How Different Are Buddhist Temples And Shinto Shrines

In my new articles I will be speaking a lot about “otera” and “jinja” and since many of you might not know or not even have heard of them, I decided to write an article about what they are and how these two places of worship differ from each other. Let’s start with the basics:

Religions in Japan 

Japan’s history is divided in different periods (時代 Jidai in Japanese), this resembles the way the Chinese history is classified as well. The first period is called Jomon from 12,000-300 BC, then Asuka 550-710 BC when the Buddhism was imported from the Korean kingdom of Baekje and got popular during the Nara period when the prince Shotoku pledged to spread the Buddhist religion and Chinese culture throughout the entire Japan.

At the same time, in Japan, an indigenous religion was already developed, the so-called Shintoism. This religion is unique to Japan and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The main point of Shintoism is worshipping the countless Gods that make up its Pantheon, which at the top resides the sun God Amaterasu. The name was created after the importation of Buddhism in order to distinguish the two religions: 神 read as “shin” or as “kami“, which means God, and 道 dou, which means path so the final meaning is the “path of the Gods“.

Otera – お寺

Let’s start with something easy that will allow us to understand whether the temple we are visiting is a Buddhist or Shinto one: the name. Most of the time, Buddhist temples have a Ji 寺 in their name, for example: Toudaiji 東大寺,Touji 東寺, Sensouji 浅草寺. As you might have realized, the Ji in the name is written with the same kanji of Otera. The name is more important than you might think thus always have a look at it before entering.

Buddhist temple in Kawagoe

Also the structure of a Buddhist temple is a bit different from a Shinto shrine’s and changes according to the type of Buddhism. I will not talk about this in details since I do not know it well myself but in Japan, after the importation of Buddhism from Korea, many different branches sprang up, among them we have Zen Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism, Hosso Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism.

Yakushiji, a Hosso Buddhist temple, located in Nara

The main and more common features of a Buddhist temple are:

  • Mon 門 the gate at the entrance, usually made of wood
Engakuji’s gate in Kamakura
  • The Main Hall called Kondo 金堂 or Butsuden 仏殿 in Zen Buddhist temples is where the main object of veneration is enshrined. The object is different in every temple, for example in Engakuji temple in Kamakura it is said the tooth of Buddha is treasured while in the Sensouji temple in Tokyo the Asakusa Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, is enshrined. 
Main hall of Toji in Kyoto
  • The stupa, normally found in India or Thailand, or the pagoda, which is just an evolution of the stupa, found in Chinese and Japanese temples. It is usually multiple-stories high. The Japanese pagoda originated from the Chinese pagoda but the two are a bit different in their design. The pagoda’s function reminds me of the bell tower’s, for those who are accustomed with Catholic religion.
The five storied Pagoda of Kofukuji in Nara, one of the highest in Japan
Source: https://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html
  • Chinjusha 鎮守社 , which is a small shinto shrine found in most of Buddhist temples. The fact that the two religions can cohabit so well amazes me. Not only people can practise two religions at the same time but every Buddhist temple must have a Shinto shrine in it.
Chinjusha in a Buddhist temple in Kawagoe

There are, of course, other parts but these are the most evident and important ones.

How To Pray In a Otera

When you want to pray in a buddhist temple, what you need to do is heading towards the Main Hall, where he main object of veneration is enshrined, and once there, throw some coins in the offering box. Then join your hands in prayer, like you would do in a church, and make a wish.

Jinja – 神社

As I have just explained above, the easiest and fastest trick is checking the name. For Shinto shrines it normally ends in Jinja 神社 or Taisha 大社 . While the Jinja is a normal Shinto shrine, the Taisha is more like a cathedral, a bigger complex than a Jinja could be. For instance the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto or the Kasuga Taisha in Nara.

The more common and most important features are:

  • Torii: the shinto gate, which informs us that we just stepped into the holy territory of the shrine. It can be of various colours, mainly red or white.
Inari Shrine at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
Meiji Jingu’s Torii in Tokyo
  • Sando: the path after the torii that leads you to the Main Hall.

  • Chozuya: the fountain placed at the entrance of the shrine when one is supposed to cleanse their own hands before praying. Hold the dipper in your right hand and wash your left hand, repeat the same sequence just with the left hand and then put it back.
Chozuya in Suga Shrine in Tokyo
  • Toro: the decorative lanterns
Lanterns in Kasuga Taisha in Nara
  • Honden: the Main Hall of the shrine, where the God is usually eshrined.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura
  • Komainu: the statues, which normally are lion-shaped animals, located in front of the Honden.
Hie Shrine in Fuchinobe
  • Kagura-den: the stage where the miko perform.
At the end of the stairs you can spot the Kagura-den in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Unlike Buddhist temples, normally shrines are always open and the entrance is free. Those who look after the shrines are the Kannushi 神主, in a nutshell they are the priest. Unlike in Buddhism or Catholicism, they can marry and have children.

