Ultimate Guide to Shrines and Temples in Tokyo

By Nora W | August 30, 2021 

Visiting shrines and temples in Japan can seem daunting because there are traditions, practices, and rules specific to Japanese culture and religion. Perhaps you're interested in visiting a shrine, but don't actually know the difference from a temple and are afraid to wear the wrong outfit? Or maybe you're invited to join a Japanese family for a temple visit but are afraid you'll offend them by not knowing the proper etiquette? Fear not, because in this guide we will explain all the customs and features of shrines and temples plus where to find the best ones to visit in Tokyo. 

Also check out our main page for more tips and guides to life in Tokyo.

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    buddhist temple in tokyo

    What is the difference between a temple and a shrine?

    Don't be ashamed if you don't have the answer to this yet. It's very common not to know the difference between a temple and a shrine, especially since there are so many in Japan. In this section, we'll explain the differences.

    What it comes down to is the following: a temple is Buddhist and a shrine is Shintoist. Temples are larger complexes with incense burners, multiple buildings, and often there's a cemetery attached. Multiple Buddhist statues adorn the place and it's believed that the spirit of Buddha lives in these. Monks live and train at temples, guide meditation, and prayer, and produce art.

    Shrines, on the other hand, are indicated by the big red torii gates so quintessential to Japanese culture. Torii represent the gates between this world and the world of the spirits. It's said that these spirits reside in objects within the shrine's building. Shrines are located on grounds where sacred ceremonies used to take place.

    Why are there so many shrines and temples in Japan?

    So, you know the differences between them in their religious specificities, but this still doesn't explain why Japan has so many temples and shrines to begin with and where the belief in these deities stems from.

    Japan has a very long history with both Buddhism and Shintoism. Even if most Japanese people don't actually out themselves as religious, the majority of the Japanese population will still celebrate holidays and pray at temples and shrines because of the longstanding traditions and beliefs.

    In fact, religious practices are infused in Japanese daily life and extremely important to understand if you want to communicate effectively and respectfully with Japanese people, be that in making friends, business deals, building a house, or going to a wedding.

    Want to know more about Japanese culture? Also check out on Japan Switch: 
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    Ultimate Guide to Japanese Omiyage


    Coexistence of buddhism and shintoism temples

    Coexistence of two religions: Buddhism and Shintoism


    Buddhism in Japan was introduced via Korea and China over the Silk Road in the 6th Century CE and focuses on the deep understanding of oneself and the world. There are different branches or schools. The Zen Buddhism school is probably the most popular and common in Japan, meaning most temple complexes will be zen. It addresses simplicity in all things and focuses on nature and one’s inner self.


    Shintoism is indigenous and therefore as old as Japanese culture itself. It’s dedicated to kami or multiple gods or spirits that can be as little as a spirit residing in a pebble to the mighty Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. There are countless different kami and typically a shrine is dedicated to one in specific.

    The Shinto philosophy relies on the “four affirmations”

    1. Tradition and family, which entails filial piety and respect for the ancestors 
    2. Love and nature, which involve a harmonious existence with nature. According to Shinto belief, every rock, plant, animal, and stream has a kami that should be treated with respect to keeping them appeased.
    3. Physical cleanliness, which incorporates purification rituals but also overall good hygiene, which is why you'll want to wash your hands before entering a shrine (see more on etiquette later)
    4. Matsuri or festivals that are in celebration of the kami. These are held year-round but most popular in summer!

    Because Buddhism has a lot of adaptable features, it was easy to reconcile with Shintoism, which is how the two go hand in hand upon Buddhist introduction in the 6th Century CE. This process of amalgamation between Buddhism and Shintoism is called 神仏習合 (shinbutsu shūgō) and started even before big Buddhist statues and temples were erected. During the Heian period from the 9th Century, their coexistence became so normal that Shinto gods came to be seen as incarnations of the Buddha. 

    buddha statue in a temple in japan

    Buddhism and Shintoism as complementary

    Buddhism and Shintoism are seen as complementary because they connect this life and the next. They fit well together, because Buddhism is more focused on the soul and the afterlife, whereas Shintoism is more about spirituality in the here and now. A common saying, therefore, is also: “We live as Shintoists, but die as Buddhists”

    However, during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a separation order was issued on the grounds of wanting to make Japan more unified and nationalistic. As a result, Buddhist temples were forcibly closed, and the land was confiscated and destroyed. Fortunately, the divide couldn’t hold for long and the separation didn’t affect the religions all too deeply. So today you will still see various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines separated but on the same grounds, with overlapping architectural features and traditions. Japanese people will also have both Shinto god shelves and Buddhist altars in their homes, showing how both religions still blend in everyday life and home.

