Visiting temples and shrines across Japan is one of the best ways to learn about Japanese culture, history, and customs, and in this guide you will learn Japanese temple and shrine etiquette. Shintoism and Buddhism, the two primary systems of beliefs in Japan have heavily influenced Japan and have helped bring about Japanese society as it is today to a greater extent than perhaps any other influencing force. Understanding how these two belief sets work will help visitors make sense of Japanese culture, food, history, and even art and architecture. Not only will visiting temples and shrines help you understand Japan and its culture better, but they are also beautiful places to admire grand gardens, incredible art, ancient architecture, and some temples and shrines even have some of Japan’s greatest treasures on display.
During my first visit to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, I was standing off to the side watching what everyone was doing because I had no idea what I should be doing, when a shrine maiden, called a miko, approached me and offered to help explain things to me and walk me through the process. I was so thankful for her assistance and explanations, and now I can share with you what she taught me.
Read on to understand how to properly visit Japanese temples and shrines, learn Japanese temple and shrine etiquette, what to wear, what to do once inside, and how to be respectful at these incredible testaments of Japanese culture and religious expression.
About Temples & Shrines in Japan
Shinto Shrines v. Buddhist Temples
Shrines and temples are different, whereas shrines are representations of Shintoism and temples are expressions of Buddhist ideology. Knowing this will help you understand the religion or system of beliefs of the place you are visiting, and vice versa. On the surface, they are similar enough that casual visitors won’t need to know anything beyond this guide. That is not to say that it’s not worth looking into if it interests you of course, Shintoism and Buddhism are both fascinating religions that have deeply affected Japan and the way of life of millions of Japanese people, and learning more about them will help you understand Japan and its culture better.
If, at the moment, you’re simply looking to understand how to be respectful at temples and shrines when visiting them as part of your travels, without standing out, then this is the perfect guide for you.
Below, left is Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan with a traditional Buddhist Pagoda, and on the right is Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine in Kyoto Japan, famous for its thousands of red torii gates. I’ll explain more of the unique features found at temples and shrines below.
What to Wear, What to Bring & What to Leave at Home
Generally, Japanese people dress nicely when visiting temples and shrines, but if you’re obviously a Westerner, they won’t necessarily hold you to the same standards as the locals, and will understand that you’re traveling. If you’re looking for a great excuse to wear a kimono somewhere beautiful, Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto or Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo are common places for Japanese people and visitors alike to wear kimono and enjoy Japan’s beautiful culture. Doing so will help you follow Japanese temple and shrine etiquette.
If you wear a hat or sunglasses to a temple or shrine, it is polite to remove them while on temple grounds.
Don’t bring weapons of any kind, selfie sticks, tripods, drones, fireworks, alcohol, illegal substances, anything that would break the law, or anything that would disrupt others.
What is Shintoism?
Shintoism is a system of beliefs held by more than 70% of Japanese people. They generally believe that all aspects of the world have a spirit and should be honored and respected. Their idea of a spirit is not the same as some believe in the west to be ghosts, but rather that all things in nature, like rivers, streams, forests, mountains, and more have inherent value and dignity that should be respected. This belief is reflected in much of Japanese culture and their laws, such as not littering anywhere for any reason (which would disrespect their surroundings), and can also be seen in Japanese society’s general appreciation of nature in the form of flower festivals, community gardening and enrichment projects, and one of the highest rates of community involvement and volunteerism in the world.
While some who adhere to Shinto beliefs participate in ancestor worship, this is becoming less common, with many Japanese people acknowledging a higher power and striving to live a good, honorable life. Many festivals in Japan have religious significance, and some people who follow Shintoism believe in or worship specific gods or goddesses like Kannon, the goddess of Mercy, or Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, who is believed to be the ancestor of the current Japanese Royal Family. Much of Shintoism was influenced by Buddhism throughout the ages, so there is a lot of overlap between the two.
