Let me briefly describe essential steps and manners concerning visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan. While there is no strict dress code when visiting shrines and temples, it is recommended to be appropriately dressed to show respect at a place of worship.
How to visit a temple
Behave calmly and respectfully. Show your respect by making a short prayer in front of the sacred object. Do so by throwing a coin into the offering box, followed by a short prayer.
At some temples, visitors burn incense in large incense burners. Purchase a bundle, light them, let them burn for a few seconds, and then extinguish the flame by waving your hand at it rather than blowing it out. Finally, put the incense into the incense burner and make a short prayer. Some people fan some smoke towards themselves for healing purposes; for example, the fan smoke towards their shoulder if they have an injured shoulder.
When entering temple buildings, you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance or take them with you in plastic bags provided at some temples. Wear nice socks or bring a pair for indoor use if you are not wearing socks. Remove hats.
Photography is usually permitted on the temple grounds but is often forbidden inside the buildings. Look out for signs or ask the temple staff when in doubt.
Incense burner at Sensoji Temple
How to visit a shrine
Behave calmly and respectfully. Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound, or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity. Avoid walking in the middle of the road, but keep to the sides instead, as the center is meant for the deities to pass.
At the purification fountain near the shrine’s entrance, please take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse your left and right hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to put water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. Do not return any water from the ladle into the fountain, but dispose of it next to the fountain. It is advisable to have a handkerchief to dry your hands afterward. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.
At the offering hall, throw a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, pray for a few seconds, and bow once more. If there is some bell or gong, use it before the entire procedure.
Photography is usually permitted at shrines, except inside the buildings. Look out for signs or ask the shrine staff when in doubt.
Ladles at Ise Shrine