Temple Overview

Japan's Temples

There are many temples throughout Japan.
A temple is a place where Buddhists monks live and practice Buddhism, and in many cases where statues of Buddha are enshrined and worshipped.
Temples, or "寺院" (Jiin) in Japanese, are sometimes called "お寺" (Otera) or "仏閣" (Bukkaku).
Similar to temples, there are also many shrines in Japan.
However, while shrines worship a god, temples worship Buddha.
Temples and shrines are very different in terms of building style and method of worship, so it's important to understand the differences.

The Origin and History of Temples in Japan

Prince Shotoku, the father of Buddhism in Japan, built Shitennoji Temple in 593 in what is now Osaka City, and in 607, he built Horyu-ji Temple in Nara.
These temples are said to be among the oldest in Japan.
Thereafter, many temples were built throughout Japan as places of worship.
However, in the Edo period, the Shogunate issued a to prevent the expansion of temples in fear that their power would surpass that of that Shogunate.
This brought temples under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate.

After the Meiji Restoration, Buddhism was abolished and there was a separation of Buddhism and Shintoism, resulting in the closure of many temples and other changes.
Today, however, many temples have been restored and are crowded with visitors.

The Architectural Style of Japan's Temples

The following are some of the typical architectural styles of temples and some of the famous temples where these architectural styles are used.
・Wayo (和様): The architectural style of Todaiji Temple's Hokkedo, Toshodaiji Kondo, and Byodoin's Phoenix Hall.
・Zenshuyo (禅宗様): This is the architectural style of Nanzenji temple's South Gate and Kozanji in Yamaguchi prefecture.
・Daibutsuyo (大仏様): A style of architecture found in the Nandaimon Gate of Todaiji Temple, Jodo-ji Temple's Jododo, etc.
・Shin-Wayo (新和様): A style of architecture seen in the main hall of Chokyuji Temple.
・Setchuyo (折衷様): A style of architecture used in the main hall of Kakurin-ji Temple, Myōō-in in Hiroshima, etc.
・Shinden-zukuri (寝殿造): A style of architecture used in Motsuji Temple's garden, etc.
・Shoin-zukuri (書院造): This is the architectural style of Onjo-ji Temple's Kangakuin, Kojo-in Temple, etc.

The Structures of Japan's Temples

There are many structures in Japan's temples.
In particular, it is common for Zen temples to have seven basic facilities, called "Shichidogaran" (七堂伽藍).

・Sanmon (山門): The large main gate at a temple.
・Main Hall (本堂・仏殿): Called "hondo" or "Butsuden" in Japanese, this is where the statue of Buddha, the object of worship at the temple, is enshrined.
・Lecture Hall (法堂): This is where Buddhist sermons take place.
・Zendo (禅堂): At the Zeno, or "meditation hall," monks practice zen meditation.
・Kuri (庫裡): Pronounced "kuri" in Japanese, this is the kitchen of the the temple where the meals of the monks are cooked. It is also sometimes used an an office, or where the head priest lives.
・Tosu (東司): The Tosu is the lavatory.
・Bathhouse (浴室): This is where the monks go to bathe. It's pronounced "yokushitsu" in Japanese.

Many temples in Japan have buildings like the seven halls at Zen Buddhist temples, as well as other buildings, such as the following hallways and pagodas.
The type of building at each temple depends on the Buddhist sect.

・Hojo (方丈): The Hojo refers to the head priests quarters and is also where Buddhist instruments are stored.
・Sando (参道): The Sando is the approach to the temple.
・Nandaimon (南大門): The main southern-facing gate at a temple.
・Chumon (中門): The gate located shortly after the southern gate.
・Kannon-do (観音堂): This is a Buddhist temple where a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon is enshrined.
・Amida-do (阿弥陀堂): A temple that enshrines a statue of Amitabha.
・Kaisan-do (開山堂): Kaisan-do is a temple that enshrines a statue of the Gautama Buddha.
・Kancho-do (灌頂堂): A hall where a ritual called "Abhiseka" is held.
・Jogyo-do (常行堂): A place where the Tendai school of Buddhism practices Samadhi.
・Kyozo (経蔵): The kyozo is a storehouse for sutras.
・Joro (鐘楼): The bell tower at a temple.
・Kairo (回廊): The Japanese version of a cloister.
・Shukubo (宿坊): This is where the monks live.
・Tachu (塔頭): A small sub-temple built to commemorate the death of a high priest.
・Tajuto (多重塔): A many-tiered pagoda.
・Tahoto (多宝塔): A pagoda that houses the Prabhutaratna, or "Abundant Treasures" of the Buddha.
・Reijo (霊場): The reijo, literally "place of spirits," is a graveyard for the temple.

Temples may also have a traditional Japanese rock garden, old trees, spring water, an artificial hill, stone monuments, or other structures.
Temples and gardens built using ancient architectural styles are a soothing place to visit.

Common Buddhist Terminology in Japanese

There are many Buddhist terms that originated in Japanese temples.
Some of these terms are used in everyday conversation.

