Temples & Shrines   お寺と神社 Discover the most beautiful temples and shrines in Japan. An essential part for any visit.

Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

The big lantern of the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

Temples and Shrines
The sanctuary and its brightly colored pavilions

The shrine and its brightly colored pavilions

Torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha

Torii of Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto.

Discover the most beautiful temples and shrines in Japan. An essential part for any visit.

Pagodas, pavilions, monasteries, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and altars dot the Japanese landscape. 

Whatever the belief, places of worship coexist in Japan. And nothing could make this easier to understand than the common saying: "Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist."

In a syncretism of beliefs, Buddhist and Shinto meet. Buddhist temples sometimes have Shinto symbols. The Japanese see the Buddha as the protector of the kami (Shinto gods). There is not a single Japanese Buddhism or Shinto but a mixture of schools, rituals and traditions.

Buddhism and temples

Originating in India in the 5th century BC. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 5th and 6th centuries AD via China and the Korean peninsula. Buddhism is the set of teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha ("awakened" in Sanskrit), after having attained enlightenment. It is a spiritual path that aims to become aware of the suffering inherent in life, as well as its cause: attachment.

By different methods - meditation, chanting of sutras or mantras ... - which differ according to the school, the practitioner abandons the idea of "I" and "mine" at the origin of this attachment in order to realize the impermanence of all things and the vanity of ego.

The Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple

The Great Buddha of Todaiji temple.

This philosophy was adopted by the first Japanese monks at the end of the 6th century, so much so that Buddhism was declared a state religion in 592. Just over 14 centuries later, there are more than 77,000 otera (Buddhist temples) scattered throughout Japan and around 340,000 monks.

The Main Schools of Buddhism

In Japan, a total of thirteen schools of Buddhism coexist and have their own temples. Here are the main ones:

  • Tendai, a school created in 805 by the monk Saicho and which stands out for its rigorous ascetic practice.

  • Shingon, or "True Word", a school of esoteric Buddhism which emphasizes the recitation of mantras, formulations made up of repeated syllables for meditative purposes.

  • Jodo, the Pure Land School, and Jodo Shinshu, a new school of Pure Land, which are the two most popular schools in Japan. They encourage the practitioner to chant Sutras, which are Buddhist writings.

  • Soto and Rinzai, which are the two main schools of Zen Buddhism and insist respectively on meditation (zazen) and on koan, which are enigmas that the practitioner must solve to reach enlightenment.

The Composition of a Buddhist Temple

A Buddhist temple is usually built of wood, although more modern temples are made of reinforced concrete to prevent fire. The architectural style largely depends on the school to which the temple is attached.

A Buddhist temple consists of three parts:

  • The hondo or "main building", also called butuden, "Buddha palace".

  • The pagoda (to), three or five stories high (absent in Zen temples).

  • The lecture hall (kodo) or Dharma room (hotto), where the monks study Buddhist texts.

These three parts are connected or not by a covered corridor (kairo). There is also a refectory (jikido), in which the monks take their meals together.

Shintoism and Shrines

Shintoism, "the way of the gods" is the indigenous religion of Japan. A religion that worships the forces of nature represented by the kami, the gods, numbering 800 myriads.

Shinto Shrines

There are nearly 85,000 Shinto shrines and 22,000 Shinto priests throughout Japan. These places of worship are generally called jinja in Japanese, although they are also known by the names of jingu, miya or even taisha ("great sanctuary"). Unlike Buddhism and its various schools, Shintoism is a homogeneous religion, found throughout the country.

Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima

Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, near Hiroshima

The entrance to a Shinto shrine can be recognized by the famous torii, a generally red gate that marks the border between the sacred and the profane. The most emblematic is the torii of the, partly submerged, Itsukushima shrine, on the island of Miyajima.

Some shrines also have a stone staircase (ishidan), which leads inside the building via the alley (sando) lined with lanterns (toro). Along this alley is the chozuya, a small pool where the faithful can purify their bodies according to a defined ritual. After this stage, we reach the different parts of the building, in particular the haiden, a building of worship in which the faithful perform their prayers.