Tag Archives: Japan

Etiquette at a Japanese Temple or Shrine

Etiquette at a Japanese Temple or Shrine

If you take the “Practical Japanese for Study Abroad” class, which, again, I highly recommend, you will become acquainted with Japan’s unique relationship with the concept of religion. The first thing to point out is that the word “religion” did not exist in the Japanese vocabulary until the 19th century, when European missionaries came to introduce Christianity to the Japanese. Now, Shinto, the ethnic religion of the Japanese, and Buddhism, initially developed in India, have become part of Japanese tradition, inseparable with the modern concept of Japanese culture.

While most Japanese worship kami, a sort of nebulous Shinto concept which means “ancestors” or “gods,” only 3% to 4% of Japanese identify themselves as Shintoists, while around 35% identify as Buddhist. A little less than 40% of Japanese do not identify with any organized religion at all. This dynamic leads to many observing a mixture of the two beliefs, a practice unfamiliar for religious people in the West. For example, they might pray to kami, but then observe traditional Buddhist funeral practices. Or in their home, they could have an alcove for both Buddhism and Shinto. This ambiguous conglomeration of belief is something I personally find quite fascinating.

When I visited Asakusa there were plenty of Buddhist temples which had Shinto shrines located right across from them. Temples and shrines each have a unique etiquette to follow when visiting. Shrines will have torii gates, where you should bow slightly before entering the shrine. Before approaching the shrine altar, you also have to purify, so there will be a water basin with a ladle. To purify correctly, fill the ladle with water and spill some on your left hand, then your right, then hold the ladle with your right hand and clean your mouth with water from your left hand.  You should then hold the ladle vertically so whatever water is remaining drops and cleans the handle, and set it back. As you approach the altar:

  • Bow slightly, and throw a 5-yen coin in the coin box
  • If a bell is present in the shrine, ring it a few times
  • Bow deeply twice, and then clap your hands twice
  • Think about what you are praying for, and then bow deeply once

The same water purifying etiquette applies to Buddhist temples. However, before approaching the altar, you must burn incense. When at the altar, bow slightly, toss a 5-yen coin, and bow slightly. No clapping occurs at the Buddhist temple. Even if you are not a particularly religious person, like myself, the temples and shrines in Japan are must-sees, for the surrounding environments often have some jaw-dropping scenery.


The famous Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion, located in Kyoto

The picture above is the famous Kinkaku-ji, a Zen temple located in Kyoto. It is a reconstruction of what it looked like when it was first built. The original was burned down by a Zen Buddhist monk in 1950. Located in front of it is a beautiful lake with various small islands with pine trees. The lake could be seen as a representation of the universe, and the mountains behind the temple function as borrowed scenery. As I gazed over the lake, taking in the view in its entirety, I took a deep breath. I have been finding that it can be incredibly relaxing visiting such sites in Japan–the beauty of your surroundings affects your mood. I believe a kind of peacefulness can be felt, not unlike what can be felt through meditation. Reflecting here at the Kinkaku-ji Temple, I realized that Japan has slowly been becoming a part of who I am and I plan to continue exploring this realization throughout the rest of my time here. When I leave, I am going to miss practically everything about this place. All of my favorite things to do in general now are things I have experienced in Japan: my favorite way to relax is by resting in the refreshing waters of an onsen and afterwards enjoying a cold bottle of chocolate milk; my favorite meal is pork broth ramen alongside one of my favorite drinks, matcha; my favorite thing to do with friends is to go out to karaoke and then eat yakiniku.  I have learned and experienced so many different facets of Japan, and have made so many memories that I will never forget. Japan is really starting to feel like a second home.


