Couple Photography 101: Shrines, Temples, and Japanese Religion

What is the role of Shrines and Temples in Japanese religion? What’s the proper etiquette for when you visit? And finally, how do you plan a professional vacation/pre-wedding/honeymoon photo shoot without disturbing others around you? Read more— relevant to both tourists and destination wedding planners.

What you need to know about Shrines and Temples in Japan:

  1. *Shrines and Temples in Japan— what are they?

1. The Entrance Gate

2. History and Religion

3. Facilities

4. How to Pray

5. Open Hours

  1. *How to plan a pre wedding, couples,
    or family photo shoot at Shrines and Temples

Shrines and Temples in Japan— What are they?

They’re religious sites: Temples are for Buddhism and Shrines are for Shintoism.

What's the difference though?

Even Japanese locals will have a hard time explaining the difference— but knowing what's different will help you plan your itinerary as a tourist (you may want to visit both!)

1. The Entrance

The most obvious difference is the front entrance. At Shinto Shrines, the first thing you’ll see is the Torii, which is a sacred gate between our world and the god’s world. It's what usually comes to mind when people think "Japanese religion."

Some places will have lots of torii. Inari Fushimi Shrine in Kyoto is famous for having 1000 of them!

However, Buddhist Temples usually don't have red/orange gates like the ones above. Instead, you’ll find large, traditional house-like entrances with shrine dogs (komainu) and/or Buddha’s muscular guardians (Nio).

(FYI: Some temples have torii too, like the Shitennō-ji Buddhist temple in Osaka.)

2. History and Religion

Both Shintoism and Buddhism are huge parts of Japanese culture, and can be used interchangeably on some occasions (i.e. New Years, festivals, etc). Even the prayer seems quite similar— you just do it at the alter.

Shintoism comes from ancient Japan, and believes in thousands upon thousands of gods. There are gods for everything: the sun, mountains, war, prosperity, rivers, and stones for example. People often go to Shinto shrines to pray to a god for a wish or favor.

Buddhism on the other hand, has roots from India, and spread throughout China and then into Japan as well. Instead of thousands of gods, Buddhists believe in the teachings of the Buddha and the idea of reaching enlightenment. People don’t pray to the Buddha for wishes, but rather just as a sign of gratitude.

3. Facilities

There are temizuya—water basins for purification before entering—at both shrines and temples. These water basins will have several ladles laid out, which you can use to purify yourself. Here are the steps below:

1. Fill the ladle with water. Pour water onto your left hand to wash it, then do the same to your right hand.

2. Cup your left hand, and pour water into it. Use this water to cleanse your mouth.

3. Use the remaining water to clean off the ladle by holding it vertically, letting the water flow down along the handle.

4. Only temples have incense burners. The incense is said to heal ailments, so go up to the burners and waft the smoke toward where your illness/pain is.

Some temples also have cemeteries located right next to them.

4. How to Pray

Here is a simple how-to for when you want to pray.

Shinto Shrines:

Bow at the altar and ring the bell (if there is one).

Throw money (5-yen or 50-yen coins) into the offering box in front of you.

Two more bows, two soft claps. Make your prayer now.

Drop your hands, and finish with a deep bow.

Buddhist temples generally have incense near the altar. Light it—using your own lighter or the temple fire, never another incense!—and place your incense stick with the other sticks in the apparatus. Then, make your way up to the altar. Make a monetary offering (doesn’t matter how much) and ring the bell (if there is one). Put your hands together, pray, and bow once. Don’t clap, as that’s not customary for Buddhist temples.

5. Open Hours

Buddhist Temples often close at 4 or 5pm.

Shrines often stay open around the clock for visitors.

Planning a Photo Shoot at a Shrine or Temple with a Professional Photographer

Since you’re reading our blog, I can imagine you’re probably interested in a casual or formal photo shoot at a temple or shrine. We get lots of requests for photo shoots from couples, families, and friends: pre wedding photography, shrine visits, destination weddings, honeymoons, family vacations, you name it!

But it’s tricky. Shrines and temples capture the essence of Japanese history, culture, and tradition, and can be an amazing place for photo shoots to commemorate your time in Japan. And it’s a popular place too! But because it is also a religious site, please read below to find out how to stay respectful in this cultural experience.

Step 1: Confirm your Outfit

If you are a family or group of friends ordering a casual photo shoot with a photographer, no problem! If you’re wearing casual clothing, it’ll be smooth sailing for your photo shoot. In fact, you don’t even need to read the rest of this article. Just shoot us an email to organize a time and date. :)

BUT, if you’re planning a pre-wedding photo shoot, or a destination wedding photo shoot, you’ll need more preparation. Particularly: Western-style wedding dresses/gowns are usually not acceptable at a shrine/temple. Many couples will want to take photos at multiple locations to make the most of their wedding dress and tuxedo, but shrines/temples are not the places to do this. If you want to take a photo at these religious sites, please consider casual clothing, or perhaps a kimono.

If you want a kimono rental, read more about kimono here!

The Beginner's Guide to the Japanese Kimono

Step 2: Get Photo Shoot Permission

If you are getting married at a shrine, or partaking in a religious ceremony, you must ask for permission to hire a non-affiliated photographer. If you need help with this, please let us know.

Step 3: Research!

Use the information above to find out whether you want a photo shoot at a shrine or temple. Usually, shrines and temples both have beautiful gardens and nature around it. Take a minute to look up the area and see if there are specific shots that you’d like to take.

Step 4: Hire a Local Photographer

Local photographers know the area best, and can show you the best photo spots for your shoot. They’re also the most affordable, as you won’t need to pay for any transportation or business trip fees. 

Interested in a Photo Shoot at a Temple or Shrine?
Start planning your dream photo shoot today!

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