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Visiting Shinto Shrines & Buddhist Temples in Japan

Mount Fuji and Japanese pagoda view

There are around 180,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples dotted throughout Japan.

Respect is important in Japan, especially when visiting a religious site. If you’re visiting a Japanese temple or shrine, there is some etiquette to follow.

Here are our tips, alongside some of the best ones to visit.



Can I visit a shrine or temple in Japan as a tourist?


Yes, you can, and many shrines and temples attract tourists and sightseers all year round.

However, they’re religious sites, not theme parks! Before visiting, it’s a good idea to research the significance of temples and shrines to Japanese people, to feel well prepared once you’re inside.

Whether you’re religious or not, show respect, keep your voice down, and avoid snacking.



What should I wear when visiting a shrine or temple?


There isn’t a strict dress code for visiting shrines and temples in Japan, but ‘smart casual’ is best.

Japan (compared to some countries) is a big fan of modest attire, so revealing clothes, even in city streets, can make you stand out. If you’re going to a shrine or temple, wear something comfy but conservative.

However, it’s normal to see people in ‘tourist’ attire, and you can get away with a t-shirt and long shorts.

It’s also worth noting that you’ll need to take your shoes off in temples. Always wear a nice clean pair of socks in Japan, as it’s good etiquette to take your shoes off inside homes and some public buildings!



Can I take photos at a Japanese shrine or temple?


Japan is a country of beautiful architecture, and religious sites are a favourite photo-op for foreign tourists. If you’re taking photos in a Japanese shrine or temple, here are a few tips to keep everyone happy.

  • If you see signs saying ‘No Photography’, respect that and take photographs elsewhere
  • It’s common to be able to take photos outside on the grounds, but not inside buildings
  • Spot a wedding or funeral ceremony? Give people space, they’re not a tourist attraction
  • Getting to the site very early or very late will give you a chance to avoid the big crowds
  • Be respectful – do not get a selfie next to people praying, monks, or with a Buddha statue


Shinto shrines are generally more accepting of photography than Buddhist temples in Japan. However, every religious site is different, so check for signage saying whether or not photos are allowed there.

But don’t just take photos, read on to find out more about visiting shrines and temples in Japan.




Japanese shrine



What’s the difference between shrines and temples?


Shinto and Buddhism are two separate religions in Japan, each with its own beliefs and traditions. Shinto shrines are characterised by a torii gate, while Buddhist temples have a sanmon gate at the entrance.

According to statistics, most Japanese people practice elements of both Buddhism and Shinto.




Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion and is deeply interwoven into the country’s culture and way of life.

  • There are around 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, and 70% of Japan practices Shinto
  • Shinto “the way of the gods” incorporates the worship of ancestors and nature spirits
  • These spirits are known as “kami” and can take the form of concepts or even people
  • Shrines are used to offer prayers and offerings to the kami, to keep away “bad” spirits

There are lots of Shinto weddings, but funerals are rare and often take place in Buddhist temples.

Although followers have fallen, many in Japan describe themselves as adhering to Shinto, even if they don’t actively practice it. Preaching is rare in Shinto, and it believes people are essentially good.

Shinto places a lot of emphasis on nature (considered sacred) and physical and spiritual purity.





Introduced in the 6th century via Korea, Buddhism peacefully co-exists with Shinto in modern Japan.

  • There are around 80,000 Buddhist temples in Japan, and 67% of Japan practice it
  • Buddhism in Japan incorporates many different “schools” or divisions (including Zen)
  • Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, who lived around the 5th – 4th century BCE
  • In a nutshell, Buddhism’s goal is to escape a cycle of suffering through enlightenment

Enlightenment or nirvana can be achieved through meditation, spiritual and physical labour, and good behaviour. If you go on a Buddhist retreat in Japan, expect silence, hard work and vegetarian food.

Some Buddhist temples are lived in by monks, so treat them as you would someone’s home.




Wooden utensils at a fountain in a Japanese temple


What’s the etiquette for visiting shrines in Japan?


Ready to visit a Shinto shrine in Japan? Rituals are important, so here are our tips for what to do.



Pick the right entrance


When you’re approaching the torii gate, keep to the sides – the middle of the path is for kami. If you’re in doubt, look at what others are doing and copy them. You should bow once in front of the torii gate.

Shrines are considered sacred places, and you may see Shinto priests and maidens working inside.



Cleanse your hands and mouth


It’s important to cleanse yourself at the purification fountain before worshipping at the Shinto shrine.

  • Scoop up water in a ladle with your left hand, rinse your right hand, then vice versa
  • Finally, ladle some water into your cupped hand and use it to rinse your mouth
  • Avoid touching the ladle directly to your mouth, and spit out the water afterwards



Offer a coin, bow, and clap


Once you’re at the altar or offering hall, you should follow the correct ritual for prayer below.

  • Quietly toss a coin into the offering box – 5 yen is considered “good fate”
  • If there’s a bell or gong, ring it to greet the deity or spirit you’ll be praying to
  • Bow deeply twice, then clap your hands twice to show your appreciation
  • Keeping your hands together, offer a silent prayer to the sacred object
  • At the end of your prayer, give another deep bow and excuse yourself

Some Shinto shrines do the ritual slightly differently. It’s a good idea to watch other visitors.



