Japanese Temple & Shrine Etiquette

Japanese Temple & Shrine Etiquette

#1 Introduction

When traveling Japan, you will come across Temples and Shrines left and right, and, like most religious institutions, each come with their own set of customs and rules. To help you on your travels or simply to teach you something new, here are all the things you need to know when visiting a Buddhist Temple or a Shinto Shrine in Japan:


#2 Temple or Shrine?

At first glance, one might not really notice the difference between a temple and a shrine, I saw quite a few people simply using the terms interchangeably, which really isn’t ideal as each belong to an entirely different religion and one has to adhere to different rules when visiting them.

Here are some general things to look out for:

Japanese Shrines [神社] – Shintoism

  • Usually have the Suffix Jungu [じんぎう / 神宮] in their official title, check for signs.
  • Have Torii [鳥居] gates at the entrance
  • Have a purification fountain near the entrance
  • Usually have a guardian dog or lion at each side of the entrance

Japanese Temples [お寺] – Buddhism

  • Usually have the Suffix Ji [寺] in their official name.
  • Often have larger, house-like gates
  • Usually have pagodas nearby
  • Have a large incense burner in front of the temple
  • Are centered around Buddha

#3 Shinto Shrines

Now that you have successfully identified if you are at a shrine or a temple, let’s get into specifics. We will start with Shinto shrines, mainly because I encountered more, although, after some research, I found that there are approximately the same amount of shrines and temples in Japan, roughly 80.000 of each.

In general, you should speak quietly at Shinto shrines, unless there is a festival going on, in which case join in on the fun. Photography is almost always allowed in the outer areas, but many shrines do not allow it inside the main hall, watch out for signs.

Entering a Temple

One enters a Shinto temple through the torii gate, which are often painted in the iconic red and black. It is considered a bit rude to enter through the middle, as this is thought to be reserved for the gods, so it is better to walk on the side. It is seen as polite to bow before passing through this first gate, but in personal experience, I have almost exclusively only seen the elderly actually take a step to the side and bow.

Temizuya – Purification Fountain

At the entrance you will most likely come across a temizuya [also called chozuya], which serves to symbolically purify oneself before entering a shrine. Purity is very important in Shintoism, so if you are have open wounds, are sick or are mourning for a prolonged period of time, it is best not to go to a shrine.

Here’s a quick guide on what to do at a temizuya:

  • Take the ladle with your right hand and pour a bit of water over your left hand
  • Next, hold the ladle in your left hand and pour a bit of water over your right
  • Switch hands again and pour some water into your left hand again to cleanse your mouth, be careful not to touch the scoop with your mouth though
  • Finally, hold the ladle upright to tip the remaining water over the entire ladle to cleanse it as well
  • Return the ladle to its original position, upside down

Technically, you should do all of this with one scoop of water, but in practice, I have seen many people use more than one. When pouring the water over your hands, be sure to do this over the ground, and not over the water basin itself, as to not mix the clean and dirty water.

Praying at a Shinto shrine

After the purification ceremony, head to the main altar to pray. There are a few important things to keep in mind when praying at a Shinto shrine, so here is a step-by-step guide;

  • Once you have reached the altar, you will likely find a box where people throw in money [saisen], this box is called a saisen-bako [賽銭箱]. The 5¥ coin is primarily used for this, as the pronunciation of 5¥ is go-en, which is the same as for the word good fate. Make sure to have your coin ready, especially if there is a line already.
  • Bow lightly before you toss your coin into the saisen-bako. If you can reach the box, you can simply put it in, try to make as little noise as possibly in any case.
  • If there is a bell, ring it gently to signal your presence to the gods, if not, well, don’t…
  • Bow deeply twice. This time your bow should be around 90 degrees.
  • Clap your hands twice.
  • Pray – this is done silently.
  • Bow deeply once when done, and leave.

#4 Buddhist Temples

There is a whole other set of customs for Buddhist temples, so here’s another quick overview.

The rules about photography are the same for Buddhist temples, if you are outside it is usually permitted, photography inside the main halls usually isn’t, watch out for signs in any case.

