Shrines and Temples: The Ultimate Guide

Do you know the difference between a Shrine and a Temple? In fact, these two words refer to two completely different religions in Japan. Shrines (神社) are Shinto, while Temples (お寺) are Buddhists. What are the differences between these two religions? How can you recognize a Shrine from a Temple? What are the steps to respect while visiting a Shrine or a Temple?

Upon reading this article, you will find all the answers to master the visit of Shrines and Temples in Japan.

Differences between Shinto and Buddhism

On the one hand, Shinto (神道) literally means "way of the gods". It is a polytheistic religion which originated in Japan. In Shinto, there are thousands of different kinds of kami: spirits that appear in multiple forms such as mountains, rivers, trees, but also animals. There are therefore an infinite number of gods and goddesses with different personalities and characteristics. In 1868, in order to fight against Buddhism which was spreading all around the country, the Empire of Japan decided to encourage Shinto practices to emphasize the Emperor as a divine being. This led to an Imperial cult. However, after the Second World War, the Emperor stated that he was not a divine being but an human, and the Shrines focused on kamis again.

On the other hand, Buddhism was introduced to Japan by China and Korea in the 5th and 6th centuries. Buddhism is based on Buddha’s life and teachings. For many people, it’s more a way of life where you have to follow some philosophical principles than a religion. Many Japanese people do not consider themselves to be especially religious, and they visit and pray in Shrines as well as in Temples.

Am I visiting a Shrine or a Temple?

Here are some tips to help you to recognize a Shrine from a Temple:

In a Shrine:
● The name of Shrines use the suffixes -jinja, -jingu, or -taisha
● You enter in a Shrine through a torii gate. Torii gates are mostly red or orange
● The only statues that you can find there are a pair of guardian dogs, lions or foxes on each side of the entrance (called Komainu)

Torii and Komainu

In a Temple:
● The name of Temples use the suffixes -tera, -ji or -in
● The entrance is bigger than torii gates in Shrines, and you can usually find there a large incense burner (called Joukouro)
● In the main hall, you will find a statue of Buddha or other Bodhisattvas


Steps and manners

Now that you know the main differences between a Shrine and a Temple, here are the steps and manners to follow during your visit:

Step 1: Before entering, bow once at the torii (or the entrance of the temple). If you are visiting a Shrine, do not walk in the center, since the center is supposed to be where the gods walk.

Step 2: If there is a purification fountain, use it to purificate your body. To do so, first, take one of the ladles and wash your left hand with it. Do the same with your right hand.

Then, hold the ladle with your right hand, pour some water in your left hand, and use it to rinse your mouth. Don’t forget to spit the water near the fountain.

After that, clean your left hand again, put the ladle in vertical direction to clean the handle and put it back in the fountain

Step 3: Throw a coin into the offering box. 5 yens coins are often used since they are said to bring good luck

Step 4: If there is a bell, you can ring it

Step 5: How to pray: In a Shrine: bow twice, clap your hands twice and pray

In a Temple: just bow once and and join your hands together but DO NOT CLAP!

Step 6: In any case, after praying, bow slightly once

Step 7: Before leaving the Shrine/Temple, face towards it and bow one last time

Let's go and visit Shrines and Temples!

Now that you know almost everything about Shrines and Temples, don't hesitate to visit many of them while you are in Japan!

Photos: Kota Wada