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In Japan, Buddhist temples are places for paying reverence to objects of spiritual worship as well as other religious activities and observances.

Buddhist temple composites originated in India, where the main structures were quarters known as vihara, where monks engaged in religious training. There were also chaitya halls for worshiping Buddhist images, and rounded stupas said to enshrine bits of bone (sarira, or shari in Japanese) from the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhist temples in Japan developed a unique individuality after incorporating influences from China and Korea.

During the Asuka and Nara periods, many temples had a design following the Shitennoji model, centering around a tower-like pagoda. This was for the worship of shari relics and was considered more essential than the kondo, the worship of Buddhist images.

Pagodas and image halls were given equal prominence in the later transitioned layout of the Horyuji model. The halls that housed Buddhist images gradually took a central position and pagodas were given the "decorative structures” role, like in the Yakushiji and Todaiji Temples in Nara.

The forms of temple compounds became more diverse with the spread of “esoteric Buddhism” (mikkyo) in the Heian period as well as the spread of the raigo concept. The appearance of Amida Halls with attached gardens in a single compound, inspired by the desire to produce replicas of Amida's "Western Paradise of the Pure Land", had surfaced.

The Phoenix Hall (Hoodo) of the Byodoin south of Kyoto is the most famous structure of this type. New temple styles were adopted from the Asian continent due to the popularity of Zen in the Muromachi period. Numerous imposing Zen compounds were also constructed at this time.

While large cultural centers like Kyoto have several thousands of temples, virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple. Buddhist objects are stored and displayed at temples. Some temples were formerly monasteries, and some still function as such. Structures typically found at Japanese temples are:

photo of temples in japan

Main hall
Main halls display sacred objects of worship, such as statues. In Japanese, main halls are known as kondo, hondo, butsuden, amidado, or hatto. An example would be the main hall of Todaiji in Nara.

Lecture hall
Lecture halls are for meetings and lectures. They often display objects of worship as well. Lecture halls are called kodo in Japanese. To illustrate, visit the lecture hall of Toji in Kyoto.

A pagoda is a structure that has evolved from the Indian stupa. It usually comes with three (sanju no to) or five (goju no to) stories. Remains of the Buddha, such as a tooth, are usually stored in pagodas.
For instance, you can see the 3-storied pagoda of Kofukuji in Nara.

Gates mark the entrance of temple grounds. Generally, there is one main gate and possibly several additional gates along the temple's main entryway. To point out, the Sanmon Gate of Kenchoji is in Kamakura.

Temple bells are rung 108 times on New Year’s Eve, corresponding to the Buddhist concept of 108 worldly desires.
The Great Bell of Kenchoji is in Kamakura for reference.

In Japan, most cemeteries are Buddhist and are located at a temple. The Japanese visit their ancestors' graves on many occasions during the year, especially during the obon week.
The best cities to visit temples are in Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura. If you are interested in an overnight stay at a temple, Mount Koya is one of the best places to experience this.

Difference between Temples & Shrines

Temple and shrine are both used interchangeably because many visitors to Japan can’t tell the difference. To point out, using these terms interchangeably is like saying a church and synagogue are equivalent. In Japan, there are two major religions practiced by the Japanese people. A shrine is where Shinto is practiced and Buddhism is practiced at a temple.

Both Shinto and Buddhism date back to thousands of years. Shinto, a spiritual principle, is an ancient religion of Japan based on the belief that powerful deities called kami (gods) inhabit both heaven and earth. According to mythology, various kanami were worshipped by their own individual clans. They often built shrines dedicated to their chosen kami and utilized a shaman or diviner to help them pray.

photo of Difference between Temples and Shrines

In Japanese, Shinto is referred as kami no michi (the way of the gods), but its Chinese ideogram and pronunciation for the words are ”shin tao” or Shinto.

In the sixth century, China and Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan. It gained wide acceptance in the following century when the nobility advocated it. Bukkyō, a combination of two words, is the Japanese word for Buddhism. Butsu translates to Buddha and kyō means doctrine.

In Japan, most people practice both faiths ambiguously as they are nearly parallel to one another. Shinto primarily focuses on earthly matters, and shrines are often used to host weddings or pray for good fortune. Whereas Buddhism is considered the religion of spiritual beliefs and practices. Temples usually host funerals and are a place to pray for ancestors.

