11 of Japan’s Most Unforgettable Shrines and Temples

Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are everywhere in Japan. Selena Hoy reveals her pick of 11 deservedly famous holy structures you have to see for yourself.


Sensoji Temple Photo © iStock/mrtom-uk

Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are everywhere in Japan, many set within beautiful gardens. People stop in to pray to ancestors, or to commemorate a milestone birthday or occasion. At both shrines and temples, worshippers can purchase omamori, or protective charms for things such as health, traffic safety, or studying.


Kyoto’s famed Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a must-see. Officially named Rokuonji, this three-story Zen temple is covered in gold leaf and makes a stunning reflection, along with the surrounding garden, in the temple’s adjacent pond, offering great photo opportunities all-year-round.

As you pass by the temple, you meet two other impressive buildings: Hojo, the residence of the former head priest, and Fudo Hall, a small temple that houses a statue of a Buddhist wisdom king.

You can buy omiyage (souvenirs) here while a nearby teahouse provides drinks and ice cream.

Kinkakuji was the inspiration for writer Yukio Mishima’s novel of the same name. 


Another Kyoto favorite, the millennium-old Kiyomizudera perches on a cliff overlooking the city, and is renowned for its cherry blossoms in the spring.

The temple complex has a striking five-tiered pavilion that’s a favorite for sightseers taking scenery shots.


Despite its name, which translates to Temple of the Silver Pavilion, Kyoto’s Ginkakuji is not covered in silver.

This Zen temple has its own, if more understated, beauty, with a famous Zen sand garden, meticulously cared for by the temple’s monks. 


Restaurant in Ryoanji. Photo credit: Selena Hoy

Up in northern Kyoto, the grounds of the Zen temple Ryoanji feature expansive gardens, including its acclaimed Zen rock garden, the most famous in Japan.

The temple also has a peaceful restaurant called Seigenin that serves tofu-based shojin ryori, or vegetarian monk food. 

Meiji Shrine

The most famous shrine in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is an Imperial Shrine, dedicated to the enshrined spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

This massive shrine complex sits in the middle of Tokyo, its grounds adjacent to Yoyogi Park and Harajuku Station


This colorful, bustling temple in Asakusa, Tokyo is guarded by an enormous Thunder Gate. The lead-up to the temple is a lively shopping street selling street snacks, religious paraphernalia, and souvenirs.

Worshippers flock here to pray and be blessed by the healing incense smoke. 

Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima is known for its floating torii, the red-painted gate that marks the entrance to the shrine. The gate sits in the water in front of the island where the shrine is found.

Wild deer, said to be sacred, populate the island.


Shitennō-ji is a Buddhist temple in Osaka, Japan. Photo credit: iStock/junce

Osaka’s Shitennoji is one of the country’s oldest temples, dating back to 593. Built by Prince Shotoku, a champion of Buddhism, the temple symbolizes the entrance of Buddhism into Japan.

The temple is most known for its five-tiered pagoda

Kushida Shrine

Kushida Shrine in Hakata, Fukuoka, is a colorful and storied shrine with a 1,300-year-old history.

The shrine is a focal point for the Hakata Yamakasa Gion Festival, and portable shrines that are carried as floats can be seen here. 


Engaku-ji Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Japan. Photo credit: iStock/Starcevic

Located in beautiful historic Kamakura, Engakuji is one of the country’s most important Zen Buddhist temples.

Built into the hillside, the temple is surrounded by lush forest and offers picturesque views of Kamakura. The autumn foliage here is especially stunning

Hokkaido Shrine

Very popular at new year and in the spring, the expansive Hokkaido Shrine in Sapporo enshrines four deities and is surrounded by nature.

It’s a fetching sight when blanketed in snow or abloom with cherry blossoms in the spring.

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1 Comment

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