If you are planing a trip to Japan, chances are, you will visit at least one temple or shrine. They are everywhere and in addition to being places of worship, many temples and shrines are also big tourist attractions. In Tokyo, for example, Meiji Shrine and Sensoi Temple are each visited by millions of worshipers and tourists every year.
There are several rules for visiting temples and shrines, but don’t get intimidated or too stressed about them. It is OK if you do not know every single nuance of proper etiquette, most tourist don’t. Many rules for visiting shrines also apply to temples, but there are some differences. Here is a quick summary to help guide you during your trip:
Rules for Visiting Shrines
Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are in mourning as these are considered impurities.
All shrines have a torii gate. A torri signifies that you have entered the domain of the deity. The respectful way to enter is to bow once in front of the gate and then enter on one of the sides as the center is where the deity passes.
Before you reach a shrine, you should to stop at a purification fountain, located near the entrance and perform misogi. This is special a ritual to cleanse body and mind. Many visitors skip the purification fountain all together, but it is an important part of visiting a shrine. We found it fascinating.
Here is how you do it properly:
- Fill the ladle with water and rinse both hands, first left (holding the laddle in your right hand) and then your right (after you have switched the laddle in your hands).
- Then pour some water into one of your hands and rinse your mouth (you can swallow, but most places we visited suggested spitting it out).
- You only scoop out water one time, at the beginning (as opposed to reaching back in for each step).
- Cleanse yourself not over the basin, but outside, so the water runs down on the ground.
Once you reach the altar, one is expected to bow twice, clap your hands twice, then bow once again to pray. Worshipers toss the seisen coin, considered an offering to the deity, into the collection box and then ring the bell to greet the deity. If there is no bell, simply skip this step. After completing your prayer, bow twice once again, clap twice and then bow one last time.
Rules for Visiting Temples
Temples have a generally less strict set of rules compared to shrines. However, some temples require you to remove your shoes and leave them on shelves by the entrance or carry them with you in a plastic bag, usually provided by the temple.
Instead of a torii, temples have sanmon, a tample gate which separates earthly world and the sacred grounds. Just like with torii, a bow before entering is a sign of respect. As you proceed to the main temple building, use the sides of the path. The center is reserved for the Buddha. Similar to shrines, there is usually a purification station.
Most temples provide incense or candles to light at the beginning of one’s prayers to help create a path to Buddha. They are supposed to be placed in a designated space which is easy to spot.
If there is a bell, ring it to get Buddha’s attention, but only before your prayer since ringing the bell after one’s prayer means bad luck. You should not clap your hands at a temple.
Make Your Wish on Ema
When you visit temples and shrines in Japan, you will definitely notice ema. Ema are wooden plaques visitors can purchase to write down their wishes and prayers and then leave it at the shrine or temple in the hope that it comes true.
Originally, this was a Shinto custom and therefore ema can be found at Shinto shrines all over Japan. However, over the years the traditions of Buddhism and Shinto have combined and these days ema can also be found at Buddhist temples.
You will often see ema with pictures of a horse. In early Shinto, horses were seen as the vehicles of gods and people donated horses to shrines so that the gods would be more likely to listen to their prayers and fulfill their wishes. However, horses were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford buying a horse to be donated, so they used horse figures made of wood, clay or paper instead. This is how the wooden wishing plaques, traditionally with a picture of a horse on them, originated.
Today you can find many other images on ema. A very common choice is the current year’s zodiac. Another common choice is a picture of a god or spirit that’s connected to the shrine or simply a picture of the shrine itself. You may even be able to find characters from famous anime as they appeal to today’s younger generation. Some people collect emas and ema aficionados travel all over to find different shapes and designs for their collections.
To submit a wish on an ema is quite simple. You can purchase them at pretty much every shrine (and some temples) for a few hundred yen which is basically your donation. It is helpful to bring a sharpie, though you can usually find somebody that will let you borrow one. Write your wish on the back side of the plaque and hang it on the shrine’s ema wall where kami, spirits of gods, are believed to receive them. All wishes from visitors are removed periodically and burned in order to send them to the heavens.
We loved our little ema ceremony. Writing down our family’s hopes and prayers, then leaving them among thousands of others, was a very special experience.
Bottom Line: Be Considerate and Show Respect
The majority of tourists doesn’t follow all the rules for visiting temples and shrines, most likely because they are simply not aware of them. However, having some knowledge will definitely make you a smarter and more respectful traveler. For example, you don’t have to worry about every prayer rule, particularly if you are not there to worship, but entering the grounds on either side of the Torri gate (versus the center), is a sign of respect.
Speaking of respect, kids shouting or running around, simply because they are kids and need to let loose, is not respectful when it comes to places of worship. Also, avoid showing lots of skin. Put your phone on silent and remove your hat or sunglasses. Photography on temple grounds is usually allowed, but should be avoided inside a temple out of respect for worshipers. Sometimes there are signs explicitly indicating that no photography is allowed.
Bottom line, the advice I always give to my kids on our travels, especially to destinations with cultures less familiar to us, is to simply be aware of what others around you are or are not doing and follow their cues. It goes a long way.
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