There are also the Miko 巫女, young girls that help the Kannushi to maintain the shrines. They are normally the daughters of the priest but also normal girls can become one. In the past once a Miko had to be married, they had to leave their “work” at the shrine. Although nowadays this rule does not exist anymore, most of them still do it.

Miko strolling in Meiji Jingu, Tokyo

How To Pray In a Jinja

Source: nihonsun

The way of praying in a Jinja is slightly different from the Buddhist way. Like for the buddhists, you go to the Main Hall, where the God is enshrined, then you throw some coins in the offering box and you bow and clap your hands twice. After you clapped, join the hands together like the buddhist way while expressing your wish to the God and bow for the last time.

Different Gods

All the shrines you encounter are dedicated to a certain God. For example in Dazaifu, a small town near Fukuoka, there is the God of Wisdom where all students go and pray for their success at school. Other common Gods are the Seven Gods of Fortune, like Ebisu the business god, or the Inari Okami, the God of rice, fertility and agriculture.

Torii in Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

Places of worship dedicated to Inari can be found throughout Japan, among them the most important one is the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Take into consideration that more than one third Jinja in Japan are dedicated to Inari, without including the smaller shrines on the sides of streets or in remote places.

Iwakura Inari shrine in Himeji

The Inari God is depicted both as female or male but it is often associated with the fox (Kitsune 狐 in Japanese), which is why most of the time you find fox statues at the entrance of the Inari shrines. The foxes are, indeed, its messengers. The fox-shaped statues always have something in their mouths or pawns, like a scroll or a sake bottle. Also the torii and the Main Hall itself are often painted in a bright red colour, a distinguish feature of the Inari shrines.

Kitsune statue in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura

If you know something more about this topic, please feel free to write down in the comments below. Have you ever been to a Jinja or a Otera? Let me know your experience 😉

Written by 

First of all, let me state clearly that I am a human: two legs, two arms, brown hair etc (yep, everything is at its place) and then, I am Federica from the corrupted and mainly-famous-for-pasta-and-mafia country, otherwise known as Italy. I am a temple geek, I totally love temples, every kind: from Buddhist, to Taoist, to Shinto ones ? Other thing I am fixated on are anime (my God, I watched so many that I lost the count), pasta (of course, I am italian), ramen ? and travelling.I am really interested in travelling and discovering the world, I can say, it is my greatest passion and I try to persue it, everytime I am not busy with studying or attending some lessons at university

3 thoughts on “How Different Are Buddhist Temples And Shinto Shrines”

  1. Finally something easy to understand for all those who have problems finding the difference between an Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. Actually, about 150 years ago the need to make this differentiation didn’t quite exists, because until the Meiji Restoration a lot of temples and shrines co-existed on the same grounds, even mixing up the ceremonies to some extent. It was as late as in the late 19th century when shinto turned into some kind of “state religion” and Buddhism was even persecuted. What’s the most pleasant thing about religions in Japan: Even though they are taken seriously, they are hardly ever the reason for controversy.

    1. I tried my best to gather information and explain it very easily ahaha there are a lot of things that I still do not know in details like the different kinds of buddhism like shingon or hosso and one day I hope I will be able to study them further. I hope all the info written here are correct, if u spot some mistakes, do not hesitate to point then out 😉 u seem very knowledgeable. Wow I have never heard that buddhism was persecuted, this sounds very interesting and worth a research ahaha I can tell that buddha and shinto deities are intertwined and I guess it is the result of this cohabitation. Anyway the way religions cohabit in Japan as well as in some other Asian countries always amaze me and make me ponder 😣 thanks for your nice comment 🙂

      1. Hi again! This cohabitation of Shinto and Buddhism used to be quite a symbiosis – until the Meiji Restoration, when in fact even huge temples were destroyed.
        Take the great temple of Asakusa (Senso-ji) for example. The temple is in fact “protected” by the much smaller “Asakusa Shrine” next to it. Also the annual “Sanja Matsuri” in Asakusa, of which many people think it might be originating from the Senso-ji, is actually the Asakusa Shrine’s festival.
        There is one thing you might want to add to the “cleansing procedures” before entering the sacred areas of a shrine (many temples require just the same): After washing your left hand and your right hand, pour some of the remaining water in your left hand and use that for also cleansing your mouth (don’t swallow – also never drink from the dipper itself). Make sure none of the water in your mouth comes in touch with the water in the basin, when you spit it out. Cleansing your mouth is of the utmost importance.
        If there is still some water left in the dipper, let it drip out over the handle (also here make sure the dripping water doesn’t get in touch with the basin’s water). This also “ceremonially” cleanses the handle of the dipper (but don’t be surprised, if you never ever see anybody doing it – it doesn’t seem to be too common).
        I know, I knonw, that sounds very complicated, but it isn’t really.

Leave a Reply