When tourists are thinking about things to do in Japan, visiting temples and shrines is usually on everyone’s must-do list. These sacred sites—temples for Buddhism and shrines for Shinto—are significant not only as places of worship for two of the most practiced religions in Japan, but also as some of the top attractions in the country.
Most travelers from different cultures are naturally unfamiliar with the etiquette involved in Japanese shrines and temples, but it’s important to know how to behave and how to show respect to these sacred spaces.
Do: Dress Appropriately
Most temples and shrines do not have a strict dress code, but it’s best to dress conservatively to show respect. Refrain from revealing too much skin or showing up in skimpy outfits even during the warmer months. Remember, while you may be on vacation during your Japan trip, people visit these sites for prayer.
Make sure you’re wearing a nice pair of socks, especially if you’re visiting a couple of sacred sites, because you’ll probably end up removing your shoes in some, if not all, of these places. If you’re wearing a hat, remove it before entering the temple or shrine.
Do Enter The Gates Properly
All Japanese shrines have a torii gate, which lets travelers know that they’re entering a deity’s realm. Japanese temples also have a gate known as a sanmon, separating regular ground and sacred ground. Before entering either gate, it’s customary to bow as a sign of respect.
Remember to pass through and walk on the sides of the torii gates and path, rather than the middle, which is reserved for the gods. It’s the same thing in sanmon gates, as the center of the path is meant for Buddha.
Do: Purify Yourself At A Chozuya
Most shrines and many temples have a purification station known as chozuya, where visitors can purify themselves before visiting the main place of worship. Pick up a ladle with your right hand and pour water over your left hand, then switch it to your left hand to wash your right hand. Follow it by pouring some water on your cupped hands, then rinse out your mouth with the water in your hands and spit it out beside the fountain.
Don’t drink water directly from the ladle, spit into the fountain, or return water from the ladle back into the fountain. Instead, hold the ladle upside down over the ground to let the remaining water trickle down and rinse out the handle when you’re finished.
Do: Burn Incense
In most Buddhist temples, there are huge burners where visitors can burn incense, usually done to cleanse, purify, or clear a path to Buddha. Buy a bundle of incense, light it up, and put it on the burner. Let it burn for several seconds, then put it out by fanning it with your hand rather than by blowing it out. Incense smoke is believed to have healing properties, so fan the smoke towards yourself before leaving the burning station.
Do not light your incense stick from the other burning incense as this means you’re taking on their sins.
Do: Learn How To Pray
In shrines, most Japanese bow once and toss a coin into the offering box. Bow as deeply as you can twice, clap your hands twice, then bow again. If there is a bell or gong, ring it to get the attention of the gods before praying silently.
It’s a similar practice in temples, starting with a slight bow and putting a coin into the offering box as well. Bow again and ring a bell if there is one, before starting your prayer and thanking the Buddha. An important distinction between praying in temples and shrines is you are not supposed to clap in Buddhist temples.
If there is a bell, remember to ring it before praying. Do not ring the bell after praying as it is considered bad luck.
Don’t: Visit A Shrine When You’re Sick, Wounded, Or Mourning
Tradition dictates that one should skip the shrines when you’re sick, wounded, or in mourning. These conditions are considered as impurities and those experiencing them are advised not to step inside the domain of the gods.
Don’t: Take Photos Inside The Temple Or Shrine
While there are plenty of spectacular photos of the grounds as well as the exterior of Japanese temples and shrines, visitors are usually prohibited from taking photos inside these sacred spaces. It is widely considered to be disrespectful.
Keep your eyes peeled for signs prohibiting photography. If there are none, make sure you ask the staff or officials on-site before snapping photos inside a temple or shrine.
During your Japan trip, visit Kyoto’s most beautiful sacred spaces in a tour of Arashiyama, Kinkakuji Temple, and Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.
*Featured photo by Gregory Stevens via Pixabay