Japanese Temples and Shrines

It’s impossible to remain indifferent to the Japanese culture. Wherever you’re from, you cannot use what you know from your background to understand why this culture is the way it is – you must forget all your past experiences and set foot in the country with fresh eyes, and experience Japan as it is: a remarkable, beautiful country with amazing people.

Most of you probably already know my (P) passion for Japan and its culture – if not to live there, I would keep visiting if it weren’t so far away.  Today I’ll be sharing some things about a key aspect of Japanese culture: visiting shrines and temples.

The first thing to be aware of is that shrines are based on Shintoism and are called Jinja (神社・じんじゃ),  and temples are based on Buddhism and are called O-tera (お寺・おてら). Both are the main religions in Japan, which is why you will see such an abundance of these worship sites.



Jinja are unique to Japan. Most of them are easily identifiable by their name, as Shinto shrines usually have the suffix –jinja (神社・じんじゃ) or –jingu (神宮・じんぐ) as in Yasukuni-jinja (靖国神社) and Meiji-jingu (明治神宮).

Yasukuni-jinja in Chiyoda district, Tokyo.

Structurally, they have one or more archways called Torii (鳥居・とりい) at the entrance, marking the transition from the mundane to the sacred realm, followed by stone stairs. Torii are characteristic of shrines, which is why you won’t find them in temples. A pathway with stone lanterns leads the way to the main temple, which is guarded by a pair of dogs or lions (called komainu).

You can also find a purification fountain (called chozuya or temizuya) at the entrance. To use it, begin by grabbing the water-filled ladle with the right hand and pour water over your left hand to clean it. Then, switch hands and do the same thing. Afterwards, place some water directly in your cupped hand and put it in your mouth; swish it around a few times and spit on the ground. Finally, before setting the ladle down, fill it one last time and tilt it vertically in order to clean the handle. When in doubt, look around you and see how the locals do it!

To pray, bow twice, clap twice and bow once more before beginning your prayer.



Unlike JinjaO-tera can also be found in other places of Asia, such as China and India where Buddhism is also prevalent. Traditionally, temple complexes have pagodas and you will also find here purification fountains (its use is the same as in jinja). Another difference from jinja is that Buddhist temples have incense, which is set alight before joining hands to pray – in this case, it is very important that you don’t clap your hands!

Another thing you will only see in a temple is any visual representation of a deity (be it a statue or something else), which is something that never happens in Shintoism.

The photos below are from Sensō-ji (浅草寺・せんそうじ) in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Sensō-ji in Tokyo.

Finally, a good omiyage (souvenir) to take home is a go-shūinchō (御朱印帳), which you can acquire at shrines/temples at varying costs and use to collect each temple/shrine’s unique stamp. Mine (not depicted below) was bought at Nara’s Tōdai-ji temple in 2013 and I’ve collected several stamps from the sites I’ve visited since then. The stamps will bear calligraphy indicating the date of visit and the name of the temple or shrine.



Visiting a Japan’s worship sites is always something you should consider – if not for religious purposes, at least to admire the architecture and to observe their role in the Japanese culture. However, remember at all times to  be considerate of others and to act calmly and respectfully. Avoid being too loud or taking too many pictures in an intrusive way. Although usually permitted in many places, photography of the main alters is normally forbidden, so watch out for signs!

The differences between both sites are many, and to better understand them you should pay them a visit when you’re in the country!

Hope you enjoyed this post!




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