You are probably at a Shinto shrine if you cross the threshold of a torii gate, see a pair of guardians (usually dogs or lions) sitting on each side of the entrance, and cleanse your mouth and hands at a purification fountain before prayer. Shinto shrines have the suffix “jingu”, such as Ise Jingu.

The name of Buddhist temples use the suffix ”ji”, such as Todaiji. You may find yourself at a Japanese temple if you see an image of the Buddha, as this is always housed at a Buddhist temple. A large incense burner is usually located at the front of the temple; it is believed that the smoke has healing properties. On top of that, there is often a pagoda at a Buddhist temple.

A visit to Japan is not complete without appreciating and taking in the experience of being in a temple and shrine. Large and iconic, or small and local, they are all unique and it is worth taking the time to visit.

Best Temples in Japan

photo of Chusonji Temple

Tohoku | Iwate | Hiraizumi

Chusonji Temple

Chusonji is a Buddhist temple located in Hiraizumi and is one of the most important structures related to Buddhism in Japan.

photo of Zuiganji Temple

Tohoku | Miyagi | Matsushima

Zuiganji Temple

Zuiganji Temple is the most prominent temple in the Tohoku Region and was reconstructed by Date Masamune in the early 17th century.

photo of Osorezan

Tohoku | Aomori | Shimokita Peninsula


Osorezan is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan and is said to be the mythical entrance to Buddhist Hell.

photo of Yamadera

Tohoku | Yamagata | Yamadera


Yamadera is a temple built into a mountain and has a series of staircases with over 1000 steps combined.

photo of Asakusa Senso-ji Temple

Kanto | Tokyo | Northern Tokyo

Asakusa Senso-ji Temple

Sensoji Temple is the oldest and most popular temple in Tokyo. It can be identified by the giant red lantern located at the entrance, which is iconic of Tokyo.

photo of Kotokuin Temple - Great Buddha

Kanto | Kanagawa | Kamakura

Kotokuin Temple - Great Buddha

Kotokuin Temple is where the second largest Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue is located.

photo of Hasedera Temple

Kanto | Kanagawa | Kamakura

Hasedera Temple

Hasedera Temple is known for housing the eleven headed wooden statue of Kannon, Goddess of Mercy.

photo of Zenkoji Temple

Chubu | Nagano | Nagano City

Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple was founded in the 7th century and houses the first Buddhist statue ever brought to Japan.

photo of Eiheiji Temple

Chubu | Fukui | Eiheiji Temple

Eiheiji Temple

Eiheiji Temple is one of the two main temples of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism and has over 200 practicing monks living on the grounds.

photo of Daitokuji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Daitokuji Temple

Daitokuji Temple features five different rock gardens that embody the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

photo of Hasedera Temple

Kansai | Nara | Asuka

Hasedera Temple

The Hasedera Temple was first built in 686 and was dedicated to Emperor Tenmu, who was suffering from illness.

photo of Chikurin-in Temple

Kansai | Nara | Yoshino

Chikurin-in Temple

Chikurin-in Temple was originally called Tsubakiyama Temple and was said to be built by Shotoku-Taishi.

photo of Kinpusenji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Yoshino

Kinpusenji Temple

Kinpusenji Temple is the head branch of Shugendo religion called Kimpusen-Shugendō located in Yoshino district, Nara Prefecture.

photo of Toshodaiji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Toshodaiji Temple

Toshodaiji Temple is one of the oldest Buddhism temples in Japan with a Chinese Tang Dynasty architectural style structure.

photo of Kofukuji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Kofukuji Temple

Kofukuji Temple is one of the oldest and among seven of the great temples from the Heian period.

photo of Yakushiji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Yakushiji Temple

Yakushiji Temple is one of the oldest imperial temples in Japan as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

photo of Enryakuji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Mt. Hieizan

Enryakuji Temple

Enryakuji Temple is known for their monks that hike great lengths to obtain a form of enlightenment every day.

photo of Ninnaji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Ninnaji Temple

Ninnaji Temple is the head temple of the Omuro School, which is part of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism.

