During my time living in Japan, I’ve found that many people coming to this country want to act in a respectful manner when they visit, but that they don’t really know where to start.
It’s understandable! What is completely acceptable in one country can be quite rude in another, and when you add in unique places or events that don’t exist in a tourist’s home country it can lead to all sorts of confusion. If you make those places or events religious in nature, then there is the rare opportunity to really offend your Japanese host family, flatmates, or business colleagues.
Visiting temples and shrines falls squarely into this last category, so check out this short guide for some pointers or what to do and not to do before you go.
How do I Show Respect at a Shrine or Temple? “No Shoes Allowed” 土足厳禁 Is Not Optional
We’ll start with this general cultural rule that you often see posted in both shrines and temples where you have the chance to go inside.
If you see the above sign posted, or you see lots of shoes lined up outside, you must take off yours as well. A more accurate translation would be “Dirty Shoes Strictly Banned.”
Traditionally a woman’s kimono would be worn long and would sweep across the floor in wealthier homes, and even in a farmer’s hut the tatami floor would be kept clean as this was also where the futons were laid out to sleep at night. This aversion to dirt coming indoors has become a cultural concept, one that is non-negotiable.
On a related note, if you’re following a path that will take you out a different exit, look around for plastic bags at the entrance to put your shoes in as you walk through the building. Also, don’t ever stack your shoes on top of someone else’s or scrape mud or dirt off onto the steps of the building.
Important point for showing respect at a shrine or temple – washing Your Hands at a Shinto Shrine
The idea of purity is also central to Shinto, one of the native religious beliefs of Japan, and the source of the many shrines found all over the country. When you walk up to a shrine, you will always find a water basin to one side where small wooden dippers are placed above the water, this is where there is a simple ritual for cleansing yourself before entering the spiritually pure shrine grounds.
You must take the dipper in your right hand and us this to pour water over your left hand. After this you must switch to the other hand and wash your right hand before switching back to your right hand and pouring a little water into your left hand. This is followed by touching your hand to your lips, or alternatively you can swish the water around in your mouth before spitting it back out. Finally hold the dipper up vertically with both hands so the water drains out. During all of this make sure you’ve stepped back a bit so the water doesn’t fall back in the basin.
Do foreign tourists have to do this? Think of it as less a religious act than a respectful one: “When in Rome…”. However, even if you choose to forego washing your hands, please treat the area with respect.
Showing Respect at Temples and Shrines
This is true for shrines as well, but it’s important to remember that no matter how exotic or different a temple may look from places you have seen back home or elsewhere, it’s still primarily a place of worship for believers and at times the final resting place for their family members.
To show respect, dress conservatively on the day you plan to visit a temple: for ladies that means no bare shoulders, obvious cleavage, or short hems. For men, trousers are better than shorts. Both genders should ideally remove any hats they’re wearing before entering the building.
Don’t touch the head of any Buddha statue or walk up onto the raised platform you will most likely find further inside. It’s also respectful to bow to the main statue as you come in and again as you leave.
You should actually also do this with the torii, the large and usually red gates outside of Shinto shrines, by moving off to the side and bowing before entering and leaving. You don’t enter directly through the exact centre of the gate because it’s considered to be reserved for the shinto gods, you should always be a little off-centre, i.e. a little to the left or right of the middle of the gate.
For anyone with strong personal religious beliefs, please understand this bow is not religious worship, but a Japanese cultural sign of respect, just as the members of staff at the hotel aren’t worshipping you when they bow to you but showing their respect to you as a customer.
An important reminder about showing respect at a shrine or temple is being careful of who you copy.
Over the years that I have lived in and travelled around Japan, I have seen some pretty gauche behavior at shrines and temples, some of it coming from non-Japanese Asian tourists and at times even Japanese people themselves.
Memorable incidents include one teenager using the sacred mirror on a Shinto altar to fix his hairstyle, another one sticking his head into a covered cauldron used for burning incense sticks to heat up the styling wax in his hair, and a woman climbing over a “No Entry” railing to have her picture taken in an interior room full of fragile antiques. All three of these people were Japanese.
Sadly, in the last case, once some other foreign tourists saw this woman doing it they all joined in too, probably assuming that if she was doing it it had to be okay to do as well.
In many cases if you use common sense you can see which Japanese people are modeling good behavior and which are not: if it wouldn’t work in your own religion’s place of worship back home, it wouldn’t work in a Japanese shrine or temple either.
What does it all come down to? Watch for posted signs, try your best to follow local customs, be respectful, and you can relax and enjoy your visit to any temple or shrine in Japan without fear of major social gaffes.