Japan is home to numerous temples and shrines that even include some of the ancient and oldest ones.
Sometimes you will find these gorgeous settings hidden in forests, clinging to mountaintops, or sometimes sandwiched between office buildings and busy streets.
Even if you are not religious-minded, visiting them will be a spiritual experience. They can be a great escape from the hustling and bustling of city life to a peaceful serenity.
Besides, they are very popular sightseeing spots that attract many tourists from all over the world.
It is also a greater way to gain an insight into Japanese tradition, culture, history, and religion.
So, I am quite sure you won’t want to lose this opportunity to explore Japanese culture.
That’s why I am here to talk about the 15 most important and notable Japanese temples and shrines.
However, before that, let me clarify your concept about the difference between temples and shrines briefly.
What Are Temples and Shrines?
Buddhism and Shintoism, these two are the main religions in Japan.
Temples are the sacred religious place for the Buddhists and are characterized by a sanmon gate at the entrance.
On the other hand, shrines are built to serve the religious tradition of the Shinto.
They have an entrance gate called torii that symbolizes the boundary between the sacred place of the shrine and profane worldly life.
And this is the main difference between them.
Now get ready to explore some of the well-known Japanese temples and shrines.
Famous Japanese Temples and Shrines
I already mentioned that there is an abundance of these worshipping places in this country, but how many temples and shrines are there in Japan?
There are around 80,000 Buddhist temples and 100,000 Shinto shrines throughout Japan where locals visit and pray.
I will describe some of the popular ones in short so that you can make up your mind about which one to visit first.
1. Todai-Ji Temple
Todai-Ji is the biggest temple in Japan, which is located in Nara.
The main hall of Todai-Ji was once the largest wooden building in the world.
This structure is one of the country’s most famous because it was constructed as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan in 752.
The Great Buddha Hall of this impressive and historically significant temple houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. It is known as Daibutsu in Japanese.
There are plenty of things to observe and explore on this holy temple ground.
It includes the model of how the site looked when founded in the Nara period, a few museums, some finest Buddhist sculptures, and serene gardens.
You will also find more than 1000 deer around this temple in Nara Park. They are believed to be the messenger of gods according to the Shinto religion. And that’s why they are allowed to roam freely.
They won’t run away after seeing you. Instead, they will bow to you in exchange for food.
Surprising. Isn’t it?
During the first half of March every year, the Todai-Ji temple hosts the spectacular Omizutori fire festival, and it has been doing it for over 1250 years.
The ritual includes lit-up giant torches made from pine. Then they are carried to the balcony of Nigatsudo (a building within the temple) to hold over a large crowd below.
It is believed that the sparks from the torches will protect the onlookers from evil spirits.
The fascinating thing is this traditional Japanese temple is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being one of the historic monuments of ancient Nara.
Now we will know about the biggest shrine in Japan.
2. Ise Grand Shrine
It is the most important and biggest Shinto shrine in Japan, which is located at the heart of a holy forest in the Mie Prefecture of Japan.
It is a kind of shrine complex composed of many Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines Naiku and Geku.
The Ise Grand Shrine complex boasts over 125 other buildings besides the two main shrines. The most impressive one among these is the Uji Bridge, which crosses the Isuzugawa river.
The shrine buildings are made of solid cypress wood. There are no spikes or hooks, only joined wood.
The exceptional thing about this shrine is that the shrine buildings at Naiku and Geku and the Uju bridge and torii gateway are rebuilt every 20 years.
It is done as part of the belief in death and the renewal of nature and the mortality or instability of all things.
Manifold festivals take place here throughout the year.
Some of the notable ones are Kinensai for a bountiful harvest, Kannamesai for fair weather and sufficient rain.
They also celebrate things like the new year, the foundation of Japan, purification rituals for court musicians and priests, and also the emperor’s birthday.
It receives more than six million pilgrims and tourists every year.
3. Senso-Ji Temple
Tokyo’s most famous and oldest temple, Senso-Ji, is located in the historical neighborhood of Asakusa. It was constructed in 645 in honor of the goddess of mercy, Kannon.
