Things to do in Japan: Visiting shrines and temples

Japanese shrine

Thinking about it, I’m frequently asked: “What are the top things to do in Japan?”

I’ve lived there for more than ten years so people expect me to blurt out answers faster than Google. But actually, I always get stumped when asked that question.

I tend to over-think things. So I ask back, so many questions.

What part of Japan do you wish to visit? Tokyo?

Are you going to Japan with children?

When will you go? Summer? Winter? Spring? Autumn?

Do you prefer the modern, high tech face of Japan or the subtle laid back countryside?

Do you like sushi?

There are many, many things to do in Japan that it simply deserve another (long) post. Today, I’m going to go with: temples and shrines because this easily goes into my top ten list of things to do while in Japan. And it should be in your list, too.

First, it’s something cultural and historical. Maybe something you wouldn’t even find in your home country so it’s an adventure, a discovery. Then there’s something about these places that calms me, makes me sit in one corner and put things in perspective. I find quiet and solace and get out feeling better.

Always.

Japanese shrine

Looks dramatic, no?

When we were in Japan in the summer of 2013, Benjamin and I frequented shrines and temples while Pristine was at school. It has a great open space he can run around and as I have said, I really like the stillness of the place.

Japanese shrine

Summer in Japan is tough (coming from someone who live in Dubai, I know that sounds really weird!) so we sought refuge in the shrine premises. It’s cooler inside the shrines (called “jinja” in Japanese) because of the lush trees. You can hear the rustle of the leaves on a windy day which is kind of soothing. This particular shrine is very close to where we lived and I always took Pristine here when she was small.

Japanese shrine

In my ten years of stay in Japan, I’ve visited a lot of shrines and temples and friends and family would ask, what is the difference? To a foreigner,  yes, they can look all the same.

But they are different.

Japanese shrines (“jinja”) are generally based in Shintoism which is a set of Japanese spiritual beliefs. So many of these shrines have features and designs that are unique to Japan. For example, you’ll find torii archways at shrines.

Torii in shrine

The torii symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. I’ve seen Japan’s most photographed torii some years back – this is in Miyajima, Hiroshima.

torii itsukushima

Photo credit

Looking from the sea, this torii serves as the gateway to Itsukushima Shrine.

itsukushima

Photo credit

Itsukushima jinja is a UNESCO world heritage site on Hiroshima prefecture’s Miyajima island. The shrine and its gate are regarded as one of Japan’s great views because of its large torii which stands over 16 meters tall.

Japanese temples (“otera”) on the other hand, are based in the facets Buddhism rather than Shintoism. Because of this, you can find similar temples in countries that practice Buddhism (i.e. China, Japan, and Korea). In the same fashion as the shrine, the name can be a dead giveaway as to whether you’re in a temple or a shrine. Simply listen for the ji sound at the end of the name.

One of the most popular temples I have visited are Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) in Kyoto…

kiyomizudera

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…and Todaiji in Nara.

Todaiji

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Instead of finding tori archways, you have pagoda, the cool-looking multi-tiered towers that are often associated with Asian architecture. A small temple near our place (big temples have more lavish entrances):

Japanese temple

It’s very quiet in here.

Japanese temple

This one’s in Niigata, my husband’s home town when we last visited in the summer of 2013.

Niigata otera

These statues? They have their story.

Japanese temple

These statues are called “Jizo” or more endearingly “Ojizo-san”. It was believed that “Ojizo-san” would guide dead soul to heaven or the kingdom of Buddha and not to hell.

Statue in Japanese shrine

Now, this photo above intrigued me for years when I was new there (the time when there was no Google or Wikipedia!) – so I had to ask around. Why do the Ojizo-san wear a red bib and with children at his feet?

Japanese temple

The Ojizo-san is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents. He has been worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses.

In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that the Ojizo-san saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe.

You often encounter Ojizo-san in temples and graveyards and it is not unusual to see the idol adorned with a red bib and a red baby hat. The reason for this, is parents put it there to either thank him for saving a child from illness or to ask him to protect a child in the after-life.

So folks, so much about Japan’s temples and shrines. Sorry, I got carried away! Nevertheless, if you happen to visit Japan, a country in my opinion, that you should visit at least once in your lifetime, be sure to stop by those little temples and shrines. They are always worth your time.

2 thoughts on “Things to do in Japan: Visiting shrines and temples

  1. One of the few exception is the Houzanji. I have been told it’s both a temple and a shrine. It has a ? gate and a pagoda inside too. It sets on top of Mt. Ikoma in Nara and has a great view of the surrounding city.

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  2. WE went to Kyoto but the husband found it too boring, thus we left early. I didn’t get to see the Kiyomizu but I read somewhere na people who jumped got their wish..

    I wish I can visit Kyoto again. Super loved the chill feel and the quietness. I was so drawn on Kyoto. Iba e..

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