Visiting shrines and temples is one of the must-do activities when visiting Japan to really experience the traditional culture. But did you know there are certain rules to follow when praying at a shrine? But do not worry, it’s actually quite simple. We will walk you through the process step by step so you know exactly what to do when you arrive at a shrine or temple during your trip to Japan.
1：Shrines? Temples? What’s the difference?
First of all, let’s clear up the difference between a shrine and a temple. Temples came from countries such as China and India to spread Buddhism. They are places to worship Buddha and are installed with statues of Buddha. Buddhist monks live to spread the teachings of Buddhism. Inside the temples are bhikkhu (monks), bhikkhuni (female monks), temple masters and more who enshrine the image of Buddha.
On the other hand, shrines originated from primitive, scared altars such as “iwakura” (sacred rocks) and other places where the gods are said to live – places where people cannot enter. They were temporarily erected during special occasions. Shrines that you see today were not originally a permanent structure. Their origin is different from those of temples that came from abroad. Shrines originated in Japan and their history there goes back further than Buddhism, making them much different from temples.
Related article：Visit Temples and Shrines, and Collect Goshu-in!
2：So, how do I pray?
There are several steps to follow when praying at a temple or shrine in Japan. These steps may also differ from temple to shrine, so be sure to check properly before starting.
Shrines & Temples
The general starting point is to throw some money into the offertory box. Most people throw in a ￥5 coin. This is because “5 yen” in Japanese is pronounced “go-en,” which is a homophone with the word for “good luck” (ご縁).
If there’s a bell positioned above the offertory box, then be sure to ring it by shaking it back and forth. This is done to call the gods to the shrine.
Can I take photos：
Many places will not allow you to take photos. Be sure to check thoroughly whether there is a warning sign or not. Even if you see people taking photos, make sure to check for yourself.
Shrines & Temples
The first thing you’ll find when arriving at a shrine and many temples is the “temizuya” (water purification basin). This is where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth to cleanse yourself before praying.
There are several steps to follow:
1) Hold the ladle with your right hand and wash your left hand – then do the opposite.
2) Take the ladle with your right hand and scoop some water. Pour the water into your left hand and rinse your mouth with it. Make sure to never bring the ladle to your mouth. Spit the water next to the fountain, never directly back into it.
3) With the ladle still in your right hand, rinse your left hand one last time. Done.
Praying at a shrine – bowing and clapping
- Come before the shrine, perform a light bow and ring the bell.
- Toss your money into the offertory box.
- Perform 2 deeper bows (30°-45° angle), bring your hands to the front of your chest, pray, then clap twice.
- Finally, bow deeply one last time, and you’re done!
Praying at a temple – bowing
- Perform a light bow, throw your money into the offertory box and ring the bell.
- Bring your hands to the front of your chest, pray, and perform a final light bow.
What’s the best way to tell if you’ve come to a shrine or temple, I hear you asking? If you passed under a “tori” on your way in, you’re at a shrine. They’re usually red and look like big gates with two main pillars. If you passed under a “sanmon,” you’re at a temple. These are often complete with a roof and look like mini-temples in their own right. The praying process at shrines and temples are much different so be sure to check where you are first!
Some temples have an incense holder stationed outside, where you can purchase your own bundle of “osenko” (incense) to burn. If you’re lighting your own incense, be sure to put out the fire by hand and never blow it out. But before you do, make sure you wave some of that incense smoke onto you as it’s said to have healing powers! If there’s a weak part of your body, too, then be sure to try it out.
３：What’s a “Goshuin”?
The must-do popular thing right now is collecting “goshuin” (red seal stamps). These stamps are given at shrines and temples to show that you have visited those places. In addition to the shrines’ and temples’ unique seals, specially trained writers will write the name of the shrine or temple, the date at which you visited and sometimes other information, all in calligraphic writing. One of the reasons for the goshuin popularity is for the artistry behind it all as the penmanship and designs are different depending on which place you visit. Whether you visit the same place twice or just the date is being written for you, each and every goshuin entry has its own unique characteristics and feeling put into the characters depending on the person writing for you, meaning your entry will be the only one of its kind in the world. You will require a goshuin stamp book to receive a stamp entry. They are sold at many of the popular shrines and temples.
We have an article about collecting cute goshuin on the MOSHI MOSHI NIPPON website so be sure to check it out!
Was our guide useful? We hope you use it for reference when visiting shrines and temples in Japan.
MMN will continue to answer questions related to Japan and Japanese culture. If you have any questions about Japan then be sure to hit us up on our Facebook page!
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