Etiquette at Japan’s Temples and Shrines 

If You’ve Seen One, You Haven’t Seen Them All – 158,783 To Be Somewhat Exact.

My head spun like a pig on a spit walking through Japan. In every direction Temples, Shrines and Pagodas amassed the streets like Cafes in Paris. Some overflowed with people, while others had only a few patrons. Whether they were located in a busy plaza or nestled in the forest, my soul immediately became calm and centered and the noise of Japan faded into the background.

The first few days of visiting Temples and Shrines I politely observed and watched the rituals of what to do before you enter and how to observe while inside. By the end of my trip, it became second nature that I would I assist other newbies. Of course, there is no requirement to pray and observe, just politely enter and walk around. If you are interested in learning the etiquette, below is a quick guideline as the praying process is different for Temples and Shrines.



Shinto is practiced at a Shrine and is characterized by a “torii” gate at the entrance. At the purification fountain (temizuya) near the Shrines entrance, fill up one of the ladles and rinse both of your hands. Fill the ladle again and pour some of the water into one of your cupped hands, rinse your mouth, then spit out onto the ground. If it makes you uncomfortable, you can skip the rinse. This purification process is to clean your body and mind before worship. When you are at the altar, you can throw a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, bow again and pray. Some Shrines provide a gong, which you can use before you say your quick prayer. You may notice the number of bows and hand claps differ between Shrines. Not to worry. All are correct and appreciated.



Buddhism is practiced at a Temple and is characterized by a “sanmon” gate at the entrance. Temples are not as strict as Shrines, therefore there is not one correct way of visiting them. If a Temple has a temizuya, a water purification basin, purify your hands and mouth in the same way you would at a Shrine. Toss a coin in a saisen, a box with a top that looks like a BBQ grate, then join your hands in prayer.



Pagodas are one of the most beautiful Japanese buildings to view up close. Unfortunately, most people today are not allowed to enter as they house sacred relics in very little indoor space. Therefore there is no etiquette rule, just enjoy their grandiose style. Whether they are carved out of stone or built from wood, the tiered tower and multiple eaves create a palm tree like element. Most Pagodas consist of 5 tiers which represent earth, water, fire, wind, and sky and ascend from large to small. They are topped with a decorated Sorin, a spiral-like shaft. As Pagodas are mainly associated with Buddhism, you can find them at some of Japan’s Temples. 

Miyajima Island


Mt. Koya