Temples vs Shrines in Japan

Introduction

If you don’t already know, Japan has two major religions: Buddhism and Shinto. Most of the Japanese people are either one or the other — with an exception of some of them who follow the Christian faith. Although, many Japanese people actually regard their religious practices, regardless of which one, as just part of their culture rather than faith or belief. 

That’s all well and good, but those of us visiting Japan might not be able to differentiate between the two, especially when it comes to temples and shrines. The two religions have become so closely knitted together that to the untrained eye, they both look the same. But that’s, in fact, wrong. They are vastly different in a few ways — appearance, religion and way of worship — which I’ll briefly explain in this article.

But first, let’s take a look at temples and shrines individually.

What is a temple? 

Temples are called “tera” () in Japanese. It is a place of worship for the Japanese Buddhists. There is at least one temple in every Japanese municipality, but some cultural hotspots like Kyoto can have hundreds. Some temples used to be monasteries — some of them still are. Most of the temples store sacred Buddhist items and if you’re lucky, you might see some of them on display.

Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century from China. In the 1100s, the capital of administrative for the faith moved to Kamakura — if you ever find yourself in the area, don’t skip out on paying the big Buddha (hotoke-sama, 仏様) statue a visit. Buddhists believe that part of the spirit of Buddha lives inside a statue of them. There were various forms of Buddhism, but the most popular to this day is the Zen.

Don’t be surprised to see some of the structures on temple grounds being used as homes — monks do live at a temple. They also train on the premises as well. 

The most famous temples in Japan are the golden Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto — also known as the Golden Pavilion due to the top two floors being covered in gold completely — and Sensoji Temple in Asakusa.

What is a shrine?

Source: Giuseppe Milo

The temples are for the Buddhists, so the shrines are for the Shinto believers. Also known as “jinja” (神社) in Japanese, the Shinto places of worship are also where the Shinto gods (kami, ) dwells. Where a shrine is located is quite significant — the location is linked to a holy ceremonial place in the past, making that bit of nature sacred. 

Shinto is a native religion of Japan. They believe the afterlife and even the belief itself isn’t the most important — it’s the current world and fitting into it that should be prioritised. No book, place, god or prayer is better than the other; there is no fixed practice. It’s a lot about nature when it comes to Shinto.

Shrines are notable by the torii (鳥居). While literally translates to bird abode, it’s used to symbolically mark out the sacred grounds from the mundane ones. You’ll usually see it at the entrance of a shrine, and sometimes within it itself. There are sacred objects of worship stored in the shrines, away from prying eyes, where it’s believed to represent kami — local spirits of the place and even bigger phenomena like the Sun goddess Amaterasu alike.

There’s no one specific time not to visit a shrine, but when sick or in mourning, some believe it’s best not to because it’s a sign of impurity and should be kept away from holy grounds. The best times to visit a shrine are to pay respects to the Gods, pray for good health and fortune, and also to sightsee and appreciate the culture and history within.

New Year is the most popular time to visit a shrine — dozens of people make their way to the nearest shrine when the clock strikes midnight to pray for good health for the year. Wedding ceremonies are also conducted here.

Quite a number of Japanese customs have roots in the Shinto belief, including ikebana (生け花) which is Japanese flower-arranging, sumo wrestling and designs like architecture and gardening.

The most famous shrines in Japan are Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and Fushimi Inari Shrine, or more popularly recognised as the one with the lined torii all the way up the hills.

Temples vs shrines

Since it’s obvious that the two places of worship are of different religions, it begs the question of how can anyone mistake one for the other? Well, centuries ago, the two religions were connected as one and the places of worship were interchangeable. That affected the architecture and structure, one influenced by the other. Even to this day, some Japanese people adhere to both religions.

It is believed — centuries’ old of belief — that weddings (kekkonshiki, 結婚式) are often a Shinto ceremony, and funerals (soushiki, 葬式) are more often than not a Buddhist one. Because of that, they are conducted at shrines and temples respectively. 

Let’s take a look at the other notable ways temples and shrines are significantly different.

Appearance 

As mentioned before, it might not be obvious at first glance as to whether the place of worship is a temple or a shrine due to its intermix. However, the two types of worship places do have iconic differences in appearance.

Shrines have the torii at the entrance — most of the time, they are red. So, if you spot this one at the foot of the holy grounds, you’re most likely entering a shrine. Further into the vicinity, you’ll see structures that reflect the same vibe as the torii, but with much more complicated architecture — including statues like foxes, but some shrines may have other animals, too.

Temples don’t have the torii, of course, but they do have the sanmon (山門) — the main gate of the temple. It’s slimmer and smaller than a torii, so you can’t really classify the two as the same. You’ll also be more likely to see a Buddha statue somewhere on the temple grounds. Don’t be spooked off if you see a cemetery — it’s quite normal to have one. 

Way of worship

Worshipping in a temple and shrine are slightly different. It’s best to know and understand the mannerisms, even though some Japanese people don’t know the differences themselves. They do have one thing in common, which is the bowing act called Ojigi (お辞儀).

Here are the procedures for a temple visit:

  1. You are to bow your head before passing through the temple gate. 
  2. Instead of walking in the middle, walk along the side of the road instead. 
  3. There’s a station to cleanse yourself — which includes washing and rinsing your mouth. The large communal water pavilion known as the temizuya (手水舎) is where you conduct your purifying ritual known as the misogi (), where the body and mind are purified before you face the deity. The process of the purification ritual is simple: pick up one of the ladles resting on the pavilion and, using your right hand, fill the ladle with water. Pour water on your left hand, and then repeat the process with the left hand (to wash your right hand). The last step is to rinse your mouth, and after scooping water using the ladle, pour some in your left hand to rinse your mouth. For the final scoop, pour the water on the ladle itself, and set the ladle down on the pavilion.
  4. After that, touch the incense smoke and wave it towards you. It’s believed that the smoke can make any parts of your body that have been injured better.
  5. Then, head over to the main structure of the temple where people pray. Bow once, throw money into the offertory box (saisenbako, 賽銭箱) — it doesn’t matter how much — and then have your hands clasped together to pray.

A shrine visit, also known as omairi (お参り), has a slightly different routine.

  1. Just before entering the sacred compound, bow at the torii before walking through it. 
  2. Similarly, you’re not supposed to walk directly in the center of the walkway. The main approach to the shrine is known as seichuu (正中), and is considered the passageway for the gods.
  3. Cleansing yourself is also part of the routine. It’s similar to the one for the temple visit.
  4. Unlike the temple visit, there is no need for the incense waving at a shrine. Proceed to pay your respects and conduct your prayer. This is where it’s different from the temple visit: after throwing money in, ring the bell or gong if there is one (usually there is) to tell the deity of your presence. Then clap your hands twice and bow (this is a sign of happiness and appreciation for coming close to the deity), say your prayer, then clap your hands twice again and bow once more.

Conclusion

Now that you’re at the end, I hope you’re cleared of any doubts and questions of how temples and shrines are different from each other. It’s understandable how they can be classified as one — and the Japanese people won’t foul you on that — but it’s also good to appreciate the subtle differences of the two types of worship places in Japan. So keep in mind the ways of worship for temples and shrines — you might need them when you’re sightseeing the major ones in Japan!

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