There is an interesting story behind the construction of this old Japanese temple. Are you curious to know that?
Well, let me tell you about it.
Two brothers found the statuary of the goddess floating in the Sumida River. Every time they returned it into the river, it always ended up coming back to them!
This incident inspired the two brothers to build a temple nearby.
This temple is now one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
You will find a variety of Japanese sweets and souvenir shops in the long street that goes from Kaminarimon Gate to the temple.
A giant lantern watches over the whirling infuriate smoke from a huge cauldron at this gate.
It is believed that this smoke grants good health to the worshippers.
Some souvenirs like amulets can be found in the temple with all sorts of blessings over two dozen, from traffic safety to academic success.
You can choose one from them as you wish.
4. Meiji Shrine
Meiji Shrine is the most famous shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.
This massive shrine complex is not so far from the city’s downtown.
It is placed in a forested area of Yoyogi park, which is a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
The forest around this temple is composed of thousands of trees that have been donated to the shrine by worshipers all over the country.
When you approach the shrine, you will notice a large Torii gate, which is quite common in Shinto shrines.
Unlike many other temples in Japan, the structure is not brightly painted with eye-catching colors.
Instead, the wooden gates are left in their natural state, which makes these forested grounds more serene.
If possible, try to visit this shrine on a Saturday. You might be fortunate enough to explore a traditional Japanese wedding, as we did!
Unlike Senso-Ji temple, there is a real sense of mystery in the enclosed courtyard, low-slung eaves, the muted tones, and the priests’ old-fashioned finery.
5. Kinkaku-Ji Temple or The Golden Pavilion
Among the ancient temples in Japan, only a few are as photogenic as Kinkakuji.
So, get ready to shine up your Instagram with its colorful images.
Resting on the wooden bank of a pond in northern Kyoto and surrounded by lush trees and bushes, this temple will give you a deep sense of tranquility.
Once this place was the retirement villa of 13th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it is now a Buddhist temple in Japan.
At first, we expected it to be overrated, but later we found out that it is famous for a good reason.
When you start approaching, your eyes will be drawn to the second and third floors. The top two storeys are entirely covered in gold leaf.
This golden pavilion shines brilliantly in the sun and makes a stunning reflection in the pond.
Looking closely, you can notice that each floor takes inspiration from entirely different Japanese architecture.
The morning is said to be the least busy, but the dusk is the most beautiful. Observing this temple when the sun starts to set is something spectacular.
The more you take a peek at it, the more you will see.
Although some parts of the temple are not open to the public, simply walking around it and exploring the lush greenery around you is totally worth the visit.
6. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
Inari is the name of the god of rice in Shintoism. And when rice is the staple food, it is not surprising that Japan has around 30 thousand Inari shrines.
Among them, one of the most popular and oldest Japanese shrines is the head shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, which was built in 711.
The shrine is famous particularly for its thousands of bright orange torii gates.
These orange-colored torii gates snake up through a forest on the side of a mountain, and it will take around 80 minutes to complete the full circuit and reach the main complex.
The main walking path to the crest of the mountain is a pilgrimage route. You will likely see dozens of smaller shrines, graveyards, and statuaries while hiking.
What’s more, reaching the top of the mountain, you will be rewarded with a magnificent view of Kyoto.
Hiking through these gates at night feels more adventurous with a slightly creepy atmosphere. Also, you can watch out for wild boars at that time.
7. Ginkaku-Ji Temple
Ginkaku-Ji, or Silver Pavilion, is located 8 kilometers east of Kinkakau-Ji temple, which was built by the grandson of Yoshimitsu. He was the shogun who authorized Kinkaku-Ji.
According to its name Silver Pavilion, it was never once covered in silver leaf.
Many believe that the misnaming is due to the Onin War that was fought between families and samurais from 1467 to 1477.
Due to the war, the grandson couldn’t manage enough money to cover the building with silver leaf.
Now, this Buddhist temple and its surrounding other temples are not open to the public. Still, you can spend a great day strolling through the beautiful sand and moss gardens.
