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How to tell temples apart from shrines ?
Yasaka Shrine, Kyōto

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Written by Maciamo on 19 August 2002 (last updated in November 2015)


When I first arrived in Japan in 2001, I was wondering how to distinguish Japanese temples from shrines. After some research, here is what have found.

Japan has two main religions, the native Shinto animism, and Buddhism. Basically, we speak of Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples, never the other way round. On maps and guidebooks, shrines are represented by a torii gate, whereas Buddhist temples are marked by a swastika (a very ancient symbol of good luck for Hindus and Buddhists, which the Nazis later hijacked for their use).

Shintō (神道) means the way of the gods. It has no formal structure or rules. There are no teachings, no dogma, nor any written moral code. It is merely a form of animism, in which deities are the spirits of nature, known as kami. These kami can be found in a tree, a mountain, or a river, or a simple rock. Shintoists traditionally believe in good and evil spirits, even ghosts (you will notice that lots of Japanese people still have a fear of ghosts, even as adults). Shintō was made a state religion during the Meiji restoration and is still funded by the Japanese government.

Buddhism was imported from China along with Confucianism and Chinese characters, starting from the Nara period until the Kamakura period. There are about 14 sects or schools (宗 shū) of Japanese Buddhism and all have their own structure, with a main temple and independant finance. Some are more prosperous than others. Nowadays, the active (or surviving) sects include the popular Jodo-shū (浄土宗, Pure Land) and Jodo-shinshū (浄土真宗, True Pure Land), the two branches of Zen 禅, namely Rinzai (臨済) and Sōtō (曹洞), the Nichiren sect (日蓮), and the esoteric Tendai (天台) and Shingon (真言) schools, which bear similarities to Tibetan Buddhism.

Now it is a bit more complicated than that if we want to understand the differences between all kinds of temples and shrines. There are numerous Japanese words for Shinto shrines: Jinja (神社), Jingū (神宮), Taisha (大社), Hachimangū (八幡宮), Tenmangū (天満宮) or even Tenjin (天神). Temples can be either ji (寺) or in (院) or some other names like fudoson (不動尊 not to be confused with fudosan 不動産, which means real estate). Here is an explanation.

Main torii gate entrance to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Grand Shrine in Kyoto
Torii gate, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, Kyoto
Danjōgaran, Kōya-san (photo by 663highland - CC BY 2.5)
Danjōgaran Temple, Mount Kōya

Shinto Shrines

Let's start with Shinto. Shrines always have a "torii" gate (鳥居) to mark their entrance. The name torii literally means "bird abode". They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.

Ordinary shrines are called jinja (神社). The most common are the Inari Jinja (稲荷神社). You'll find them everywhere in Japan in almost every neighbourhood, sometimes concealed between two houses. Inari is the Shinto goddess of rice, sake and fertility. Her symbol is the fox, which in Shintoism is said to have magical powers.

Main Shinto deity each have a Grand Shrine called Taisha. Among them is the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, famous for its tunnel of torii gates running for 4 km across the hills behind the shrine.

Torii gates tunnel, Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
Torii gates tunnel, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, Kyoto
Heian Jingū, Kyoto
Heian Jingū, Kyoto

Imperial Shrines

The rarest type of shrines ar ethe Jingū (神宮), or Imperial Shrines. There are only a dozen of them in the country. The most notable are: Heian Jingū in Kyoto, Meiji Jingū inside Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya, and Ise Jingū in Mie Prefecture. The latter is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto Sun Goddess and supreme deity. It is the most sacred shrine in Japan.

The imperial regalia (三種の神器 Sanshu no Jingi), also known as the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, which symbolize the power of the Japanese emperors, are kept at the Atsuta Jingū, Ise Jingū and at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

The Heian Shrine is a reconstitution of the Heian-period Imperial Palace. The Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

Hachiman Shrines

Other special shrines are the Hachiman-gū (八幡宮), dedicated to the god of the same name. Hachiman refers to Emperor Ōjin, the 15th Japanese emperor, who is said to have reigned from 270 to 310 CE. The semi-mythical emperor was later deified together with his mother Empress Jingū and his wife Himegami. They were first enshrined in 725 in the Usa Hachimangū in Oita Prefecture and later in many Hachiman shrines throughout Japan. Hachiman shrines have the suffix "-gū" (宮) like in Jingū due to the imperial connotation.

