattered around Japan, you will most likely stumble upon one by accident or pass one when you're traveling from one city to another. These sacred spots are also popular tourist spots because of their majestic architecture and beautiful gardens.

Differences between shrines and temples

Shrines and temples are the spiritual sites of two of Japan’s major religions. If you're visiting Japan for the first time, you might get confused between a shrine and a temple, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Shrines are marked by the presence of a torii, a tall entrance gate with crossbars, placed on the boundaries of the property. A temple, on the other hand, has a sloping, house-like entrance gate. Japanese temples also have graveyards on the property, while Japanese shrines do not.

What is a shrine?

What is a shrine?

A shrine is related to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. They house any number of gods, known as kami, which can range from spirits of nature (wind, trees, mountains, etc.) to deceased people who may have been influential during their lives. As you travel throughout Japan, you'll see many shrines dedicated to emperors and shogun (military leaders).

What is a temple?

What is a temple?

A temple is connected to Buddhism, which arrived in Japan around the middle of the 6th century. There are many different sects of Buddhism within Japan, including Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and—perhaps the most famous of them all—Zen Buddhism. Most temples have an important Buddhist relic or statue related to the founder or deities of that particular sect.

What to remember when visiting a shrine

When visiting a shrine, make sure to behave respectfully and dress appropriately. If you aren’t sure how to act, observe what regular visitors and temple-goers do. You might be able to take photos in shrines, except inside buildings. Keep a lookout for signages, or ask the shrine staff to be sure.

Shrine etiquette tips

Entering the shrine

Shrine etiquette tips

Most visitors will bow when entering the shrine. Be careful not to walk down the center path under the torii or Shinto gate, as only the god of the shrine can do this.

Purification rituals

Purification rituals

Worshippers need to stop by the temizuya or chozuya, a fountain or stone basin filled with water where visitors purify themselves before prayer. Scoop water out first into the left hand before the right and then ladle again into the left hand to rinse out the mouth.

Praying

Praying

Usually, prayers at a shrine are done in front of the honden (main hall) where the kami resides. It is customary to throw a coin in the offering box—five-yen coins are considered fortunate, as the pronunciation of the coin’s name (“go-en”) has the same sound as the term for "luck." If there is a bell hanging over the offering box, use the attached rope to ring the bell and alert the kami to your presence. You can also clap twice, then bow twice before offering up your desired petitions. When you've finished praying, bow once more to complete the ritual.

Visitors can offer written petitions, inscribed on wooden tablets called ema to the gods. After writing, these small plaques are often hung on a tree or large pegboard near the main hall.

Buying amulets, fortunes, goshuin

Shrines often sell amulets, known as omamori, which protect the wearer against various ills while also bringing them good fortune. Shrine visitors can also buy an omikuji or fortune, written on strips of paper that can be either good or bad. If you get a negative fortune, it is a common custom to tie the paper to a nearby tree branch or wire so the bad luck stays behind when you leave the shrine.

Many visitors also enjoy collecting goshuin (stamps) from each shrine they visit. They can be anything from an actual, simple stamp to a hand-inked calligraphy message from the shrine priest. Goshuin are often kept in a special book called go-shuincho, which you can buy at the shrine itself or a stationery store. Some goshuin are free, but at some shrines, you may have to pay a fee of around JPY300-500 to get it.

What to remember when visiting a temple

Just as when visiting a shrine, you need to behave respectfully and dress appropriately when visiting a temple. If you are wearing a hat, remove it before entering the temple grounds. In some temples, you may even have to remove your shoes. Usually, you can take photos of the grounds, but not in the buildings. Keep a lookout for signage, or ask the temple staff if you aren’t sure.

Temple etiquette tips

Entering the temple

When entering the grounds of a temple, it’s important not to step directly on the threshold of the main gate. Women should enter with their right foot first, while men enter with their left—a practice that only a few people remember.

Just like when visiting the shrine, visitors are encouraged to purity themselves first. You will most likely spot a temizuya or chozuya water basin placed near the entrance for visitors to wash their hands and mouth. Temples also often include a jokoro or incense burner. Visitors can waft the smoke from the incense burner over certain parts of their bodies that might be feeling unwell in the hopes that the smoke will bring healing. Wafting it toward the head is said to bring wisdom and clarity of mind.

Entering the temple

Praying

If you wish to pray in the main hall of the temple, throw a few coins into the offering box. There is no suggested amount or specific lucky coin to consider. There is also no need to clap before you pray. Simply bow at a slight angle (some suggest 45 degrees as the ideal angle), put your hands together, and offer up your prayers. Bow once more when leaving the main hall and also as you exit the temple grounds.

Some temples allow visitors to light incense sticks and leave them as offerings. Usually, you only need to choose one stick and light it from a nearby candle or enclosed flame. Use your hand to extinguish any actual flames, as it is frowned upon to blow them with your mouth, then carefully set the stick upright in the sand.

Praying

Attending services

Some temples hold daily prayer services that are open to the public. They are often held to pray for the souls of the departed. For a fee, temple-goers may also request a prayer service for a specific purpose, such as to honor a deceased relative.

Staying overnight

Spending the night at a shukubo or temple lodging has become popular in the past years, especially in the mountaintop temple complex of Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture. Shukubo was originally intended to provide overnight visitors on a pilgrimage with simple accommodations and vegetarian shojin ryori meals. Many temples that offer shukubo invite guests to take part in morning prayer ceremonies.

Top shrines and temples to visit in Japan

Here are some shrines and temples you can check out on your next visit to Japan:

Shrines

Shrines

Fushimi Inari Shrine - located in Kyoto and famous for its thousands of torii gates
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Meiji Shrine - a popular Tokyo shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken

Ise Shrine - the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan with main sanctuaries built of cypress beams and assembled without nails

Temples

Temples

Senso-ji Temple - one of Tokyo’s most colorful and popular temples; the largest temple in Asakusa district
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Kiyomizudera Temple - one of the most celebrated Kyoto temples; located near the Otowa Waterfall
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88 temples of Shikoku - sacred sites with a circular-shaped pilgrimage route; located on the island of Shikoku

Visit the different shrines and temples with the help of Japan Explorer Pass.

Getting There