Japanese religions: Temple or Shrine?

Article updated on May 16, 2020
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photos: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Even if you have read our shrine for dummies article which gives a basic understanding of these places of worship with their do’s and don’ts, you can still be a bit puzzled at times wondering if you find yourself in a shrine or a temple in Japan. Here are a few tips to easily distinguish them and make you temple-shrine-confident!

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Text about the differences between temples & shrines. The back of a pilgrim, a candle blowing.

The differences

A Shinto Shrine:

  • On the map, a Shinto shrine often shows a “jinja” suffix (神社).
  • The way to the shrine is shown by the torii gate(s) one enters from, generally red or bright orange.
  • Most of the time, a couple of stone sculptures guards its entrance, often dogs or lions (shisa or komainu).
  • A purification fountain (chozuya) is located near the entrance – refer to this article for all the details.
  • A Shinto deity or spirit, the kami is enshrined at a shrine.

A Buddhist Temple:

  • On the map, a Buddhist temple often shows a “ji” suffix ().
  • An image of the Buddha (hotoke) is always housed in a Buddhist temple.
  • For the healing properties of its smoke, incense burns by the front of temples.
  • Most of the time, a pagoda can be found on the premises of a Buddhist temple.

The similarities: offerings, lucky charms & prayer boards

Whether at a shrine or a temple, it is difficult for a foreigner to make sense of the various religious charms, from wooden boards to delicately woven fabric bags, or paper strips. Every temple or shrine has a section where one can buy offerings related to the deity enshrined (hotoke for Buddhism or kami for Shintoism) which are clearly a big part of religion in Japan.

Ema

An ema (絵馬) is a Japanese prayer or whishing board. It is a small wooden board on which one writes one’s wishes or prayers on its back side. They are hung so that the spirit enshrined at that specific place of worship can read it to make it come true.

Most ema are pentagonal with some rectangular ones. Specific places of worship offer unique shapes. For instance, at Kawai Shrine in Kyoto, mirror-shaped ema were drawn by women to pray for an easy delivery, children’s healthy growth, matchmaking, or more frequently for their beauty.

Whichever shape it takes, an ema always contains a picture (e stands for picture, and ma for horse). Historically, worshippers used to bring a horse when their wish came true. Not everyone could afford it, and horses got replaced by their image on a wooden board, that has evolved into many different graphics.

It is OK to bring an ema home as long as it is not written. Then, make sure to keep it somewhere clean, bright, and above eye level.

The Japanese often write ema before a school exam, an important interview, or to find love…

Omamori

An omamori (お守り) is an amulet that believers buy at religious sites to benefit from the protection of the enshrined spirits, most often coming in a small silk bag.

About a millennium ago when temples and shrines were growing in influence in Japan, their religious representants traveled far to gain worshippers. As traveling was not that easy back then, many of these would never see the place of worship, and the omamori was the talisman to provide them the protection of the enshrined deity.

The tradition has been maintained and adapted to modern life. Each omamori can bring different benefits and should be placed in relevant locations. Here are a few examples:

  • traffic safety, to be kept inside one’s car, or attached to one’s car keys,
  • family safety, to be kept inside one’s house, in a clean and bright place, above eye level,
  • business success, to be kept at one’s company,
  • educational success, to be brought along for exams,
  • health care, to be kept in one’s house and brought along if one is hospitalized…

The luck and protection of an omamori last for a year. Throwing it away is not done. After a year, believers are to bring the old omamori back to where they got it, and buy a new one; or keep it until they might visit the shrine or temple again. If it is difficult, it is burnt at home, wrapped with a pinch of salt – to purify evil spirits – in a clean white paper.

Should you acquire a bag-type omamori, never open the bag! The bag merely protects the holy piece of wood or paper that was blessed by the enshrined deity. Opening and watching inside it does not only cancel its benefits, but shows great disrespect to the god.

Omikuji

An omikuji (おみくじ) is a fortune written on a slip of paper. With a specific topic in mind, draw a folded paper from a box or a stick, depending on the place of worship, after dropping a few coins. This refers to a number corresponding to an omikuji or a drawer containing the omikuji one has to pick. The text written provides insights into the topic you had in mind. If it is good news, keep it. If it is bad news, tie your omikuji onto a string at the place of worship: the enshrined spirit will sort things out for you.

Be careful, if your omikuji is bad news, do not draw others until your fortune gets better. As the hotoke or kami is talking to you through the omikuji, you will be disrespectful or doubting the deity.

It is very common for the Japanese to draw an omikuji on New Year’s Day or when visiting a temple or shrine, after showing respect to the deity.

Are the Japanese Buddhist or Shinto?

Actually, most Japanese do not consider themselves religious (62% of them according to a 2015 survey) and still, regularly visit shrines and temples, practicing both Shintoism and Buddhism. Generally speaking, they would visit Shinto shrines for earthly matters, praying for success in life or business for instance, and Buddhist temples for more spiritual ones, praying for one’s ancestors.

With more than 80,000 shrines and temples and millions of yearly visitors, ironically, Japan considers itself as one of the least religious countries in the world.

Whether out of religious beliefs, sightseeing interests, or long-lasting traditions, whether they are temples or shrines, these places of worship are an integrant part of daily Japanese life, providing a lively yet serene environment.

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Text about the differences between temples & shrines. The back of a pilgrim, a candle blowing.

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For more related articles, click on the images below:

Orange tori gates, the golden pavillion temple with reflections in the water and a waterfall in a green gorge in Japan. Buddha statue engraved in a rock with scent sticks in front of it and a red text on a white box saying: The Usuki Stone Buddhas, Japan's National Treasure Golden temple with reflections in the water, a Japanese temple with wooden roof, orange shrines and a Japanese garden with a pond and green moss. Three wooden bridges covered in moss in an oasis of greenery at the temple of Kokedera, Kyoto, Japan. Many orange Torii Gates with a stone path leading through and a lantarn hanging from the top, Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto, Japan.

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4 thoughts on “Japanese religions: Temple or Shrine?

  1. Pingback: Temple hopping in Kyoto: our top chart | Best regards from far,

  2. Pingback: Photo of the day: Daikaku-ji, Sapporo | Best regards from far,

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