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    signs upon entering lantern shrines or temples in japan

    Signs and features of shrines and temples

    We’ve established that there are a lot of temples and shrines, so how do you recognize one? There are various signs and markers that indicate them.


    You can often easily recognize temples because they’re huge complexes that include various parts, such as a cemetery. 

    Parts to a temple that you should know

    • 山門 (sanmon) is the entrance gate to a Buddhist temple. The Japanese will usually bow before they enter this gate because they see this as the entrance to the other world, the world of the gods.
    • 香炉 (kōro) is the incense burner that is located in front of or near the main temple building and people usually try catching some of the smoke as a purification process for whatever they’re suffering from.
    • 仏殿 (butsu-den) is the main hall enshrining the object worshipped. This object is deemed to possess a deity. 
    • 塔 () is a pagoda that often adorns the temple grounds. It comes from the architecture of an Indian stupa.
    • 梵鐘 (bonshō) is a large bell. On New Year’s Eve, people ring it 108 times corresponding to the Buddhist concept of 108 worldly desires.
    • A temple ground often includes a cemetery. Funerals are also a Buddhist tradition and not a Shintoist one.

    On the map

    Temples used to be marked on the map with the 卍, manji character, but since the announcement of the 2020 Olympics, Japan has decided to change these esoteric signs that are commonly mistaken for the swastika on foreign maps into a three-tiered pagoda sign.

    You can also find or search for temples using the following markers:


    〜 dera, ji

    The most common denotation of a temple 


    〜 in 

    Usually a sub-part of a temple. 

    This kanji is also used in words like 病院 (byōin, hospital) or 大学院 (daigakuin, postgraduate school)


    san, zan

    This is the kanji for mountain and usually denotes mountain temples like the famous 高野山 (kōya-san, Mount Kōya)


    Shrines, unlike temples, are often a little hidden from view. Some might have a small path covered in thick growing bushes that unexpectedly leads to a torii gate and worship ground. 

    Parts to a shrine that you should know 

    • 鳥居 (torii) gates are the large orangy-red gates that mark the entrance to the shrine and the world of the gods/spirits. They are the most prominent sign of a shrine. People usually avoid walking straight in the middle when entering, because the spirits pass there.
    • 手水舎 (temizu-ya) is the place to purify your body before entering a shrine. It’s one of the most important features and before praying, you should wash your hands and mouth there (see more on etiquette later)
    • 本殿 (honden) is the main hall at a shrine and is sometimes combined with the worship hall (拝殿, haiden). The first is the most sacred place holding the object believed to embody the spirit or god worshipped and the second is a big space for worship
    • 絵馬 (ema) and 御御籤 (omikuji) are fortunes and blessings you can get or give at a shrine. You often find designated places for these in a shrine. Read more about these later.

    On the map



    Most common denotation of a shrine



    The last part of the previous kanji is also sometimes used



    Shrines ending with gu often refer to a shrine that is connected to the imperial family

    What if you’re not Buddhist or Shintoist?

    Perhaps you think that it’s offensive to enter a temple or shrine not being religious or believing in Buddhism or Shintoism. But you shouldn’t worry about that. Anybody can enter shrines and temples to pray or worship (or simply look around and enjoy the atmosphere). 

    Also, there is also no need to worry about anyone trying to convert you. You might be expected to pray or worship if there is a guided session or when waiting in line to join the prayers, but it’s your choice to partake in these rituals or not. However, there is some etiquette that you probably want to take note of, just to make sure you have a peaceful and respectful visit.

    tourist showing respect in shrine entrance in japan

    What is the proper etiquette?

