When it comes to planning a trip to Japan many people will prioritize seeing the many shrines and temples that are scattered across the country. They are as large as some university campuses and as small as a shed in the side of the road. The difference is in what they are used for, and how you are supposed to interact with them. They will have distinct looks and even have specific spots that they must occupy to be effective. It is good to know the difference and how to interact with them accordingly.
First of all, the size of a shrine is typically much smaller than that of a temple. Shrines are usually put into place as a means to ward off spirits, to use as a tribute to good deities, or bad ones, and to signify the resting place of loved ones or a particularly well-known individual. You will find shrines everywhere in Japan and each one will have its own meaning for being erected. It is common to be walking on one of the streets in Tokyo to find a small shrine nestled between two ten-story buildings. The shrines will have some kind of tribute given to them such as drinks, mostly alcohol, small foods like fruits, and incense being burned at different times of the day. You can offer small tributes as well since they are meant to please the spirit or deity that is supposed to encompass the area. You do not pray or worship at these places, they are only meant to hold an item or a spirit.
Temples, on the other hand, are made to accommodate large groups of people and are used as a place of worship. Every town and city will at least one major temple in it and it will be used for major events as well as everyday prayers and visitors. You will typically have the main shrine which will be closed on most days with a money box and a large rope with a bell tied to it. There you will offer some money, it is customary to give a five-yen piece but if you don’t have it you can use other coins, and then your prayers as after you ring the bell. There is an area at each one that allows you to clean your hands and rinse your mouth before praying to the temple. This is meant as a way to cleanse yourself before performing your prayer so your prayers can be heard more clearly by the gods or spirits. There are shrines on the grounds as well, so you can see the other spiritual areas of the temples. Some temples are also used as training grounds for monks that are aspiring to become a full-fledged clergyman. They live on the grounds and take care of the area as they pray and perform duties meant for monks. You can hear them chanting their mantras at different times of the day, and they hold special sessions that are open to the public.
Look but Don’t Touch
When you go to the main shrines, especially the larger ones with ornate paintings inside the main halls, you will see a lot of signs that tell you to not take any pictures. Most of the artwork of the items in the shrine or sacred or blessed and are not meant to be shown to everyone in the world. If you simply look around at each place you will see when it is or isn’t ok to take photos. Everything on the grounds is usually ok though, and most places encourage you to take lots of photos to spread the word of their temples.
In the shrines are sacred objects, and they can be statues, weapons, or trinkets with great value. It shouldn’t have to be said, but these are very important items and should not touch them. The only people allowed to handle them are the priests or the people hired to do maintenance or the area. If you don’t listen to the rules you will be asked to leave immediately and can even be banned from the temple if it is an egregious offense. Be mindful of where you are and try to follow the rules to the best of your ability.
Your Fortune Will be Told
Temples in Japan will usually have an area that allows you to pay for a fortune. It will usually use the honor system, in which there is no machine to put money in to get the fortune and you just pay because it is the right thing to do. Some temples only have their fortunes in Japanese, but the larger more popular ones have started to put other languages on them, and they have gained popularity because of it. You can get a few kinds of fortunes ranging from the best to the worst. If you happen to get a bad fortune you can tie it to a small shrine board of tree and pray for your bad luck to be taken from you by the shrine deity. This is a very interesting way in which they play off of each other, and it is a reason why they are so intertwined with each other’s existence.
The shrines in the country will have their own events or festivals attached to them. There may be times throughout the year that people will give extra tithes to the shrine spirits, but it isn’t a large affair. The temples are where the festivities will occur, and they are used many times throughout the year. The biggest of these events is New Years, and every temple becomes crowded with people. It is a tradition to ring in the new year with the temple bells and try to get rid of all of the bad energy you gained in the previous year. You can do this by praying at the main hall and offering to the shrines on the temple grounds. There are many other events and each area will have its own festivities that you can join in.
It is one of the best things to see in the country, and they are still used widely by the people of Japan. Try your best to follow what the others around you are doing, and don’t worry if you make mistakes from time to time. They will be understanding if you aren’t perfectly following every small rule, and some will teach you how to pray or make offerings correctly. Shrines and temples can make for a fun way to explore Japan through its cultural history, and you can use them as landmarks for your vacation travels.