Japan’s Shrines & Temples
A Short Guide to Telling these Two Attractions Apart
Can you identify the differences between a shrine and a temple? With few exceptions, virtually all visitors to Japan include a visit to one or the other on their itineraries. After all, the traditional architecture is timelessly picturesque and appeals to individuals from all walks of life. As awe inspiring as these structures may be though, it can be difficult to discern whether it’s a shrine or a temple. To help remedy this situation, I’ve put together the following short guide.
In the following sections, I’ll unveil some of the commonalities and differences between shrines and temples. Additionally, I’ll also provide some key pointers for when to visit each and what to expect. Grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee and let’s dive on into this primer on two of Japan’s most iconic structural designs!
Simply put, the most clearly defining disparity between shrines and temples is that the former are Shinto and the latter are Buddhist. For those not in the known, Shinto is an animistic religion that is indigenous to Japan. Buddhism, on the other hand, is an Indian import that first entered Japan in the 6th century via Korea and China. While there has been of course some cross pollination, many of mainland Asia’s aesthetic motifs can still be observed in temple designs.
Up until the Meiji period (1868–1912), Shinto had no real “religious” structure. Indeed, it wasn’t until Japan encountered the West in the 19th century that the idea of Shinto was even codified as a religious doctrine. Instead, it merely existed as a loosely connected network of beliefs that revered a plethora of different kami. Most English writings translate this word as “gods;” but in truth, kami are much more like powerful spirits. They can take on many forms and are not solely limited to deification of nature.
Japanese Buddhism, on the other hand, is much more difficult to pigeonhole. It has numerous sects that each have their own interpretation of the doctrine. While this reflects the long and rich history of Buddhism in East Asia, it is also quite confusing (even for me). Just know that in Japan’s formative years, monks traversed across all of Asia and returned with their discoveries and teachings. As one can see, Buddhism played an important role during Japan’s early history. Zen, for example, was integral to the founding of the samurai culture.
Today, most Japanese do not identify as a specific religion as one might in the West (e. g.,“I am Muslim.”). In fact, there’s a common saying that the Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist. Because of this fluidity, it’s not uncommon to see shrines on temple grounds and vice versa. After all, Shinto and Buddhism were only officially separated in the late 19th century by an Imperial Decree meaning much of their intertwined legacy is still culturally observable.
One of the easiest ways to tell whether or not you are entering sacred Shinto spaces is to look for grand torii gateways. These entryways are used to denote consecrated ground. Generally speaking, temples do not use these gates. Instead, you can identify them on a map by looking for the 卍 symbol on the map. Not to be confused with the Swastika, this symbol is called Manji in Japanese and has been used for centuries across Asia to denote Buddhist establishments. Unfortunately, due the Nazi connotations, the government is currently considering changing this symbol despite local push back.
Another easy way to tell the difference between shrines and temples is by the name. Typically, you’ll find most shrines end with the suffix “jinjya,” meaning shrine in Japanese. Several of the major shrines employ either “taisha” or “jingu” but these are typically reserved for places like Fushimi Inari Taisha or Ise Jingu. Lastly, know that occasionally you’ll also come across other suffixes such as “yashiro,” “miya,” “myojin” or “gu” but these are relatively rare. Nevertheless, there are prominent examples such as Nikko’s Tosho-gu shrine so it’s good to keep this info in the back of your mind.
While shrines can be identified via the above nomenclature, temples tend to utilize the suffixes “ji,” “in,” “tera” or “dera.” Some good examples of these are Asakusa’s Senso-ji, Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, and Miyajima’s Daisho-in. To avoid confusion, know that when localizing into English, many temples opt to tack on the word “temple” after the suffix. For example Kamakura’s Hase-dera becomes Hase-dera temple. Shrines on the other hand tend to drop the suffix and replace it with the word “shrine” (E.g. Meiji-jingu becomes Meiji shrine).
In many cases you can visually ascertain whether the structure is a shrine or temple by looking at the surroundings as well. The following are some of the most obvious tells to look for…
Is there a garden complex? Temples frequently have at least some form of garden, whereas shrines are often placed within naturally occurring landscapes. As Buddhism traveled in waves from China, so too did Chinese garden aesthetics. The early forms of Japanese gardens were informed by their Chinese counterparts. Zen rock gardens are heavily associated with Japan, but these also came in via Chinese influence.
Shinto on the other hand, places value in the spirit of natural phenomena. For this reason, you might come across a rock outcropping or other unique natural formation with a torii gate. Some shrines do not have an actual building with them because natural formations can also be enshrined.
Do you see any statues near the entrance? If you encounter a pair of of fierce, warrior-like figures then you’re at a temple. These two figures are depictions of Bodhisattva and are commonly referred to as Agyo and Ungyo. Their ferocious appearance is said to guard against evil.
Alternatively if you see a pair of fox statues at the entrance, you’re at a Shinto “Inari” shrine. While innumerable forms of Shinto shrines exist, Inari shrines are the most common and represent over 30 percent of all shrines. Foxes are said the be the messengers of the god Inari.