・Nenbutsu (念仏): This term refers to chanting Namu Amida Butsu, in order to be reborn in Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha.
・Ojo (往生): This refers to rebirth in Sukhavati.
・Innen (因縁): "因" (in), refers to cause, and "縁" (nen) refers to fate. This is the Japanese version of the word "Nidana."
・Jigou Jitoku (自業自得): With the English equivalent being "You reap what you sow," this refers to karma in Buddhist ideology.
・Shurajo (修羅場): "Shura" refers to the god of struggle, and shura means "a place of repeated struggle." It also refers to the place where the battle between Asuras and Sakra took place.
・Gohonzon (ご本尊): The Gohonzon is the principal object of worship at a temple.

There are many many more Buddhist terms used in temples, so if you're interested in Japanese temples or Buddhism, you might enjoy learning some of the Buddhist terms used in Japan.

Temple Visiting Etiquette in Japan

In Japan, it's customary for people to put their hands together in a quick prayer at the sanmon (main gate) before entering the temple grounds.
It is considered proper etiquette to enter the temple without stepping on the threshold, with your right foot first.
You can use the hand-washing station (Chozu-ya or Temizu-ya) in the same way as at a shrine, by purifying both hands one at a time.
In front of the main hall, you can make a monetary offering and show your respects with a bow.
If there are incense at the altar, take the ground portion in your right hand, touch it to your forehead, and then sprinkle it over the burning incense.
After that, press your hands together in prayer, bow, and step back from the altar.
When you exit from the temple gate, turn around and clap your hands in prayer and bow to the temple once more.

Popular Temples in Japan

The following is a list of temples of the most popular temples in Japan, as ranked by Omairi, a website that introduces famous temples of Japan.

No. 1 Hotokuji Temple (Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture)
No. 2 Zojoji (Minato, Tokyo)
No. 3 Banshoji (Manso-ji Temple) (Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture)
No. 4 Kontai-ji Temple (Imizu, Toyama Prefecture)
No. 5 Hoshuin Temple (Minato, Tokyo)
No. 6 Daishoji Temple (Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture)
No. 7 Sensoji Temple (Taito, Tokyo)
No. 8 Todaiji Temple (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
No. 9 Zenkō-ji Temple (Nagano, Japan)
No. 10 Kinjoji (Nanto, Toyama Prefecture)

There's also Tripsadvisor's "Travelers' Choice: Top 30 Temples and Shrines in Japan 2019"!
This is a ranking of temples AND shrines, and should help you get an idea of where to visit.

No. 1 Ise Shrine (Ise, Mie Prefecture)
No. 2 Oomiwa-Jinja (Sakurai, Nara Prefecture)
No. 3 Izumo-taisha (Izumo, Shimane Prefecture)
No. 4 Yudonosan Shrine (Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture)
No. 5 Ruriko-in Temple (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 6 Enkoji (Kyoto City, Kyoto)
No. 7 Itsukushima Shrine (Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture)
No. 8 Eikan-do Zenrin-ji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 9 Sanjusangen-do (Kyoto City, Kyoto)
No. 10 Udo Jingu Shrine (Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture)
No. 11 Chishakuin (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 12 Todaiji Temple (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
No. 13 Shoshazan Engyo-ji temple (Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture)
No. 14 Meiji Jingu (Shibuya, Tokyo)
No. 15 Koyasan (Koya, Wakayama Prefecture)
No. 16 Togakushi Shrine (Nagano, Japan)
No. 17 The Five-story Pagoda Of Mount Haguro (Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture)
No. 18 Toshodai-ji (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
No. 19 Chusonji Temple's Konjikido (Hiraizumi, Iwate)
No. 20 Usa Jingu (Usa City, Oita Prefecture)
No. 21 Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine (Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture)
No. 22 Mitsumine Shrine (Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture)
No. 23 Ruriko-ji Five-Story Pagoda (Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture)
No. 24 Kofukuji (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
No. 25 Toji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 26 Kamigamo Shrine (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 27 Eiheiji Temple (Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture)
No. 28 Kenninji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 29 Sanzen-in (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
No. 30 Hikawa Shrine (Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture)

Enjoy Exploring Japan's Temples

When traveling to famous temples in Japan, it's always a good idea to learn about their origins and history before you visit.
If you check out websites and videos that introduce temples, you'll be able to get a deeper appreciation of the temples when you visit them in person.
You can also receive a goshuin (red temple stamp) at the temples, so if you're looking to visit many temples, we recommended picking up a goshuincho (red stamp book) before touring the temples.
The streets around the gates of temples are often called "monzen-machi" (lit. "Gate Town").
Monzen-machi are towns that retain a traditional atmosphere.
Monzen-machi, located near popular temples, are a great place to eat local cuisine and purchase souvenirs.
Stopping at these spots can be a fun experience.

Before you head out to a Japanese temple, be sure to check out the numerous videos of temples on COOL JAPAN VIDEOS.
There are many videos on the site showing scenic temples, so you can find one to visit during your travels!