For travellers interested in the cultural history of their destination, religious sites are usually a priority. In Japan, temples and shrines are some of the most visited sites and offer a glimpse into Japan’s past, as well as an opportunity to view beautiful art and architectural work.
The entrance to the temple will be marked with a gate and sometimes the entrance way will be lined with several gates. Buddhist temples display sacred Buddhist objects in the main hall, often statues. Many temples also have a separate lecture hall, called “kodo”, for meetings and lectures. Some temples have pagodas which store physical remains of the Buddha like bones or teeth (usually symbolically or as a representation). On the temple grounds you can ususally find a cemetery, where Japanese families visit their ancesters several times a year, and a bell to be rung 108 times on New Year’s Eve (representing the 108 worldly desires in Buddhism).
There are some basic rules for visiting a temple in Japan. Firstly, behave calmly and respectfully. You many choose to show respect by placing a coin in an offering box in front of one of the sacred object, then pausing to say a short prayer. Some temples also have incense, which you may purchase as a bundle, light and allow to burn for a few minutes, then extinguish (wave your hand to extinguish, do not blow). These are respectful acts, though not mandatory. Be sure to check for signs regarding photography indoors. As you enter look for a fountain – using the ladle that’s provided, pour water over your hands and wash them. Take off your shoes in the hall, if required.
There are thousands of temples in Japan, and over 2000 in the city of Kyoto alone, but there are a few famous temples that should be on your itinerary. Meiju Jingu Shrine in Tokyo is the city’s most famous shrine, hidden by over 100 000 evergreen trees. Get there from Harajuku Station and be sure to have a look at the treasure house, where Emperor Meiju’s belongings can be viewed. In Kyoto you can find the Pure Water Temple (Kiyomizudera) set amongst the maple and cherry trees of Eastern Kyoto. It is part of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage site and offers stunning views of the city from its wooden veranda. Also in Kyoto is Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s a beautiful and unique Zen Buddhist temple that is covered in real gold leaf. As a reflection of Zen Buddhism’s concepts of paradise and balance, the temple is set by a pool of water in a beautiful Japanese garden.