Japanese shrine

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.


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

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


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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…


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…and Todaiji in Nara.


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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.

traveling with kids

Traveling with young kids is not a waste

traveling with kids

We’re going away next month to travel for three weeks. We’ll visit two countries, be in six flights (2 in a sea plane!), some train and road trip by car/bus. Pristine is 10 and Benjamin is only 2 years and 8 months old. We will be spending time at the beach, hiking on a nature trail, they will see animals they have not seen before and probably, if we are lucky, there might be RAIN. This is a very exciting idea to me but, the inevitable has happened. I’ve been smacked in the face with the comment,


The people in my real world would add, “Why do you travel with your kids when they’re too young? They don’t understand what they’re seeing. It’s just a waste of time, effort and money!”

I tried to take that comment seriously, keep struggling through the years but I always come back to wanting to ask them back:

Why bother showering children and babies with love, cuddle them, kiss them or read them bed time stories? They won’t remember!

Ridiculous, right?

Just because young children don’t remember those moments and experiences don’t mean they are less meaningful. Or less important.

Travel is the same. It’s a bonding experience for the whole family. It’s about creating memories. I love the example comparing memory with experience through reading to your children. Why bother reading books to your young children if they won’t remember it exactly?

Pristine holding chicken

~ Pristine very eager to hold a live chicken in the Philippines ~

The thing is, it’s not about remembering specifically every sentence and picture in the book, it’s about the experience it brings. The sound of the words, the visual of the pictures. It’s stimulating their little minds and making them feel you are in this wonderful experience with them.

Pristine was 16 months when we travelled outside the country for the first time (just me and her). She didn’t remember any of it but when she looks at the photos, she gets very excited and says, “Was I a good baby on the plane, mom?” And I tell her that yes, she was while the other babies were screaming their lungs off during a bumpy ride to Manila from Japan. 

Pristine mosquito net

~ Pristine very overwhelmed with the concept of sleeping with a mosquito net in the Philippines ~

Pristine loves to hear these stories. She lights up when I show her photos of herself and share stories about what we all experience together. It makes her feel loved, important, special AND included.

We gathered our courage to travel all the way to Europe when she was 2 years and 4 months in 2006. It was our first long haul flight as a family. She was still good on the plane and she tells all her friends with pride every chance she gets: “I was a little traveller and did not cry on the plane.”

Pristine at 2.5 years old

And the stories are endless. “So I went to Holland when I was shorter than the tulips?” I actually laughed, yes! And this is what travel is about – creating and sharing stories they will cherish throughout their lives.


Travelling as a family also strengthens bonds between parents. Like, we learn to take turns who carries a heavily jet lagged toddler on a city walk!

London 2006 1

Travel teaches us lessons otherwise we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t get out of our comfort zones. Like, a stroller is a must and your back can only bear so much, for long hours!

London 2006 2

Just a note – she wasn’t always sleeping…only on those odd hours after we landed. See, after a while she’s just being herself.

Pristine in Antwerp

We learned our lesson when we took Benjamin to Japan for the first time last year. Stroller!

Benjamin in Japan

That said, I’d like to think that we are lucky to have Pristine who is very open to anything travel-related. (As for the other, well, he is two. He will go wherever I go!) Pristine loves packing, too and has learned to pack for herself since she was 5 or 6!

P and B in Tokyo

Parks, beaches, hiking trails, she is all game. She loves to eat local food and readily poses for photos with a smile, always. Benjamin on the other hand is the ever curious and I feel he loves our travels too.


I believe in living in the here and now so I won’t wait till my children *get* it before going out to see the world with them.

Now that Pristine is older (and Ben is catching up – being very observant and communicative), the memories they will be forming from the experiences we’re going to have in our travels will be incredibly rich. No book, lesson, movie, or YouTube could come close to leaving the same impression.

Overlooking Suwa Lake

~ A short pit stop on our way to Tokyo at Suwa Interchange, overlooking Suwa Lake in Nagano, Japan ~

But before the sights and scenes and new places and food and adventure, travelling allows us to give 100% undivided attention to our children. There are no deadlines to meet, work timings to catch. We are there with them, all day, every day. As working parents, this is a precious time for us to reset and focus on them wholly, without distractions.

