Japan is known for many things but one of the most prolific is its temples, shrines and castles. On my recent visit to Japan on our Land of the Samurai tour, I was surprised at just how many there were and finally got to learn the difference between temples and shrines. The main difference is that temples are used by the Buddhist faith and focus on celebrating death and the afterlife while shrines belong to the Shinto faith and celebrate life. Both are used for worship and to house sacred objects.
I visited many temples, shrines and castles during my 12 days in Japan but here are some of my favourites, each with their own unique style and atmosphere.
Kotokuin Temple – Kamakura
The Great Buddha of Kamakura is the main feature of this temple. It is the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at a height of 13.35 metres. The statue was built in 1252 and used to be housed inside a temple hall. Unfortunately the hall has been destroyed many times over the years from typhoons and tidal waves. Because of this the statue has been in the open air since 1495. You can pay a small fee of 20 Yen to enter the inside of Buddha but it is the outside which is most impressive.
Hokokuji Temple – Kamakura
My favourite thing about this Zen temple, which was founded in 1334, is in fact the garden. Specifically the Kamakura Bamboo Garden, which has over 2,000 bamboo stalks. You can walk through the garden on narrow paths and immerse yourself in the tranquillity. You can also sit back and experience the garden while enjoying a cup of matcha tea at the tea house. Inside the temple there is a statue of Buddha and outside there is a unique-looking bell tower to enjoy too.
Kinkakuji Temple – Kyoto
Also known as the Golden Pavilion, this popular Zen temple in Kyoto is a must for most tourists. This was the retirement villa of a shogun called Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. His wish was that it be turned into a Zen temple after his death, which occurred in 1408. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf, which look stunning against the lush backdrop of trees and reflected in the lake. The pavilion has burnt down several times since it was first built. Most recently was on the 2nd July 1950 when it was set alight by a 22-year-old novice monk, Hayashi Yoken, who then unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1955 because of mental illness.
Reikado Hall – Miyajima Island
Located on the scenic Miyajima Island, this hall is on the way to the peak of Mt Misen. Although it is not a temple as such, it does have great Buddhist relevance and I found it interesting for a couple of reasons. It houses an eternal flame called Kiezu-no-Hi, which Kobo Daishi, a Japanese Buddhist monk, used as part of his religious training. It has been burning for 1,200 years and was used as the pilot light for the “Flame of Peace” in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It is believed that any holy water boiled by its fire cures many diseases. The other reason is far more unexpected. Dotted throughout the grounds are tiny dwarf statues slightly hidden amongst the rocks and plants. Each is adorned with a different outfit or theme. There were ones with sunglasses, lifting weights, reading a book, sweeping and plenty else. It was great fun to see how many different ones I could find.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – Kyoto
One of the most photographed shrines in Japan is the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. It is known for its thousands of torii gates, which form a path from behind the shrine’s main building through the forest to the sacred Mt Inari which is also on the shrine’s grounds. Each of the torii gates is a gift from the public and companies who are praying for good luck in business. These are not cheap to donate and cost anywhere from 175,000 Yen for the small gate to over one million Yen for the largest. The back of each gate has the name and date of the donor.
Himeji Castle – Himeji
My favourite castle, and in fact my favourite place during my entire holiday in Japan, is the Himeji Castle. This is one of only 12 castles which still remain in their original form and has never been destroyed by fire, war or earthquake. It was completed in 1609 and is a World Heritage Site. For me it is elegant but imposing and its white wooden exterior against the blue sky took my breath away. You can climb the six stories to the top level, which houses a shrine and also has great views over Himeji city.
If you feel inspired to discover Japan’s beautiful temples, peaceful shrines and majestic castles, have a look at our Japan tours. Have a favourite of your own? Let us know in the comments section below.