One of the first things many people learn about Japan is that there are two religions, Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is the native animistic belief, while Buddhism was imported from China via Korea in the 6th century CE. There are Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. While there is some overlap, particularly in how people pray, the two are mainly separate. Or are they?
For most of Japan’s history, Shinto and Buddhism existed as one belief system. Shinto is pantheistic and allows for belief in many different gods. When Buddhism arrived, the new gods slotted neatly into the existing pantheon.
The only difference was that Buddhist deities were foreign, while Shinto were local. As a result, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples existed side by side, often on the same grounds. There was little distinction between them until the Meiji government forcibly split them to help legitimize the new system with the god-emperor at the top.
Here are five you should visit.
1. Todaiji Temple (Nara)
Todaiji Temple (seen in the lead) in Nara is one of Japan’s most famous (and defacto largest) temples. It’s home to the magnificent Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, and a shining example of Japanese Buddhism. It’s also a place to experience Buddhist and Shinto syncretism.
Emperor Shomu founded Todaiji in 738 CE. Buddhism was relatively new as a religion in a country with a long-established group of local gods. Emperor Shomu visited the Hachimangu shrine, known as Usa Jingu in Kyushu, to ask the priests to bless and protect his new temple.
They agreed, and a Hachimangu shrine was established on the grounds of the new temple that survives today—now called Tamukeyama Hachiman Shrine. Todaiji also houses a wooden statue of Hachiman rendered as a Buddhist monk, a very unusual relic as Shinto gods are not usually depicted in the same as Buddhist ones are.
2. Usa Jingu Shrine (Oita)
Usa Jingu Shrine, the headquarters for all the Hachimangu shrines in Japan, is in Oita Prefecture. It’s widely regarded as the main starting point for syncretic practices, with Shinto-style shrines and Buddhist temples found together on the large complex from the late 8th century.
Although the two were forcibly separated by the Meiji government in 1868 and all Buddhist structures removed, some festivals and rituals from that period remain. Many of the Buddhist statues taken from the shrine are still housed in temples in the area, so any visit to Jingu Shrine should definitely include a tour of the wider area as well.
3. Toyokawa Inari Shrine (Aichi)
With its torii shrine gate tunnels and many fox statues, Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most-recognizable shrines in Japan. It’s one of many Inari shrines, though. Another, Toyokawa Inari Shrine in Aichi Prefecture, is the third largest Inari shrine in the country. It also shares its grounds with a Buddhist temple.
The legend goes that a Buddhist priest named Kangan Giin saw the Buddhist deity Dakini Shinten riding a white fox, traditionally the messenger of the god Inari, in a vision. He made a carving of what he saw, which ended up in the hands of Tokai Geki, the monk who founded Toyokawa Inari Shrine in 1441.
4. Kumano Kodo (Wakayama and Mie)
Most places we’ve looked at until now keep their Shinto and Buddhist elements separate. However, Kumano Kodo (and the next on the list) actively mix the two, resulting in a distinct kind of worship called Shugendo.
The Kii Peninsula in modern-day Mie and Wakayama Prefectures is one of the most sacred areas in Japan, with Ise Shrine, Koyasan, and the Kumano shrines all located within it. Connecting these places is the Kumano Kodo, an ancient hiking trail that the yamabushi (mountain hermits) have long used. They are an order of ascetic monks who practice Shugendo, a mix of Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoist elements.
The Kumano shrines are a hot spot for Shugendo worship. The three main Shinto deities of Kumano are also worshipped as Buddhas. If you’re lucky, you may see a Shugendo ceremony at one of the main Kumano shrines, including Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha. The latter, with its famous waterfall, also features a temple on its grounds.
5. Rokugo-Manzan Temples (Oita)
Oita’s Kunisaki Peninsula is a remote and palpably spiritual area. In the 8th century, Ninmon, a monk from Usa Shrine, established several temples around the peninsula. Believed to be the Buddhist reincarnation of the Shinto deity Hachiman, he created an ascetic practice known as Rokugo-Manzan. They practiced mineiri, or walking mountain paths in prayer.
A few temples and shrines remain from this time, most notably Futagoji Temple and its famous stone steps. Also worth visiting are Fukuji Temple and the Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddha, which is carved into a cliffside. Many of the temples also feature Shinto shrines.