4 Tips for Navigating a Shrine or Temple Like a Pro

I’ve only blogged a week of my monthlong trip to Japan, but already I’ve written about three shrines! Shrines and temples are popular and important cultural stops during any trip to Japan, but they can be a little tough to navigate without feeling like you’re going to offend someone. This is a religious site, after all, a landmine of horrific faux pas just waiting for you to stumble into them. In reality, temples and shrines are easy to navigate if you keep four things in mind.

1. Whether you’re in a shrine or a temple, the rules are the same (for your purposes)

"Untitled" by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jeremy Hochspeier. Used with permission.

Are Shintoism and Buddhism the same religion? Not by a long shot! (And if you want to worship, you’ll need a way more in-depth post than this.) But in Japan, people comport themselves the same way whether they’re visiting a shrine or a temple. The name of the game is respect, which often means restraint: keep your voice low, walk at a moderate pace, follow the directions of any signs, and be respectful of what you photograph (no faces if you can avoid it, and no shots of the insides of buildings). Even just this modicum of respect will get you 95% of the way there at every shrine or temple in the country. Of course, there’s still that other 5%, so…

2. Purify yourself

In both Shintoism and Japanese Buddhism, you must cleanse your body before entering a sacred place like a shrine or temple. Even if you don’t believe, it’s respectful to cleanse yourself anyway. Near the entrance of shrines and temples you’ll see a small fountain or reservoir with several wooden or bamboo dippers laid across the top. This is the temizuya water pavillion where you will wash your hands and mouth before moving on.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke. Used with permission.

To wash properly:

  1. Pick up a dipper and fill it with water from the reservoir.
  2. Holding the dipper in your right hand, pour about a quarter of the water onto your left hand, allowing the water to flow into the gutter or rocks (not back into the reservoir).
  3. Take the dipper in your left hand and pour another quarter of the water onto your right hand.
  4. Pour a handful of water into your left hand and sip. Swish (don’t drink), then spit into the gutter, hiding your mouth with your left hand to avoid grossing people out. Never sip from the ladle, and certainly don’t spit back into the reservoir.
  5. Pour a small amount of water over your left hand to cleanse it once more.
  6. Cleanse the dipper by slowly tilting the bowl up until the remaining water drips down the handle.
  7. Place the dipper bowl down on the edge of the reservoir.

There we are, squeaky clean! If you have a small handkerchief or other towel with you, feel free to wipe your hands, otherwise just shake them lightly to dry. Now that you’re nice and clean…

3. Pay your respects

Although you can explore the shrine or temple grounds at this point, I prefer to pay my respects to the god or gods enshrined before I move on. Select a coin to offer and progress to the main shrine or temple altar, which is distinguished from the other buildings by being open to the air with three to five steps up to a wooden coffer. Some shrines and temples have ropes hanging from the rafters near the coffer as well; we’ll get to them in a moment. Walk up the steps and refrain from taking any pictures. Feel free to stand a moment and appreciate the altar, but do be cognizant of anyone waiting behind you; try to balance your appreciation with respect for the other visitors.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace, CC-BY

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC-BY

Altar appreciated, it’s time to pay your respects:

  1. Toss in your coin. Any Japanese coin will do, but the luckiest are 5 and 50 yen coins, which are distinguished from the others by the hole in the middle.
  2. Bow twice.
  3. Quietly clap your hands twice.
  4. With your hands pressed together, observe a moment of silence. (Once again, be cognizant of the people behind you as you measure the time.)
  5. Bow once more and walk back down the stairs in silence.

If you find a rope hanging at your shrine or temple, toss in your coin and bow twice as before, then shake the rope. This will ring a set of bells, drawing the attention of the deity. Once you’ve rung the bell, the procedure is the same again: clap, clap, pray, bow, retreat.

It’s that simple! But what if you mess up? Well, that’s a perfect seguei to the most important rule:

4. Don’t worry if you mess up (just be respectful!)

To be perfectly frank, even most Japanese people are a little fuzzy on these rules. I’m confident that what I’ve outlined are the “right” ones because it’s what I’ve learned from asking priests, but if you remain hesitant, here’s a fun project: if you have any Japanese friends, ask them how to purify yourself at a temizuya or pray at the altar of a shrine or temple. Chances are that you’ll get a different answer from each person. Most Japanese people aren’t all that religious, and they often don’t know all the small rules. So don’t sweat it if you wash the wrong hand first or forget to clap at the altar. The one universal rule is to be respectful: to the religious institution, to the priests and priestesses, and to the other visitors.

"Untitled" by Erin Grace

“Untitled” by Erin Grace, CC-BY

But, you may ask, if it doesn’t matter whether I mess up, why learn the right way at all? Other than asking questions (and listening to the answers), the best best way to show respect to a culture you’re not part of is to show attention to the small details. Any halfway decent tourist can manage to keep their voice down and not run like a coked-up kindergartener when visiting a holy site; it takes a person with true respect for the culture to make an effort at nailing the little things. Happy travels!

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