3-Week Mark: Learning How to Get around Japan

3-Week Mark: Learning How to Get around Japan

Three weeks in, and I can firmly say that when I ride the subway, I usually know what I am doing. For the traveler with no knowledge of the native language, the subways and the stations have been made very accommodating. Every overhead sign with info about the incoming train is in English. When riding, you’ll also hear every stop is repeated in English. Google Maps will become your best friend when you’re here. Just type in what station you’re at/near and what station you want to go to and it shows what route is the quickest, what trains to ride, whether it’s local or express, what platform the train arrives on, and even the approximate cost in yen of the trip. The trains are always on time, and if you miss your train don’t feel bad–there’s another one arriving in 3-5 minutes.  The subway is the go-to for traveling within and around Tokyo.

As it was mentioned during orientation here, Japan is not just Tokyo. There is also the city of Kyoto, which I highly recommend visiting, that has retained traditional elements of Japanese culture. Here you will find older shrines and temples, more people wearing kimonos and yukatas (a casual kimono), bamboo groves, festivals, and the elusive geisha. Now getting there from Tokyo can be a bit expensive. Everyone tells you to take a shinkansen (the bullet train) which gets you there with 2 to 3 hours. Tickets are around 12,000 to 16,000 yen one-way (about $120-$160) and get even more expensive if you really want to travel in luxury.

However, there’s also a second option that I chose to take advantage of, and the round-trip fare cost less than a one-way ticket for the bullet train. I took an overnight bus that departed Tokyo Friday night and arrived in Kyoto Saturday morning, and then picked me up Sunday night and dropped me off back in Tokyo Monday morning. It was easy to make the reservations on the website–it’s mostly in English and tells you the exact pick up and drop off points and the times to be there. Now, since I spent the weekend, I needed a place to sleep. Hotels are fine, but if you want to save money to use for other activities, I recommend staying at an 24-hr internet cafe. Another unique feature of Japan, these cafes allow you to spend 5 hours overnight for around $15. You get a small cubical that comes with a PC, all the Japanese manga you could read, a shower, snacks, and free drinks. They are surprisingly quiet, like most of Japan, and can be a great place to get some sleep.

I would also highly recommend taking any trips to places far away from Tokyo during the first couple weeks of your stay. You’d be surprised by how fast your weekends fill up. Depending on what kind of classes you’re taking and how many TUJ student activities events you sign up for, your schedule can become very busy. Almost every weekend since I have been here has been occupied with either class field trips or TUJ trips (TUJ trips are particularly fantastic, and are offered at a great price!), so it’s always beneficial to plan ahead. Japan is filled with so many beautiful unique places and cultural experiences that it really makes you consider signing up for a second semester abroad.


These were the only geisha I could find after my weekend in Kyoto. People dressed as such are hard to find, so do not be surprised if there is a line of Japanese people waiting to take a picture as well!

Week 15- All Good Things Must Come To an End


Visiting Nakamise Dori, my favorite street in Tokyo, one last time!

Fall ginkgo trees with the Sensoji Pagoda in the back.

Nakamise Street again- the best place to buy souvenirs!

A decorated garage storefront.

Tsukiji Hongan-ji in Chuo, an Indian architect styled Buddhist Temple.

The entrance to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

Skewered grilled eel!

And some skewered grilled salmon belly!

The dorm room in Musashi-Kosugi. All moved out!

The bathroom at the dorm.

Thank you so much for following my journey in Tokyo! ありがとう ございます (arigatō gozaimasu/thank you) and さようなら (sayounara/goodbye) Japan!

Week 10!



A little piece of home in Tokyo!

The nighttime scene near Shinjuku.

“Piss Alley”- A famous street filled with small bars and eating spots

Water separating the city and the Kokyogaien National Park in Tokyo.

Sunset in Chiyoda.

Adam in front of a “kawaii” wall!


View from the North Observatory Tower in the Metropolitan Government building.

Another nighttime view over Tokyo. The tall, very bright building is the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building.

Adam in an area of Shinjuku.

The sun setting over the Imperial Palace.

Week 9- Time is Already Halfway Over?!


Fall has finally arrived here in Tokyo!

The bustling metropolis neighborhood of Shinjuku.

