Temples and shrines – how are they different?

Temples and shrines are high on the list of things to for many visitors to Japan. The names Fushimi Inari, Kinkakuji, Sensoji and Meiji appear in many lists of Japan’s top sights and articles about visiting Japan. I’ve noticed a few instances recently where a temple has been called a shrine and vice versa.

Does this matter? Well, calling a temple a shrine will mark you as a fairly clueless traveller, and a bit lacking in cultural sensitivity. There are also some differences in what you can expect to see at temples and shrines.

What are the differences between temples and shrines?

To start with, they are both places of worship, but for different religions. Temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto. Buddhism is a major religion throughout Asia, following the teachings of Buddha. Shinto is a traditional Japanese religion with a belief in kami, variously translated as spirits, essences or gods. Kami can reside within trees, rocks, animals and other places.

Buddhism and Shinto have been closely related over the centuries, with many Japanese worshipping at both temples and shrines. Shrines are often found in the grounds of, or next door to temples.

What does this mean for the visitor?

Temple and shrine buildings may appear similar on the outside, but there are some differences which you’ll notice when visiting.

At temples, you’ll see statues of Buddha, the goddess Kannon, and other Buddhist deities, similar to Buddhist temples elsewhere in Asia. In front of the main hall, there will be an incense burner, where worshippers wave smoke over themselves to purify and heal their bodies. Japanese people traditionally have a Buddhist ceremony for their funeral, so many temples have graveyards attached.

There will be a large bell which is rung by striking with a wooden pole. These bells are often beautifully decorated and some .are very famous. Examples are Japan’s largest temple bell at Chion-in in Kyoto and the bell at Zenkoji in Nagano, which has been designated one of Japan’s 100 soundscapes. The bells are rung at specific times, most notably at New Year when they are rung 108 times.

At shrines, the first thing you’ll see is a torii gate at the entrance and passing through this leads into consecrated ground. Within the grounds there are more tori of varying sizes. While Fushimi Inari in Kyoto is famous for its paths lined with vermillion torii, many shrines have paths lined with tori, but generally on a lesser scale. There may be a number of sub-shrines in the grounds, and often each has its own torii.

Worshippers at shrines clap their hands and pull on a rope to ring a bell before praying. Shrines are popular for weddings and you may be lucky enough to see one, particularly at weekends, with the bride and groom in traditional dress.

Both temples and shrines may have impressive traditional buildings, and some of these are historic and of national significance. There will be a water container with ladles, where worshippers purify themselves before going to pray. Temples and shrines also sell various good luck charms and ema, wooden plaques which are hung on racks within the ground with wishes for good fortune written on them.

While gardens are more of a feature at temples, there are gardens at some shrines. Heian shrine and Meiji shrine both have famous gardens. Plum orchards are also a feature at many shrines.

Visiting temples and shrines

There are some differences in the practical aspects of visiting shrines and temples too.

Many temples have an admission fee, while shrines generally don’t charge one. There are some exceptions Sensoji and the Hongan-ji temples in Kyoto don’t charge for admission, and Itsukushima in Miyajima and Toshogu in Nikko are two well-known shrines that do charge.

Many shrines don’t have fixed opening hours and can be visited even at night, as there isn’t a gate that closes. Temples usually have walls surrounding the temple compound, and there will be specific opening hours.

Well-known temples popular with tourists include:

Sensoji (Tokyo), Kiyomizudera (Kyoto), Kinkakuji (Kyoto), Todaiji (Nara)

Well-known shrines popular with tourists include:

Meiji shrine (Tokyo), Toshogu (Nikko), Fushimi Inari (Kyoto), Kasuga Taisha (Nara), Itsukishima (Miyajima)

This is a very brief summary of the differences between temples and shrines, with an emphasis on the physical aspects that visitors are likely to notice. Even if you just remember the differences noted here, you’ll be able to recognise whether you’re seeing a shrine or a temple, and you won’t make the mistake of labelling it wrongly.

Do you have any questions about temples and shrines, or any other sightseeing activities? Please feel free to contact me.

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.