You find a beautifully decorated building in Japan. You notice the place to wash your hands off to the side, and realize this must be a Japanese shrine. You go up to the offering box, throw your money in, and bow, clap, and pray before turning around. Japanese people are looking at you in confusion. You think, “What did I do wrong?? That’s how you pray at a shrine, right?” Yes! But you’re not at a shrine. You’re at a temple.
Don’t want this to happen to you? Don’t want to be THAT person standing awkwardly in front of a temple you just treated like a shrine? Keep reading, ’cause this article is for you!
So. Where to start. I guess the most basic difference between the two is that shrines are for practicing Shinto, the native religion of Japan, and temples are for practicing Buddhism. Just to make it clear, Shinto and Buddhism are TWO DIFFERENT RELIGIONS. While you will often find Shinto shrines in the same complexes as Buddhist temples and vice versa (due to Japan’s complicated history with the two religions), they are not the same thing. I won’t talk too much about the differences between Shinto and Buddhism here, as I don’t feel qualified to do so. However, if you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer 🙂
This article is for you to be able to identify whether something is a temple or a shrine so that you can act appropriately. I’ll start with what they have in common, then move to shrines and finally temples.
1. …will have offering boxes.
This is typically a big wooden box with slats on the top. Just throw your coins in (a 5 yen coin is perfect 🙂 ) before you pray.
2. …will have someplace to cleanse your hands and mouth.
While this is supposedly mostly a Shinto thing, I see it all the time at temples as well. The idea is that shrines and temples are sacred places, so you must purify yourself before entering the grounds. PLEASE don’t skip this step. It literally takes 10 seconds, but I see tourists pass by it all the time.
As for the order in which to purify, everyone follows a different order. The order I follow is this: pick up the ladle with your right hand. Get some water in it, then rinse your left hand, switch hands with the ladle, rinse your right hand, switch again, pour water in your left hand, drink it, spit it out NEAR you. Many rinsing areas have a place where the water collects. DO NOT spit it in that area. Spit it on the ground. Next, rinse your left hand again, then hold the ladle up so the rest of the water flows down the handle. It is good to note here that I have never been to a shrine or temple that has paper towels or something to dry your hands off after you’ve purified yourself (most bathrooms as well don’t have paper towels for your hands). Most Japanese people carry around a small hand towel for just such occasions, so I would bring/buy one yourself. They make good souvenirs!
So to summarize: left, right, mouth, left again, ladle. If you can’t remember, don’t worry! Many shrines/temples popular with tourists have signs near the purifying area telling you the order.
3. …can be beautifully decorated
Here, again, the shrines/temples popular with tourists are more likely to be elaborately decorated and well-maintained. In general, I think shrines are more eye-catching because they are typically covered in red, but temples are gorgeous too.
4. …will often have something to ring, like a bell.
I associate this more with temples than shrines, but I’ve been to a few shrines (mostly in Kyoto) which had bells as well. I’ll talk more about this in the next two sections.
5. …will have an area where charms and such are sold.
If you’re lucky, there will be English translations. If not, just hope you’re not that man that buys the charm for an easy childbirth and hangs it in his car, or the woman that buys one for fertility, even though she isn’t looking to have kids. There are charms for all sorts of things, such as luck on exams, safety while traveling/driving, health for a just-born baby, and many more (including the ones mentioned in the examples above). You COULD just not buy one at all, but I find that they’re good souvenirs to bring back home.
6. …could have a stamp （御朱印）.
I’m used to saying these are only at temples, but after getting one at a shrine…. I can no longer say it so unilaterally.
1. …will have jinjya or jingu in their name. （神社・神宮）
Jinjya literally means “place of the gods,” which is definitely what a shrine is! Here are some examples of shrines that use jinjya or jingu:
- Itsukushima Jinjya
- Yasaka Jinjya
- Meiji Jingu
- Ise Jingu
I’ve been to all of these listed above except Ise (which is on my list)!
Shrines can also have taisha in their name. Examples include:
- Fushimi Inari Taisha
- Izumo Taisha
- Suwa Taisha
- Kasuga Taisha
2. …will have a 鳥居 (torii gate).