Some adorable shaped macarons! French pastries are very common in Japan.

Mori garden in Roppongi.

Shinjuku- close to the train station.

The NTT Docomo Building, similar to the Empire State Building.

Many streets here often look as though they could be in an American city such as NYC!

Alexa and I in Golden Gai, a popular neighborhood of many small alleyways with hole-in-the-wall bars. (photo credits to Adam George)

The view from Tokyu Square- a large department and food complex close to the dorm.

There is almost a daily beautiful sunset over Tokyo.

Week 8!


The 7/11 near the Musashi-Kosugi dorm. Open 24/7, either a 7/11, Lawson, or Family Mart can be found on almost every block, and they are so much better than American convenience stores!

Aaron on the walk to school with his milk tea!

Parker on a cloudy day in Kawasaki.

A daily view- the building to the left is the Musashi-Kosugi dorm.

The shared kitchen in the dorm- there is one on each floor!

The dorm threw us a Halloween Party- Morgan enjoying free food!

Coby after getting his face painted at the dorm Halloween party.

Just like convenience stores, there are vending machines all over as well. Most drinks cost around ¥100, which is around $1.

A close-up of a vending machine

Aaron studying in the student lounge at TUJ.

All the Japanese Lessons Jammed into A Hair Appointment Gone Wrong


I’ve been needing a haircut for awhile now. It’s been nearly seven months since my last cut. Being in Japan, where would I go? The shops that are more accommodating to foreigners tend to be way more expensive, from what I could tell online. Thankfully, one of the girls on the hall just had a haircut and I decided to ask her where she got it done. She was very helpful and even helped me set up an appointment online.

Fast forward to Saturday, day of the appointment. Having never been there and being the nervous goose that I am, I left early. I got to the place a half an hour early. Only for them to tell me that I did not have an appointment. I could feel myself panicking because I knew I had an appointment but I had no effective means of communicating this information. Good thing I had the confirmation email on my phone. Only to have the lady show me that the place I had booked the appointment with was near Kawasaki station, not near Motosumiyoshi Station. I had not even known the place was a chain salon. Well, what else could I do? I was not about to pay the ¥2000 cancellation fee. I booked it to Kawasaki.

In my desperate dash to the station and realizing that I forgot my Passmo (a rechargeable train pass), I learned to not waste time searching through convoluted subway maps, where I barely know the kanji for places. Google maps gave me the train lines and station platform numbers but not the ticket prices (which are based on distance in Japan). Just politely ask someone: (place name) ikura desu ka? They’ll tell you the price (this is where it would be helpful to review numbers before going to Japan), you can buy the ticket and be on your merry way. More like rushed in my case. I still got to the beauty salon 20 minutes late. They still made time to get my hair done. The worst part is that I did not know enough Japanese to explain to them what happened. All I can hope is that they understood that I was truly sorry for what happened and that it was not intentional on my part.

The guy who cut my hair tried so hard to use the little English he knew to converse with me, which I appreciated. It was still a super awkward experience since neither of us truly understood the other. I recommend the best way is to show a picture of what you want the cut to look like and have a translator app ready, just in case. It all worked out fine, although the poor guy was clearly not used to curly Indian hair. He looked very confused at what my hair was doing after he had washed and combed it. I wish I could have told him that my hair always acted in this manner after combing it but that was more Japanese than I knew.

I learned to double check times as well as addresses when it comes making appointments in a foreign country. Also, forget the awkwardness and embarrassment of asking someone for directions, because when you can’t read kanji, wasting time looking it up on Google is just not worth it. I want to end this post with just my eternal gratitude to all the people I encountered on this frantic trek to the beauty salon and the people at the beauty salon for accommodating for this poor, confused gaijin.


My friend and I at a Halloween party the very next day.

Week Seven in Tokyo!




Nakamise Shopping Street in Asakusa, Tokyo. There are many outdoor vendors selling souvenirs and traditional Japanese foods, and the street leads to the Senso-ji Temple.

