No matter where you go in Japan, no matter if it’s the most remote village in the mountains or the most buzzing large city, be sure to find a temple or a shrine somewhere very close by. Japanese temples and shrines, a symbol of the country’s rich and cherished heritage, are as sacrosanct now as they have always been. The Japanese people have the utmost respect for these locations, and visitors from other countries are expected to share their awe.
It is crucial to follow the correct protocol when visiting a temple or shrine in Japan in order to avoid offending the residents or staff members of these revered sites. To ensure that your trip is educational, enjoyable, and free of mistakes, here is all you need to know about Japanese temples and shrines, including the dos and don’ts of visiting these well-known photography locations.
Shinto and Buddhism are the two main faiths practiced in Japanese culture. Although religion is not a large part of daily life in Japan, festivals and ceremonies for significant life events (Shinto for marriages, Buddhism for funerals) usually follow the traditions of these two religions. Buddhism arrived in Japan from China in the sixth century, while the Shinto faith developed alongside Japanese culture.
In contrast to Shinto, which holds that numerous gods (kami-sama) exist in everything, including mountains, woods, and other distinctly different items in nature, Buddhism recognizes just a small number of important deities.
How therefore can we discern between a temple and a shrine using these two religions? Let’s look at and contrast the two.
The main difference between Japanese shrines and temples is the religion they represent
Japanese temples are buddhist
A big cauldron in front of the structure with incense burning and statues positioned all around the structure are characteristics that aid in identifying a Buddhist temple (otera, お寺). A temple gate is typically quite intricate and well-constructed. A cemetery may be connected to some temples. A statue called Nio, which is a hulking figure that sits in front of temples, is one of their guardians.
Japanese shrines are shinto
A big red gate known as a torii, which is situated anywhere along the walkway leading up to a shrine, is the most obvious way to identify a Shinto shrine (jinja, 神社). Compared to a temple gate, this style of gate has a simpler design. Japanese Shinto shrines have a guardian deity, just like temples do. The Komainu are canine-like shrine guardians.
Japanese Shrine And Temple Etiquette
In order to keep the peace and not look too out of place at a Japanese temple or shrine, it’s important to know the correct gestures and rituals for a respectful visit.
How to worship at a Japanese shinto shrine
Upon entering a Shinto shrine, there is typically a fountain with flowing water and ladle-like objects, which serve as a form of purification before approaching the main shrine area. Visitors use these items to wash their hands, and some shrines also have an incense burner for purification purposes.
Within the main shrine area, there is a small hut-like structure called a haiden, where visitors can make offerings to the deity. An offering box called saisen-bako is located in front of the haiden, where offerings can be placed gently.
Some haiden may also have a rope and bell present, which visitors can use to summon the deity and ward off evil spirits. Visitors are required to bow and clap in a specific sequence of 2-2-1. They first bow down at a 90-degree angle twice, followed by two claps as they silently offer a prayer. Clapping shows appreciation to the deity and keeps evil spirits away, similar to the bell. Finally, visitors offer one more bow.
How to worship at a Japanese buddhist temple
Although the etiquette at Japanese temples is mostly similar to that of shrines, there are a few slight differences that visitors should keep in mind.
When entering the temple grounds, it is important to stop at the temple gate and bow your head. As you walk up the path towards the temple after passing through the gate, make sure to stay to the side of the road. Similar to the fountain found at Shinto shrines, you will encounter a similar object at a Buddhist temple. This ladle-like item is used to cleanse your hands and mouth. Start by cleaning your left hand, then right, and finish by rinsing your mouth.
The smoke emitted from the incense burner is believed to heal injured or malfunctioning parts of the body, so direct the smoke towards the area you wish to heal. An offering box for placing coins can be found somewhere near the entrance of the main temple. When approaching this area, first bow, and then toss your coin(s) into the box.
Omikuji – test your luck at a Japanese temple
It is likely that if you have visited a Japanese temple or shrine, you have come across omikuji, which are small strips of paper used for fortune-telling. These can be obtained from different sources such as staff members, vending machines, and other places, and are available at various prices, with differing levels of luck. The omikuji fortunes are categorised according to different levels of fortune or misfortune, which are:
– Great fortune
– Good fortune
– Moderately good luck
– Small luck
– Future fortune
i shou kichi（末小吉）
– Small future fortune
– Bad luck
– Slightly bad luck
– Moderately bad luck
– Future bad luck
– Very bad luck
What if I get a bad fortune omikuji?
In Japan, if you receive a bad fortune, there is a traditional practice where you fold the omikuji into a strip and tie it to a pine tree or designated place with other bad fortunes to prevent the bad luck from coming true. Later, the priests of the temple or shrine will burn the omikuji to eliminate the bad luck. Interestingly, pine tree in Japanese is “松” or “matsu,” which has the same pronunciation as “待つ” meaning “wait,” and placing the bad fortune on a pine tree is believed to make the bad luck wait and remain dormant.
When it comes to receiving a good fortune, people usually keep the omikuji in their wallets or attach it to a tree in their yard to enhance the potency of the predicted good luck. Omikuji can be found in almost every shrine and temple in Japan, and most people take advantage of the opportunity to obtain their fortunes when visiting these places.
Omamori – turn your luck around
In the event that you receive a ‘very bad luck’ omikuji, you may want to reverse your misfortune immediately. In such cases, you should go to the nearest omamori（お守り） booth.
An omamori is a charm or amulet designed to provide protection or bring luck in various forms such as success, warding off evil, attracting love, or ensuring traffic safety. These can be attached to your phone, purse or wallet, or even hung on your wall at home. Omamori are popular in both Shinto and Buddhist religions and can usually be found at temples or shrines.
Omamori typically have a validity period of around a year, although this may vary. They are usually purchased at the beginning of the new year, and expired omamori are returned to the shrine or temple of purchase, where they are burned in a ritual fire.
It is important not to open an omamori under any circumstances, as it is believed that doing so will cause you to lose any protection or fortune it had previously bestowed upon you.
Now that you’re armed with knowledge of how to navigate and observe a Japanese shrine or temple properly, it should make your next visit much more relaxed and enjoyable.