A Quick Beginner's Guide To Japanese Shrines And Temples

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. 

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.

The main difference between Japanese shrines and temples is the religion they represent

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:

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 temples are buddhist

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.

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.

Wash your hands and mouth

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. 

How to worship at a Japanese buddhist temple

Omikuji: test your luck at a Japanese temple

If you have visited a Japanese temple or shrine, you have come across omikuji - 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.

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. 

What if I get a bad fortune omikuji?

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. Good luck!