Things get a big more confusing if the site has lion-dog statues. These are more commonly spotted at shrines, but some Buddhist temples also have them. Not all temples and shrines have these indicators, but they are common.
In some cases, you can find both of these displayed together at the same location. Jyogyo-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, houses a small stone pagoda with both Buddhist figures and Shinto fox statues.
Do you see a graveyard nearby? A graveyard almost always indicates a Buddhist temple. While most Japanese practice both Shintoism and Buddhism, funerals and burials are almost always held in the Buddhist tradition.
Tips for Travelers
Now that you know to tell the difference between your shrines and temples, let’s look at how they affect your travel plans. The most important thing that visitors to Japan should note is the difference in operating hours. Buddhist temples are open to the public only during specific hours of the day. Some temples open as early as 6:00 AM but others are known to open their doors as late as 10:00 AM. Be sure to check in advance.
While the above is worth keeping in mind, it’s imperative you understand that most temples also tend to close for the day between the hours of 4:00 PM and 7:00 PM. During special occasions or religious events, some temples will extend their opening hours into the late night. Keep in mind that opening and closing hours are likely to change seasonally to align with daylight hours. Shrines, on the other hand, generally do not have closing hours. It is entirely possible to visit a shrine in the middle of the night if you really wanted to.
With this bit of knowledge, you can plan your sightseeing more effectively. Confirm the opening hours of the temples you wish to visit and make a point of slotting them into the day’s schedule. As shrines are mostly open at all times, these can be easily fit at either end of the day. Pro tip: a night time visit to a shrine is sure to guarantee a completely different atmosphere and rather surreal experience.
One other thing that visitors should note is that many historical temples charge an entrance fee. While this practice is not uniform across the board per say, do expect to pay a marginal fee at most major temples in historical sites like Kyoto and Nara. Shrines on the other hand, with few exceptions, are entirely free to enter.
Another defining difference is the fact that most traditional Japanese festivals are held by shrines. Local festivals occur year-round yet the bulk of the celebrations happen between the months of September and November. Additionally, many festivals are not held on the grounds of the shrine itself. Instead, portable altars called mikoshi are hauled around town by a team of local residents. This is usually accompanied by loud chanting, revelry, and a lot of really good street food.
Some temples also sponsor their own special events. While these tend to be more “religious” in nature all in all, they are spectacular. Todai-ji temple in Nara for example hosts its annual Omizutori, one of the longest running of such celebrations. This event typically runs for several weeks during early March. Each night, a number of massive torches are burned as part of the festivities. While temples tend to close around 5:00 PM the opening times are extended during these events. On the final day, the celebrations can run well into the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, as with the shrines and temples themselves, it can be sometimes hard to tell the religious origins. Tokyo, for example, hosts the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa at Sensoji Temple. This festival is Shinto in form as it is technically hosted by Asakusa Shrine. But, it is held in homage to the founders of the Buddhist Senso-ji Temple. What’s more, the three founders of the temple are enshrined at Asakusa Shrine nearby. Given that Buddhism and Shinto were only separated in the late 19th century by an imperial decree, this cross pollination is not exactly surprising.
While the above may seem confusing, it’s not needed to enjoy a festival. I’d encourage all travelers to try to make it to a one if time allows. Nevertheless, some might want to avoid the more popular revelry due to the crowds. If you’re traveling with the intent of getting some rest and relaxation, you’d do well to avoid any big happenings. Additionally, extremely famous festivals have a reputation for quickly occupying all hotel vacancies. This is especially true for those taking place in the countryside like Aomori’s Nebuta Festival.
While we’re on the topic of annual events, if you’re going to be in Japan for New Years, know that shrines and temples play an important role here as well. For starters, on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples in Japan ring their bells 107 times. Then, on the following day the bell is sounded again for a total of 108 rings. These represent all the worldly desires in Buddhism and are said to symbolically release everyone such that they may start the year with a freshly cleaned slate. If you’ve never been to a temple before, know that these bells are massive. The bell at Nara’s Todai-ji for example is so large that it takes a total of 17 monks just to ring it once!
Shrines on the other hand, have their own tradition. Known as Hatsumode in Japanese, this practice essentially translates to “first shrine visit of the year.” Many residents will get up at dawn on January 1st to start the year of right. Due to the popularity of the custom, major shrines such as Meiji Shrine and Fushimi Inari Shrine can easily become overcrowded, even in the bitter cold. In the past, some of the bigger shrines have attracted over 2.5 million visitors each. In response, I’d highly suggest you pick a smaller local shrine for Hatsumode and avoid spending your first new day waiting in line.
Before leaving, know that one of the major Hatsumode traditions is to draw an Omikuji to tell your fortune for the coming year. You can also buy an Omamori amulet for luck in the new year as well. These come in a variety of different types with popular ones being for money, health, love, or doing well in school. If you have an Omamori from the previous year, you should return it to the shrine to be ritually burned before getting a new Omamori for the new year.
One note about Omamori; these are sold at both temples and shrines. If you are returning an old Omamori, only return Shinto ones to shrines. Buddhist ones should be returned to a temple of the same Buddhist sect. In either case, the best is to return it to the same shrine or temple where you originally obtained it.