Asia Destinations

Traveler’s Guide to Temples and Shrines in Japan

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There are many good reasons to visit Japan. This ancient land offers incredible natural beauty, some of the world’s best cuisine, and Tokyo, an ultra-modern metropolis displaying the very latest entertainment and technology. Japan also has a rich history and fascinating religious traditions which can be seen in its numerous shrines and temples. Visiting these places will often take you to some of the country’s most scenic spots such as mountaintops and forests. Let’s look at some of the most impressive shrines and temples in Japan that will help you gain a deeper understanding of this complex Asian country.

Tokyo

Most visitors to Japan will arrive in Tokyo, and you’ll surely want to spend some time exploring this incomparable city. As you take in the urban excitement, however, don’t forget to check out some of the historical sites that can still be found along the bustling streets. Here are some spiritual attractions you should seek out in Tokyo.

Asakusa Sensoji Temple

Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple dates back to the 6th century. It’s also right next to a popular market that sells all types of souvenir and has a wide selection of street food. Tradition has it that immersing yourself in the smoke coming from the temple’s main hall will bring good luck. The temple also has fortune tellers who will read your fortune from sticks.

Meiji-jingu Shrine

This Shinto shrine is in a tranquil park right in the middle of Tokyo, making it the ideal place to relax and take a break from all the noise and bustle of the city. The shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, known for connecting Japan to the West. On Sundays, you can often see traditional Shinto wedding processions. While you’re there, you can also visit Yoyogi Park, the site of the 1964 Olympics.

Kyoto

Kyoto has some of Japan’s oldest and most beautiful shrines and temples.

Heian-jingu Shrine

This shrine is famous for its large red torii, which is the gate to the shrine. When you pass through the gate, you’ll pass through a park that has a couple of interesting museums that are worth visiting as well: The National Museum of Modern Art and the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. It’s best to leave yourself at least a few hours if you want to see the shrine and spend a little time exploring the museums.

Kiyomizudera Temple

Visitors to this mountain temple are immediately in awe of the spectacular views of Kyoto. While it’s impressive in all seasons, one of the best times to come is in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. Many people pray for luck in love and romance at Jishu Shrine.

Sanjusangendo Hall

This 12th-century shrine is known best for its 1001 statues of the goddess of mercy, Kannon. It’s also the longest wooden building in Japan.

Other Temples and Shrines Around Japan

Japan has many other areas with significant spiritual destinations, a few of the more popular ones include:

Todai-ji Temple

Constructed in 752 in Nara, Todai-ji is One of the country’s most renowned Buddhist temples. The main hall features a huge statue of Buddha. Also on the property is the Todaiji Museum, a recent addition that has a large collection of Buddhist art. The temple is part of Nara Park, a scenic area that also has several other smaller temples as well as paths for walking.

Ise Jingu Shrine

Often referred to as simply Jingu, this is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan. Located in the city of Ise in the Mie Prefecture, this huge shrine sits in the middle of a forest. It’s dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. A visit to the Jingu shrine can be combined with a trip to Ise-Shima National Park, known for its beautiful coastlines, forests, and wildlife, especially birds, turtles, and marine life.

Shrine Pilgrimages

If you really want to get an in-depth experience of Japan’s rich spiritual traditions you might want to consider a pilgrimage. This gives you a chance to see many shrines and temples. You can do this on your own or look for a tour.

One of the most popular pilgrimages in Japan is the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which covers 88 temples on the island of Shikoku. All of the temples are dedicated to Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon school of Buddhism in Japan. You can travel the route by walking, driving, bus, bicycle or train. It usually takes between one and two months to complete the entire pilgrimage. If you have less time, of course, you can cover as many parts of the route you can fit in during your trip.

The Kumano region of the Kii peninsula is another traditional area for pilgrimages. Pilgrims from the Shinto and Buddhist traditions have been traveling this route for over 1,000 years. Although this region encompasses a smaller area than the Shikoku pilgrimage, much of the terrain is mountainous so it helps if you’re physically fit or an have hiking experience. While on the trail, be sure to take the time to enjoy the forests and mountain peaks that surround you.

Tips and Etiquette When Visiting Spiritual Sites

When visiting shrines and temples you have to keep in mind that these are sacred sites that people go to for worship and contemplation.

Remove your shoes– Be sure to remove your shoes before entering a shrine or temple. You’ll see either an area to keep your footwear or observe that people carry their shoes with them.

Wash your hands- Many shrines and temples have an area for handwashing. The general custom is to pick up the ladle with your right hand and pour water into your left hand to wash. If there are other guests you can observe how they wash their hands.

Be aware when entering Torii gates- Torii or shrine gates are sacred to the Japanese people and its customary to bow before entering. Another tradition is to walk to the side as the center of the path is only for the gods.

Observe protocols for prayer- If you want to pray at a temple or shrine, it’s customary to throw in a coin, bow, and light incense.

Respect rules regarding photographs-Some temples allow photography while others don’t. You may be permitted to take photos only in certain areas. Be sure you understand and respect the guidelines before you start snapping photos.

Use common sense and be respectful-In a place where people are praying, it’s polite to keep your voice down and avoid behavior such as eating, drinking alcohol, or smoking even if there’s no sign specifically prohibiting such activities.

Each temple or shrine may have its own rules and etiquette. It’s best to do a little research before entering. In most cases, there will be posted signs in English. If there are other visitors nearby (which will usually be the case), you can look to them for guidance.

You can learn a lot about a country and its people by observing and even participating in its religious ceremonies. Japan is especially incredible when it comes to sacred spots, temples, and shrines. The ones covered in this article are just a small sampling of what you can see. No matter where you travel in Japan, you’re sure to be close to a spiritual spot with a long and rich history. Taking the time to learn about such places will deepen your understanding and appreciation of Japan.

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