Japan, Lifestyle, Travel

Japanese Etiquette: Shrines and Temples

Japanese shrines and temples are a highlight for many when visiting Japan. There are many available ranging from Buddhist temples to Shinto shrines. It’s important to remember that Japan is full of traditions and expected etiquette, especially while visiting these holy locations. Below, you’ll find a guide to help you avoid any social faux pas along the way.

Ofuna Kannon-ji, Japanese Buddhist Temple built in 1960
Ofuna Kannon-ji, Buddhist Temple built in 1960

How to Visit Buddhist Temples

There are many expectations when visiting Buddhist temples in Japanese culture. When spending time at temples (and shrines), it’s best to keep a calm demeanor to show respect for the holy ground. When arriving, it is customary to offer a prayer, throw a coin into the offering box, and finish with another prayer.

Incense Burning

Majority of the  temples allow you to burn incense; you can purchase incense onsite. A quick note, it’s best to put out the flame by lightly waving your hand and not blowing the flame out. You also want to avoid using already burning incense to light your sticks. It is customary to bow slightly after placing your incense sticks on the large incense burners.

Expectations for Entering Temple Buildings

There are some expectations when entering temple buildings as well. Make sure to research the specific temple you will visit, as some Japanese temple locations have a requisite of shoe removal before entering. A shoe rack will be available for you to keep your shoes while exploring the temple’s interior. You’ll want to wear presentable socks or bring indoor shoes to wear inside the temple. It’s also essential to take any hats off before entering.

Photography Etiquette

One last note on temples is a photography ban inside the temples. Some locations allow it, and some temples do allow for it. Usually, you are permitted to take photography outside the buildings. There are different rules on this, depending on which temple you visit. Be sure to read up on the specific temple’s website or ask temple employees before snapping any pictures.

Top Temples to Visit

Here are some top temples to visit in Japan. Each offers a unique history and stunning architecture. You’ll want to visit as many as possible, as they each have different stories to tell.

• Sensō-ji Temple. It’s located in Tokyo and is the oldest temple in Japan and one of the most popular.
• Tōdai-ji Temple. This temple is situated in Nara and was initially one of the 7 Great Temples.
• Kinkaku-ji Temple. You can find this temple in Kyoto. It is one of the most visited attractions in the prefecture.

How to Visit Shinto Shrines

While there are some commonalities in etiquette for Shinto shrine locations and temples, there are quite a few differences. As noted above, you’ll want to navigate the shrine and shrine’s grounds respectfully and peacefully while visiting. Before arriving at the shrine, ensure you are not sick or are mourning a death as this is a sign of “impurity.”

Approaching the Shrine

Even the way to approach a shrine is different than that of a temple. Once you find the road to the shrine, you should avoid walking in the middle of the path. It is believed that the gods walk down the center of this path, so those visiting the shrine need to leave sufficient room by walking on the side. This note is true both as you’re arriving at the shrine and as you’re leaving.

Torii Gates

One big difference between shrines and temples is the Torii Gate at the entrance of each shrine. These gates signify entering a sacred site from the outside world. You’ll want to take a small bow before heading under the gates. Keep in mind that you still want to stay to one side or the other and not walk through the middle of the gates.

Purification Well/Fountain

Before going into the main shrine, head to the purification well or fountain. This should be near the Torii Gates. You’ll find multiple ladles in the water. It’s customary to use the ladle to rinse your left hand, then right hand. After that, use one of your hands to rinse your mouth. Spit the water to the side of the fountain. While it’s not necessary to perform this ritual, it’s a respectful way to appreciate the culture.

Main Shrine Ritual

After doing the purification ritual, you can head to the main shrine. Don’t forget to take off your hat. There are a few steps to take when praying to the gods here. They include the following.

1. Take a small bow.
2. Add a coin to the offering box; any amount is okay.
3. Ring the bell twice.
4. Take two large bows.
5. Clap your hands twice.
6. Take one more large bow followed by one smaller bow.

Photography Etiquette

The photography etiquette while visiting shrines is similar to that of temples. You can take pictures outside the shrines, but most do not allow photography inside. This includes taking pictures from your phone, not just shooting photos on your camera. As always, check the rules for each specific shrine before making the trip to ensure you have the correct information for your visit.

Top Shrines to Visit

Here are some of the top shrines to check out while you’re in Japan. Like the temples, each holds its own story and unique background.

• Meiji Shrine. The Meiji Shrine is in Tokyo, made to memorialize Emperor Meiji and his wife.
• Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine is located in Kyoto and is the main shrine for the god Inari.
• Itsukushima Shrine. You’ll find this shrine in Hatsukaichi, Japan. This famous shrine has a Torii Gate that “floats” in water.

Japan Shrine Dress Code

A commonly asked question is, does visiting a shrine (or temple) require a specific dress code? Surprisingly, there is no official dress code for visiting shrines and temples. However, it is best to dress conservatively and avoid shorts, tank tops, and short skirts as they are revered sacred sites. This does not mean that formal attire is needed. As many tourists visit these locations, casual wear is expected. Jeans and t-shirts are acceptable when visiting these holy sites.

Japanese Temples

Keep the above etiquettes and customs in mind, and you’ll be able to visit the popular shrines and temples respectfully. Now, you can explore without the worry of committing any social faux pas.


Related Article: What Is The Great Buddha Of Kamakura 

Ahoefa Adjowa

Travel & Lifestyle Blogger

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