Don’t visit if wounded or sick


Traditionally, you shouldn’t visit a Shinto shrine if you have an open wound, are ill, or are in mourning. Shrines are a place of purity, which explains Shinto funerals are rare (death is seen as impure).





Japanese temple and red autumn leaves



What’s the etiquette for visiting temples in Japan?


Visiting or staying at a Buddhist temple in Japan? There are key differences from visiting a shrine.



Remove your hat and shoes


Before entering a temple in Japan, remove your hat and shoes. There are designated areas to leave your shoes – it’s very rare for them to be stolen in Japan – and you can carry your headgear if preferred.



Pick the right entrance


Buddhist temple sanmon gates look more like buildings than torii gates. They have a roof, and often house statues of protective deities. Like entering a shrine, you should walk to the sides and bow before you enter.



Cleanse your hands and mouth


You do this in the same way as you would at a shrine, see above for the step-by-step instructions.



Burning incense


Incense is unique to Buddhist temples rather than Shinto shrines, so it’s a great experience to try.

  • Buy a bundle of incense sticks, usually provided within or near the temple
  • Light them yourself – avoid lighting them from other people’s burning sticks
  • Let them burn a few seconds, then wave your hand to extinguish (don’t blow)
  • Carefully place your sticks and enjoy, you can also fan smoke towards you



No clapping, less bowing


The prayer ritual for Buddhism in Japan differs from Shinto, but some elements are similar.

  • Quietly toss a coin into the offering box – 5 yen is considered “good fate”
  • If there’s a bell or gong, ring it a couple of times before you start praying
  • Bow deeply, but don’t clap your hands after – hold them together in prayer
  • Some sects of Buddhism chant or hold beads while praying (watch or ask)
  • After prayer, bow to thank Buddha, then once more to the sanmon gate


While inside a Buddhist temple, it goes without saying you should behave politely to any monks. Don’t try to touch or grab them for a selfie. Some temples allow you to stay with them, or offer meditation classes.


If you’re on a guided trip around Japan, or with friends, ask for their temple and shrine etiquette tips too.




Painted wooden slates (ema) at a Japanese shrine


Things to look out for in shrines and temples


While visiting shrines and temples in Japan, it helps to know the names of these things. There are often objects for tourists to buy, including luck charms, fortune-telling papers and wooden plaques for prayers.



Torii or Sanmon Gate – the main entrance to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple

Chozuya – the area for cleansing yourself before prayer with a fountain and ladles

O-mikuji – “sacred lot” a type of Japanese fortune-telling you can buy as paper strips

Ema – “picture horse” small wooden plaques where you can write wishes or prayers

Hamaya – “demon breaking arrows” sold in Shinto shrines, often around New Year

Omamori – amulets sold at both shrines and temples, used to ward off bad luck




Torii alleyway in Kyoto, Japan



5 amazing shrines to visit in Japan


Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo

One of Japan’s most famous shrines, dedicated to Emperor Meiji (1852-1912). Surrounded by a tranquil forest, despite being in the heart of Tokyo, it’s an unmissable stop and filled with antique treasures.


Ise Grand Shrine, Ise

A shrine complex with shrines dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu and Toyouke, the food goddess. Its main buildings are rebuilt every 20 years, to symbolise the Shinto belief of death and renewal in nature.


Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Famous for its thousands of red torii gates, this shrine also houses many fox statues – thought to be messengers of Inari. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and the shrine is surrounded by woodland hiking trails.


Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, Osaka

Dedicated to gods of the sea and sea travel, this ancient shrine was established in the 3rd century. One of the oldest and largest shrines in Japan, it’s a peaceful escape from the bustle of Osaka’s city streets.


Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

This shrine is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a famous samurai leader. If you’re a fan of the history of samurai, this vibrant shrine is a must-visit. Compared to more simple shrines, its decor is breathtaking.




Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo


5 amazing temples to visit in Japan


Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

One of the most beloved Buddhist temples in Japan, it is known for its stunning views towards Kyoto city. The temple is halfway up a mountain, has its own natural waterfall, and is over a thousand years old.


Todai-ji Temple, Nara

Home to many traditional Buddhist rituals, this huge temple was until recently the largest wooden building in the world. The temple houses a 15-metre Buddha statue and is next to Nara Park (famous for its deer).


Shitennoji Temple, Osaka

Founded in 593 and Japan’s oldest ‘official’ temple, some of the complex’s buildings have been built and rebuilt many times. As well as a 5-level pagoda, the grounds host a popular flea market once a month.


Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

One of Tokyo’s most significant temples, Senso-ji is a must-visit if you’re in the area. Colourful and photogenic, it’s extremely popular with tourists and has some wonderful souvenirs to take home.


Kongobu-ji Temple, Mount Koya

Part of the Kii Mountain Range UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Japan’s largest rock garden. Like many Buddhist temples in Japan, you can listen to monk sermons and join meditation sessions.



After reading our etiquette guide, we hope you feel more prepared to visit a shrine or temple in Japan. Take a look at our blog about national holidays in Japan, as you’ll have an idea of when things will be busiest.