Japan is famous for its multiple temples and shrines and no trip is complete without a visit to some of them. From the first shrine we visited, Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, to the last one, Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, each one was different and captivating in its own way.
The first question that comes to mind is if there is a difference between Japanese temples and shrines. Well, from what I have read, there are a few. Shrines follow the principles of Shintoism whereas temples are dedicated to Buddhist philosophy. Shrines may be dedicated to various deities but temples are always dedicated to the Buddha. Shrines have wooden gates or “Toris” at their entrance whereas temples feature Pagodas prominently. Shrines have cleansing rituals that are performed before entering whereas temples have incense burners at the entrance.
To paraphrase the Meiji Jingu pamphlet, “Shinto is Japan’s ancient and original religion. It has no founder, no holy book, but is rather a deeply rooted way of life. Shintoism values virtues like harmony with nature or sincerity of heart. Divinity is found in nature, mythology and human beings and a divine spirit or Kami is revered and shrines are dedicated to such Kami”.
There are several shrines and temples all over Japan, but especially in Kyoto. Fall, when we visited, was the perfect time to visit them. Many have beautiful gardens on site and were illuminated beautifully. Many are iconic like the Kinkakuji in Kyoto. Some are UNESCO world heritage sites like the Tenriyu-ji temple in Arashiyama, near Kyoto. All of them require a ticket to enter.
Join us as we revisit all the wonderful temples and shrines we were fortunate to visit.
MEIJI JINGU SHRINE, TOKYO
- Emperor Meiji was the ruler of Japan when the country was opening up to the outside world after a long isolation period. He helped promote friendship with the western world and introduced many new technologies and fostered industrial growth. His Empress Shoken also helped promote national welfare as well as women’s education. The souls of the this much-revered Emperor and Empress are enshrined here.
SENSO-JI TEMPLE, TOKYO
- The oldest temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji is also one of the most famous. Situated in Asakusa, legend has it that the Kannon statue housed here was fished out of the water by two brothers. They tried unsuccessfully to return the statue to the water but it kept returning to them. So they built this temple to honor the statue. The outer gate entrance or the Kaminarimon is quite iconic of this temple and area. This entrance leads to a street with local shops before reaching the second gate and then into the temple complex.
KOTOKU-IN TEMPLE, KAMAKURA
- Home to the Great Bronze Amidha Buddha or Daibutsu in Kamakura, this statue dates back to the 1200s when it was gilded in gold. Now open to air, the inside of the Buddha is hollow and visitors can access the inside to see how it was cast and constructed.
HASADERA KANNON TEMPLE, KAMAKURA
- Another temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kannon, this temple is set along densely wooded slopes. There is a beautiful garden with a pond at the base of the temple while the upper temple area terrace provides good views of the coast.
CHION-IN TEMPLE, KYOTO
- Located in Kyoto, this was one of the two temples that stood out for its beautiful garden settings and the fall illumination.
EIKANDO ZENRIN-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO
- The other temple in Kyoto that we visited famous for its amazing gardens, fall colors and lighting. Named Eikando for the abbot and chief priest who worked to enlarge this temple, this temple is widely associated with the recitation of the Nembutsu. Chanting the Nembutsu involves mindfulness of the Buddha and reciting the name of the Amidha Buddha. It’s widely believed that such chanting helps to spread spiritual benefits for oneself as well as others.
TENRIYU-JI TEMPLE, ARASHIYAMA
- Located in the Arashiyama area near Kyoto, this temple is a UNESCO world heritage site. Established in 1339 by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji, this building has been ravaged by fires several times and the current building was restored in the Meiji period. Interestingly, the landscape gardens of the temple, called the Sogenchi Garden, is one of the oldest in Japan and retains the same form as its original designer intended it to be in the 1300s. We stopped here to enjoy a Buddhist Zen meal, one of the highlights of our trip.
KINKAKU (GOLDEN PAVILION) AT THE ROKUON-JI TEMPLE, KYOTO
- One of the most beautiful settings for a temple and very emblematic of Kyoto, the Kinkaku-ji pavilion is a shariden, a Buddhist reliquary. It is said to represent the Pure Land of the Buddha in this world. The top two levels of the Kinkaku are covered in gold foil. A phoenix stands tall at the top of the roof. Once the home of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the villa was converted to a temple after his death.
GINKAKU-JI (SILVER PAVILION), KYOTO
- Also the retirement home of another Ashikaga shogun, this villa was similarly converted into a temple after his death. It boasts a two-story pavilion that is made of dark wood and was painted in black lacquer in its early days. Although not covered in silver, its said that on moonlit nights the dark lacquer appeared silvery and hence the name. The grounds boast a dry sand garden which is unique, indeed. A moss garden and amazing views of Kyoto from the high hill behind the temple are memorable.
TODAI-JI TEMPLE, NARA
- Founded in the 8th century, this temple is home to the Vairocana Buddha, which measures a tall 45 meters and is made completely of bronze. The largest wooden structure in the world encloses the Buddha and is about 2/3rd the original size of the temple. Wild deer make up an important part of the landscape.
FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA, KYOTO
- Dedicated to the god of rice and sake originally to protect agricultural enterprises, the shrine is famous for its thousands of orange torii that climb all the way to the top of the hill. The path is not easy to climb but can be hiked if one is adequately prepared. The other symbol of this shrine are the numerous fox statues. Foxes were considered messengers of the grain god, Inari and are honored here under the same name.
- Founded at the site of a mountain spring, this temple is home to the Kannon, goddess of mercy and compassion.