Osenko – Lighting Incense

At many Buddhist temples, you will find a big incense burner. Before entering the main hall, you can purchase a bundle of incense sticks [osenko] and light them, let them burn for a few seconds, and finally extinguish them by swinging the incense sticks. Do not blow on them. When you have extinguished them, you can place them into the incense burner and fan the smoke towards yourself. There are two reasons for doing this; firstly, similarly to the purification fountains at Shinto shrines, the smoke is used to purify body and mind. Secondly, it is believed that the smoke has healing powers, so if you feel pain or are injured in a particular part of your body, fan the smoke towards that area.

Temizuya – Purification Fountain

Although this is a Shinto ritual, some temples have begun to adopt it as well. It functions in exactly the same way, so simply follow the same instructions.

Praying at a Buddhist Temple

  • Prepare your saisen and get in line
  • Bow lightly before you toss your coin into the saisen-bako [as you would at a Shinto shrine]
  • If there is a bell, ring it 2-3 times
  • Bow slightly and place your hands together and silently say a prayer. Do not clap your hands!
  • Bow lightly and leave

#5 Omikuji and Good Luck Charms

Omikuji [おみくじ] are fortune strips you can get at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. One can get these thin paper strips by drawing a random number one from a box. At some places, you can also get special Omikuji depending on your gender, or themed ones that come with a little physical charm, like the cherry blossom keychain in the image above, which I got during hanabi season at Ueda Castle.

The levels of luck you can get are:

  • 大吉   Dai-kichi  [Big Luck | Great Blessing]
  • 中吉   Chu-kichi [Medium Luck | Middle Blessing]
  • 小吉   Sho-kichi [Small Luck | Small Blessing]
  • 吉  Kichi [Luck | Blessing]
  • 半吉   Han-kichi [Half Luck | Half Blessing]
  • 凶   Kyo [Curse]
  • 小凶   Sho-Kyo [Small Curse]
  • 半凶   Han-Kyo [Half Curse]
  • 大凶   Dai-Kyo [Big Curse]

If you have a very lucky one, you can take it home with you. If you have a less lucky omikuji, or even a curse, you can tie it to a pine tree or one of the wires located nearby. This is to symbolically leave your bad fortune behind. If you want to keep your omikuji though, nobody will stop you.

Omamori [お守り] are small lucky charms that can be purchased at most shrines/temples. If  you’ve ever walked around Japan, you will probably come across them, dangling from the schoolbags of students for example [The three shown in the image above are attached to my schoolbag at the moment.]

I did some research but couldn’t find out which religion they originally come from, but nowadays they can be found in both Shinto and Buddhist culture. I’ve seen them sold at non-religious institutions as well, but they are still primarily linked to the two big religions. At many of the big shrines and some commercial shops you can find branded お守り with iconic characters such as Hello Kitty.

お守り are [usually] made of brocaded silk, inside there is either a piece of wood or cardboard which have prayers written on them. One shouldn’t open the お守り to see what’s inside, as this is seen as disrespectful and will lead to the お守り loosing it’s powers.

There are different お守り for different purposes. Common blessings and protections include:

  • 開運かいうんKaiun – This is the closest thing to a general luck charm
  • 交通安全こうつうあんぜん – Kōtsū Anzen – Traffic/Travel Safety, often found in cars or an student’s backpacks
  • 学業がくぎょう成就じょうじゅ –  Gakugyō Jōju – Study/Test luck
  • 商売繁盛しょうばいはんじょう – Shōbai Hanjō – Prosperity in business / financial prosperity
  • 縁結びえんむすび – Enmusubi – Love life / Romance
  • 厄除やくよ – Yakuyoke – Avoidance of Evil

There are many more, including some more unusual good luck charms, but this should give you a general idea.

My local Daruma/Omamori Burning

お守りusually only keep their effects for a year, and in this way have a limited lifespan. It also looses it’s power if it gets damaged. But disposing of お守り isn’t just as easy as throwing them away. This again is seen as disrespectful. Instead, one should bring the お守り to the Shrine/Temple where one purchased it [or, if not possible any Shrine/Temple should do] to Japanese New Years and add it to the pile to be ceremoniously burned.

