Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner

Japan is famous for its specific religious system combining Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism that roots in India came to Japan from continental Asia. It is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and his successors. Shinto, on the other hand, is originally a Japanese ‘traditional religion’ based on the ancient belief in ancestors and deities. For centuries, the two confessions overlapped. Japan had times (XIX century, the so-called Meiji Restoration) of intensive politics to split Buddhism from Shinto or even disroot Buddhism as not originally the Japanese religion. Those efforts finally failed. Shinto and Buddhism coexist in Japanese culture. Many Japanese declare also being tied to both confessions. This religious coexistence is, however, not easy to tackle for an outsider.

On our Japanese journey, we saw numerous shrines and temples. I cannot say that I fully understand what I saw, mainly that we traveled without a professional guide. Below I will sum up all that I realized on the spot and later at home digging a bit in the Internet resources.


A Shinto shrine may be a tiny spot marked by a torii (Japanese gate to a sacred place). It can, however, be a more significant complex of buildings, as well. A shrine is devoted to a specific deityEven if in the Western nomenclature we would call it a temple, it will still be called a shrine in Japan. (This is, of course, an English description. Japanese have many different names describing different kinds of shrines.) The most of the bigger (sometimes quite huge) religious building complexes we visited in Japan were, however, Buddhist temples. Buddhist temples belong to and are run by different schools of Buddhism (sects), and simultaneously play the role of a monastery, with interiors accessible only to few. This is possibly why I had the impression that temple complexes are somehow bigger (more widespread) than shrines, which is of course not a thumb rule.


Entrance to the Yasaka-jinja shrine, Kyoto, well widespread, located at the eastern edge of Gion, the famous Geisha district. 

At first sight, those bigger temple or shrine complexes seemed to us quite similar in construction pattern – widespread premises with many buildings and more or less complicated gates of comparable design. Now sitting at home comparing the pictures, recalling memories, and reading the information available on the Internet, I realize that they were not that similar at all. Some had statues inside, like those of the Buddha, or just gods or goddesses (deities), and the whole temple seemed to be organized around them. The others, however, were just sanctuaries with some objects inside, the figures (statues) even if the present did not play a central role. It turns out that these are the primary difference between a Buddhist and a Shinto temple or shrine.

Shinto shrines are sacred places, where a deity (kami) is present within objects stored there or in an object, around which the shrine was built (like a tree or a mountain). Contrary, to Buddhist temples, you may not find a reflection of a deity (god or goddess) in the form of sculpture inside a Shinto shrine. The very exception is animal guardians, usually in pairs, like lion-dogs, monkeys, and foxes, who are told to be the messengers of the deity. If you approach them, they will convey the message to the deity. Contrary, in the Buddhist temples, you will find bigger or smaller statues of Buddha, as well as some other symbolic figures and deities.


Foxes guarding the gate in the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto.


Buddha statue in Kotokuin, a small Buddhist temple in the greater Tokyo area.


A statue of Binzuru (deity that is known of the healing power) in the Buddhist Tōdai-Ji temple, Nara. In many places, temples, cemeteries, small shrines in the streets, we saw statues of gods/deities dressed like this one on the photo. The red clothing is supposed to expel demons and illness.

Shrines and temples may have so many common characteristic features that only those well oriented can recognize the particular features at first sight.

In Japan, many of the old wooden buildings were entirely destroyed by fire, earthquakes, other disasters or as a result of political turmoil. Many of the buildings we admire today are not the originals, but the reconstructions made ages or not that long ago. We also visited at least one shrine complex (I know of) that was in full moved from one place to another.


One of the first Japanese words you learn, while visiting a shrine or monastery is torii (nouns in Japanese are used only in the singular form). Torii is a Japanese kind of symbolic gate marking the line, at which you trespass from the profane to the sacred ground. It is usually placed at an entrance to a Shinto shrine. We saw, however, torii in some of the Buddhist temples, as well. In more significant shrines or monasteries, you will also find gates that mark the sacred ground that you recognize as a gate. But its construction is by far not like on the photo below. These are really solid and quite big gates. Similar symbolic gates may also be found in other Asian countries.


A ‘typical’ torii, Kyoto

Torii, in general, is made of two pillars and two horizontal bars. The construction may be, however, more complicated or a simpler one. A very simple torii may be made of only two pillars linked with a rope (called shimenawa). Shimenawa may also be an addition to the traditional construction (as on the photo above). Torii may be made of wood, or stone, or concrete, or other materials. The most distinctive ones are those made of wood and painted with a red or orange tint (vermilion). Only some parts of a torii like footing and/or the upper lintel are painted black.

There can be a couple or quite many of torii gates in a shrine. They can be of different sizes. Each torii may mark the trespassing point to the following another sacred space.

Torii may also play a different role. In Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine complex in Kyoto (called shorter Oinarisan) torii are placed one after another forming long but long corridors. Walking beneath you feels like being in a tunnel. The torii in Oinarisan do not mark the sacred land. They had been offered to its deity by worshipers as a thank you for good fortune.


