Japanese Etiquette

For visitors seeking to enjoy Japan on a deeper level.

At temples and Shrines

Defference between shrines and temples

Whether you have been drawn by creed or curiosity, all are welcome at temples and shrines in Japan. Temples, which are Buddhist institutions, are marked by the presence of buddha statues or graves. Shrines, which are Shinto institutions, are easily distinguishable by their bright orange-red torii gates.

How to worship at shrines

Firstly, walk up to the torii gate located in front of the shrine and take one bow. This is the Japanese custom of asking for permission to enter the shrine.

After walking through the gate, you will soon see a water basin. Pour water over your right hand first, then your left, using the water-scooper.

Using your left hand, cup your hand with some water and raise it to your lips to rinse your mouth, then wash your left hand again to purify it once more.

As a courtesy to the next person, wash the water-scooper’s handle before you make your way over to the shrine.

When you approach a place like the one pictured, take a slight bow and throw some coins into the wooden box. Although any amount will do, five yen coins are by far the most popular to throw in, seeing as the word for “five yen” is 五円 go’en, which means fate or relationship in Japanese. If there is a bell in front of the wooden box, ring the bell by pulling the rope from side to side.

Lastly, take two deep bows, followed by two claps. Now, in silence, pray with your palms held together for a few moments and then before moving on, take one final bow.

How to worship at temples

The rituals observed at temples are largely similar to those mentioned above for shrines. However, there is one slight difference. Once you have put your offering into the wooden box, you can pray by taking one deep bow, this time without clapping your hands.

Japanese charm "Omamori"

Omamori, small charms that are sold at shrines or temples, can be found in a variety of designs and colors and are usually made from a brocade cloth inscribed with a short prayer. The word omamori comes from mamori 守り(with the ‘o’ as an added honorific), which means ‘protection.’

Anyone can purchase omamori, regardless of their religious affiliation. There are charms for general good luck, business, love, health, safe child birth and galore. They can be carried around with you or displayed in your room. Every shrine and temple has its own, unique designs, so if you wanted to pick one up from each place you visit in Japan, you could have your very own collection before you know it!

A word of caution: don’t open the charm—unless you want 1000 years of bad luck for all of your family members. Alright not really, but opening omamori is said to rid the charm of its holy powers which are what make them so precious to begin with.

Japanese votive picture "Ema"

Ema is a wooden plaque that is used to write down prayers or notes of gratitude once your prayers are answered.

A word of caution: don’t open the charm—unless you want 1000 years of bad luck for all of your family members. Alright not really, but opening omamori is said to rid the charm of its holy powers which are what make them so precious to begin with.

Japanese random fortune "Omikuji"

Do you want to get your fortune told at a shrine or temple? If yes, then you can buy your very own omikuji, a small scroll of paper that offers some words of wisdom for your future. Spare some loose change—100 to 300 yen—and you can choose yourself a piece of very special paper that will later unfold into your destiny.

Choose to carry your omikuji around with you as a lucky charm or follow the masses and tie and leave your piece of paper wherever you find others doing the same. Although the majority of Japanese people tend to do omikuji in the New Year to discover their fortunes for the upcoming year, omikuji is something you can do at shrines or temples at anytime of the year.

Don’ts in shrines and temples

Walk in the center of the pathway to the shrine/temple.

Speak loudly while walking the pathway to the shrine/temple.

Touch your mouth to the scoop at the water basin.

Wear a hat(anything worn on the head) during your worship.

Eat something(even gum and candy) during your worship.

Stay too long in front of an offering box.

Visit shrine/temple during your mourning(49 days).

Bring part of sacred tree or stones from the shrine/temple back home.

Throw away any trash or cigarettes.