Japanese Temples and Shrines

Japanese Shrines and Temples: What's the Difference? お寺と神社

Kinkakuji temple Kyoto set in trees.
Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto

Tera (or, more honorifically, o-tera) refers to a Buddhist temple in Japan, and jinja to a Shinto shrine. However, almost without exception, they are encountered together and can often be difficult to tell apart.

My introduction to Japan's staggering wealth of religious monuments took place at Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple.

Sensoji Temple

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 stand guard at the start of the 300 meter-long approach to the temple, lined with stalls selling an exuberant mix of traditional crafts and gaudy 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.

Meiji-jingu Shrine

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 was installed to lead 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 graveled 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.

(Yet, the divide isn't as clear as this may make it seem, because right next door to Sensoji Temple, in the same compound, is Asakusa Shrine, constructed many centuries after the founding of Sensoji to honor the temple's three founders.)

Water plays an important purification role in Japanese religion.
Shinto priest at Meiji Jingu, Tokyo

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). Let's take a look at the specific historical root of this current day difference.

History of the Shinto/Buddhist Divide

Japan's major modernizing event was the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the intent of which was to make Japan strong enough to resist Western encroachment.This spelt the end of the feudal Shogunate and the beginning of constitutional monarchy for Japan.

As part of this modernization, the Kami and Buddhas Separation Order was issued in 1868, kami being the Shinto gods, which were identified as being fundamentally separate from the Buddha. Until this time, Buddhism and Shinto had been almost indistinguishable, sharing the same compounds and buildings, and the kami being seen as manifestations of the Buddha.

The aim of the separation was to provide a religious basis for the nationalism that had to be fostered among the people if Japan was to succeed as a modern state. However, the fact that the Buddhist temples were immensely rich and powerful institutions at that time, with huge land holdings, was another factor. The Buddhist establishment could well have been seen as a threat to the new government.

From 1868 until 1873, Buddhist temples underwent forcible closure, land confiscation, and destruction of property, all with the tacit approval of the new Meiji government. During this time, Shinto kami (gods), which had played the role of protective deities in temples, were identified as fundamentally different. They were enshrined on premises of their own, and new "traditions" that posited them as the original, "true" gods of Japan were formed.

The kami-buddha separation movement quickly died out without effecting as deep a divide between the two as had been intended. Buddhist temples today still incorporate usually several Shinto deities, and some religious institutions are neither identifiable as Buddhist or Shinto, but just "Japanese," such as Toyokawa Inari in Akasaka, Tokyo. However, today many Shinto shrines now have their own exclusive compounds and buildings, and are generally perceived as different from Buddhist temples.

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.

Water plays an important purification role in Japanese religion.
Temizuya or chozuya are water troughs in every Shinto shrine used for ritual purification

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 just as they do 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 stylized 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.

The Broad O-tera/Jinja Spectrum

A guardian spirit adorns an incense holder.
Incense holder in a Japanese Buddhist temple; the upward flow of smoke towards heaven connects the temporal with the spiritual realms

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 favorite 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. To the east is the huge Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple, Japan's second most visited temple, in Narita, close to Narita International Airport.

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.)

The Essence of Shinto.

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 favorites 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.

Temples and Shrines 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 honor 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.

The Temples of Kyoto.


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 of which 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-colored 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 colored murals and writhing dragons in abundance.

by Jan Dodd

Related Japan Links

Nanzenji Temple Kyoto
Katsuoji Temple Osaka
Kyoto Sightseeing
Tokyo Sightseeing
Nagoya Attractions
Osaka Attractions
Ueno Park Tokyo Guide
Tokyo Tower Area Guide
Zen Buddhism
Kokokuji Temple Yuasa
Toji Temple Market Kyoto
Ebisu and Daikoku
Yasukuni Shrine Tokyo
Muroji Temple, Nara
Japan Temples & Shrines
Byodoin Temple Uji Kyoto
Daikakuji Temple Kyoto
Daitokuji Temple Kyoto
Ginkakuji Temple Kyoto
Honen-in Temple Kyoto
Kinkakuji Temple Kyoto
Myomanji Temple Kyoto
Ninnanji Temple Kyoto
Nishi & Higashi Honganji Temples Kyoto
Ryoanji Temple Kyoto
Saihoji Temple Kyoto
Sanjusangendo Temple Kyoto
Tofukuji Temple Kyoto
Toji Temple Kyoto
Tojiin Temple Kyoto

Books on Japan & Japanese Temples

Buy A Japan Rail Pass For Your Journey To Japan.