    Be careful when you enter

    Firstly, it’s customary to bow before you enter the gate of a temple or shrine because you’re entering a holy place and should be respectful of that. Secondly, make sure you don’t step on the raised threshold that is usually in the entrance to a temple.

    Walk on the side of the road

    After you pass under an entrance gate at a temple or torii gate, you shouldn’t walk in the middle of the road, because this space is where the gods and spirits dwell and move. It’s not the worst sin to walk there, because often shrines and temples can be super busy, so it’s impossible to all walk on the side, but just make sure you don’t try walking in the middle on purpose.

    Wash your hands, please!

    Most shrines, but some temples too, have a purification fountain called the temizu-ya at the entrance. It’s a roofed washbasin and easily located. If you’re not going to pray and just want a quick peek of the shrine, you don’t necessarily have to wash your hands, but if you do want to offer a small prayer, then make sure to purify before! 

    purification fountain in entrance in shrines and temples in tokyo

    There are certain steps to take. Although they might seem daunting, it’s very easy once you get the hang of it:

    1. Take the ladle with your right hand and fill it up with water
    2. Let the water pour over the left hand whilst holding the ladle in the right
    3. Pass the ladle to the cleansed left hand and repeat for the right hand
    4. Pass the ladle back to the right side and pour a little bit of water in your left hand
    5. Bring the left hand with the scooped water to your mouth
    6. Do not drink the water! You can dispose of it outside the basin or you can just pass the water over your lips
    7. The last step is to cleanse the ladle you use. You do so by tilting it vertically and letting the water pass over the ladle along the stick
    8. Put the ladle back in its original position (facing down)

    If you are left-handed, you can do this process mirrored.

    How do I pray or give my thanks? 

    Knowing how to pray correctly at a shrine or temple can be very intimidating. The temple and shrine have slightly different rituals.

    Temple prayer

    At a temple, you usually fan yourself with incense at the incense burner inside the complex (unless there is a water purification area, in which case you can follow the steps above). You can buy a stick yourself but it isn’t necessary. However, make sure you never use someone else’s incense stick or use them to light your own, because, according to belief, you’d take that person’s sins. After fanning incense, you: 

    1. Go up to the offering box and bow slightly
    2. Gently toss a coin
    3. If there is a bell, you can ring it two or three times
    4. Bow slightly and pray. You should NOT clap. It is customary to thank Buddha in your prayers, but there is no specific etiquette for this
    5. Bow slightly again after you’re done
    crowd performing temple prayer
    people praying in shrine in tokyo

    Shrine prayer

    At a shrine, although very similar to a temple’s prayer customs, it is very customary to clap. Make sure you purify yourself at the temizu-ya first, then:

    1. Go up to the offering box and bow slightly
    2. Gently toss a coin
    3. Ring the bell two to three times
    4. Bow deeply twice
    5. Clap twice 
    6. Pay your respects, pray and thank. Again, there is no correct way of doing this, but giving the specific kami of the shrine your thanks is always good.
    7. After you’re done, you bow again
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    Take off your shoes inside!

    It is very rude to leave your shoes on when entering an inside place in a temple complex or shrine, because shoes come from the outside world and carry traces from those grounds. Moreover, make sure that you wear socks or bring them with you because walking around barefoot isn’t that respectful.

    What should you wear?

    It’s common not to wear hats so you'll probably want to take it off before entering through a gate. And you'll want to avoid revealing clothing or bring a scarf to cover your shoulders. 

    If you want, you can also rent a kimono or yukata for your visit to a temple and/or shrine. You’ll find a lot of Japanese people, couples, and families doing this too, especially during festive periods or if they’re traveling within the country. It’s usually from ¥6,000 (roughly $54) per hour to rent one. The rental places often cater to foreigners and tourists, so don’t worry about feeling weird wearing traditional Japanese clothing. It’s very common!