Some shrines are believed to be the home of these deities, in which case the deity is thought to be enshrined there, or if a deity like Kannon, who has multiple shrines dedicated to her, it’s easiest to think of them like vacation homes. Knowing this will help make sense of why many of these shrine practices exist. Generally, the things listed below are done because visitors to shrines are being polite, preparing themselves to evisit a deity or concept like certain mountains or forests in their home, asking favors or offering thanks. Shrine maidens and priests are like the household staff, in a sense. Of course, that’s an oversimplification of things, but it will make more sense later.
Act in a calm manner so as not to disturb those around you
Bow at the entrance torii gate of shrines
Follow the posted sign instructions
Remove your shoes before entering temples or shrines
Speak in a low voice
Wash yourself at chozuya or temizuya before entering shrines (see instructions below)
Wait your turn at the various attractions at temples and shrines
Walk to the side of main paths, versus down the middle
Don’t eat or drink anything on shrine grounds
Don’t take photos of people praying without their permission
Don’t use flash to take a photo, or use drones
Don’t sit on the ground or on steps, and don’t sit anywhere except on benches if present
Don’t eat or drink anything if signs say not to, and if drinking or eating is allowed, try to wait and do it outside of the temple or shrine to be respectful
Don’t draw attention to yourself by being loud or disruptive
Don’t wear flashy, offensive, ostentatious, or distasteful clothing that may be seen as disrespectful
Don’t visit a shrine if you are sick, in mourning, injured or in any other state that may be considered “impure”, as it is believed that these impurities can spread to others at the shrine, or the shrine itself.
What to Do at Shinto Shrines
Confused about what to actually do at a shrine? You aren’t required to do anything when visiting, but if you’d like to follow other visitors and participate, you don’t have to believe in Shintoism to do so.
First, bow once at the entrance torii gate, which will look like the torii gate at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, pictured above, although most will be much smaller. This isn’t required, but is seen as respectful, and you will notice about half of the visitors doing so. Torii gates denote the transition from the mundane to sacred spaces, and bowing acknowledges this. Imagine yourself walking into someone’s home; you’d certainly bow to greet the person you’re visiting. The idea behind bowing at gates is to greet the sacred area. Most people will bow when they leave as well.
Find the chozuya (also called the temizuya), and purify yourself. These are fountains with wooden or plastic ladles used to cleanse oneself before entering or praying at shrines (plus its very refreshing to do on a hot day). To use the chozuya, or temizuya, grab a ladle in your left hand, scoop some water into it, and rinse your right hand, then your left by tilting the ladle and allowing the water to run down the stem onto your hands. Next, you may optionally rinse out your mouth, but don’t swallow the water. Spit it discretely into the basin next to the fountain (never spit the water back into the fountain or swallow it).
I never did the last part because I was worried about getting sick, and noticed many other people skipped that step as well, so do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Some mountain shrines’ temizuya are fed by fresh, ice cold spring water, which is safe to drink and so refreshing. Never stick your hands directly into the water, and never let the ladle touch your mouth if you decide to drink from it, as this can spread illnesses to people with weakened immune systems, even if you don’t feel sick. Instead, pour into into your hand and then drink from your hand.
Go to the saisenbako (money box) and toss in a few coins. Approach the shrine, wait in line if there is one, and then bow twice, clap twice, and then bow once more, and make your prayer request. If there is a bell or gong, feel free to use them if you wish to get the attention of the god you’re praying to. Even if you don’t believe in Shinto or Buddhist deities, I was told by the shrine maiden that anyone can pray to their God at shrines because the God you believe in can hear you no matter where you are, and that all are welcome to pray at shrines, regardless of the visitor’s religion.
Next, you may be permitted to enter even deeper into some shrines, or the prayer area may be located inside the shrine. Each shrine is different and the order may change slightly, so do what everyone around you is doing. If you are able to enter the shrine, remove your shoes first and put away your camera.
