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Japanese Temples and Shrines

Japan flag. Sorting out your Tera from your Jinja

Kinkakuji temple Kyoto set in trees.

Jan Dodd hits the temple trail

Like many others before me, my introduction to Japan's staggering wealth of religious monuments took place at Tokyo's Senso-ji.

This magnificent Buddhist temple is one of the capital's most impressive sights. Its buildings are post-war reconstructions, but that doesn't detract from their power.

Everything about Senso-ji seems larger than life. Two pairs of gigantic and grimacing gods guard the approach lined with stalls selling an exuberant mix of traditional crafts and gaudy plastic souvenirs.

Next comes a massive cauldron where you waft incense smoke, known as "breath of the gods" and supposedly endowed with curative powers, over yourself. From there you just follow the crowds up to the towering worship hall to pray or buy charms or simply soak up the wonderful festive atmosphere.

In contrast to such jollifications, Tokyo's other major religious site is decidedly understated. The Meiji Shrine (Meiji-jingu) is dedicated to the emperor who brought Japan into the modern era before his death in 1912. Even on weekends, when Tokyoites descend in mass on its extensive park, the place never loses its aura of stately reserve. Wide gravelled paths lead through woodland so thick it almost completely muffles the noise of the city to the central worship hall. Unlike Senso-ji, there's a real sense of mystery in the enclosed courtyard and low-slung eaves, the hushed tones and the priests padding about in their antiquated finery.

Water plays an important purification role in Japanese religion.

So why this difference? The simple answer is that Senso-ji is a Buddhist place of worship while Meiji-jingu belongs to Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto; the distinction is marked in English by calling them respectively temples (-tera, -dera or -ji in Japanese) and shrines (-jinja, -jingu or -gu).

Shinto Shrines

Shinto is a difficult religion to get a hold on. Instead of a central deity its myriad gods reside in natural phenomena such as trees, mountains, rocks and waterfalls. It has no moral code, no sacred scriptures, nor particular philosophy. Which inevitably made it easier for nationalists to hijack the religion for their own military ends in the years preceding the Second World War. But State and religion are now officially separated and, except for a few noisy right-wing extremists and annual protests at the Prime Minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where a number of convicted war criminals are also enshrined, Shinto has largely faded from the political scene.

All Japanese are Shinto by default, but the majority also consider themselves Buddhist. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, the Buddha was accepted as another of Shinto's many gods. The two religions have, nevertheless, retained their differences. The most obvious sign of this is in their distinct architectural styles.

A shrine is immediately recognizable from the torii, a gate of two upright poles topped by two cross-pieces, often painted a bright vermilion, which marks the entrance to the sacred enclosure. Other features to look out for are the water troughs near the entrance (the water is for purification ? using the ladle, pour a little over your fingers, then into your cupped hand to rinse your mouth) and twisted straw ropes. These ropes also denote the presence of a god, or gods, and you'll see them tied round a tree or rock or strung across the front of the shrine building. Another rope, this time attached to a bell or gong, hangs from the eaves. After throwing a few coins into the slatted box beneath (5 yen coins are supposed to be luckiest), petitioners wake the gods by giving a sharp pull on the bell-rope. They then bow three times, pray, bow twice more, clap twice and finish off with two final bows.
Listen to sounds from Japanese temples and shrines

Buddhist Temples

At Buddhist temples, on the other hand, there's no particular ritual regarding prayers, though you'll see people bowing and clapping as if at a shrine. As far as architecture is concerned, a temple's most distinctive feature is usually its wooden entry gate. The best are monumental affairs, two stories high and flanked on either side by guardian gods, like those at Senso-ji. Their scowling faces are to ward off evil, not to scare the faithful. A temple might also contain a pagoda in its grounds and a very stylised garden which provides a focus for meditation; the dry stone gardens of Zen temples such as Kyoto's Ryoan-ji, Daisen-in and the magnificent Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) represent this art in its purest, most enigmatic form.

A guardian spirit adorns an incense holder.

Within this broad Shinto/Buddhist divide, you'll find any number of variants. Even the smallest hamlets have their shrines and temples. Indeed, many shrines are built in the middle of nowhere, on sacred mountains, in caves or perched on pin-prick islands.