Historically Hachiman was worshiped by the Imperial house and most samurai as the god of archery and war. He is also the patron of the Minamoto clan ("Genji"). The name means "God of Eight Banners", referring to the eight heavenly banners that signaled the birth of the divine Emperor Ōjin. His symbolic animal and messenger is the dove. Hachiman is now the object of deep devotion for many people in Japan.

In the 8th century Hachiman was recognized also as a Buddhist divinity, and became one of the first cases of syncretism between Buddhism and kami worship. Sinto-Buddhist syncretism is known in Japanese under the term shinbutsu-konkō (神仏混淆), which literally means "jumbling up or contamination of kami and buddhas".

Tenjin & Tenmangū Shrines

Like Hachiman shrines, Tenman-gū (天満宮) are dedicated to a deified historical person, the great 9th-century scholar, poet and politician Sugawara no Michizane. Victim to the plots of a rival, Michizane was demoted and exiled to Dazaifu in Kyushu, wher he died in exile in 903. Immediately afterwards, Kyoto was struck by heavy rain and lightning, and many of the leading members of the rival Fujiwara clan died, while fires caused by lightning and floods destroyed many of their residences. The court of the emperor drew the conclusion that the disturbances were caused by Michizane's angry spirit, and, to placate it, the emperor restored all Michizane's offices, burned the official order of exile, and ordered that the poet be worshipped under the name Tenjin (天神), which means sky deity.

Worshipped as the kami of scholarship, Tenjin is particularly popular among students, and their parents, who come and pray for success at his shrines before important entrance exams. Tenjin shrines often have ume trees, of which the poet was very fond. These trees blossom in February, the same time of year as exam results are announced, and so it is common for Tenjin shrines to hold a festival around this time. Famous Tenman-gū shrines include the Kitano Tenman-gū in Kyoto, the Dazaifu Tenman-gū, and the Egara Tenjin Shrine in Kamakura. Tokyo has among others the Kameido Tenjin Shrine.

Buddhist Temples

The division between Buddhist temples is not as clear as for shrines. Main temples can be recognized by the suffix -ji (寺, literally 'temple'), while sub-temples carry the suffix -in (院) instead, as in Chion-in in Kyoto. In big temple complex such as the Daitoku-ji (Northern Kyoto), there are dozens of sub-temples. However, some temples are called "in" without belonging to a main temple. For instance, the Byōdo-in (Phoenix pavilion, on the back of the ¥10 coins) in Uji, which is actually a reconstruction of the Heian-era residence of the powerful Fujiwara family. It was later converted into a temple, but as it was not founded as such it cannot be use the -ji suffix.

It is sometimes possible recognize the sect of Buddhism to which a temple belongs through its style. Popular sects like the Jodo-shū and Jodo-shinshū are richer to to their large number of followers and as a consequence to to have bigger temples. Their traditional appeal to the less educated classes transpires in their simple but massive roofs, and excessively gilded interiors. This is best examplified by the head temples of the Jōdō-shinshū sect, the Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples in Kyoto.

In contrast, Rinzai Zen temples, whose followers typically belonged to the samurai class, are often smaller, more sober, with white walls and unpainted wooden structure, thatched roofs and peaceful gardens. You will find lots of them in the hills surrounding Kyoto, like the Nanzen-ji, the Tōfuku-ji or the Tenryū-ji.

Temples belonging to the Shingon and Tendai sects, two forms of esoteric Buddhism, are also easy to identify thanks to their more extravagant exteriors. Temples are usually painted in vermillion red and white and have numerous subtemples, including normally a two-tiered pagoda. The best examples are the Enryaku-ji Temple north of Kyoto and the Mount Kōya complex in Wakayama Prefecture.

The Fudoson are also Buddhist temples, but with the strange particularity to be dedicated to the (Buddhist) god of fire. Strangely, this deity would favorise happy marriages.

Zen garden of the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto
Sober Zen garden of the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto
Two-tiered pagoda of the Danjō-garan complex on Mount Kōya (photo by 663highland - Creative Commons licence)
Two-tiered pagoda of the Danjō-garan complex on Mount Kōya

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