Lastly, find the shrine’s office and have your goshuinchō or pilgrimage stamp book stamped. Ranging from ¥150 – ¥750 yen, purchasing a stamp is an excellent way to commemorate your travels and remember your time at each shrine. Each shrine’s stamp is unique and it’s very enjoyable to watch skilled calligraphers write on each page. You may have to wait to pick up your book if the shrine office is busy, in which case they will give you a number and hold onto your book. I will be writing an entire post about goshuinchō, so stay tuned!
If you’d like to purchase a charm or talisman, like those made for luck, finding love, protection, or success in business or academics, these are generally sold at the shrine office or stands set up like mini-gift shops. These are great souvenirs, as each region’s shrines sells different styles.
Another thing that you may buy at a shrine is an ema, “picture horse” which are now wooden wishing tablets. The term picture horse comes from the ancient tradition of donating horses to shrines for good fortune and to earn the favor of the gods, which then evolved into giving pictures of horses, and have now become the wooden tablets which sometimes feature horse motifs or other scenes for the same purpose. These are generally around ¥500, and have a design on one side unique to the shrine, and the other side will be blank. On the blank side write your prayer or wish, and hang it with the other ema.
The money spent at Shinto Shrines goes to preserve the often ancient structures, and helps preserve Japanese culture.
It is said that the god you worship will read your wish or prayer written on ema, and help it to come true, but in some shrines the shrine maidens and temple priests will pray each prayer for you to help your need come to fruition. Then, at certain times of the year, the ema are burned to symbolize the liberation of the wisher’s burdens. Many people write asking for help with heartache, losses of loved ones, or when they are unable to move on from a person or situation, and the burning of the ema tablets is said to help the author find release and peace.
If you have the time to pray for other people, it’s not considered rude to read the ema other visitors have left out and pray their prayer for them. While at Meiji Shrine, another English speaking lady approached me and asked if I’d pray with her that she would be able to stay pregnant and have a child with her husband, which I was more than happy to do with her. She and I were both Christian English speakers who managed to find each other in a sea of people from all over the world, but as the shrine maiden said, the god you worship will hear you no matter where you are. If you don’t worship any god, then you can still of course make a wish and visit shrines if you’d like, no one will ask you about your beliefs or judge you.
Common Features of Shinto Shrines
Below are some common things you may encounter at Shinto Shrines, along with why they are there and the purpose they serve or story behind the traditions.
Primary shrine hall, sometimes where a god is thought to reside. These are sometimes accessible to the general public, or some such as the main hall of Ise Shrine are reserved exclusively for the royal family and high ranking priests, just like much of Vatican City is inaccessible to casual visitors or worshippers.
Generally given as offerings at the beginning of the new year by Japan’s sake distilleries, these sake barrels are displayed empty and sometimes the contents are consumed by visitors to shrines during certain festivals.
Chozuya or temizuya
As explained above, these are fountains or springs that help visitors purify themselves before praying. On a hot summer day they are greatly refreshing. Each shrine’s temizuya is unique and reflects the region it was found in, and they were one of my favorite things to photograph in Japan.
Foxes, lion dogs, or other animals are commonly seen at shrines, and are thought to serve some purpose to the deity enshrined at the shrine. They also serve a practical purpose. For instance, the fox statues at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto, Japan along the mountain path serve to scare off wild bore that might attack or injure hikers, much like scarecrows protect plants from birds.
Foxes are thought to be the messengers of the gods, which is why you’ll generally see statues of foxes holding scrolls in their mouths. It’s considered good fortune to see a wild fox roaming near shrines.
Stone Lanterns aka Tōrō orIshidourou
Brought to Japan from Korea and China, these beautiful lanterns serve as lights along paths, often decorating gardens, and usually have candles inside of them. They were thought to symbolically help bring more light to the world in the form of intelligence by casting out darkness, symbolized by ignorance. This goal was achieved in the literal sense in that candles and later electricity helped extend the hours people could read, write, and work, which helped lead to increased productivity and literacy.
