The rich history and impressive architecture in Japan is deeply rooted in holidays, culture, daily life, and any tourist experience. Japan cares for its temples and shrines so much, that it is common to see a small shrine nestled between two skyscrapers. Instead of moving the sacred ground to build, they just build around. Just like many other countries, the religions and developing ideals influence culture, government, and the historical experience.

Shrine or temple?

Torii gate

First, let’s understand the difference between a temple and a shrine. Most are open and welcoming to believers and non-believers but always go in with respect of the sacred grounds and those around you. Temples in Japan are primarily Buddhist, while shrines are Shinto (神道). These are two different religions, that can very much co-exist in the nature of polytheism. Walking into a shrine is pretty clear, because they tend to be marked with a torii (鳥居) gate, many of which are red. On road maps, the symbol for a shrine is a torii gate, as well. Temples tend to be symbolized by their rōmon (楼門) gate, which is a two tiered gate. There are always exceptions to this rule, but it is a good quick way to check which you are at.



When you arrive at a shrine, you will find people in line to wash their hands to purify. If you intend on praying, then you should do the same. The chozuya (手水舎) is shinto in nature, but can also be found at many temples as well. I was taught this process, by a Kanagawa native, and it’s important to know that individual areas have their own customs and variations.

To wash your hands in the chozuya, you must start by holding the ladle in the right hand. Pour the water over your left hand, then hold the ladle in the left. Pour water over your right hand, then return the ladle to that hand. Cup your left hand, pour water into hand, sip it but do not swallow, and then spit the remain water in the rocks below (not where you got the water from). Get more water with the ladle if needed, and tilt it to wash the handle. Return it the way you found it, and now you are ready to go to the altar.


Offertory box

Once you arrive to the altar, make sure that you can keep your shoes on. Not many, but some temples require you to remove your shoes. Throw a coin into the offertory box in front of the altar. If there is a bell or a gong, then make sure to ring it or gently hit it.

Since temples and shrines are different religions, there are different ways of praying as well. This is where it changes. At a shrine, bow twice, clap your hands twice, then pray with your hands together. Then to finish the prayer, make a deep bow again before leaving. At a temple, you make a deep bow and pray with your hands together. Do not clap your hands like you do for shrine worship. If you get confused, then you can look to see how someone else is doing it, but always remember different areas have their own variations on the above way of praying.

Prayer flags


Do not take photos in the temple or shrine without asking! If there is no signage present saying not to take photos, then ask or simply do not do it.

On this particular subject, I spoke with a local on the matter of photography. Miki Tanaka discussed how during weddings and the shichi-go-san (七五三) ceremony for Japanese children, it’s alright to be curious and excited of the situation, but it is inappropriate to photography. In general it is important in all photography in Japan to follow Miki’s advice: “Japanese people, especially when it comes to parents, they are very sensitive when people take a picture or video without permission so please ALWAYS ASK THEM before taking a picture… how would you feel if some stranger comes up to you, takes your picture and leave?”

Don’t be ‘that guy’!

Blocked-off shrine

Do not litter! I understand that finding garbage cans is difficult in Japan, but hold your trash until you find somewhere you can properly dispose of it. Reusable bags are good for holding your trash.

Do not be loud and disrespectful of your surroundings! If your voice is echoing, then you are definitely too loud.

Do not argue or complain with security!

Do not try to pass barriers! If there is a barrier, then-regardless of signage – do not pass it.


According to Miki Tanaka: “We do not expect tourists to follow 100% of the Japanese etiquettes but one can always research on internet these days.” If you’re not sure, then look it up or ask.


My name is Sarah R. Peets: historian, adventurer, expat in Japan. Profile Photo Credit: Robin Randolph Photography - Facebook: @robinrandolphotography
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