photo of Garan

Kansai | Wakayama | Mt Koya (Koyasan)


Garan is located on Mount Koya and is said to be the original location Kukai started the new Shingon Buddhism religion.

photo of Okunoin Temple

Kansai | Wakayama | Mt Koya (Koyasan)

Okunoin Temple

Okunoin Temple located in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan is regarded as one of the most sacred places with the largest cemetery site in Japan.

photo of Shitennoji Temple

Kansai | Osaka | Osaka City

Shitennoji Temple

Shitennoji Temple was the first temple built by the state as well as one of the oldest temples in Japan.

photo of Nanzenji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Nanzenji Temple

Nanzenji Temple is located at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains and is one the head temples of the Rinzai Sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

photo of Kiyomizu Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Kiyomizu Temple

Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto and is most known for the wooden stage that is 13 meters tall.

photo of Kodaiji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Kodaiji Temple

Kodaiji Temple is located in the Higashiyama District and was built in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by his wife Nene.

photo of Saihoji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Saihoji Temple

Saihoji Temple is commonly known as Kokedera (Moss Temple) and is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto.

photo of Tofukuji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Tofukuji Temple

Tofukuji Temple is best known for its autumn colors around the Tsutenkyo Bridge, which extends through a valley of maple of trees.

photo of Sanjusangendo

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City


Sanjusangendo is a temple that houses over 1001 statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.

photo of Ryoanji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Ryoanji Temple

Ryoanji Temple has one of the most famous rock garden in Japan, which brings in hundreds of visitors a day.

photo of Byodoin Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Uji

Byodoin Temple

The Byodoin Temple was built by Fujiwara Yorimichi, the Chief Adviser to the Emperor, in 1053. It was originally a rural villa owned by his father.

photo of Todaiji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Todaiji Temple

Todaiji Temple is one of the major landmarks in Nara. It is known for housing the largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan.

photo of Horyuji Temple

Kansai | Nara | Nara City

Horyuji Temple

Horyuji temple is part of the “Seven Great Temples of Nara” and the oldest wooden structures in the world can be found in this area.

photo of Kongobuji Temple

Kansai | Wakayama | Mt Koya (Koyasan)

Kongobuji Temple

Kongobuji Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site also known for having the largest stone garden in Japan.

photo of Tenryuji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Tenryuji Temple

Tenryuji Temple is one of the most important temples in the Arashiyama District and has a garden that has been around for centuries.

photo of Ginkakuji Temple

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Ginkakuji Temple

Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion, is a Zen temple that was built to be a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasa.

photo of Golden Pavilion

Kansai | Kyoto | Kyoto City

Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple, also known as Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Temple in the northern part of Kyoto. It is known for its top two floors, which are covered in gold leaf.

photo of Rurikoji Temple

Chugoku | Yamaguchi | Yamaguchi

Rurikoji Temple

Home to the designated national treasure of the five-storied pagoda regarded as one of three most famous pagodas’ of Japan located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan.

photo of Kosanji Temple

Chugoku | Hiroshima | Onomichi

Kosanji Temple

Unique temple with many structures modeled from famous site of Japan including Nikko Toshogu and Byodoin located in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan.

photo of Ishiteji Temple

Shikoku | Ehime | Matsuyama

Ishiteji Temple

A popular power spot and number 51 out of the 88 temples located on the Shikoku Pilgrimage route in Ehime Prefecture, Japan.

photo of Sofukuji Temple

Kyushu | Nagasaki | Nagasaki

Sofukuji Temple

A Zen Buddhism Temple constructed with Ming dynasty style architecture located in Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.

photo of Komyozenji Temple

Kyushu | Fukuoka | Dazaifu

Komyozenji Temple

A traditional Zen temple with beautiful stone gardens located in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture

photo of Usuki Stone Buddhas

Kyushu | Oita | Usuki

Usuki Stone Buddhas

Clusters of Stone Buddhas dating back to the Heian Period of Japan with 59 of the statues designated as National Treasures of Japan.

photo of Rokugo Manzan Temples

Kyushu | Oita | Kunisaki Peninsula

Rokugo Manzan Temples

The temples surrounding Mount Futago with a special religious culture located at the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture, Japan.