What to Do at Buddhist Temples
Buddhist temple procedures are nearly identical to the above outlined Shinto Shrine procedures. Inside Buddhist shrines, you’re likely to come across “sacred” objects, which are generally very beautiful and very old. As with Shinto Shrines, visitors to Buddhist temples are not required to do anything, but should you wish to help by transcribing Buddhist texts, or other acts of service like ground keeping (only allowed at certain temples), you’re able to get more involved.
Buddhist temples sometimes have vegan or vegetarian restaurants on site, and some even allow pilgrims to spend the night or stay for extended periods of time to meditate or volunteer with the temple staff.
Buddhist Temple Etiquette
Dress appropriately, no short shorts, mini-skirts, or super tight/short dresses. Keep your shoulders covered. Stay to clearly marked paths and don’t traipse through the beautiful and ornate gardens.
If people are praying or chanting, don’t disrupt them. If you want to pray or make offerings at Buddhist temples, feel free, but it isn’t required. There’s generally an entrance fee to explore the gardens and view any treasures that are on display, which helps maintain the temple and its grounds.
The manner of praying, and purchasing ema, stamps, and talismans or charms is the same at Buddhist temples, but a bit less strict.
Common Features of Buddhist Temples
Many of the common features of Shinto Shrines can be found at Buddhist temples, since Buddhism so heavily influenced Shintoism.
Although we visited numerous Buddhist temples during our time in Japan, we didn’t see many Buddha statues. There is however an extremely large, nearly 50 foot high, statue of Buddha in Kyoto, Japan.
Dragons are said to represent creativity, good fortune, and wisdom, and have been a prevalent symbol in China, where Buddhism originated, for nearly 10,000 years. Expect to see dragons on water fountains, and resting on top of buildings, or floating through paintings inside the temple halls.
Typically 5 stories to represent the 5 main elements of fire, wind, water, earth, and air, pagodas are typically empty buildings but may sometimes have usable space on the first floor for relics, art, tapestries, paintings, or space to meditate. They are common garden decorations as well, made of stone. Some of the most famous Buddhist pagodas in Japan are Toshogu Gojunoto at Nikkō Tōshō-gū (pictured to the left below), Hōkan-ji Temple – Yasaka-no-Tou in Kyoto (pictured to the right below), and kofuku-ji temple pagoda in Nara Park, Japan.
You may notice what looks like a backwards symbol of hatred used by evil Nazis, but it is actually an ancient Buddhist symbol of peace and prosperity that has been used for thousands of years in China and India.
Popular Temples & Shrines in Japan
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto
Kifune Shrine in Kyoto
Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto
Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto
Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto
Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, which houses around 125 smaller shrines
Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima
Rinnoji Temple & Pagoda in Nikko
Toshogu Shrine in Nikko
I hope this guide helps you understand more about Japanese culture, and feel at ease when visiting Japanese temples or shrines. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!
Follow Me for More: @AnnieFairfax
See More by Annie Fairfax
Baden-Baden | Bay Harbor | Bay View | Berlin | Beverly Hills | Black Forest | Carmel | Chicago | Cincinnati | Colmar | Disneyland | Edinburgh | Glasgow | Grand Rapids | Greenland | Hakone | Harbor Springs| Heidelberg | Holland | Indianapolis | Irvine | Isle of Skye | Kurokawa Onsen | Kyoto | Laguna Beach | Loch Ness | London | Los Angeles | Mackinac Island | Mexico City | Nara | New Orleans | New York City | Niagara Falls | Nikko | Northern Michigan | Osaka | Petoskey | Querétaro | Riviera Maya | Rome | Tokyo | Tokyo DisneySea | Toronto | Traverse City | Tucson | Tulum | Vatican City | Venice | Warsaw | West Hollywood |