Whether you're in search of Zen or beautiful architecture, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples will undoubtedly be included on the itinerary for all visitors to Japan. Shrines and temples are open everyday with many hosting exciting festivals throughout the year. Dip your toes in some traditional Japanese culture and head to these six must-visit spots in Tokyo.
1. Nezu-jinja Shrine, Bunkyo
Tucked away in the peaceful streets behind Ueno Park is the stunning shrine of Nezu-jinja. Believed to have been founded 1,900 years ago, many of the current structures date back to the 1700's and have been designated Important Cultural Properties. Though most famous for its azalea festival in April, Nezu-jinja is a great place to visit anytime of the year. Reminiscent of Kyoto's iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine, a tunnel of vibrant vermillion Torii gates winds its way between the shrine and azalea garden. This photogenic spot shouldn't be missed!
2. Gotoku-ji Temple, Setagaya
The birthplace of the maneki-neko (beckoning cat), Gotoku-ji has become mega Instagram-famous in recent years. Featuring a beautiful three-story wooden pagoda and a garden of momiji that blaze red in autumn, the temple's biggest attraction is its jaw-dropping sea of red and white cat statues. According to legend, a feudal lord in the Edo Period was returning home from Edo when a white cat mysteriously beckoned him into a temple. Moments later, a wild storm hit the area and the lord realized the cat had saved his life. To show his gratitude, he appointed Gotoku-ji his family temple and the cat became a symbol of luck. Visitors can now add a maneki-neko to the temple's collection or take one home as a souvenir!
3. Meiji Jingu Shine, Shibuya
One of the most famous shrines in Japan, Meiji Jingu enshrines the souls of Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1867 to 1912 and his wife, Empress Shoken. Thanks to its central location adjacent to Yoyogi Park and its easy access from Harajuku Station, the shrine sees millions of visitors each year. Hidden among an enormous 70-hectare forest, Meiji Jingu transports visitors away from the busy city streets to a tranquil, green oasis. The most popular sights include the giant cypress Torii gates and the wall of sake barrels. It's also a great place to witness Shinto wedding processions where the bride and groom are dressed in exquisite kimono.
4. Shibamata Taishakuten Temple, Katsushika
After a temple off the beaten track? Shibamata Taishakuten is one of Tokyo's most underrated temples! This Buddhist temple was founded in 1629 and is known for its breathtaking, intricate architecture. Wood carved panels cover the temple telling parables of the Lotus Sutra, a sacred scripture believed to be over 2,000 years old. Located in the far eastern neighborhood of Shibamata, the temple sits at the end of a shopping street full of authentic old-Tokyo charm. The area is also famous for being the setting for a popular film series titled "It's Tough Being a Man" which ran for 26 years.
5. Zojo-ji Temple, Minato
A favorite among photographers and history buffs, Zojo-ji was originally built in 1393 and later became the family temple of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the most prominent rulers of Japan. At its height, it was one of Japan's main Buddhist temples and home to around 3,000 students. The mammoth Sangedatsu-mon entrance gate which has miraculously remained intact since it was built in 1622 gives a hint of the scale of the original Zojo-ji. Due to its close proximity to Tokyo's beloved symbol, Tokyo Tower, the temple now attracts a steady stream of photographers year-round. This view is even more beautiful in August when a river of candles is lit for the Tanabata Festival.
6. Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa
Asakusa's Senso-ji is Tokyo's oldest temple. Said to have been founded in 645, it originated as a simple structure dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Over its long history it has been destroyed numerous times by natural disasters and wars, but its status as a sacred site has never diminished. Every May, the streets around Senso-ji are taken over by one of Tokyo's biggest and rowdiest festivals, the Sanja Matsuri. But no matter the time of year, the temple and its long approach, the Nakamise Shopping Street, are a bustling tourist spot. Be sure to check out the fierce Nio-zo guardian statues and the carvings under the enormous lanterns that hang under the temple gates, and wave incense smoke over parts of your body that need healing!