For an enjoyable time with a long walk, I will suggest starting with the Philosopher’s Path that begins outside the temple and ends at the historic neighborhood of Gion.
You will also see a section of the path that runs parallel to a cherry tree-lined canal. It is a popular hanami spot (cherry blossom viewing festival) in Kyoto.
8. Itsukushima Shrine
The most attractive tourist spot on Miyajima is Itsukushima Shrine, which is renowned for its iconic floating Torii gate.
It is located on a small inlet, a few meters away from the coast of Hiroshima.
Because of this unique location, the shrine’s red color contrasts brilliantly well with the blue seawater and nearby greenish woodland.
During the high tide, increased water level covers the land surrounding the Torii gate, and it almost looks like floating on the sea.
At that time, if you view it from the mainland shrine complex, you can feel a deep sense of mystery.
The interesting thing is the appearance of this floating shrine is not just a part of design excellence. It was also an intentional attempt by the architect and builders to prevent disturbing the spirits of that island.
Due to its stunningly beautiful architecture, rich history, and overall impact on Japanese culture, UNESCO has declared this unique shrine as a World Heritage site in the year 1996.
So, altogether, it is well worth a visit.
9. Shitenno-Ji Temple
For an exciting trip to Japanese history, try to pay a visit to this ancient temple in Osaka.
Shintenno-Ji is popular for its symmetrical architectural style, which was built more than 1400 years ago.
And the existing buildings are the exact reconstructed form of the original design.
With the five-story pagoda and art-packed treasure house, this temple has so much to offer you.
Ascending the inner region’s towering pagoda, exploring the Main Hall in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined as a statue of Kannon are the main attractions of this temple.
Besides, you can also observe the paintings and holy scriptures displayed in the treasure house.
Within the compound, there is a garden named Gokuraku-Jodo, which is also well worth a visit.
The design of this garden reflects Sukhavati, a blissful concept of paradise, which has been explained in a sutra by Buddha Amitabha.
So, it will also be a heavenly place to spend a dreamy afternoon.
10. Hida-Sannogu Shrine
The Hida-Sannogu shrine is located in the Gifu Prefecture in Takayama.
This temple is shaded by tall trees.
So, the shrine seems like a dwarf in front of them.
Except for the natural beauty, this shrine is most renowned for another reason.
It plays an important role in the Shinto Sanno Matsuri festival, which is one of the three major festivals in this country.
This festival has been celebrated or performed for centuries.
The rituals include a long parade that goes through Tokyo and lastly ends up in a ceremony at the historic Hie-Jinja shrine in Tokyo.
The Hida-Sannogu Shrine also houses famous puppets or dummies used in the festivities.
Besides the festival, it is a place where you can pray and also enjoy the scenery along the way.
Though this shrine is much more decent than some on my list, a visit can make a warm change of pace if you are in that area.
11. Daisho-In Temple
In case you are visiting Miyajima Island just to visit the famous Itsukushima Shrine, know that you are missing an incredible part.
If you stroll 5 minutes to the south of Itsukushima Shrine, you will find an ancient temple on the slopes of Mount Misen.
Daisho-In is one of the most unique and interesting temples in Japan and definitely worth visiting. It is not the usual one like you have seen before.
It is a sacred place of Shingon Buddhism, and the temple houses a statue of the sect’s founder Kobo Daishi, who was said to practice Buddhism on the island.
The first thing you can see is the stairs that go to the main hall. When you start going up, you will see another stoned stair with hundreds of statues.
Some of the statues are very adorable, including the famous trio that portrays ‘hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.’
Many statues are seen wearing knitted caps. These are the handiworks of believers living on the island.
Near the beginning of the staircase, you can notice a small tea house on the right, a perfect place to relax and enjoy perfectly brewed tea and snacks.
12. Enryaku-Ji Temple
Enryaku-Ji is located in the mountains of eastern Kyoto, one of the grand Japanese monasteries in history, also the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism.
This temple was constructed in 788 by Saicho, the monk who preceded Tendai Buddhism to Japan from China.
