Apart from its amazing technological advances, Japan is definitely known for its wide and varied culture. From some outstanding attractions, the most famous ones are without doubt the diverse shrines and temples situated throughout the country.
Now, let get the difference between a shrine and a temple straight away: Japan has two primary religions – Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is practiced in shrines, while Buddhism is practiced in temples.
Shinto dates way back to the time when different clans worshipped different deities or “kami” (gods), while Buddhism was introduced to the country a while later.
So now I will introduce the temples and shrines that I find fascinating and which are a must to visit if you ever come across their corresponding areas.
Meiji Shrine (Meiji-jingumae, Tokyo)
One of the most well known shrines in Japan, the Meiji Shrine is dedicated Emperor Meiji and his wife. This is an example of a typical but prosperous Shinto shrine – Shinto weddings are held there, so if you come across one on your visit, you must be very lucky (although the weddings are held frequently).
The Shrine is surrounded by a forest and walk trails which you can take a while to relax in. The peaceful forest contrasts to the busy Tokyo city outside the area. All the trees were donated from different prefectures and areas all over Japan.
The Meiji shrine is visited the most during Golden Week and New Years but it is really crowdy during weekends as well.
The shrine also hosts the annual Grand Spring Festival, which is rising with popularity.
To mark the entrance of the Shrine, a gorgeous Torii gate welcomes its visitors. All Shinto shines have torii gates making them easy to identify and recognize apart from the temples.
Kiyomizu Dera (Kiyomizu Dera, Kyoto)
Established in the late 8th century, the Kiyomizu Dera has become one of the many symbols of Kyoto. The well-known temple is famous throughout the nation and has a few international ties as well.
Kiyomizu Dera is so old, that it was founded even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan, not even mentioning Tokyo.
Kiyomizu Dera is in fact a building complex owned by a shogun back in the days. It was of course rebuilt and renovated since then, however the original atmosphere still remains.
The most famous structure in the complex is the famous Kiyomizu Stage – a wooden stage situated 13-14m above a hillside. (Wouldn’t recommend for people with height fright). Apart from the stage, there are many different worship halls featured to the visitors as well.
The temple in fact, hosts many different events throughout the year and is surrounded by waterfalls and gardens.
The place is seen as the symbol of Kyoto and the photos from different seasons are displayed on tourist brochures.
It is listed in the UNESCO World Culture Heritage List.
Kifune Shrine (Kibune, Kyoto)
The Kifune shrine located in the charming city of Kibune is a nice place to visit if you ever come across Kyoto.
The shrine became famous through Empress Murakami as she sent messengers with messages to 16 shrines with guardian kami, and the Kifune Shrine happened to be one of them. These events occurred in the late 10th century and the shrine continued to prosper since then. Many legends surround the town making it an interesting visit for tourists.
The shrine is dedicated to the god of water and rain and hosts a Kifune Shrine Water Festival annually. Many Shinto weddings are held there so it is always interesting when your visit overlaps with one.
Apart from the Kifune Shrine, taking a walk along the beautiful Kifune River is really nice as well.
Fushimi Inari Shrine (Inari, Kyoto)
Another one of the 16 shrines that the Empress Murakami notified, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is a particularly famous shrine in Kyoto. Many tourists visit it but that doesn’t really affect the atmosphere of the area.
The main shrine was built in the 15th century and is really beautiful. The main point however, isn’t the shrine – it’s the picturesque torii path leading to the shrine. The torii path consists of 10000 torii gates and is a really famous symbol/image of Kyoto. (I counted them – it really is 10000).
The walk up takes about 2-3 hours and it’s a good mountain hike if you are up for it. Many unique and diverse festivals are held throughout the year – such as the tea festival, fire festival and the rice festival.
Check out their main website for more information on the dates and times.
Kinkaku-ji temple (Kyoto)
This Zen Buddhist temple is one of the most well known tourist attractions in Kyoto. Also known as the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkaku-ji temple is quite crowdy but famous. You have never visited Kyoto if you have never been here.
Considered in the list of the Kyoto World Heritage Site, this building – as suggested by the name is coated with gold leaf. The gold plays a visual and symbolic role in the meaning of the temple – gold is known to have a purifying meaning in Japan. Unfortunately you cannot go inside the three-story building, but you can walk around the beautiful gardens (with their own special design in their specific era) and ponds.
Kaminari-mon Gate / Asakusa Shrine (Asakusa,Tokyo)
Next up is the Asakusa Shrine with its corresponding Kaminari-mon Gate. Kaminari-mon in its literal translation means the gate of thunder. Built in the early 10th century, the gate stands there to this day (although it was reconstructed in a different place from where it was originally – got burnt down after a fire).
Two gods stand on both sides of the gate – Fujin and Rajin, which literally translate to the god of wind and the god of thunder.
The Kaminari-mon serves as an entrance to the Asakusa Shrine, which is popular among tourists and visitors as well. This is the place where one of the three greatest Shinto matsuri in Tokyo – the Sanja Matsuri is held. It is considered to be the wildest Shinto matsuri in Tokyo as well.
The Asakusa shrine which hosts the Sanja Matsuri, is considered one of the most famous Shinto shrines throughout Tokyo.
Sensoji Temple (Asakusa, Tokyo)
An ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo, the Sensoji Temple is also referred to as the Asakusa temple (do not confuse with the Asakusa shrine as they are two different things). It is the oldest temple in Tokyo and hosts the biggest Tokyo matsuri, which lasts for 3-4 days during springtime. It is a popular place to visit among tourists and locals – I remember visiting it on a rainy day and still many crowds were surrounding the area.
Next to the Asakusa temple, the Nakamise-dori is located. It is known as the best souvenier place in the whole of Tokyo (even Japan) and doesn’t seize to amaze its visitors with the range of materials and interesting products it sells.
Kanda Shrine (Tokyo)
Constructed in the 8th century, the Kanda Shrine was destroyed and reconstructed many times since its foundation. It is situated on the exact spot where the Imperial Palace used to be, and is a popular place for the local people to come and pray. Situated around an old community and neighborhood the shrine also hosts the Kanda Matsuri in which many mikoshi gather, which is why it is considered to be one of the biggest festivals in Tokyo. It is ranked among the top 10 shrines in Tokyo, and is worth a visit during some free time.
Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple which is the longest wooden structure in Japan. The temple isn’t ordinary – its shape and wooden structure contributes to the unique aura of the place. Featuring 1001 statues of the Goddess of Mercy, Kanon, this is an interesting place to visit to find out about Japanese gods and “kami”.
Sanjusangendo also hosts a New Year’s archery contest which is really famous among teenagers and locals.
After visiting the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion is your next attraction you might want visiting. Taking design ideas from the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion in fact doesn’t have any silver at all! The two-story zen temple was planned to be covered in silver foil, but unfortunately the construction was halted and the project didn’t finish.
People say that the “silver” image comes from the reflection of the silver water from the pond.
Just like the Golden Pavilion, the temple was built to show solitude and rest towards the shogun it represented. It is an interesting place worth visiting.
In conclusion, Japan has many different temples and shrines worth visiting. I only listed the main ones from Kyoto and Tokyo but there is obviously much more “treasure” located in rural areas as well.
They are definitely worth visiting – for culture, tradition and history.