    Want to know more about Japanese customs and etiquette? Also check out on Japan Switch: 
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    signs found in temples and shrines in tokyo

    What NOT to do at a temple or shrine

    • Keep in mind the afore-mentioned dress code: no revealing clothing, wear or take socks, and take off your hat.
    • Refrain from taking pictures inside! This is a definite no-no!
    • Don’t forget a small offering in the form of coins if you’re praying or worshipping. It doesn’t matter how much you give. In fact, a ¥5 coin is actually the best to offer, as many Japanese people believe it increases your luck. This is because the pronunciation of ¥5 in Japanese is a homophone for “fate”, “destiny”, “chance” and “relationship”. 
    • You shouldn't take anything that you didn’t buy as a souvenir.
    • Yelling or running is very inappropriate, especially indoors. I think it’s a given in any sacred place universally, but in Japan, talking in a low voice might still be bothersome to others. Whisper if you need to say something inside, and otherwise talk once you’re outside the building.
    • Do NOT step on the raised threshold when you enter a temple, because it would be very disrespectful to do so. So make sure you step over it.

    Lucky charms and wishes

    There are different charms and fortunes you can get when visiting a temple or shrine. Although you don't have to buy anything, it could be nice to get yourself or a friend who has a big exam or interview coming up, a special fortune or wish. 

    Omikuji (御神籤)

    An omikuji is probably the most popular souvenir to get when you visit a shrine or temple. They often cost ¥100 (roughly $0,90). Depending on what kind of fortune you receive, you either keep the omikuji or tie it on a rope. You'll want to tie a bad luck omikuji to the rope at the omikuji stand, so you can leave the bad luck behind. If it’s a good fortune, however, you want to keep it close, like in your bag or wallet. 

    Omikuji prayers and wishes temples and shrines in Tokyo

    These are the various fortunes you can receive:

    • 大吉 (dai-kichi, great blessing)
    • 中吉 (chū-kichi, middle blessing)
    • 小吉 (shō-kichi, small blessing)
    • 吉 (kichi, blessing)
    • 末吉 (sue-kichi, future blessing)
    • 凶 (kyō, bad luck)
    • 大凶 (dai-kyō, terrible luck)

    Your omijuki will also hold a lot of other information, like a lucky number, your relationship luck, business fortune etc. Unfortunately, most of these are in very difficult Japanese, so it’s often difficult to understand, even for Japanese people. But there are some temples and shrines that offer English omikuji, like Sensōji Temple in Asakusa and Meiji Shrine in Shibuya (we listed them in our top temples and shrines below too!)

    It’s normal to get your omikuji at the beginning of the New Year to (hopefully) get a good start!

    Ema (絵馬)

    Ema are small wooden plaques onto which you write your wishes. You hang them in a designated area and leave them there to be received by the gods. They are burned at special events because it’s believed that the burning it symbolizes the liberation of the wish.

    wooden plaques for wishes outside temples and shrines in tokyo

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    Hamaya (破魔矢)

    Hamaya are charms in the forms of arrows, said to ward off evil spirits and demons. Literally translated, they mean “demon breaking arrows”. They are decorative objects for your home and lots of people buy them during New Year so they can start the year without unwelcome guests!

    Omamori (御守)

    Omamori are amulets and a very popular souvenir for yourself, or to give to someone else. They are usually meant to be put on your phone, wallet, home wall, or something of the like. The most popular time to get these are during New Year and exam periods. Oh, and they’re super cute and come in different colors and blessings.

    To help you out buying one, here are the most common type of blessings you can ask for:






    ward away evil


    shōbai hanjō



    gakugyō jōju

    school success


    kōtsu anzen

    traffic safety











    Shuin are stamps that are given on any piece of paper, as a memento to your visit. It’s a fun idea to keep a passport or journal of sorts to collect the various locations!

    Part-time job as shrine maiden, Miko at temples and shrines in Tokyo

    Part-time jobs as a shrine maiden

    An interesting baito or part-time job I came across during my research was the job of a miko or shrine maiden. These are jobs for young women and are very popular, although usually on a volunteer basis. However, applications fill up fast and it’s difficult to get in, with pretty strict rules about appearance, such as black hair long enough to be tied in a bun or ponytail, and a youthful face. 

    Shrine maidens often sell fortune-telling papers like omikuji during festivals, but there are also year-round miko who work full-time, so you’ll probably see them around on your next visit to a shrine!

    Although shrine maiden is considered a female job, there are jobs for males available too. These are male shamans called geki but they are less common and less asked for.