This is where many important and influential Buddhist monks and scholars lived, studied, and worshiped.
Therefore, if you are interested in Buddhist or Japanese cultural history, it is a must-visit site!
The main highlights of this monastery complex are concentrated in three areas: Todo, Saito, and Yokawa.
Todo is the main area. Here the monastery was originally founded, and most of the main buildings are situated, including the Main Hall (Kompon Chudo) and the Amida Hall.
A beautiful and scenic hiking trail through the forest connects the Todo with the Saito area. The oldest building of the mountain is located here.
The third area, Yokawa, is located a few kilometers north of the other two, and only a few people visit there.
I recommend visiting all three areas as one is quieter than others and offers contrasting and enriching experiences.
The millennium-old Kiyomizu-Dera rests on a cliff within eastern Kyoto overlooking the city. It peeks out through bountiful green woodland and pink cherry blossoms.
Established on the site of the Otowa waterfall, this temple is actually named after the waterfall. Its name Kyomezu means pure water.
Legend has it that the water has mystic properties, which possess some spiritual benefits.
Drinking from one of the waterfall’s three streams can grant success at school, fortunate love life, and longevity.
However, you shouldn’t drink from all three cascades as it is considered greedy.
This temple is especially renowned for its cherry blossoms in the spring.
From the wooden stage that stands out from the main hall, you can enjoy the awesome scenic beauty of Kyoto.
It is one of the main reasons why this temple attracts so many visitors.
Apart from this, the temple lights up its massive ground and gardens every late November to early December so that the visitors can enjoy striking autumn foliage at night.
Luckily, we had the opportunity to enjoy this magnificent view as we went there in early December.
So, you can pay a visit to this peaceful place during your Japan holiday.
14. Kanda Shrine
The iconic red Kanda Shrine is situated in the downtown of Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. This Shinto shrine is also known as Kanda Myojin.
It dates back to 1270 years, but the present structure was rebuilt a few times due to the fire and earthquake.
This shrine has been playing an important role in Tokyo Shinto worship since the Edo Period, especially after shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu paid his respects here.
People still come here to pray for prosperity, good luck, and marriage.
The kami (spirits) enshrined here include two of the Seven Gods of Fortune, which makes this a perfect place to pray for wealth and success in business.
Interestingly, because of its proximity to Akihabara, this shrine has also become popular with the tech crowd, who purchase talismans to prevent damages to their electronic devices.
One of the main Shinto festivals in Tokyo, Kanda Matsuri, is celebrated here on May 15 of every odd year. It is organized in honor of the enshrined kami.
Another festival named Daikoku festival also takes place here in January.
15. Horyu-Ji, Nara
Horyu-Ji, also known as Ikarugadera, is a Japanese Buddhist temple that was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples in Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture.
It was founded by Prince Shotoku, an early promoter of Buddhism in Japan.
Most of the ancient temples in Japan have burned down or been rebuilt at least once in their history, but this temple is a notable exception.
It was built from Japanese cypress that was roughly 2,000 years old. It has been 1,300 years since the cypress was cut down, and surprisingly, the wood is still standing firm.
This temple shelters the world’s oldest-surviving multi-storey wooden building, which became Japan’s very first UNESCO World Heritage site in the year of 1993.
The main hall, the central gate (Chumon), and the five-storey pagoda all date back to the Asuka Period (552 to 645). In the main hall, you will find some of the oldest statues of Buddha.
There are other cultural treats to discover here as well, that even includes an impressive art collection in the gallery of Temple Treasure.
Well, I have already finished describing fifteen notable temples and shrines in Japan. Let’s conclude the topic here.
Among the huge number of Japan temples and shrines, you might get confused about which one to visit or not.
That’s why I have come up with the most famous fifteen of these religious places in Japan.
I hope a visit to these sacred spots will enrich your Japan travel diary and knowledge about Japanese culture, tradition, and religions.
Besides this, enjoying the pure natural beauty of their surrounding environment will be a bonus for you.
Hence, don’t forget to include these places on your Japan trip.
Lastly, happy traveling.
Thanks for reading till now.