Ben in Sagami koen

Travelling with young children is part of their developmental process. We do this because we want them to always understand that there are many different cultures, food, languages and that differences are normal.


~ paying respect to her dad’s grandma in her dad’s family’s home in Niigata, Japan ~

I see no reason why they can’t experience and retain this global perspective from a young age.

Perspective for parents: you will have 18 summers until your children moves out to college. Take out 1-3 summers when you feel they’re really small and young and can’t handle travel yet (I fully understand the hesitation!) and you get 15. Only fifteen summers (or less) before they get busy with their own lives to travel with you.

Why waste time and wait ’till they are older?

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Playing tourists in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

We toured Dubai for a day, now it’s time to head to the next Emirate of Abu Dhabi!

Our first stop was Yas Marina Circuit and it was eerily quiet. We asked if we could get inside and the security at the gates said yes. We can see the sprawling wide Ferrari World roof at a distance but other than a few gardeners tending the green spaces, no one was there because there was no event.

We were lucky enough to catch a corporate racing event at Yas Marina Circuit. I don’t know anything about racing…except that boy, it makes so much noise!


There were only a handful of cars, less than 10. What happens during the grand F1 race (happens once a year)?

It was very hot that day in Abu Dhabi too, with temperatures swelling up to 37C. Our friend was amazed how lucky we are to be blessed with this kind of weather most of the year – yeah I almost forgot about that. How lucky we are to hang our wet laundry in the morning and get it in dry at midday. 

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque looked majestic against the perfect summer sky. The incredible Sheikh Zayed Mosque or Grand Mosque as it is also known, was named after the UAE’s former ruler and President – Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan whose body was also buried at the grounds in 2004. It was Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s dream to build a grand mosque meters above sea and street level in order for it be seen from miles afar.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

We’ve been to the Grand Mosque a couple of times before – this is a staple tourist spot that won’t disappoint but I think this is the first time we visited when it’s summer. It’s so hot outside you would want to run and seek cover inside an airconditioned room.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Did I mention, the mosque really looked beautiful against the sky that day? I wish I took more photos.

If it was beautiful outside, wait till you see what’s inside. This snowy white mosque – conceived by Sheikh Zayed himself – can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers and is architecturally impressive inside and out.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Taking design cues from Morocco, Turkey and even India’s Taj Mahal, the interior is a made-to-impress mix of marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. The mosque also houses the world’s largest Persian carpet with seven massive gold-plated crystal chandeliers dangling above the domes.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The large Persian carpet was made in Iran by 1200 female weavers working in 3 shifts over 2 years, the mammoth carpet measures 60,500 sq ft and weighs 47 tons.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

I love how the photos turned out so well (for my standard, at least!). I’ve attempted to get these angles since the first time we visited but with the lack of proper camera, I wasn’t able to. See the red cords? I am surprised they have blocked off the center part of the mosque. There were no restricted spaces and tourist trail when we visited a few years ago.

Other side of the mosque and my favorite blue chandelier.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Blue chandelier

The other changes include the abaya counter being more organized now and located at a different venue, at the basement of Building B. Also, you now need to present and leave an identification card when borrowing an abaya (women need to wear an abaya to get inside the mosque).  I left my wallet in the car so I did not have any ID with me.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Building B is at the farther side from the entrance, it’s a long walk.

I dreaded the idea of going back to the car but my ever reliable husband was luckily carrying my driver’s license! It as a coincidence that we had the car serviced the day before and he removed the important stuff there like my driver’s license and forgot to put it back. Otherwise, I could not bear think of walking through that hot and humid basement and to the car park in that heat!

p and me at grand mosque

You have no idea how fast we ran towards the shade the moment the camera clicked!

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is open to non-Muslims everyday except Friday. Entry is free. Please note to dress conservatively when visiting Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Women should wear lose clothing, either long trousers or skirt and cover their hair with a scarf (this can also be provided when arriving at Mosque). Men should avoid wearing shorts. No shoes permitted in the building. No intimate behavior is permitted i.e. holding hands even if you’re a married couple.

Being a tourist is all about feelings of novelty and awe – it gave us a renewed appreciation of the place we live in. Have you played tourists in your own city lately?

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