    Top temples in Tokyo

    Top 6 temples to visit in Tokyo

    To prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19), some of these facilities may have changing opening days and/or hours, and postponed or canceled events. Make sure to check the official site or call the reception for details.


    6. Sensōji Temple

    Sensōji temple is probably one of the most well-known temples in Tokyo, but it’s on this list for a specific reason: they offer
    omikuji in English! Yes, that’s right! Since it's very difficult to find these fortune-telling papers in English anywhere else, make sure you get one when you visit! It’s located in Asakusa and it’s one of the most colorful temples. Although the original no longer exists, as it was destroyed during WW2, the crimson red building is beautiful nonetheless and therefore very picturesque!

    Sensōji temple worships Kannon, who is the goddess of mercy and it’s believed she can soothe your suffering and aid recovery. The legend goes that two brothers found a golden statue of Kannon when they went fishing, after which a golden dragon escaped from heaven. This origin story is celebrated every year on the day it’s believed to have happened, March 18. On this day each year, a golden dragon will dance through Sensōji temple!

    The temple is quite busy year-round, but that’s also somehow part of its charm. If you want to experience the temple a little emptier, you can go early (say around 8am) or go after sundown.

    sensoji temple in tokyo
    Opens daily and hours depend on sunrise and sunset: 6am to 5pm in the months April to September and from 6:30am to 5pm in the months October to March. 
    The temple grounds are open 24 hours with the temple being illuminated until 11pm. 

    5. Shinobazu No Ike Bentendo

    This temple is located in Ueno Park, which is a beautiful park with a big lake that has lotus flowers in the summer and fall. The temple itself was founded in the 17th century and has a hexagonal structure yet its original too was destroyed during WW2. The deity worshipped is Benzaiten, goddess of prosperity, and her statue is the only original remainder, and can only be seen once a year during the September festival. 

    temple in ueno park in tokyo

    The whole area of Ueno park is nice to explore, with the ponds, the Ueno Zoo, and Tokyo National Museum, so this makes it a top recommendation. There are various street snack stands so you can grab a quick bite on your way as well! 

    Open daily from 7am - 5pm.
    The temple is closed during the Yanaka Shichifukujin tour, held every year from the first to the tenth of January. The Benzaiten statue can only be seen once a year during their September festival, which is related to money and finance.

    4. Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo

    This is definitely one of the most interesting places on this list because it doesn’t look at all like what you’d expect from a temple site in Japan. It was built in 2014 by architect Kiyoshi Takeyama and Toyota Group, smack in the middle of busy Shinjuku. It looks a little like a futuristic spaceship, but it’s a little gem. It’s more or less an automated cemetery that uses technology to hold the remains of the deceased in a kind of Buddha locker with blue light. It also functions as a cultural facility, so the hall can hold concerts and serves as a museum.

    It may not be the most traditional but it’s definitely an interesting building and worth a visit if you love contemporary architecture!

    Open daily from 10am - 5pm.

    3. Tennoji Temple

    Tennoji Temple is one of the most beautiful temples location-wise. It was founded in 1274 and most of it was destroyed during the civil war in 1868, but it’s been rebuilt with elaborate modern design twists such as the concrete walls enclosing it, which makes it one of the most fascinating complexes. A cemetery surrounds the temple in nature and it houses a big bronze Buddha statue. It makes for a serene atmosphere and usually there aren't that many people visiting.

    Tennoji temple is the temple of deva Bishamonten, the god of resources and bravery. 

    Open daily from 9am - 5pm.

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    2. Shibamata Taishakuten

    Shibamata Taishakuten is a popular temple because of its appearance in the Otoka wa Tsurai Yo (“It is tough being a man”) movie series filmed from 1969 to 1995. You’ll see nods to the series on the street leading up to the temple. It’s an ambient shopping street that sells many food specialties and traditional souvenirs.

    The temple was founded in 1629 and is one of the only ones that hasn’t been destroyed during World War 2. Many wood carvings cover the shrine’s buildings, but you can view the most beautiful pieces inside for a small payment. With this payment, you can also see the beautiful garden of the shrine, with a criss-cross walkway over a pond. Worth it!