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple!

The main hall of the Senso-ji Temple.

Traditional Japanese decorations hung in Tokyo.

The 5-storied Pagoda at Senso-ji Temple. A Pagoda is where the ashes of Buddha are stored.

Some of the many unique Kit-Kat flavors sold here in Japan!

A canal I stumbled upon in the Higashi-Nihombashi neighborhood of Tokyo.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, which is a popular pedestrian street with lots of shops and street foods.

A cookie and ice cream shop in Harajuku!

A shop selling beautiful traditional Japanese hand fans!


Words can be Worrisome, so Learn Some Beforehand


I was pretty surprised with how English friendly Japan was. Almost all the signs have English under them and most people at least recognize some English. I’ve talked about not knowing Japanese when coming to Japan and how it is still manageable. However, not knowing any Japanese does cause me some anxiety. When I’m on my own, I find myself avoiding restaurants that have too much kanji written on them because I do not know what I am ordering. I did not want to waste my money on buying something I would not eat. I feel guilty every time I talk to one of the Japanese girls on our hall, in English. They struggle to use the English they remember from high school, while I take the fact that English is a global language for granted. When I volunteer with the kids at a Japanese elementary school, I feel stupid when they say something and I have no clue what they say. Reading the hiragana or katakana frustrates me because it takes so long and even when I know the sounds, I still don’t know what the label’s saying. I cannot ask for clarification because I don’t know the wording. For the first time in my life, I understood what my parents feel like, especially when they first came to America. I don’t know how they did it. At least for me, English is globally used, but their language is not commonly used in America. Not knowing the language everyone is speaking is lonely.

I recommend to anyone who is thinking about coming to Japan (or going to a foreign country), to study the language. I don’t think perfect fluency is necessary before coming to another country but basic phrases are a must. Knowing some basic verbs would also be helpful. There is only so much of a conversation you can have with pointing and nodding. Learning how to read in the language would also be useful. Not everything will have an English translation.

When it comes to going out without any Japanese fluent people, research where you are going beforehand. This way you know what you are getting into and you can take the time to look up unknown words. Going in armed with information is less scary than going in blind. If you want to wander around a place, feel free to, but I still recommend looking up restaurants beforehand, if you get anxious about unknown food items like I do. If you don’t care, more power to you.

This may be mercenary, but I do think making a friend who is decently fluent in Japanese would be useful. Sometimes a translation app is not enough and having an actual person who can explain things to you in English works best. Of course, as thanks, I recommend getting your friend treats. The custard cakes in Japan almost always a crowd pleaser.

If making a Japanese friend is difficult for you, you can always turn to a professor for help. When it comes to forms, just bring it in to a professor. I’ve seen a girl do that before and I’m sure professors will not mind. They want to help you. Just don’t do it for every little thing. They are not paid to be your personal translator.


Not knowing Japanese can be stressful in Japan, but the moments I can understand a conversation with no help are often pleasing enough to wash away the stress, temporarily.


Kokeshi dolls at Edo Week in Ueno Park

Week Six- Izu Islands


TUJ offers several school trips and excursions throughout the semester, so this past weekend I went on a trip through the school to the beautiful Izu Islands!

A beach on Shikine-jima island.

Adam at a natural hot spring on Shikine-jima Island!

A beach on Nii-jima Island.

The “Greek-inspired” onsen (hot spring) on Nii-jima Island.

Friends relaxing in the onsen, which is one of the few natural hot springs directly on the ocean!

View over Nii-jima Island from the top of the onsen.

One of the many Moyai statues on Nii-jima Island.

We stayed in hostels on both of the islands, and at the hostel on Nii-jima, we ate a 2.5 hour BBQ dinner, with some of the best meat, seafood, rice, and vegetables I’ve ever had!

Adam and Alexa at a traditional Japanese breakfast, where you sit on the floor.

A view of the Tokyo Skyline from the ferry ride home.