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What to Know When Visiting a Temple or Shrine

May 23, 2018

Todaiji Temple

When planning a trip to Japan, a few temples and shrines need to be on your list. Found across the country in large numbers in most cities and present even in the smallest towns, temples and shrines are two of the most popular types of tourist spots. It is important to remember that these are both sacred places. Although the practices may seem unusual, following the proper etiquette is the best way to show respect.

For Temples

To recognize a temple, look out for Buddhist images and statues. Temples are also often larger structures than shrines.

Before you enter the temple, bow slightly, step over the threshold, and walk to the side — the middle is for deities. You may see a basin filled with water. Take the ladle and pour the water first over your left hand and then your right. Next, hold the ladle in your right hand and pour more water into your left hand to rinse your mouth. Finally, let the water that remains in the ladle wash down the handle to clean it.

The main ritual in temples is the burning of incense. This is only a practice in temples, not in shrines. To participate, make sure that you use a match to light your stick. Never use someone else’s lit incense stick, as this means you’re taking that person’s sins. Then, fan out the match with your hand rather than blow it out. You’ll see an incense burner where you should place your stick.

To complete the ritual, fan the smoke toward you, bow slightly, and drop a coin into the box in front of you — any amount is fine. Then, if there is a bell, ring it two or three times. Once again, bow slightly and hold your hands together to pay your respect to the gods. It is even better if you have a string of beads or rosary to hold while you pray. End by bowing slightly one last time. As you leave, make sure not to walk in front of anyone praying.

For Shrines

You can recognize a shrine by its simple gate and lack of Buddhist imagery. Like with a temple, as you approach a shrine, you should bow at the gate before you enter, walk to the side, and purify yourself with water. Again, inside there is a box to drop a coin into and a bell you should ring two or three times.

The ritual after you ring the bell is different from in a temple. You should bow deeply twice, each time reaching a 90 degree angle. Next, clap twice, extending your left hand slightly in front of the right. Then, give thanks, pray, or make a wish and bow deeply one last time.

A final thing you can do at a shrine is purchase a wooden plaque called ema. You can write your wishes on this board and hang it in the shrine to communicate your desires with the gods. Another thing you can buy is hamaya — holy arrows for your home to keep evil spirits at bay.

Each shrine or temple is slightly different. For instance, in some places, you are not allowed to take photos. If you are ever unsure what to do, watch other people for guidance.

Nirmal Raj Joshi [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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