When people visit Italy or other places in Europe, they often come away with a mishmash of memories about the large number of churches they visited. The same sensation occurs in Japan, only there you are see Buddhist “temples” and Shinto “shrines” (all Buddhist places are temples; all Shinto places are shrines). Their awesome beauty is hard to describe in words and certainly something you want to experience in Japan. The ancient wealthy of Japan copied many of the features of these structures in the castles they built.
The remarkable thing, in general, about the religious structures, is that Buddhist and Shinto buildings exist in close proximity to one another, often on the same grounds. Unlike the West or Middle East, where there seems to be competition and outright conflict among various religious sects, that is not the case in Japan. While culturally grounded in spiritualism, the Japanese aren’t dogmatic about religion. Rather, they take parts of the various Buddhist and Shinto practices that suit their needs and practice those parts. In general, Buddhism with its emphasis on introspection is very consistent with the Japanese culture where no one wants to stand out; conformity is highly regarded. The Japanese love of nature is exactly congruent with Shintoism, which worships various gods related to nature.
In Tokyo the most prominent temple, in the Asakusa District incongruously tucked in among high-rise buildings, is Sensoji. There you can experience practitioners worshipping, a huge incense caldron, and a traditional washing basin. Its beautiful Kaminarimon Gate has one of the most colorful and largest hanging lanterns anywhere. The temple, dedicated to mercy and compassion, dates from the year 628. Typical of many temples, and a little unexpected to Western eyes, the temple incorporates many commercial stalls around it. A small Shinto shrine stands adjacent to the temple where you can see the distinctive Shinto method of prayer. It, too, has a lot of commerce attached to it.
Two and one half hours from Tokyo, in Nikko, is the expansive and architecturally significant Toshogu shrine. An equally impressive Buddhist temple, Yakushido, is on the same grounds. It contains the famous monkey sculpture “hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil.” Nikko is in a serene mountain setting with a babbling stream, nice restaurants catering to tourists and the site of a national park featuring a waterfall amid many sourvenir shops.
In Kyoto the beautiful gold-leaf covered Kinkakuji Temple, frequently referred to as the Golden Pavilion, sits on a pond in a beautiful setting where its reflection on the still water in good weather is one of the everlasting images of Japan. On the eastern edge of the city, after passing through a long line of street vendors, you arrive at Kiyomizu Temple, which is supported by a huge wooden foundation built into the side of a mountain and surrounded by cherry blossom trees and serene paths through a park setting.
On an island in the bay off Hiroshima you’ll find the magnificent and massive Shrine of Itsukushima with its typical bright Shinto orange color, dating from 593 and rebuilt in the 16th century. Its foundation is on stilts to protect it against high tide when it becomes surrounded by water. It survived the Hiroshima bombing because of this unique construction.
Tourist areas always try to find a unique selling point. In the city of Nara, the Todaiji Temple is billed as the world’s largest wooden building. Inside is what is claimed to be the largest bronze statue of Buddha. Next to the temple is the equally magnificent Kasuga Shrine.
Osaka is home to one of Japan’s most famous castles. Surrounded by a moat on a hill in a large park now owned by the city, it’s wealthy builder successfully aimed to outdo the temples in beauty and stature.
You can hardly turn a corner in Japan without seeing a temple, shrine or castle. It would be impossible to see them all; these give you a good start.