Upon entering the grounds of a shrine, you’ll pass through a red torii gate. It separates the human realm from that of the divine, and the purification area is typically, but not always, before you go through the torii. Some of them grant good luck if you pass underneath (like the floating torii of Miyajima), and some shrines have not one but thousands of torii gates (*cough* Fushimi Inari *cough*).
3. …will have a lot of red.
Of course temples will have red, but with shrines it seems that everything is red. Torii gates are red, the buildings are often red, and statues will sometimes have knitted hats and bibs in….red. It is an important color in Shinto; apparently it repels demons and general evil. This website has a lot of cool information about the color red in Japanese mythology.
4. …will have two guardian statues of dogs/lions in the front.
5. …will be for a specific Shinto god.
There are literally THOUSANDS of gods in the Shinto religion, so every shrine will be dedicated to a specific one. The gods all represent different things, too, which is why people go to certain shrines at certain times, or to obtain certain blessings.
6. …require you to clap before you pray.
Remember all that complicated-ness about the purification? This part can get complicated too. Everyone does the praying process differently, but here’s what I do:
First, throw your money into the offering box. Next, if there’s a bell, ring it. Then clap twice (this is to get the god’s attention; they’re always busy!), deep bow twice, pray, bow once more, then leave. My friend and I did this routine when we went to a shrine a couple of weeks ago, and the Japanese people waiting behind us said 「すごい！」(Impressive!) so I guess we did it right haha. It’s always fun to see groups of people do this, because they do everything in perfect sync.
1. …will have -ji in their name. （寺）
Here are some examples:
However, a few take –dera instead:
2. …could have a pagoda.
Not all temples have a pagoda, but if there’s a pagoda… it’ll be with a temple.
3. …will have an incense burner.
The size of the incense area depends on the size of the temple. Larger temples will have larger incense burners and vice versa. The one in front of Zenkō-ji, for example, is large, but not as large as the one at Tōdai-ji. There will be a small area for you to get your incense (around 100 yen for a small group), then you light them and throw them all in the burner before wafting the smoke over you. Congratulations, you’ve been purified!
4. … could have a very large ornamental gate leading to the temple.
Instead of the torii gate, temples will often have a large, wooden gate at the front of the grounds. Housed under this gate can be two guardian deities which are usually carved from wood.
5. …are for the Buddha (or a Bodhisattva, or another Buddhist deity).
No matter who the temple is dedicated to (Buddha or another deity), there will be more than one statue in the temple. The biggest one is typically of the Buddha, and he is usually flanked by statues of other deities. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a temple that has only had one statue in it. Of course, some temples’ statues are larger than others (think Tōdai-ji), but there will always be more than one.
6. …don’t require you to clap.
Yes, here is where it could be embarrassing if you forget. At a temple, you’ll throw your money in the offering box, ring the bell (if there is one), then pray. NO CLAPPING. Generally speaking, temples are much more lax on the amount of bowing you do, so you can bow or not, doesn’t matter. Just don’t clap. Buddha is always observing so you don’t have to clap to get his attention.
Too much information? Don’t worry! If you’re nervous or unsure of what to do, hang back and watch what everyone else is doing. Even if you mess up, the majority of Japanese people will appreciate the effort. If you look super lost, someone may even help you through it!
Apparently I can’t make a proper table unless I pay…. So here is a simple one!
Jinjya or Jingu, sometimes Taisha –ji, sometimes –dera
Clap DON’T CLAP
Torii gates Big ornamental gate
dog/lion statues Pagodas and incense burners
LOTS of red —
For a specific Shinto god For the Buddha or another Buddhist figure
Now, it’s time to play shrine or temple! Using your now vast expertise and knowledge on the differences between shrines and temples, look at the four pictures below and guess which one you think they are!
The picture on the right isn’t much help unless you’re familiar with famous places in Kyoto; I just included it because I like it haha. The picture on the left, though, contains a hint…. I believe I spy a pagoda in the back!
Kinda hard to tell from random pictures, huh? For this one, your hint is its name: Meiji Jingu.
So, how’d you do? Think you got them right? Post your answers in the comments section and I’ll let you know how you did 🙂