The Unique Appeal of Temples and Shrines

Mangan-ji Temple, Tochigi Prefecture
(Photo courtesy of Yoma Funabashi.)

   There are many ways to enjoy Japanese temples and shrines — you can stay there overnight instead of a hotel, enjoy the works of art on display, or even collect special goshuin stamps with a different design for each temple or shrine. Since the start of the 2010s, more and more temples and shrines have started capitalizing on the unique experiences that only they can offer and actively catering to tourists. This has helped people rediscover their appeal and turned them into popular travel destinations for young Japanese people. Let's take a look at some of the special experiences on offer at temples and shrines in Japan, and various ways you can enjoy their unique appeal.

What Are Japanese Temples and Shrines?

   Japan has lots of temples and lots of shrines, but what's the difference between them? Well, the key thing to bear in mind is that temples are Buddhist, while shrines belong to a different religion called Shinto.

Virtually every shrine has a type of gate called a torii. It's believed that a torii marks the boundaries between the human world and the domain of the Shinto gods.

   Throughout Japanese history, temples and shrines were considered epicenters of culture, where people trained, were educated and learned new skills. Many of the visitors to the temples and shrines gathered in the surrounding areas, turning them into prosperous tourist and commercial hotspots. As a result, temples and shrines became popular travel destinations in themselves, especially when combined with local scenery, food and hot springs.

Banna-ji Temple neighbors Ashikaga Gakko, the oldest academic building in Japan. Unlike shrines, temples don't feature torii gates.

What's Special About Temples and Shrines?

   In the days when the main means of transportation was walking, staying overnight was a must when visiting faraway temples and shrines. For this reason, many temples and shrines were equipped with on-site accommodation called shukubo (temple lodgings). Although they no longer serve the same purpose today, the number of temples and shrines offering shukubo accommodation as an experience has increased, and they're proving hugely popular.

A private shukubo room. It's plain, but very clean. (Photo courtesy of Yoma Funabashi.)

   Shukubo guests are served dinner and breakfast, but the type of food on offer is somewhat different from the norm — for example, Buddhist temples only serve vegetarian food that doesn't contain meat or fish, in accordance with Buddhist beliefs.

Easy Access to Cultural Experiences

   There are also temples and shrines that offer cultural experiences for day trippers. For example, visitors can try their hand at shodo (Japanese calligraphy) using a brush instead of a pen and a special type of black ink called bokuju, or traditional practices like shakyo (hand-copying Buddhist scripture) and shabutsu (tracing Buddhist images). Removing yourself from your everyday surroundings and focusing on writing and drawing by hand is the kind of calming experience that's hard to come by in the hectic modern world.

   Some shrines and temples also offer experiences such as takigyo, a form of spiritual training involving standing under waterfall, and danjikigyo — a fasting ritual where participants refrain from eating any food, or certain types of foods, in order to sharpen their senses. Some of these unusual experiences can even be booked online.

   Now let's take a look at some of the more typical experiences on offer at temples and shrines.

Guided Tours, Buddhist Art and Japanese Gardens

   Chishaku-in Temple in Kyoto is renowned as a place of learning, and was once open both to monks from other sects and regular students looking to devote themselves to study or undertake ascetic practices. Visitors can participate in asa-no-otsutome (the first Buddhist service of the day), while guests staying at the shukubo here can receive an exclusive guided tour of the scenic Japanese gardens from a resident monk.

The scenic Japanese gardens at Chishaku-in. Guests staying at the shukubo can attend an early morning stroll through the temple gardens after the asa-no-otsutome morning service. (Photo courtesy of Chishaku-in Temple.)

   Overnight guests are also given tickets to the homotsu-kan (treasure hall) that hosts artworks such as folding screens adorned with gold-leaf paintings, which are designated National Treasures of Japan. It's almost like having the fun of staying in an art gallery!

The gold-leaf screen paintings Kaedezu by Hasegawa Tohaku and Sakurazu by Hasegawa Kyuzo (both designated as National Treasures of Japan). (Photo courtesy of Chishaku-in Temple.)

A Night With the Gods, and Early Morning Prayer

   Furumine Shrine in Kunama, Tochigi Prefecture, is located in the mountains around 700 meters above sea level, within easy access of the popular tourist destination of Nikko. It has a history dating back over 1300 years.

Furumine's main shrine is connected to its shukubo temple lodgings. (Photo courtesy of Yoma Funabashi.)

   Here, you can spend a night under the same roof as the main shrine, which is devoted to ancient Japanese gods. Even in Japan, there aren't many places that let you stay so close to a main shrine, and it's fair to say that this gives it a different feel from staying at a hotel or a typical Japanese inn. The morning after your stay, you can even undergo a prayer ritual and be blessed by a Shinto priest.

There are various types of shukubo, ranging from large halls holding 190 people to single-person private rooms.

   Meals at shrines are called naorai, which means eating food and drink that has been offered to the gods, and at Furumine Shrine it's possible to join a naorai even without staying there overnight. Every dish is served with kenchinjiru, a popular soup packed full of ingredients.

An evening meal served when staying at Furumine Shrine. The soup on the bottom-right of the tray is kenchinjiru. (Photo courtesy of Yoma Funabashi.)

The Joy of Collecting Goshuin Stamps

   Goshuin are special stamps that you can collect whenever you visit a shrine or temple — and the best part is that each one is unique! These stamps have seen a huge boost in popularity since the start of the 2010s, with many people appreciating their attractive graphic design. More and more people are now buying special stamp books called goshuin-cho and touring various temples and shrines to add to their collection.

Furumine Shrine offers numerous different goshuin stamp designs. (Photo courtesy of Yoma Funabashi.)

Goshuin-cho are special notebooks for collecting goshuin. It's easy to appreciate the different hand-written stamps as an attractive piece of graphic design.

Why Immerse Yourself in Tradition?

   Seeing a temple or shrine in person gives you a sense of tradition that you can't replicate just through reading or watching a video. In that sense, visiting temples and shrines is one of the best possible ways to learn more about Japanese traditions and culture.