How to Visit a Japanese Shrine – A Guide to Shrine Basics

  • Shrines and temples are beautiful touristy locations, but being sacred places of worship they are much more than a simple photo spot. Tourists are often scared not to offend the locals, so it’s best to learn the basic rules.

    Let’s take a look at some of the common items you will see upon your visit to a Japanese shrine and learn what they are for and what to do when you encounter them.

    Torii (Gates)

    These are the first thing you will notice when entering a shrine, as the name suggests, they are gates and are often found along the paths leading up to the entrance. They are also the easiest way to tell a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple apart – Torii are a Shinto symbol.

    While most shrines have wooden Torii, often painted orange/red with black accents, many shrines also have concrete versions. After all, wood can rot, but concrete is forever! Some shrines one Torii gate at the entrance, but some have lines and lines of gates forming something like a tunnel. These are usually in shrines dedicated to Inari, the fox deity. The Torii gates are donations and each one bears the donor’s name in black characters.

    These are beloved photo spots with a uniquely Japanese feel, and one of the most famous torii gates tunnel is the Fushimi Inari Shrine, in Kyoto. Westerners may be familiar with this row of torii in particular, due to it being featured in the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ or ‘Sayuri’ in Japanese, but it is also heavily featured in many travel ads about Japan, and it is all over Instagram! Taking photos with the Torii gates is considered OK, as long as you pay attention to your surroundings and don’t block other people from passing through. General good manners apply.

    Omikuji (Fortunes)

    Who doesn’t want to know what the future holds? Fame? Fortune? Perishing prematurely at the hands of deadly mochi rice cakes? Who knows? Oh, wait. The fortune does!

    Typically shrines offer paper fortunes in boxes, for a symbolic price. There are other options such as sticks, figures, love fortunes, etc. However, for the most part, you pay the stated amount (50 Yen – 200 Yen), stick your hand in, swirl it around, and grab the one that suits your fancy. Anyone is welcome to buy one or more fortunes, so don’t hesitate if you want one. However, be prepared that the majority of fortunes are only available in Japanese, so if you need to, bring a friend to help you figure out your destiny. Recently, some super popular tourist spots have been introducing English omikuji, so you can also try and find one.

    Depending on the person and area, it is believed that tying the good fortune to a shrine tree or rope will make it come true while tying a bad one will make it go away. Some people keep the good ones in their wallets and tie the bad ones to make them go away. Keeping the good one makes sense, as it can also double as a souvenir from Japan for visitors.

    Chozuya (Purification Fountain)

    These fountains found at the entrance of shrines serve for purification before entering, and range from ornate and beautiful to small and simple, depending on the shrine you visit. The rules, however, are universal. Pay attention! No one wants to be the heathen uncultured visitor who doesn’t know the etiquette!

    First, pick up the ladle with your right hand, and pour the purified water over your left hand. Then, switch hands, and purify your right hand. Finally, switch hands again, pour the water into your cupped left hand, take a mouthful, and swirl it around in your mouth. DON’T DRINK THE WATER! It is considered rude. Kamisama’s water is not made to be consumed! Swirl, spit (gracefully) on the rocks below, and be on your merry way. Replace the ladle of course, with your right hand after rinsing the ladle and handle. After all, no one likes a grubby ladle or a ladle thief! Especially at a place of holy worship!

    Honden (Main Halls)

    Now, you have made it to the shrine, all clean and purified, and good to go get your praying on! The next stop is the main hall with the voluntary offering box.
    Main halls, of course, vary from shrine to shrine. They can be tiny at local shrines, or all decked out and gorgeous at the more famous versions.

    You can visit the main halls from the outside, but usually, you cannot enter or take flash photos, unless you are getting blessed in the shrine personally or as part of your company tradition. Either way, entering may be permitted, but the flash photography is usually not.

    Saisenbako (Offering Boxes)

    These boxes are where you toss in your coins, before praying for good luck, passing a test, finding true love, and countless other wishes and prayers. The rules are fairly simple: toss, bow, and pray. However, the exact protocol is: throw in the coin -> bow twice -> clap twice -> moment of silence/prayer -> bow once at the end.

    The standard amount for offerings is 5 Yen (an especially lucky coin), 50 Yen, or 100 Yen. Of course, you can toss in as much as you like, 500 Yen coins and bills included. Five Yen translates into ‘go en’ – roughly translated into luck or fate, fifty yen translates into ‘go jyu en – so just multiply the previous by ten. Other than that, there isn’t really a meaning to the other amounts.

    General Rules


    Unlike places of worship in other countries, clothing rules are not as strictly defined and controlled in Japan. You can wear what you want, but preferably nothing too flashy or revealing, to keep things respectful.

    Make sure to check for sign banning photography, as it might be banned in same areas in the shrine complex, and not banned in others.
    When photography is allowed, still make sure not to block paths and inconvenience others. Also, don’t be the jerk with the selfie stick. A lot of shrines forbid them, or, at least, frown upon them nowadays.

    Finally, don’t walk to the shrine down the middle of the path! Choose the left, or the right. The middle is where Kamisama walks. You don’t want to go getting in the way of god’s footsteps!

    In summary, enjoy the shrines, the atmosphere, the culture, and the chance to take pictures of the glorious surroundings. It is a once in a lifetime experience you won’t forget!

    *Featured Image from AC photo
    : AC photo/