Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Visiting a Temple in Japan

 You can't visit Japan and not visit at least one temple or shrine.

Welllll, you could, but you definitely shouldn't.

Temples and shrines are some of Japan's greatest national treasures and historical monuments. They are found in every Japanese city and are often a quiet place to relax, reflect, and make wishes to the gods or Buddha. In the concrete jungles of the larger cities, temples are some of the only places with flowers, plants, and large trees. They're a peaceful little escape from the crowded city streets.   

It is important to remember upon visiting a temple to be respectful. A temple or shrine should be treated with the same respect you would give to any church, synagogue, mosque, or temple in your home country. That being said, don't avoid visiting temples out of fear that you might make a blunder. As you enter the temple, look around you. What are other people doing? Are there any signs indicating what you should or should not be doing?

In particular, look for shoe cubbies, "no photographs" signs, and ticket booths. If there are shoe cubbies and you notice people inside wearing only socks, remove your shoes. All of the temples we visited in Kyoto and Tokyo did not require us to remove our shoes but I know there are some that do.

You will see a small fountain with a pool of water near the entrance with some long handled ladles. This water is for cleansing yourself before addressing the gods or Buddha. You can wash your hands with the water and even rinse your mouth with a little if you feel up to it. Make sure to drink from the cup of your hand and not the ladle. If people are around, watch what they do and mimic them. If people aren't around, you won't offend anyone if you mess up a little, so just rinse your hands and be off! Please note that it's not required to rinse your hands or mouth so if you don't feel comfortable doing it, then don't.

Temples and shrines are a place to make wishes and say prayers and there are a few ways you can do this. You can buy a small piece of wood to write your wish/prayer on, buy a candle or incense to burn, or simply toss money into an offering box and pray. Look around for a booth or nearby shop that sells the wooden boards, candles, and/or incense. Sometimes, payment is on the honor system and remember, you are at a holy site; don't get bad karma by stiffing the temple a couple of yen. If you can't understand the price, put in what you think is reasonable or, as always, watch someone else first.

When burning incense, light the end and wave out the flames. Stick it in the pot with the other incense and then wave some of the smoke onto yourself. Incense is thought to have healing powers so wave it towards any spot that's aching or needs special attention.

The simplest way to make a wish at a temple is to just throw some coins into the collection box, say a prayer with your hands together directly in front of your chest, and then put your arms straight by your sides and bow by bending at the waist.

If there is a bell with a rope attached (like the picture above) you can ring it! :) Throw your money in the box, ring the bell, make your wish, and then bow.

As you walk around the temple grounds admiring the gorgeous, maticulous gardens, the historic buildings, incense pots, prayer boards, and other awesome holy stuff remember to keep your voice down and respect those around you. Don't walk between someone praying and the shrine, effigy, or monument they are praying to as it's considered breaking their connection to the gods/Buddha.

The most important thing is to be respectful, humble, and polite. If you think you've done something wrong, no worries, just bow, look apologetic, and say sorry. Japanese people are very kind and will probably be willing to forgive you. Then maybe throw a couple more coins in the offering box for good measure. :)


  1. We visited several temples when we were in Japan... I really liked the culture behind them and seeing all the people who were worshipping and enjoying the grounds.

    1. The culture is great and the people watching isn't bad, either! I'm glad you enjoyed Japan.

  2. We were on an English-speaking city tour of Kyoto. The guide took us through the cleansing rituals and ladles, and we entered the temple. Whereupon a guy on the tour lights up a cigarette! The guide was mortified and I was very embarrassed to be American....

    1. Oh, no! :/ That is embarrassing but good to note here. Don't smoke in the temples, everyone!