Temple or Shrine – What’s the difference?

Nov 14th, 2008 | By | Category: Temples & Shrines

Many visitors to Japan can’t tell the difference between a shrine and a temple and they often use the terms interchangeably. Using the terms temple and shrine interchangeably is the same as using the terms church and synagogue interchangeably.  Two primary religions are practiced in Japan, Shinto which is practiced at a shrine and Buddhism, which is practiced at a temple.

Both religions date back thousands of years. The Shinto religion is a spiritual ideology that began back in the feudal days of Japan and is based on the belief that powerful deities called kami (gods) inhabit both heaven and earth.  Each clan identified with it’s own kami and utilized a shaman or diviner to help them pray and often built shrines dedicated to their chosen kami.  The Shinto religion was unified in the 700’s when the mythology was documented for the first time to include the various kami formerly worshipped by the individual clans. The Japanese refer to Shinto as kami no michi (the way of the gods) but the pronunciation of the Chinese ideographs that for the words is shin tao or Shinto.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China and Korea in the sixth century and gained wide acceptance in the following century when it was endorsed by the nobility.  The Japanese word for Buddhism is bukkyō which is a combination of two words: butsu meaning Buddha and kyō meaning doctrine.

Most people in Japan practice both faiths and there are no restrictions against doing so.  Shinto tends to be viewed as the religion of earthly matters and shrines are often used to host weddings and are where one would go to pray for success in life or business.  On the other hand, Buddhism is considered the religion of spiritual matters and temples usually host funerals and are where you would go to pray for your ancestors.

So what are the differences between a shrine and a temple?

Signs that you are at a Shinto Shrine:

  • You always enter a Shinto shrine through a torii gate.
  • Shinto shrines use the suffix  jingu, as in Meiji Jingu.
  • A pair of guardian dogs or lions, called shisa or komainu, often sit on each side of the entrance to a Shinto Shrine
  • There is a purification fountain near the entrance to a Shinto shrine where you cleanse your mouth and hands before prayer.

Image of Ikuta Jinja (Shrine) in Kobe, Japan.

Ikuta Shrine Kobe

Signs that you are at a Buddhist Temple:

  • Buddhist temples use the suffix ji in their name.
  • A Buddhist temple always houses an image of the Buddha.
  • A large incense burner is usually that the front of a temple.  The smoke created by the burning of incense is said to have healing properties.
  • There is often a pagoda on the premises of a Buddhist temple.

Image of Byodo-in in Kyoto that can also seen on the Japanese 10 yen coin.

Byodo-in Temple Kyoto

A visit to Japan is not complete without taking in and appreciating the temples and shrines that are scatterd throughout the country.  A small local shrine or a large iconic one mentioned in your guidebook – they are all different and each one is special in it’s own way and worth taking the time to visit.

Image Credit: Flickr, Ikuta Shrine main building & 平等院 Byodo-in

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  1. Good article! I was never really clear on the difference, but have always been too embarassed to ask.

  2. Nice introduction, Shane.

    Two years ago, during the winter/New Year’s break, I went to Kyoto and visited most of the major temples there. The weather was not harsh at all and I had a great time. I highly recommend it to anyone considering visiting Japan this winter.

  3. […] entering the precincts of a Shinto Shrine you will usually find a purification fountain (similar to the one pictured on the right) off to one […]

  4. […] as  they are believed to protect against or ward of evil.  The Guardian Lions are just one way of determining the difference between a temple and a shrine - do you know the […]

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