Vermilion torii path, one of many in Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine complex, Kyoto.


Another photo made in Fushimi Inari Taisha. Behind a stone torii that marks the entrance to the next section of the sacred land, you can see numerous small vermilion torii that had been offered as a gesture of gratitude.


Just for a comparison – a gate to the Tōdai-Ji temple, Nara, one of the most prominent in Japan famous for its Great Buddha Hall.  The gate was constructed in the XII century and is called the Great South Gate. 


Torii and other buildings in Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples are often covered with red (orange) tint called vermilion. This kind of tint contains mercury (mercuric sulfides), the size of which particles are decisive for the color. The bigger the particles, the more reddish the tint. The tint is said to protect the wood against insects, but this is not confirmed by all sources. The protection may be somewhat symbolic as the red color is told to protect against demons and illness. The symbolism is pretty much the same as of orange (red) clothing put on figures (statues).


Entering a shrine or a monastery, or another kind of sacred land (like a cemetery) and paying respect to deities involves a series of rituals. I am sure I did not catch them all. Two were not difficult to notice. These were the purifying or cleansing rituals as well as paying respect by ringing a bell and clapping hands.

All Japanese shrines and temples, no matter Buddhist or Shinto are equipped with a symbolic cleansing facility. The cleansing may happen through the usage of water, fumes, sand, etc. So to begin with prayers or merely paying respect to the deity, you have to purify the body, at least symbolically.

In most shrines and temples, we saw stone sinks/basins, in which the worshipers or visitors could wash their hands and mouth. You take a kind of wooden spoon (see pictures), hold it in the right hand, and pour water onto your left hand, then the other way round. Carrying water in hand, you can also rinse your mouth. (For hygienic purposes, it is forbidden to take the spoon directly to your mouth.)


The cleansing facility in the Koyosan cemetery (Buddhist).


Cleansing facility in Ozaki shrine, Kanazawa.

The other kind of the purifying ritual we saw mainly in Buddhist temples was by lightning an incense stick.


A purifying facility in front of a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, somewhere at the end of the Philosophers’ path. 

A woman performing a cleansing ceremony in a Buddhist temple in Japan.

A woman performing a symbolic purifying ritual with an incense stick in Tōdai-Ji temple, Nara.

Paying respect to a deity and praying includes ringing a bell and clapping hands. You do so by shaking a rope hanging down. Afterward, you have to bow and clap your hands. First, you ring, then you bow twice, clap your hands twice so that the deity is hearing you, then bow once. In the end, do not forget to put a coin into the offering box.


Young people paying respect to deities in Shinto Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.


In a shrine or a temple (for a fee) you can also obtain lucky charms in the form of protective amulets and make wishes by hanging wooden votive plaques on special stands or discharge misfortune by leaving fortune-telling pieces/rolls of paper in the temple. We saw all of those practices in both Shinto and Buddhist temples (the exceptions I remember was the Zen Buddhist temples, but I can be wrong). I suppose this is a way how the temples finance some of their expenses.

protective amulet (called omamori) you simply buy, take with you, keep it by yourself or hang in your car, etc. This should protect you from a lousy fortune but also helps you to fulfill your wishes, find love, prosper in marriage, etc.


Amulets offered in an independent (Buddhist) temple Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

On a votive plaque (called ema) you can write a wish (or it is already pre-written for you), and you hang it onto a special stand.


A young woman hanging an ema in Kiyomizudera temple.  

The rolls of paper (called omikuji) are a bit more complicated. Through some kind of a lottery (even if done by a vending machine) you obtain a small piece of paper. It reads you your fortune. If it is good fortune, you take it with you. If it reads you a bad fortune, you are supposed to leave it in the shrine to shed off lousy luck. You look for a particular stand or a place and hang the roll onto it.


Ozaki (Shinto) shrine, Kanazawa. The omikuji stand is located close to one of the lion-dogs guarding the temple (look at the right-hand side). Omikuji message will be passed by the guardian-messenger to the deity of the shrine.


During more significant festivities in shrines (the Japanese celebrate many religious festivals), it is customary to drink sake, as a symbolic act of unification with gods. It is also customary that the sake producers donate barrels of sake to the shrine. As only as much sake is ordered as it is needed, some of the producers are asked to donate empty barrels for display purposes. Many shrines display empty barrels, sometimes seasonally, but sometimes permanently.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

Empty sake barrels on display at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, Kamakura.

The ritual around breaking open the wooden lid on the top of the sake barrel is called kagamibiraki. It is performed during other kinds of festivities, as well, like to celebrate the New Year or during wedding parties.


In most Japanese Buddhist temples, it is forbidden to photograph the core interior of the main hall. Those places, if accessible for tourists, are well-marked as such. As I understand the very core of the temple is not a place of worship, but a place where the temple holds its most sacred objects. Besides, you may make as many photos as you want. Contrary to Europe, where photographing people delivering service in public is by definition not forbidden, in Japanese temples the monks or employees often give you a sign that they do not wish to be on the photo.  But it is not a thumb rule.


Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner