If you’re visiting Japan anytime soon, you probably have at least one temple or shrine included in your itinerary. After all, there are around 100,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines all over Japan. Aside from being places of worship, they also serve as popular tourist attractions because of their historical architecture and beautiful gardens.
When visiting a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine, it’s important for us to be on our best etiquette to properly show reverence to these sacred spots. Here are some steps and manners for you to take note of before your visit!
1. Do: Pay your respects before entering a shrine
Every Shinto shrine in Japan is marked by a torii gate at its entrance. Bow slightly to pay your respects before entering the torii gate. This gesture serves as a greeting to the guardian deities. After walking through the torii, make sure to keep to the side of the pathway as the middle is reserved for the gods and deities.
2. Don’t: Dress inappropriately
There is no strict dress code in Japanese temples and shrines but it’s recommended to stick to smart casual or comfy but conservative clothing. It’s important to remember that many locals visit these places for prayer.
3. Do: Perform the purification ritual
Before praying inside the temple or in front of the main shrine, you would see a fountain or basin filled with water and with a wooden ladle. This is called a temizuya or chozuya, a purification front where worshippers need to cleanse their hands and mouth in symbolic purification.
To perform the purification ritual, take one of the ladles, fill it with fresh water, and rinse both of your hands, first with your left hand then on your right hand. Then, transfer the water to your cupped left hand and slowly bring your palm to your mouth. Note that this is a symbolic purification so there is no need to drink the water. Afterwards, cleanse your left hand again. Cleanse the ladle by drawing more water and tilting it slightly so that the water from the scoop falls down the handle. This is an act of purification of the ladle for the next person to use it.
4. Don’t: Bring your shoes inside the temple.
When entering a temple, you would often be required to take off your shoes. There are designated shelves or plastic bags provided at temples where you can store your shoes while you explore the temple. Removing your shoes before entering a temple helps preserve the sanctity of the temple and also serves as a sign of respect.
5. Do: Burn incense and offer a prayer.
If you wish to pray in the main hall of a Buddhist temple, you can do this by walking up to the steps of the offering box. Toss a few coins as your monetary offering, then place your palms together and bow deeply. There is no need to clap your hands inside temples. After you’re done with your prayer, bow lightly and exit.
In Shinto shrines, the steps are the same. Toss a few coins in the offering box, then pull the rope to ring a bell (you can skip this step if there is no rope); this step is a symbolic gesture of calling the deity’s attention. Place your palms together, then bow deeply twice before offering your prayer. Once you’re done, bow lightly again before exiting the main shrine.
There are also incense sticks sold at temples. Burning incense serves as an offering to aid your prayer and also helps in sanctifying your surroundings. When burning an incense, light them , let them burn for a few seconds, then extinguish the flame by waving your hand at it instead of blowing it out. Then, place them in the provided incense burner inside the vicinity.
6. Don’t: Take photos anywhere and visit if you’re sick, mourning, or injured.
Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines boast of beautiful architecture. In theory, they serve as a beautiful backdrop for a photo-op, especially for tourists. However, this doesn’t mean that you can easily take photos anywhere you please. While many temples and shrines allow photography outside the main halls, every religious site is different. Before snapping photos, keep your eyes peeled for signages. If the signage says, “No Photography’, respect this and keep your cameras to yourselves.
If you’re sick, mourning, or nursing an injury, you are also discouraged from visiting these sacred spots. Traditionally, it is believed that these conditions bring impurities.
7. Do: Buy amulets, fortunes, and ema
Make the most out of your temple or shrine visit by buying an amulet. Locally known as omamori, an amulet is believed to protect the bearer from illnesses and help bring good fortune. Omamoris come in a colorful drawstring bag-like appearance and can be bought for yourself or as a gift for your loved ones. These are usually sold in both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
You can also opt to buy an omikuji, which are Japanese fortune slips that are written on a strip of paper. These can be either negative or positive. If the omikuji is positive, you can keep it with you as it is believed to bring good fortune. If it’s negative, you can tie it to a nearby tree or a wire. Doing so is believed to help the bad fortune wait around the tree instead of following you home.
You can also buy an ema, which is a Japanese wooden prayer board. These typically come in pentagon or rectangle shapes. If you have a certain wish, you can write it on an ema and hang it at a shrine. Traditionally, it’s also encouraged for people to write their name and birthday (including year) so the deity at the shrine or temple can easily identify your wish.
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Words by: Angela Luz Ayson