Daruma dolls are round, traditionally red dolls that are said to bring good luck and fortune to whoever owns them. When purchasing a Daruma doll, which is usually done around New Years, one colours in one of the eyes and makes a wish or set a goal. Then, when this goal is accomplished or the wish comes true, one colours in the other eye as well. Daruma are burned at the same time as お守り are.

#6 Goshuin + Goshuincho

御朱印 [Goshuin] are the red stamps one can collect at most Temples/Shrines in Japan.

  • Go – is an honorific that is added to a lot of words in Japan to make them more polite
  • Shu – this is a red colour. It is the same colour found at most Shinto shrines, the classic Torii gate for example.
  • In – This character means stamp or seal. Most Temple stamps are hand carved, similar to those of a regular calligrapher.

A 御朱印 consist of the Temple/Shrine’s stamp along with a calligraphy that states the places official and regularly used name, along with the date. These are often written in complex calligraphy styles and use old Kanji, so even Japanese people sometimes have trouble reading them later. Be sure to keep a list on your phone or tuck a piece of paper into your book to keep track of where you got which stamp.

To start collecting 御朱印, you will need a 御朱印帳 [Goshuincho], which is an accordion style book. 御朱印帳 literally translates to Red Book of Seals. Most 御朱印帳 can hold up to 30 stamps. These books can be purchased at most religious institutions in Japan. They range from small and plain to large and colourfully embroidered. Books purchased at Temples tend to be simpler, while Shinto books are more colourful and more fancily embroidered. I purchased my first 御朱印帳 at a Temple in Nagano, and you can see it in the video below. My second one wasn’t purchased at a religious institution, but rather at a local crafts fair where a bookmaker had beautiful custom designs. Most 御朱印帳 come with a paper slider to protect the book or a cloth bag to keep in.

The 御朱印帳 is meant to be used on both sides, so once you reach the end simply flip it over and continue on the back. Some people decide to only use one side though to have no ink bleed through, so this is entirely up to you.

Sometimes you may also receive a pre-written calligraphy on a piece of paper for you to glue into your book. This is especially the case during “rush hour” at the more popular places.

At many tourist spots you will find “do it yourself” stamps. Never use these in your 御朱印帳, if the person at the Shrine/Temple sees this, he might even refuse to write you a 御朱印.

The practice of collecting Goshuin originates in Buddhism, from when Buddhist Monks copied Sutras. Nowadays, like most aspects of religion in Japan, the practice can be found at both Shrines and Temples.

Once you have purchased your 御朱印帳, you are ready to start collecting:

  • Check whether the place you are at offers 御朱印. The booths are usually slightly off the main Building, so check for signs saying: 御朱印 or Goshuin. If you can’t find, you can always ask.
    [ 御朱印はありますか。Goshuin wa arimasu ka?]
  • Once you are in the right place, hand them your book open your book to the next blank page. Keep in mind that books are read from left to right, so start at what you may consider “the back”. If there is more than one design available, point at the one[s] you would like to get. If you are uncertain about which one to get and only want to get one, the stamp for the main hall is always a safe bet.
  • If you are at a larger place, you will most likely be given a number or a chip. If this is the case, you are free to wander around the place/pray and come back to collect your book when leaving.
  • When collecting your 御朱印, you will be asked to give a donation of usually 300¥. Sometimes they ask for this money when you are first giving them your book as well. The prices can sometimes also be a bit higher or lower. Everything from 200¥-1000¥. If it is not stated, you can assume it is going to be the standard 300¥.

Below you can see me flipping through my own 御朱印帳. Enjoy.

#7 Wrap-Up

And there you have it, everything I think you need to know when going to a Temple or Shrine in Japan. I hope this guide has helped you on your travels or simply taught you something new.

I will be back when I have something new to share. I was going to say next week, but I said that last time and last time was almost a month ago, so, no more promises. Hopefully in 2 weeks, but let’s see.

Hope you enjoyed,
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