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.

History and religion in Japan
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A brief intro to religion in Japan

Religious coexistence

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. 

This Shinto Shrine is part of the most popular temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji Temple.
This Shinto Shrine was built close to the Senso-ji temple to honour the three men who founded the temple

Shintoism

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. 

Most temples in Japan will display the images of Shintoist and Buddhist deities
Buddhist deity decorating the entrance of a store at Fushimi Inari Taisha grounds

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.

Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo is the oldest and biggest temple in Japan, and one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the country.
This is the main gate of the Senso-ji temple

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!

Japan has more temples than you will have time to visit. In this post, you will learn what is it that makes these temples and shrines worth your visit to Kyoto and Tokyo. The aesthetics of Japanese architecture, as well as the gardens, will make your jaw drop and the landscape makes for beautiful photography.
In this post I tell you about the most beautiful and unique temples and shrines that you absolutely must visit in Tokyo and Kyoto. Japan has more temples than you will have time to visit, so it is important to pick wisely. The temples in this post are all unique in its own way and the aesthetics of Japanese architecture, as well as the gardens, will make your jaw drop.

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33 Comments

  1. Great post! I’m glad you talk about the religious & cultural significance of these sites as well…. They are not just tourist tourist attractions, so thank you presenting them as more than that. It is my dream to visit Japan one day, so I’m saving + pinning your blog for later.

  2. I love love love the architecture in Japan. It is high on my list and so ready to visit. Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine I have seen in so many pictures and would love to see it in person. Great and informative post. Pinning so I have a reference when I do make it there.

  3. What an awesome post! I would love to visit some of these when I’m in Japan!

  4. The temples look so regal! It is so nice to see how much respect and care these historical and religous site are getting from the government as well as the global community. The Golden Temple looks so peaceful and would be a beautiful place to take a break to relax and reflect. Thank you for showing the religous significance as well. We cant wait to go to Japan, hopefully during cherry blossom season!

  5. I’ve been to a few of these temples and loved them! Japan is such a beautiful country. Your photos are very pretty!

  6. I haven’t been in Japan yet, but the architecture is so beautiful. Totally in love with it and hoping I can see it soon. Great post!

  7. Oh wow! I love Japan! You’ve highlighted so many of the facts from the temples that I always seem to glide over. The Fushimi-Inari temple is probably one of my favourites. Your post is a great tribute to these three temples.

  8. Oh every time I see a post about Japan I utterly swoon. It is no.1 on my bucketlist and I loveee reading all about it. These temples look incredible and I cant wait to visit them. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  9. I loved these temples!! It’s always hard to pick favorites but after about a month and a half in Japan, I’d say Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine is my favorite. I love how it winds through the hillside. Truly incredible! Thanks for sharing!

    1. I only got to see these three temples, but I think Fushimi Inari Taisha and Kinkaku Ji will always be pretty high on my list of faves 😀

  10. These temples look beautiful! I would love to visit these. I went to Tokyo for a few days but I didn’t explore much outside of the city.

  11. I really enjoyed this article. I haven’t been to Japan yet but I would really like to some day. I knew the temples were big tourist places but never really understood why. I had no idea they had 2 co-existing religions in the country. I love learning about other cultures and how they operate. Thanks for sharing!

  12. All of these temples look amazing…I love all the detail and history. We haven’t been to Japan yet but it is on my list!!

  13. I was supposed to visit Japan in March, however, because of COVID I could not! This is great to know for when I finally get to visit. I’m excited to visit these temples.

  14. Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine was my favourite in Kyoto. The early hike up to the top was sooo quiet and tranquil compared to the other places which were very crowded on my visit.

  15. I want to visit Tokyo so badly! Seeing all of the temples and learning of the history sounds amazing! The story of the two brothers and the Senso-ji temple is something that interests me!

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