Temple? Shrine? What’s the Difference?

A huge tourist draw in Japan are the many Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines that are literally everywhere. Some are more famous than others, but how do you tell the difference? And do you even need to bother? Well, we’ll look at how you can tell which is which, and why that matters. Because, no, they are not the same at all.

The first one we’ll look at is the Buddhist Temple. They are often dedicated to a specific Buddhist deity, such as the goddess Kannon (i.e. Sensoji in Asakusa in Tokyo) but that’s not a requirement. Some of them are more “touristy” than others, which are mainly community centers and actual “working” temples.

Buddhist Temples

Often a Buddhist temple will have a -ji (寺) or -tera/dera (寺) suffixed to the name. Such as Sensoji or Hasedera (Kamakura). Now the observant reader will note very quickly…

Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo
Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo

…that the kanji for -tera and -ji are exactly the same. Yes. It is. I know, I know. That’s just how it is. Kanji quite often has multiple readings for the same character AND the same meaning. You’re just supposed to know the difference. How? I don’t know. I really don’t. Just from learning a particular place name I suppose.

Another is -in (pronounced “een” not “in”), and written as 院 such as Kotoku-in in Kamakura, or Yakuo-in on Mt. Takao. These (if I understand correctly) is that this refers to a monastery. Having been to Takao several times and witnessed the monks rituals and festivals I can confirm this.

Some notable Buddhist Temples that follow these conventions are:

  • Kinkakuji 金閣寺 (Kyoto)
  • Todaiji 東大寺 (Nara)
  • Sensoji 浅草寺 (Tokyo)
  • Yakuoin 薬王院 (Takao)
  • Kotokuin 高徳院 (Kamakura)
  • Byoudouin 平等院 (Uji)
  • Kiyomizudera 清水寺 (Kyoto)
  • Hasedera 長谷寺 (Kamakura)

Temples will also often have a large gate house at the entrance…. that is not the stereotypical torii gate. It usually has two statues displayed, one on either side, of Buddhist guardian dieties. At Sensoji for example its fuujin and raijin.

Shinto Shrines

Torii gate at Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

The dead giveaway that a place is actually a shinto shrine is torii gate. Sometimes they are massive, sometimes small, and sometimes there are just a whole lot of them. It’s not a requirement, though. You will also see ropes, often with “lightning bolt” shaped paper streamers tied into them. Both of these things symbolically represent a boundary between the earthly and divine worlds, or in shinto terms the “divine” and “profane.”

Naming wise, Shrines have lots of different labels attached to them, depending on the “rank” of the shrine, and probably just some random fortune…

The most common, in my experience is “jinja” (pronounced “gene-jah”) and is written 神社.

Other suffixes and designators for shrines include “-jingu” (“gene-goo”) or 神宮, “-taisha” (“tie-shah”) 大社, and actually many more. The smaller shrines will often just have “-sha” 社 in the name. Then there are others than end in “hachiman-gu” (八幡宮) or “tenman-gu” (天満宮) and others like Kanda myoujin (神田明神) that seemingly make up their own…

…I suggest hitting up the Wikipedia entry on Shinto Shrines to read about the complexities in Shrine naming and ranking, etc.

Some of these conventions you’ll see as a tourist include:

  • Asakusa Jinja 浅草神社 (Tokyo)
  • Yasaka Jinja 八坂神社 (Kyoto)
  • Meiji Jingu 明治神宮 (Tokyo)
  • Ise Jingu 伊勢神宮 (Ise)
  • Kasuga Taisha 春日大社 (Nara)
  • Sumiyoshi Taisha 住吉大社 (Osaka)
  • Fushimi Inari Taisha 伏見稲荷大社 (Kyoto)
  • …and countless more

Temple – Shrine Relationships

Byoudouin Temple in Uji
Byoudouin Temple in Uji

To further add to the confusion, you’ll often find shrines “attached” to temples in a kind of symbiotic relationship. Asakusa shrine is one of these. The shrine is dedicated to the three fisherman who found the statue of the Buddhist goddess Kannon in the river. The temple, as I said before, is dedicated to Kannon, but the shrine, to these three guys. Yeah, it can get really interesting.

Another thing that happens often is a temple will have many smaller shrines within it, or along the various trails and paths. Takao-san is like this, as Sensoji and really most others. You’ll find a random small shrine with an offering inside or next to it. And you’ll often see smaller shrines within larger shrines.

The way that the two religions can co-exist with each other is really remarkable. Nothing in Buddhism conflicts with or prevents the Shinto shrines from existing, and vice versa.

Etiquette

I’m sure you’ve already read up on your temple/shrine etiquette already, so I won’t go into it right here (but I will write about it later!) … but there are a few differences in etiquette that you as a tourist need to be aware of, and these all come from my own experiences and observations.

  • When passing through a torii gate, never walk directly in the center path, that’s reserved for the deities enshrined within. Walk to the left or right. Bowing at the gate is optional, nobody’s going to throw you out for not bowing, but is often done.
  • Photography is usually allowed, BUT you should never photograph inside the temple sanctuary, or inside the inner-most part of a shrine. There should be signs up, but be aware.
  • Shrines will almost definitely ban the use of tripods and even monopods. This is because its “holy ground” and putting your sticks in it is actually a no-no. Temples I find don’t really care, unless they are highly trafficked (don’t be a bother to other tourists) OR using said x-pod might come in contact with the structures, garden, etc. Use your common sense and don’t do something that might damage a temple or shrine.
  • Praying at a temple just involves tossing a coin into the pot, bowing once and giving your prayer. At a shrine, its a little more involved. Toss your coin, ring the bell if its there (to get the enshrined diety’s attention!), bow twice, clap twice, and give your prayer while still holding your hands together, then bow again.
  • Temples will often have a place for omikuji, or fortune telling, where you get a small paper with your lucky (or unlucky) outlook, that you either keep or leave for the gods.
  • Shrines often have something similar, only you write your wishes/prayers on a small board and hang it up for the gods to deal with.

There are similarities, too that you’ll notice, including:

  • Washing your hands and mouth at the entrance at the temizuya.
  • Getting your book or goshuinchou signed by the priests/monks.
  • Sale of amulets or small shrines, and other good luck charms.

Like they used to say, “The more you know.” Hopefully this helps you in your trip to Japan. I recommend diving further into the intricacies of Japanese temples and shrines, the differences between them, what the various ones are about, etc.

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