Practical Facts: How to Visit a Temple

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

Kyoto, with just 1.5 million people, is home to some 400 Shinto shrines and 1,600 Buddhist temples. If you’re paying a visit to Japan’s former imperial capital, it’s likely you’ll be visiting both. Though Buddhist temples are found in China and Japan, visitor practices differ enormously. Here’s our guide to how to visit temples and shrines in China and Japan.

Lama Temple, Beijing

“Temple etiquette depends on the religion, country, or region,” says docent Misha Tadd, who leads our Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and religion walks in Beijing. The disruption of the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent loss of traditional practices have caused temple etiquette to vanish in China, according to Tadd. In China, one never removes one’s shoes at a temple. At some, it would not be surprising to see visitors chatting on their mobile phones, which would be enormously taboo in Japan. Tadd adds that “almost every temple in China is first a tourist attraction and second a place of worship, though there appears to be change underway as more people become devoted to Buddhism and Daoism.”

Incense, Tadd says, is popular throughout Asia, though its form and exact usage can vary. In China for example, “at important temples, like the Lama Temple in Beijing, the government encourages people use environmentally safe incense, and only light three sticks to limit the amount of smoke added to the already polluted city. Even so, people still burn entire bundles because traditional Chinese Buddhism operates according to a quantitative system of merit. The more numerous your acts of goodness the greater your reward in this life and the next. Thus, more is always better.”

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto © François Rejeté

Visitors to temples throughout Japan are required to remove their shoes. Our Kyoto docents tell us that it’s considered impolite to walk on tatami mats in your bare feet due to sweat and dirt. If you’re visiting temples during the warmer months, be sure to pack a pair of socks. Likewise in cold weather, your feet will be freezing without your shoes, so wear thick socks or bring a second pair.

For Japanese practitioners of Buddhism and Shinto, ritual cleansing is an important part of visiting a temple. At Buddhist temples, or near the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, you’ll see tsukubai, a basin, usually stone filled with water from a bamboo pipe. Visitors fill the bamboo scoop with water and then wash their hands and rinse their mouths. At Shinto shrines, misogi is practiced; at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple, devout practitioners will plunge into the waterfall, though most visitors will go for a sip instead.

Shide at Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine

At temples and shrines in Japan, there is usually a kiosk or small shop selling charms and amulets (omamori) thought to bring protection and luck. Also available at Shinto shrines are ema, small wooden plaques on which visitors write messages, usually wishes or prayers. If you’re not going to Kyoto, you can find see these and hang your own at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where you’ll find many written in English. Strings of 1,000 paper cranes in rainbow of colors can often be found hanging by ema; they’re believed to bring good luck for life. Shide, zigzag-shaped white paper streamers are also common, and sometimes people will write prayers, wishes, and declarations. Reading the messages left by others can be very touching and is an experience unique to temples in Japan.