    Temple grounds are always open but the wood carving gallery and garden are open from 9am - 4pm.

    1. Gōtokuji Temple

    One of the most picturesque temples in Tokyo is definitely Gōtokuji temple, with its large collection of lucky beckoning cats. It’s even said to be the birthplace of these maneki neko or lucky cats. You can also buy cat figurines here that would make a great souvenir! Usually you make a prayer when you buy one, and return it once the wish is fulfilled.

    lucky cats figurines in gotokuji temple in tokyo

    There is a legend connected to this temple dating to the 17th Century. A feudal lord was caught in a thunderstorm and he and his servants were invited to safety inside the temple by a cat beckoning them in. To show his gratitude, the lord dedicated this temple to his clan. In lieu of the legend, the temple now has thousands of lucky cat figurines adorning the grounds.

    The temple lies in a very quiet area of the city, but is very easily accessible. Since people leave these little statues for their luck, the temple is great to visit right after the New Year, because it’s the time when you can see the most figures all at once. 

    Open Saturday and Sunday from 6am - 6pm
    entrance tori gate in a temple in tokyo

    Top 4 shrines to visit in Tokyo

    To prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (Covid-19), some of these facilities may have changing opening days and/or hours, and postponed or canceled events. Make sure to check the official site or call the reception for details.

    4. Meiji shrine

    Meiji shrine is beautifully located in lush greenery in a park in Shibuya. There is a huge inner garden inside the gates too. 
    The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who was the first emperor in Japan’s modern state, and his wife. For this reason, lots of people visit on the emperor’s birthday on the 3rd of November. 

    Just like Sensōji temple, Meiji shrine also has English omikuji! But similarly, because of their popularity, it’s best to go early in the day!

    meiji jingu shrine in tokyo
    Opens daily from sunrise to sunset. For the changing hours, check their online schedule.
    If you want to experience a festival, the best would be to go during the Meiji shrine’s spring festival in late April/early May when they have a whole set-up of rituals and performances lined up.

    3. Nezu shrine

    Nezu shrine has beautifully decorated buildings and a path with torii gates that makes for a tunnel effect. The neighborhood surrounding Nezu shrine is lovely as well, with lush greenery and carp-filled ponds. It’s recommended to take a walk on the nearby snake road, a winding street with lots of local shops.

    There is also a rock that’s said to have been the inspirational seat for many famous Japanese writers such as Natsume Soseki and Ogai Mori!

    huge tori gate before entering nezu shrine in tokyo
    Opens daily from 6am - 4:30pm, but depends on the season.
    If you visit in June, you can see Azaleas blooming during the Azalea Festival. A small entrance fee is required for this.

    2. Atago shrine

    Atago Shrine is a beautiful little shrine, but it will take some work to get there: 86 steep stairs dubbed the “stone steps to success”. 

    It was founded in 1603 to protect the new capital of Edo/Tokyo from fire and disasters. There is a ritual that stems from a nameless samurai who had the courage to ride up the hill and take branches from a blooming plum tree at the top. To mark this ritual today, a palanquin is carried up and down the steps as a symbol of success.

    Opens daily from 9am - 5pm

    1. Tomioka Hachimangu

    Tomioka Hachimangu is a shrine with lots of secret spots: a koi pond, mini-areas, forest, sumo monument, etc. It was founded in 1627 and worships the god Hachiman, god of martial arts and war, but also worships other smaller gods, like the god of sumo, as sumo wrestling performances used to take place here. It has been rebuilt quite a lot because of multiple fires, but it’s still a great place to visit, because of all these little extras.

    There is the main path leading up to the shrine which is filled with food stands on the weekends. A beautiful pond with a vermillion bridge lines the east side of the shrine and the place lights up beautifully at night.

    Open 24 hours
    In mid-august every three years (2020, 2023, ...), the Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri takes place. 120 portable shrines are brought to the streets and paraded, as well as buckets of water thrown over the shrine.

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    Although there are a lot of traditions when it comes to temples and shrines in Japan, hopefully, this guide cleared your doubts about any customs or rules you may have had, and has introduced you to some beautiful and off the beaten track temples and shrines. In the end, they’re just wonderful and peaceful places to go and a great way to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

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