Visiting a temple or a shrine in Japan is a very common thing. It is very cheap as they usually don’t charge you any money to visit. The biggest challenge comes in what to do when you do visit a shrine, and learning the differences. The first thing to learn is the differences between a temple and a shrine. The basic difference is the religion. A temple is generally associated with Buddhism and a shrine is associated with Shintoism. Shinto is a Japanese religion that worships various deities and people. Buddhism and Shintoism had been intertwined since Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late 600s. In the 1800s, during the Meiji Restoration period, the two religions were split and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were no longer allowed to function as one unit. This split can easily be seen in various locations around Japan where you will see a major Buddhist temple and a small Shinto shrine next to it. The opposite also occurs. This makes it very difficult to differentiate between the two and even scholars can have a difficult time if all the information was removed. The easiest way, aside from reading the name, is to look inside the main hall. If you see a Buddhist statue, you are in a temple. If you see an elaborate room with gold leaf or other things scattered about, you are probably in a shrine. This is not to say all temples and shrines are like this, but it is an easy way to guess which one is which if you don’t know the name or kanji to differentiate the two.
Before entering a temple or shrine, you are greeted by a large font of water and ladles. This is the purification, or washing, font. It is a simple task where you must wash yourself to become pure. It is akin to dipping your fingers in the holy water and making a sign of the cross as you enter a Christian church. The process is a little different. The strict rules state that you grab a ladle by your right hand, fill it with water and proceed to rinse your left hand followed by the right. Be sure to pour the water into the trough and not back into the font. I’m sure I must have done this by mistake the first time. Put a little water into your left hand and slurp it up. You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to, and you can spit it out into the trough next to the font. Afterwards, rinse your left hand again and place the ladle in its original location. It is a very simple process that takes seconds to do but can mystify people who have never seen it or prepared for it before. I remember my first time doing this and I had no clue as to what to do. Even Japanese people don’t know the “proper” way to do it. The best thing to do is just rinse your hands and finish up. I don’t recommend drinking the water, although it is usually safe to do so. I do put the water in my mouth but I never drink it. There is also no obligation to doing this every time. Think of it as if you enter a church. If there is holy water, you don’t have to dip your fingers in it, but to be respectful to the religion, you should.
The prayer is where things get more complicated and diverse. In a temple, you generally only have a prayer offering box. When you go to a shrine, things can change a little. Shrines tend to have a type of noise maker over the offering box. It is typically either a gong or a rattle of some sort. The gong and rattle are located near the roof and a large rope is connected to it. When praying, the first step is to throw your money into the box. To be lucky, you should use a coin that has a hole in it. In Japan, 5 and 50 yen coins are lucky. 500 yen is good too, but I feel it isn’t as lucky as there is no hole in the actual coin. Once the money is in the box, you can shake the rope and make some noise. If there is no rope, you can skip this step. Take a step back if necessary and bow 2 times, followed by clapping 2 times. After the second clap, keep your hands together and make a prayer or wish. Bow one more time and you are finished. Most Japanese people aren’t religious, rather they are more superstitious than anything else. They tend to pray for luck and money but most people don’t actually believe in the religion they are praying to. It’s similar to having a lucky doll when writing a test.
Japanese people can act very superstitious about religion. You can purchase a variety of lucky amulets from temples and shrines that will protect you on a journey, bring you good health, or help you with a test. While some temples will offer lucky amulets, the amulets are almost always exclusive to shrines. Most of these amulets are good for one year, after which they need to be “recharged”. Many people will purchase one each year and return it to the shrine they purchased it from. If you want to recharge it, you must go to the original shrine you bought it from, which can make things a little difficult if you are just visiting Japan or you purchase it from a small shrine in a remote location. Some people do return to the original temple but the majority don’t. If you don’t want the amulet anymore, especially if the power has run out, you can return it to any shrine, especially during the new year’s festivities. They usually have large boxes where you can toss your lucky amulets in for recycling or ritual burning. Be sure that you don’t open the amulets or the power can either run out or turn to bad luck. I have heard stories, first hand, of people having their amulets opened as they travel through airport security. Think of asking a Hindu to take off their turban. Opening a lucky amulet, in a religious sense, is similar to taking off a turban or even a hijab.
Both temples and shrines have “omikuji” or fortunes. These are pieces of paper that tell you if you have good or bad luck, and to what degree. There are roughly 9 levels. There are 3 each for good luck, bad luck, and mixed luck. The most interesting way to get your luck is a sort of lottery system. There is a large container that is either cylindrical or hexagonal in shape. You shake this and try to get a stick through a small hole at the top. Once you get a stick, it will have a number on it. That number will tell you which fortune you can receive. Sometimes they have a letter instead. Put the stick back into the container and pick up your fortune from the corresponding drawer. Unfortunately, most fortunes are in Japanese only, but a few places such as Sensoji in Asakusa have Englilsh fortunes. The other way to get a fortune is to dig around a box. Some shrines have boxes where you can dig through many fortunes and hope you get a good one. You can also get them from vending machines, but there isn’t much fun in that. Once you get your fortune, you have to tie it somewhere in the temple or shrine. There are usually racks where you can do this or a tree where many others have done the same. You can easily find the location by looking around the temple or shrine. For those who have the best luck possible, you actually put it in your wallet and keep it for a year. The reasoning for leaving the fortune at the shrine is to prevent the bad luck from following you home, although with any good luck, I don’t see the point in leaving it there.
Leaving the shrine is much easier. Look at the exit and walk that way. There are actually a lot of things you can do at the temples and shrines that most people don’t know about. Most temples and shrines offer personalized writing and stamps. It is relatively unknown but you can buy a special stamp book from any temple or shrine and pay a small fee for one of the priests to write the name of the shrine and put the official stamp inside the book. This book is a record of your pilgrimage to visit various temples and shrines around Japan. It makes a great souvenir as well, even if you can’t read it properly. Making notes of this is good enough. You can also buy are prayer beads or rosaries. These are available at Buddhist temples only. Unfortunately I am not familiar with how they work, but they are a nice accessory. As I said, there are many other things you can do, and even I am constantly discovering new things about temples and shrines. For a typical tourist, the information here is more than enough to keep you satisfied. For a resident, just enjoy the adventure.
Shrine and Temple Information:
General Information: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/pilgrimages-pilgrims-japan.html
Another account into Stamp Books: http://japanlifeandreligion.com/2010/04/12/tales-of-a-buddhist-pilgrim-me/