Almost everyone who comes to Japan visits both a shrine and a temple during their stay, but perhaps most are not aware of their differences, as well as the proper etiquette one should adhere to at these places. When you arrive at the main area of the shrine or temple, what should you do? Perhaps drop a coin in the donation box? Then clap your hands and bow? Nowadays even some people native to Japan aren't aware of the proper etiquette at these cultural sites. With this said, today's blog post will give you an introduction to Japanese shrines and temples so that the next time you visit, you'll know just what to do.


What are the main differences between shrines and temples?

Before introducing visitor etiquette, here is a brief explanation of the differences between shrines and temples.

Shrine (jinjya)

Religious affiliation:Shinto (Japanese origin)
Deified being:Japanese God
Original purpose: Temporary altar for celebration, which was held at a sacred location
Object of worship:Cannot be seen
Distinguishing feature:Torī (a gateway), which is built to distinguish the world of the gods and that of humans

Temple (otera)

Religious affiliation:Buddhism (Indian origin)
Deified being:Buddha
Original purpose:A place for monks to keep the teachings of Buddhism
Object of worship:Can be seen (Buddha)
Distinguishing feature:Residence for monks, nuns and/or the chief priest


Proper Etiquette

Here is the protocol for a typical shrine / temple visit, let's start with the shrine. 

The Torī (a gateway) symbolically marks the boundary between spirit and human world, and so one should stop and bow upon entering. One of the first things you should see is the temizuya, which looks like a small washing basin near the entrance to the shrine. To show respect, people in Japan traditionally pour water on their hands to purify themselves before entering the shrine. Here is an explanation of how to purify oneself at the temizuya.

1.     Grab the ladle with your right hand, fill the ladle, and pour the water over your left hand.

2.     Repeat, this time using your left hand to pour water over your right hand.

3.     Put the ladle back into your right hand, and use it to pour water into your left hand, which you will then use to rinse your mouth. (Remember, do not directly pour water from the ladle into your mouth.)

4.     With the ladle still in your right hand, pour water over your left hand once more to purify it again after it has touched your mouth.

5.     Fill the ladle once more and tilt it upwards so that water rises off the handle to purify the part that you have touched with your hand.

6.     Return the ladle to its original position, concluding the purifying procedure.

Next, it's time to bow and clap your hands. This act is summarized up as "nirei nihakushu ichirei," simply translated as "bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once." After this will be a monetary offering, which we will explain further on.

Torī  (a gateaway) for shrines. ©TOKI

Torī (a gateaway) for shrines. ©TOKI

Temizuya  to purify yourselves before entering the temple/shrine precincts. ©TOKI

Temizuya to purify yourselves before entering the temple/shrine precincts. ©TOKI

For temples, the protocol is not as strict as those for shrines. First thing to do is to stop and bow before entering the main gate. If there is temizuya, the purifying process from shrine can be followed. 

Bow once in front of the altar and ring the bell hanging with the rope from the ceiling. You can also offer incense, placing one in the designated area and throwing money into the collection box. Join your hands and pray silently, do not clap your hands and bow at the end. 

Temple main gate, pictured here is Sensō-ji in Asakusa. ©TOKI

Temple main gate, pictured here is Sensō-ji in Asakusa. ©TOKI

Hanging bells at the inner sanctum of a temple. ©TOKI

Hanging bells at the inner sanctum of a temple. ©TOKI


Tips for making a monetary offering

How much should one offer? For most visitors, this is usually the first question that comes to mind. Should it be a lot? Should it be a small amount? Or is any amount alright? In Japan, there are many beliefs about this custom, but the most common denomination used is the 5 yen coin (五円, pronounce as “go-en”). It came from a play on words. “Go-en” (御縁) means good luck in Japanese, and thus many shrine visitors give 5 yen coins, sometimes only one, but sometimes two or even three for double or triple the luck!


Shrines / Temples in current times 

Japan's shrines and temples are the places to immerse yourself in the beauty of Japanese architecture and the natural environment which plays an important role in people's life and seasonal event scenes such as the new year, weddings, celebrations of three-five-seven years old festival and more. For the next article, we will be going one step further to seek deeper experiences at shrines and temples.