Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

5 Fun and Interesting Things to Do at Japanese Temples and Shrines

Japanese temples and shrines are not just beautiful to look at they’re also a chance to take part in some of Japan’s traditional and cultural activities. Though the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines do have some differences, the activities themselves are quite similar. Here are 5 different activities you can partake in at either a temple or a shrine.

1. Get an Omikuji or Fortune

Get an Omikuji or Fortune.

One of the most popular activities to partake in when visiting a shrine or temple is to discover what the future has in store for you with a Japanese omikuji. Omikuji are traditional fortune telling strips and though most of the fortunes are in Japanese only, they are still a lot of fun (plus below is an easy translation of the main fortunes)! The fortunes range from 大吉 (great blessing) to 大凶 (great curse)!

Finding out your fortune is not a free process but it isn’t costly at all with most places charging only 100 or 200 yen. The traditional way to obtain your fortune is to first shake a cylinder box full of bamboo sticks and draw one from the box. Each stick has a number written on it and it is this number that will determine which fortune strip you receive. Next you must tell your number to a priest or miko located in the booths nearby who will then give you your corresponding omikuji. On the other hand, in some temples or shrines you must get your fortune slip from a numbered draw with the same number that you drew from the omikuji box. After getting your slip you may open it and see which fortune you received!

大吉 (dai-kichi) great blessing
中吉 (chū-kichi) middle blessing
小吉(shō-kichi) small l blessing
吉 (kichi) blessing
半吉 (han kichi) half-blessing
末吉 (su-e kichi) future blessing
末小吉 (su-e shō-kichi) future small blessing
凶 (kyō) curse
小凶 (shō-kyō) small curse
半凶 (han-kyō) half-curse
末凶 (sue-kyō) future curse
大凶 (dai-kyō) great curse

As previously mentioned, the fortunes are mostly written in (very traditional) Japanese and so are hard to interpret for those who are not Japanese speakers. The general fortunes however can be easily translated and here’s a brief translation of each one:

After you find out your fortune, depending on whether it was good or bad, you have a few options of what to do with your fortune. If you received a bad fortune, traditionally you are supposed to tie up the fortune on a pole or a tree in order to stop it from coming true! If you received a good fortune you are supposed to take it home or keep it close to you at all times, e.g. in your purse, however some people still like to tie up the good fortunes too!

2. Buy an Omamori

Buy an Omamori. Photo by Dariusz Jemielniak ("Pundit") on Wikimedia Commons.

Omamori are traditional Japanese good luck charms that can be found at temples and shrines. You can buy a charm for yourself or as a gift for friends or family. The charms come in many varieties, all with a specific purpose. All kinds contain a small prayer inside that is wrapped in a silk cloth, stamped with the temple or shrine’s name and have a delicate thread so they can be hung. The charms can be hung on the outside of your bag, on your phone, purse or in your home and should never be opened! The cost of Omamori ranges from 300 to 1500 yen, depending on the size, place of purchase and purpose.

Photo by FlipTable on Wikipemedia Commons.

Some omamori also expire (typically after one year) and once that happens you are supposed to return it to the shrine or temple you bought it from and receive a new one. Many people, however, don’t actually practice this and end up keeping their omamori for a long time.

Some popular kinds of omamori that you can purchase are:

開運 (kaiun)for general good luck
学業成就 (gakugyō jōju)for education and academic success
商売繁盛 (shōbai hanjō) for wealth and business
縁結び (enmusubi) for love
厄除け(yakuyoke) for protection from evil
勝守 (katsumori) for success
幸せ (shiawase) for happiness
健康 (kenkou) for health

3. Make a Prayer or Offering

Though this may seem like an activity only believers would do, even if you don’t believe, it is still a good activity to take part in that shows respect whilst visiting a shrine or temple. There are, however, several rules to be followed when praying at a shrine or temple and its best to follow them so as not to make a faux pas or cause offense.

Before praying, you should first cleanse yourself at the temizuya (wash basin), usually near the entrance. The way to do this is to take a ladle into your right hand, scoop some water and lightly pour over your left hand. Then switch hands and repeat. Finally, return the ladle to the right hand, place water in your left hand and rinse your mouth completing the cleansing process. After cleansing yourself, you can make your way to the main hall to make your prayer.

Prayer etiquette differs slightly for shrines and temples. For shrines you first make a monetary offering into the offertory box (usually 5 yen coins are used but any coins and even notes are ok). After this you can ring the bell once so as to get the attention of the God. Next you must bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice and place your palms together to make your prayer. After praying, you must bow once more.

If praying at a temple again, you must make a monetary offering first. Next place your palms together and bow once and make your prayer, after finishing your prayer bow once more. Unlike shrines there is no need to clap twice. As for ringing the bell well this depends on the temple. Some allow visitors to ring the bell whereas others strictly prohibit it with signs warning against it.

4. Write Your Wish On An Ema

Write your wish on an ema.

At any shrine (and sometimes temples) you will be sure to see a plethora of ema filled with personalized wishes. Ema are wooden plaques that are dedicated to Gods at shrines. These dedications are made in hopes that the wish written upon them will come true. Making a wish to a God is not strictly for Japanese people and foreign visitors too can write down a wish in their own language! To make your wish you must first buy one of the special plaques. This can be purchased from either one of the shrine/temple booths or by putting money in a box and selecting one yourself. Ema differ in prices but are usually from 500 to 1000 yen. Next you will need to write down your wish (pens are provided). There is no limit or rules as to what you can write and so pretty much any wish is ok, just be aware that others will be able to read it! 

On some ema you must also fill out your name and address on the back and the wish on the front. On some kinds you are also free to draw or decorate the front picture. Whereas for others only the wish is written on the back and the front picture is left clean. (If unsure you can check the ema that have already been written!) After writing your wish all that is left to do is to hang it up and hope it comes true!

Read more: Ema Boards: Meaning and Use

5. Burn Some Osenko

Burn some Osenko.

Osenko is special Japanese incense that is burned and placed in a large incense holder at some temples (it is not found at shrines). Taking part in this activity is pretty easy. Firstly you must purchase a bundle of incense and light it close to the incense holder. After letting it burn for a few seconds fan the flames out by hand and place it in the incense holder (Note: Do not blow it out!) After placing it in the holder you can fan the smoke from your incense towards your body and since it is said to have healing properties it is recommended to fan towards any areas of pain or injuries!

BONUS: Get a Goshuin Stamp

Goshuin (御朱印) are special unique stamps that you can get at many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan. A goshuin is actually composed of one or more red ink stamps along with black hand-written characters, and can be a great memento. You can ask for one at the beginning of your visit and it will be ready for you to pick up at the end.

For a lot more about goshuin, see: Red Seals and Black Ink: A Beginner’s Guide to Shrine Stamps

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