Today I wanted to share my experience visiting some temples in Japan. I didn’t have much time there so I had to carefully choose how I was going to invest my time. So, before I embarked on my adventure, I did tons of research. Based on our short itinerary (Tokyo and Kyoto) I decided to visit only these three religious sites: the Sensoji Temple, Kinkaku-Ji and Fushimi Inari Taisha.
A brief intro to religion in Japan
Before talking about the temples I visited, I think it is worth mentioning a few facts about religion in Japan. It is interesting that just like in Nepal, Japan is home to two different religions. They are able to coexist in harmony and at times complement each other: Shintoism and Buddhism. I wasn’t aware of this until I was in the country and had to find out the difference between shrines and temples. Turns out that a temple is a Buddhist place of worship and a shrine is a Shinto place of worship. Because these two religions are in a symbiotic relationship, you will often find both types of buildings close by. The Japanese government invests a lot of money in the restoration of religious buildings so they are always looking flawless.
Shinto religion is considered the indigenous religion of Japan, and it is as old as Japanese culture. I read somewhere that even if Japanese people don’t consider themselves Shintoist believers, they recognise that Shintoism forms part of their culture. Shintoism worships deities or spirits called Kamis. It became the official state religion during the Meiji period in 1812 as a means to promote national identity in the Empire. Later, after World War II, state and religion separated. Buddhism, which originated in India, preaches the teachings of Siddartha Gautama on how to reach enlightenment. It came to Japan in the 6th Century through Korea.
Senso-ji temple, Tokyo
This temple is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, built during 628. The legend tells the story of two brothers who caught a golden statue while fishing. They tried to return the figure to the river multiple times but it always came back to them. So they decided to bring the statue to the village and there the chief recognised it as Kannon, goddess of mercy. A wealthy man who heard about the two brothers’ discovery came to them and told them about Buddha. After that, the two fishermen converted to Buddhism and the three of them founded a small temple to worship Kannon. Much later on, the city built Asakusa Shrine in order to worship these three men as deities.
The temple area is quite big and the surroundings are full of many different stalls. Have a walk around discover all the little trinkets and lucky charms and try delicious Japanese street food. Despite the masses of people walking around the area, I definitely recommend you have a look.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari is the most important Shinto shrine that worships Inari, the God of rice. The messengers of Inari are foxes, so you will see a lot of statues representing this animal. The torii gates along the entire trail are donations by individuals and companies. On the back of each torii, you will find the donor’s name and the date of the donation. The cost starts around 400,000 yen for a small-sized gate and increases to over one million yen for a large gate, which is around 9000 USD. These donations are the major contributor to preserving the shrine complex.
It is quite a fascinating place to visit. And yes, there are hordes of people during peak times, but don’t let that ruin your experience. The beauty of this place resides in the surrounding nature and the decorated pathways covered by toriis. The trails lead into the forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which belongs to the shrine grounds. For me, the very top is not as impressive as walking under the shelter of the torii pathways or getting a bit lost in the woods. If you tire out and don’t make it to the top it’s ok, you are not missing out.
Kinkaku-Ji temple, Kyoto
The official name is Rokuon-ji, which means Deer Garden Temple, but everybody knows it as Kinkaku-ji, which means Golden Pavilion. The reason is that the two upper levels of the temple are covered in gold foil. This is without a doubt the most stunning of all the temples I saw in Japan.
As you enter the premises, there is a lookout on one edge of the lake opposite the temple. That’s where tourists take the famous photograph of the pavilion and its reflection on the lake. Camera tripods are not allowed, at least in this area, which is good because it encourages people to move fast. But worry not! The garden walk is an absolute delight and you can still admire the pavilion from different perspectives. They say that the gardens represent the Pure Land of Buddha in this world. If Buddha’s idea of a pure land is paradise, I think this garden is spot on.
The temple was originally built in the late 13th Century as a private villa. Soon after, a military leader named Yoshimitsu purchased it. He used it as an official guest house. When Yoshimitsu died the villa became a temple according to his last wishes. The temple has burnt down twice since it was built, so the present pavilion dates from 1950. The temple contains the relics of Buddha. This is a statement that I have read on every website about this temple and in the tourist information pamphlet, but I honestly don’t know whether this is a matter of faith or a real fact. If you know more about this topic, please let me know.
Final thoughts on these temples
I definitely think that I made a fantastic choice on the temples I decided to explore in Japan. If you are visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, and you are short of time, these, in my opinion, are the best temples.
I hope you found the information I gave you insightful. Let me know your thoughts in the comment section, I would love to hear about your experience! If you want to learn what other things you can do in Japan check all these fun activities!
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Have you visited any of these temples in Japan? What did you think of them? Which one was your favourite? Should I have visited other temples too?