Temples and Shrines



In the 6th Century, Buddhism made its way into Japan through Korea and China. Unlike Shintoism, which does not have a founder, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, who lived almost 2,600 years ago in what is now Nepal and north-eastern India. Initially there were conflicts between Buddhists and Shintos but eventually the followers of the two religions learned to live together in relative harmony.

Throughout history Buddhism gained political influence. During the 8th Century in Nara, it was this influence that prompted the move of Japan's capital from Nara to Kyoto.

The first branch of Buddhism introduced to Japan was Mahayana Buddhism. This was soon followed by other sects of Buddhism from China such as the Tendai sect (805 AD), the Shingon sect (806 AD) and the Zen sect (1195 AD). Other popular sects like Jodo (1175 AD), Jodo-Shinshu (1224 AD) and Nichiren (1253) developed in Japan as well.

Currently about 90 million people in Japan consider themselves to be Buddhist although the religion does not significantly affect their everyday life. Buddhist rituals are more apt to be practiced on occasions such as funerals.  Many Japanese observe both Buddhist and Shinto practices and holidays.


The following structures and objects can be typically found at a temple:


Main hall

The sacred objects of worship, such as statues, are displayed in the main hall. Main halls are called kondo, hondo, butsuden, amidado or hatto in Japanese.


Lecture hall

Lecture halls are for meetings and lectures and often also display objects of worship. Lecture halls are called kodo.



The pagoda, a structure that has evolved from the Indian stupa, usually comes with three (sanju no to) or five (goju no to) stories. Pagodas store remains of the Buddha such as a tooth, usually in form of a representation




Gates mark the entrance to the temple grounds. There is usually one main gate, and possibly several additional gates, along the temple's main approach.




On New Year's Eve, temple bells are rung 108 times, corresponding to the Buddhist concept of 108 worldly desires.




Most cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist and are located at a temple. The Japanese visit their ancestors' graves on many occasions during the year, especially during the obon week (annual Buddhist occasion for remembering ancestors), the equinoctial weeks and anniversaries.

Visiting a temple

As with Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples are places of worship and visitors should behave respectfully and dress appropriately.

Temples store and display sacred Buddhist objects. Some temples used to be monasteries, and some still function as such.

At some temples, visitors burn incense (osenko) in large incense burners. Purchase a bundle, light them, let them burn for a few seconds and then extinguish the flame by waving your hand rather than by blowing it out. Finally, put the incense into the incense burner and fan some smoke towards yourself as the smoke is believed to have healing power.

Show your respect by making a short prayer in front of the sacred object. Do so by throwing a coin into the offering box, followed by a short prayer.

When entering temple buildings, you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance or take them with you in plastic bags provided at some temples. Wear clean socks in good condition.

Photography is usually permitted on the temple grounds. It is forbidden indoors at some temples. Watch for signs.


The Shinto religion is the native religion of Japan. The word 'Shinto' means 'way of the gods'. Shinto embraces many kami (gods) which often take the form of things close to life and nature such as trees, mountains, rivers, wind, rain, and fertility. One of the Shinto beliefs is that upon death people become kami and are worshipped as ancestral gods by their relatives.

According to Shintoism people are essentially good. Therefore, anything bad that people do is believed to have been caused by evil spirits. As a result, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep evil spirits away. This is accomplished through prayer, purification, and offerings to the kami.

Shinto is deeply rooted in the history of the Japanese. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Shinto was officially recognized as the state religion but after the Second World War the state and the Shinto religion were officially separated.

Shinto shrines

Shinto shrines are places of worship and the dwellings of the kami, the Shinto "gods". Sacred objects of worship that represent the kami are stored in the innermost chamber of the shrine where they cannot be seen by anybody.

People visit shrines in order to pay respect to the kami or to pray for good fortune. Shrines are also visited during special events such as oshogatsu (New Year), setsubun, shichigosan and other festivals. New born babies are traditionally brought to a shrine a few days after birth, and many couples hold their wedding ceremonies there.


The following structures and objects can be typically found at a shrine:


One or more torii gates mark the approach and entrance to a shrine. They come in various colours and are made of various materials. Most torii, however are made of wood, and many are painted orange, red, and black.



Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions, often found on each side of a shrine's entrance. In the case of Inari Shrines, they are foxes rather than dogs.



Purification trough

Found near the entrance, the water of these fountains is used for purification.




Main and offering hall

Depending on the shrine's architecture style, the main hall (honden) and offering hall (haiden) are two separate buildings or combined into one building. The main hall's innermost chamber contains the shrine's sacred object, while visitors make their prayers and offerings at the offering hall.



Stages for bugaku dance or noh theatre performances can be found at some shrines.





Can be purchased at the shrine.  Shrine visitors write their wishes on these wooden plates and then leave them at the shrine in the hope that their wishes come true. Most people wish for good health, success in business, passing entrance exams, love or wealth.



Omikuji are fortune telling paper slips that can be bought at many shrines and temples. Randomly drawn, they contain predictions ranging from daikichi ("great good luck") to daikyo ("great bad luck"). By tying the piece of paper around a tree's branch, good fortune will come true or bad fortune can be averted.


A shimenawa is a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips (gohei). It marks the boundary to something sacred and can be found on torii gates, around sacred trees and stones, etc. A rope similar to the shimenawa is also worn by yokozuna, the highest ranked sumo wrestlers, during ritual ceremonies.

There can be a variety of additional buildings such as the priest's house and office, a storehouse for mikoshi (portable shrines used for festivals) and other auxiliary buildings. Cemeteries, on the other hand, are almost never found at shrines, because death is considered a cause of impurity in Shinto, and in Japan is dealt with mostly by Buddhism.

The architecture and features of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples have melded together over the centuries. There are several construction styles, most of which show (Buddhist) influences from the Asian mainland. Only a few of today's shrines are considered to be built in a purely Japanese style. Among them are Shinto's most important shrines, the Ise Shrines (Mie Prefecture).

There are tens of thousands of shrines across Japan, some of which can be categorized into a few major groups of shrines. Some of these groups are:

Imperial Shrines
These are the shrines which were directly funded and administered by the government during the era of State Shinto. They include many of Shinto's most important shrines such as the Ise Shrines, Izumo Shrine and Atsuta Shrine, and a number of shrines newly built during the Meiji Period, such as Tokyo's Meiji Shrine and Kyoto's Heian Shrine. Imperial shrines can be recognized by the imperial family's chrysanthemum crest and by the fact that they are often called "jingu" rather than "jinja".

Inari Shrines
Inari Shrines are dedicated to Inari, the kami of rice. They can be recognized by fox statues, as the fox is considered the messenger of Inari. There are thousands of Inari Shrines across Japan, among which Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine is most famous.

Hachiman Shrines
Hachiman Shrines are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami of war, which used to be particularly popular among the leading military clans of the past. Of Japan's thousands of Hachiman Shrines, the most famous is probably Kamakura's Tsurugaoka Hachimangu.

Tenjin Shrines
Tenjin Shrines are dedicated to the kami of Sugawara Michizane, a Heian Period scholar and politician. They are particularly popular among students preparing for entrance exams. Tenjin Shrines can be recognized by ox statues and plum trees, Michizane's favorite trees. The first and most famous Tenjin Shrine is Dazaifu Tenmangu near Fukuoka.

Sengen Shrines
Sengen Shrines are dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the Shinto deity of Mount Fuji. More than one thousand Sengen Shrines exist across Japan, with the head shrines standing at the foot and the summit of Mount Fuji itself. 

Shrines dedicated to the founders of powerful clans
Some powerful clans in Japanese history established and dedicated shrines to their clans' founders. The most famous example are the several dozens of Toshogu Shrines dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, including the famous Toshogu Shrine at Nikko. Another example is Kanazawa's Oyama Shrine which is dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, the founder of the powerful, local Maeda clan.

Local Shrines
Many shrines are dedicated to local kami without association to other shrines.


Visiting a shrine

Visitors should always behave calmly and respectfully, and dress appropriately when visiting Japanese Shinto Shrines.

Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity.

You are supposed to clean your hands and mouth before approaching the main hall. At the purification fountain near the shrine's entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.















At the offering hall, throw a coin (any coin) into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of gong, use it before praying in order to get the attention of the kami (gods).


Photography is usually permitted at shrines. Watch for signs though.


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