But those that stick most in my mind are, not surprisingly, the biggies. The shrines of Nikko, north of Tokyo, stand out for their riotous decorations and lovely setting among stands of cryptomeria trees. To the south of the capital, Kamakura has any number of noble temples, but my favourite place there is Zeniarai Benten. This little, incense filled cave-shrine is dedicated to the goddess of money-laundering. Wash your yen in the sacred spring and it's supposed to double, or more - don't hold your breath as there's no particular time-limit placed on this miracle.

Heading further south again, Kyoto is Japan's temple city. So much so that many visitors get completely templed-out. The key is to concentrate on just a handful and if possible to visit them at the beginning or end of the day, when the crowds are thinnest. Try also to include a few of the less famous, and therefore quieter, temples on your route. If nailed down, I'd plump for Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji for your big four, with Kodai-ji, Shoren-in and Konchi-in, perhaps also the sub-temples at Daitoku-ji, for a spot of contemplation. (If you're really pressed for time, stick to Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji, plus Kodai-ji, Honen-in and Konchi-in, all handily located on Kyoto's eastern hillside.)

If time allows, it's really worth escaping the cities. Nikko and Kamakura are both within easy reach of Tokyo, while Kamakura is also close to Yokohama. From Osaka and Kyoto you can take a day-trip to Nara, where a mix of temples, gardens and shrines are scattered around a huge park. My personal favourites around here, however, are two mountain-top temple complexes: Enryaku-ji, on the northern outskirts of Kyoto, and Koya-san, 50km south of Osaka. The latter takes a bit of getting to, but you're rewarded by more than 100 monasteries clustered in a wooded bowl of hills ? it's also a great place to escape the summer heat.

Enryaku-ji will always be special for me. I first visited it late on a damp autumn afternoon when the place was enveloped in a real pea-soup fog. There was no one else around. Ancient buildings, dwarfed by cryptomeria trees, loomed out of the mist. Inside the cavernous main hall, three lanterns, said to have been burning uninterrupted for the last 1200 years, and dozens of softly flickering candles hardly broke the darkness. Then from the back of the hall but invisible to me came the sound of monks chanting. It was eerie and, at the same time, magical.

Sites to visit

Below are a few suggestions for temples and shrines to visit around Japan.


Modern Kashima is an industrial port, but its main shrine, Kashima-jingu, has a long history. Pilgrims still come here to honour its bellicose deity, the god of martial valor. Behind the shrine a large stone is said to weigh down the head of the giant subterranean catfish whose writhings are held to be the cause of Japan's earthquakes.


In Kobe itself both Ikuta shrine and Minatogawa shrine are worth a wander, but better still to take a train ride 55km further west to Himeji. After exploring one of Japan's most impressive castles, take a cable-car to the top of Mt Shosha and the little-visited Enkyo-ji temple.


In Saitama you can visit Hikawa shrine, near Omiya station. The shrine dates back to the fourth century and is set in spacious grounds among cedars and zeklova trees.


Sendai's Zuiho-den is actually a mausoleum rather than a shrine, but the buildings are impressive and the place packs a good atmosphere. Alternatively, there are a number of picturesque temples on the coast near Sendai at Matsushima.


There's nothing much in Niigata city itself. Just off the coast, however, Sado island is packed with temples. Many were founded by the exiled monk Nichiren, who founded his own Buddhist sect in the thirteenth century.


Oita is no great shakes on the shrine/temple front, but there are various temples, most notably Usa-jingu, scattered around the Kunisaki peninsula to the north, while in Usuki to the south you'll find a whole series of Buddhist statues carved along a cliff.


Osaka is home to two venerable religious foundations: Shitenno-ji, founded in 593 and Japan's first state-sponsored temple, and Sumiyoshi Taisha - according to legend this striking, vermilion-coloured shrine dates back to 211. Other options in the area include Kyoto, Nara and the mountain hideaway of Koya-san.


You don't really go to Sapporo for a religious experience (its best known for its brewery and its nightlife), but if you're in need of some quiet contemplation, stroll along to the Hokkaido shrine. Quiet, that is, except in mid-June when the shrine festival brings everyone out onto the streets for some serious celebrating.


A few choices here in Shizuoka, of which Tosho-gu, a sumptuously decorated hilltop shrine dedicated to the first Tokugawa shogun, is the most famous.


To ring the changes, in Yokohama you can visit a temple in the middle of the city's Chinatown. Kantei-byo is small but suitably gaudy, with brightly coloured murals and writhing dragons in abundance.

by Jan Dodd

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