One of the best ways to experience the rich culture of Japan is to visit some of its countless temples (tera) and shrines (jinjya). Whether Buddhist or Shinto, these holy sites each have their own unique story and architectural details and are fascinating places to spend some time.
Like any place of worship, it's important to know the basics of etiquette so both you and the visitors around you have the best experience possible. Here are a few tips I've found most useful based on my visits to Japanese temples and shrines:
1. Be prepared to remove your shoes.
While the amount of access you'll have to the inner rooms will vary from site to site, you may be asked to remove your shoes. Make sure to wear a comfortable pair that can be slipped off easily. I usually carry some socks in my bag for additional comfort.
2. Pay attention to notes about cameras.
Pictures are typically permitted of the structure as a whole, but once you approach the sanctuary, photos are not usually allowed, out of respect for the souls enshrined there. Be sure to look for signs and be ready to put your camera away.
3. Keep noise to a minimum.
As many people come to these sites to pray, avoid loud chatter and keep your phone off or on silent while visiting, especially when approaching the sanctuary.
4. Bring change.
Consider bringing some coins with you to make a donation for the upkeep of the temple or shrine.
5. Clean your hands.
Before entering a large temple, there often will be a place to cleanse your hands and mouth. The fresh water provided prepares you to offer up a prayer or your wishes that the clergy may offer up.
6. Do your research.
Study up on the history of the temple or shrine you're planning to visit ahead of time. Knowing what this site represents allows you to better appreciate it and behave accordingly.
7. Be mindful of other visitors.
These sites can be very crowded. While it's certainly appropriate to take your turn, remember there are many other people who would like to get up close to see what's going on or offer a prayer.
8. Be respectful of the grounds.
As many of these structures are very old or have been rebuilt due to fires, it's important not to do any harm. Don't leave any trash behind and, of course, no smoking.
Whether you're amid all the hustle and bustle of Tokyo or enjoying a more rural part of the country, the fact you're never far from one of these beautiful places is one of the aspects I enjoy most about living in Japan. No matter your personal beliefs, visiting a temple or shrine allows you a moment to reflect and be inspired. When in doubt, observe the behaviors of those around you or ask a member of the staff for help.