Shrines and Temples of Japan

One of the first things we noticed upon our arrival in Tokyo was the pervasive presence of shrines around the city. Easily recognizable by their torii gate, Shinto shrines were frequent sights. They vary in size greatly with the majority of the ones we saw in Tokyo being confined to a small plot of land. The shrines we toured on Miyajima were much larger (and more famous) and made for a beautiful visit. 

Kelsi and some other sightseers in front of the famous torii gate of the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima. This small island near Hiroshima is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is most recognized by its torii gate over the water.

A large torii gate on Miyajima. We have seen gates made of stone and wood. Note the two lions, one on each side of the gate. Some gates have guardian statues such as these. One of the guardians will have its mouth open, the other closed.

Buddhist temples are also quite frequent sights here in Japan. While Shinto is the ancient religion of Japan, Buddhism was imported from China in the Eighth Century and is now just as firmly planted into Japanese culture as Shinto. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples both play a role today. While we are by no means experts on the religious practices of Japan, it was explained to us that shrines are visited for good luck and for weddings, while temples are used for more somber events such as funerals.

Kyoto has blown us away with its number of shrines and temples. While as outsiders, Japan felt covered by shrines, Kyoto is far and away blanketed by the most of these locations. (Although upon further reflection, it only feels like slightly more churches than I would see in a Midwestern city.) While the other cities in Japan have been almost completely rebuilt since World War II (Tokyo and Hiroshima each saw over 100,000 killed and most of their infrastructure destroyed), Kyoto was spared by US bombers, largely due to the cultural heritage of its centuries old shrines and temples. These shrines and temples make for some of the primary sightseeing in Kyoto and we would like to share a little bit of what we have seen with you.

Fushimi Inari Shine

Located a convenient bike ride away from our hostel, this shines is famous for its thousands of torii gates. Most shrines have only one or a few torii gates, but this one literally has thousands.

Even though it is in the middle of the city, the shrine's grounds are enormous and include a small mountain. Several different stone step paths lead up the mountain, each dotted with various stations to stop and worship at a small sub-shrine or have tea at a small mountainside tea house. Kelsi and I didn't really plan on walking all the way to the top, but once we were at the shrine we decided to trudg up anyway, ignoring the 33 degree Celsius humid heat.

We have seen a fair number of shrines and I think the most beautiful part is almost always the gate marking the shrine. Fushimi Inari took that piece of the shrine and made it the focal point, creating a beautiful space to visit. I also enjoyed having a space in the middle of the city that was completely removed from the city. Climbing the stone steps of Fushimi Inari felt as if we were on a nature trail somewhere far from the city.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Compared to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the Kinkaku-ji Temple is quite simple. The grounds are much smaller and the building much simpler. There is one defining feature however -- Kinkaku-ji features a pavilion covered in gold leaf.

The garden and pond surrounding the Golden Pavilion are hard to capture in photos. The space was absolutely stunning.

This temple was probably the largest tourist attraction we experienced in Japan thus far. Getting this photo was not simple.

Visiting this temple was special to us not only because of its inherent beauty, but because a photo of it has served as an image for our travel for a long time. In putting together our web site and wedding registry I pulled awesome photos from all over the place and the golden pavilion was one that caught both Kelsi and my eye. We have featured a photo of this building on our website since almost the beginning. Visiting the temple that had been in pictures we looked at for so long was incredible.

Kelsi and I have commented to each other that sometimes we feel like the standard every day buildings (not shrines or temples) we see in Japanese cities we are in aren't quite as beautiful ones that we have seen in other countries. Despite this, we are always blown away when we visit Japanese gardens. Perhaps all the design effort has gone into the gardens and that is why these spaces are so amazingly gorgeous.

Todai-Ji Temple

While Kyoto is the historical capital of Japan, the city of Nara was the capital even before Kyoto in the Eighth Century and has many historic buildings from the time. On our way out of Kyoto to Osaka, we took a detour though Nara. We have seen many shrines and temples in Japan and over time become somewhat used to them, but Nara's Todai-Ji Temple still had us picking up our jaws off of the floor.

Even from a distance the temple building fills the frame. Look at the people at the door of the temple for scale -- the building is enormous!

The temple we visited is the actually the third to occupy this spot. The first two were destroyed by fire (a common theme we're finding in many of the old buildings we have visited in Japan). This version of the temple is only about 2/3 the width of the last version of the building. Don't let these facts fool you, however -- the building is currently the largest wooden building in the world and is about as old as the United States, so it's still pretty impressive.

What's more, inside the building is a pretty amazing site as well:

The colossal Buddha statue managed to survive the fires and is from the original construction. To give you a sense of scale, the photo of me next to a giant hand below is the a hand of the same size as on the statue.

Seeing the building and statue felt a little bit to me like seeing a jumbo jet the first time I rode on a plane. I knew that they were going to be big, but I had no idea that it would be that big.

Temples and Shrines in Japan serve the dual purpose of religious sites and tourist attractions, drawing visitors both Japanese and international. Like great old churches in Europe, they can can at times be a bit repetitive and blend together, but every once in a while one like these appear and stop you in your tracks.