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Distinguishing between Japanese Shrines and Temples

Photo: Hansel and Regrettal on Flickr

Distinguishing between Japanese Shrines and Temples

Preetha

For a first-time visitor to Japan it will be really confusing to distinguish between a shrine and a temple during his first visit. But there are some unique observable feature that can help you find the differences. The structures, surroundings, customs and even the colours around the shrine and a temple help us to differentiate between the two. Even though there are some features that are common to both of them.

The Shrine is generally associated to the Shinto religion, the ancient religion of Japan where the ancestral gods are worshipped. There are no statues of deities inside the worship areas. Whereas the Temples are associated with Buddhism and enshrines Lord Buddha in various forms and given names. There are big and small Buddha statues within the temple premises. The differences of these worship places are observable right from the main entrance.

I. Main entrance


The entrance gate is the first and very easy means to distinguish between a shrine and a temple.

Shrine (Jinja)

Torii gate: The torii gate forms the main entrance of a shrine. It might be wooden and colourful or sometimes not painted at all, or it might be a huge stone structure. The vermillion colour of the torii gate attracts visitors from afar.

Torii Gate

Torii Gate

Komainu: The two lion statues situated on both sides of the torii gate are called Komainu or the guarding lion dogs. At the Inari shrines guarding lions or dogs are replaced by two fox guards at either sides of the entrance.

Komainu

Komainu

Inari

Inari

Rows of torii gates/ lanterns along the pathway: Some shrines have a number of torii gates or lanterns on both sides of the pathway extending from the entrance to the worship hall.

Shimenazawa

Shimenazawa

Shimenazawa: These are the ropes made out of straw that are seen hanging in front of the worship area of a shrine. These ropes are also tied across the torii gate within the premises (yard) of the shrine. Sometimes huge trees inside the shrine premises also be have these ropes or shimenazawa tied on it. Usually paper strips are hung on to these ropes too.

Temple (Otera)

Sanmon: But in a temple or the Japanese Otera, the entrance is called the Sanmo. It is really huge in size with various small and big shapes carved onto it. In big temples, there might be sub-gates too that are huge in size and look similar to the Sanmon.

Sanmon

Sanmon

Guarding Gods: Guarding Gods are visible on either sides of the entrance or sanmon of a temple.

II. Before entering the worship hall


Shrine

Chouzuya: These are the purification troughs filled with water and are observed at all worship places in Japan. Ladles are placed aside it or in front of it for the visitors to take water for purifying their hands and mouth before entering the worship hall.

Trough, or Chuozoya

Trough, or Chuozuya

Even though chouzuya is associated with the shrines, some temples might also have the purification trough.

Temple

Koudou: Large structures are often seen before the worship hall of the temple where incense sticks or Osenko are burned. Bundles of incense are burnt and placed in these burners. Fumes coming out of these incense sticks are believed to have some healing power.

Koudou

Koudou

Small statues: Small statues of Budha and other Gods are generally places within the worship hall of a temple.

Common features

Garden or niwa

Garden or niwa

Gardens: There will be Japanese style garden or niwa at most of the worship places, be it a shrine or the temple. Pine trees, Ginko trees, Sakura (cherry-blossom trees) and other plants adorn these gardens. Some gardens also have ponds with colourful Koi fishes in it. Lanterns and statues might also be found in the gardens.

Carp or koi

Carp or koi

III. The worship hall


Shrine

Haiden and Honden: Inside a shrine are two visibly different areas. The first area is open to the public and known as the Haiden. The main hall where the God is enshrined is open to priests and special persons. It is called the Honden.

Hondon

Hondon

Bell: A bell is generally seen hanging in front of the Haiden of a shrine nearer to the offering box. It is rung before praying.

Temple

Daibutsuden

Daibutsuden

Daibutsuden: The worship hall at a temple is called the Daibutsuden and has the statue of Lord Buddha inside it. There may be statues of other Gods and guards surrounding the main deity statue.

Daibutsuden

Daibutsuden

Common features

Saisen-bako: Offering boxes are placed in front of the worship hall in every temple or shrine. Visitors put coins in these boxes before starting to pray. Offering boxes are placed in front of the deity statue of a temple while it is placed before the Haiden at a shrine.

IV. Structures around the main worship hall


Shrine

Small sub-shrines: Sub-shrines of small sizes are generally observed within the shrine premises. It is similar in shape to the shrine building and sometimes with small torii gates, lanterns, shimenazawa, etc.

Temple

Tou/Pagoda: Three or five storeyed pagoda is a great attraction of the Buddhist temples. These tall structures are believed to hold the sacred sutras of Buddhist religion. The topmost metal edges of these structures are meant to protect the surrounding areas from lightning.

Pagoda

Pagoda

Shourou/Bell tower: Huge bells are found in towers called Shourou that are rung during special occasions. For example to welcome the New Year the bells are rung 108 times at midnight following a belief where 108 sins done in the past year are thrown away whilst the ringing of the bell.

Shourou

Shourou

Bochi/Cemetery: Cemetery, seen near big temple yards where people come to offer flower bouquets and pray during special occasions like anniversaries or new year.

V. Rituals and practices


Praying at a Shrine

At a shrine, one is supposed to enter the shrine premise through the sides of the torii gate and not through the center. After cleansing the hands and mouth using the water from the Chouzuya, one may approach the Haiden.


  1. Offer a coin in the Saisen Bako.
  2. Ring the bell
  3. Bow twice.
  4. Make your wishes and pray.
  5. Clap hands twice.
  6. Bow again once.
Praying at a Temple

After cleansing the hands and mouth (if Chouzuya is present), one may proceed to the Daibutsuden. If you have some incense bundles, burn it in the Koudou and enter the main hall.


  1. Bow once.
  2. Pray to the god.
  3. Clap once.
  4. Bow again.
We may go around the deity statue (if it is allowed) once and pray to the sub-goddesses around it.

Common practices

Ema: Wooden plaques or paper cards that are hung by the worshippers on special stands placed near the temple worship area. People write their wishes and prayers to God on these plates. Based on the temples, Ema plates will have attractive shapes and colours.

Ema

Ema

Omikuji: Omikuji are the fortune predicting paper strips seen enclosed in special boxes at the Japanese temples and shrines. Visitors have to make a fixed offering in the box to get their piece of Omikuji strip with a sentence written on it. Good fortune if selected will be taken home and bad fortune will be tied onto the stands placed within the premises.

Mikuji

Mikuji

Omamori: Omamori are the amulets sometimes enclosed inside special tiny bags. They have some prayers written on wooden strips or papers inside it. You are not supposed to open the amulet bags. There are various kinds of Omamori for various purposes like safety, success in education, safe delivery, etc. In general, people keep it with them in their wallets to receive protection and security. It should be kept until your next visit to the shrine even though its power is believed to last for one whole year.

The next time you visit a temple or a shrine, please look around for these peculiarities. If you have not yet observed it, pay close attention to the Japanese visitors to know more clearly about the rituals and practices. You may feel more confident once you are also following the right mannerisms at these places. It will be more interesting if you are enthusiastic.