An Introduction to: Japanese Shrines and Temples

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February 1, 2017

Anyone with a passing interest in Japan, not to mention if you’ve traveled or worked here for any length of time, is bound to have noticed this. There’s a prevalence of funny-looking buildings, some with snarling dragon-guys guarding the entrance, some emanating the low hum of chanting, and some with bright red archways in a row. These, my peeps, are Japanese shrines and temples.

I’m sure you’re probably nodding your head thinking, “Well, duh.” But do you know what to do in one? Can you tell the difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple? Why is the five yen coin the luckiest? What’s everyone doing around New Year? If you don’t know, then this brief introduction is here to help.

Do you know your kami from your buddha?

Sometimes it can be hard to see where Shintoism ends and Buddhism begins. Many Japanese people would identify as a bit of both, and temple complexes often contain shrines within them. Here’s some tips on how to tell whether the place you’re visiting is a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple.

Shintoism is one of Japan’s oldest religions and focuses on the worship of nature. Many Shinto gods or kami are depicted as animals, and shrines will often display guardian animals outside. Foxes, lions and tanuki (raccoon-dogs) are some of the most popular. Another big giveaway is the huge red arches called torii. Kyoto’s Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is famous for it’s numerous torii gates and fox statues.

On the other hand, Buddhist temples, with their pagodas and Buddha statues (the biggest can be found at Nara, Kamakura and on Nokogiriyama, Chiba), tend to resemble other temples seen throughout Asia. Incense is usually being burnt and you may even catch a glimpse of ohenro or Buddhist pilgrims, with their hats and walking sticks with bells on. If the place you’re visiting has “ji” at the end of the name, (like Todai-ji in Nara or Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto) you can bet it’s probably a Buddhist temple.

Etiquette: Not just for dinner

If you want to visit a shrine or temple, there are a few super simple rules you can follow.

In shrines, you’ll notice that there is usually one trough (or more) of water with ladles at the entrance. You use these to wash your hands and mouth before entering, some Japanese people also bow before they enter the main grounds.

Fancy saying a prayer to the kami? Bow, clap twice and bow again. Throw in a five yen coin for good luck, especially in the name of friendship and luuurve. The Japanese for “five yen” is go-en, and “en” can mean connection or relationship. So, donating five yen, instead of being stingy, is actually the equivalent of sending a friend request to the shrine’s resident deity.

For temples, you can cleanse yourself with incense before praying. At Senso-ji in Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s most famous and important temples, you’ll notice people standing around what looks like a giant cauldron and frantically patting themselves. Don’t worry, they’re not on fire – it’s actually a purification ritual. Prayers at Buddhist temples are usually silent too, although you will hear pilgrims or monks chanting.

Architecturally, these buildings are stunning, so you probably want to go snap-happy. It’s totally fine to take photos but do ask for permission before taking them of those working at the temple, such as monks, priests, or shrine maidens known as miko.

Trying your luck

Whether you’re at a shrine or temple (and you should be able to tell now), test if you really are lucky by picking up an omikuji or fortune slip. Usually costing around 200 yen, these little slips of paper will give you an idea of what’s in store for you in the future. Bigger spots like Meiji-jingu Shrine in Tokyo do have English omikuji but more often than not, you’ll have to google it. Fortunes can range from really awesome to really awful: just know that 大吉 (daikichi) is at the good end of the scale and 大凶 (daikyo) is, well, not. No worries if you get a bad fortune though. Quickly tie that omikuji to one of the designated areas or on a tree branch to make sure it doesn’t follow you home!

Hat, bells and a stick

Pilgrimages are a big deal for Buddhists and increasingly more foreign tourists are giving them a go too. Taking part in a pilgrimage is a great way to explore an area and really get to know the local people.

One of the most popular (and longest) is the Shikoku pilgrimage, made up of 88 temples spread out across the four prefectures, it takes about 40 days to complete. If you definitely don’t have the time or the money to do every single one, you can choose to visit two or three that happen to be in the area you’re staying. There’s no right or wrong way!

The Shikoku 88 pilgrims traditionally wear a white coat and purple scarf with a conical straw hat, and carry a walking stick.

Shikoku might be out of the way for some tourists but for those centering their stay in Tokyo, the New Year’s pilgrimages take anything from a couple of hours to a full day. These are centered around the seven lucky gods and aspiring pilgrims will go from shrine to shrine picking up beautiful calligraphic stamps on boards or in special books, called Goshoinchou.

Yanaka, Shinjuku, Nihonbashi and Shinagawa in Tokyo all have courses you can try out within the first ten days of the New Year. A great way to explore the capital while you rake in good fortune for the year ahead.

TGIF(S) or Thank God It’s Festival Season

During the sticky, sweltering summer months it’s hard to look forward to anything but a cold shower. However, summer certainly has one thing going for it: festivals. Most of these are centered around local shrines and temples and can be tracked down by following the bangs and whistles of fireworks, or the yukata and jinbei-clad crowds.

Tanabata (on or around the 7th July) and Obon (mid-August) are two of Japan’s biggest in summer. Festivities are held throughout the country (smaller scale local festivals are also in abundance) so no matter where you are, you’ll certainly have the opportunity to stock up on festival delicacies such as karaage (fried chicken) and yaki-soba (fried Japanese noodles). Yatta!

Shrine on

Hopefully your basic temple and shrine related questions were answered within this introduction but let us know if we’ve missed anything. Got a favorite shrine or temple you’d like to recommend? Or any stories to share? Comment below!

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  • Great blog! Thank you for sharing this post. It’s important that visitors understand more and appreciate the whole experience when visiting these spiritual places. One of our favourite shrines would have to be Izumo Taisha (Okuninushi no Okami), approximately built in the early 700’s. Some of our teachers and students visit regularly.
    Few points we’d like to add:
    1) Money should be politely placed slowly and carefully into the front wooden box, not thrown, nor folded (if notes). This can be confusing for visitors as many Japanese people don’t actually do this and also throw money.
    2) There is usually a correct direction/process/path which you should follow to enter a shrine’s/temple’s grounds. Each place can differ but normally you start your journey through the main big entrance gate (no shortcuts!). When entering, always walk to the side whether on a path or up big steps. Walking on the side is respectful. If you’re standing directly outside the door of a shrine/temple, try not to stand with your back facing the kami. This too can be seen as disrespectful.
    3) When taking photos, it’s important to have a feeling of gratitude/thankfulness inside. Be careful though if inside a shrine/temple, many places don’t actually want you taking photos of Kami/statues etc.

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