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3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

Updated: Jun 1

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that Kagurazaka can be considered both a shrine-front and a temple-front town. I will discuss the differences between shrines and temples using three keywords this time. This is a vast topic, so I aim to simplify it and make it easily understandable for foreigners significantly.


Japanese Are Multi-Religious, Not Non-Religious


According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs' "Religious Statistics Survey," as of the end of 2022, Shinto followers number approximately 83.96 million (51.5%), and Buddhists about 70.76 million (43.4%), totaling 162.99 million for both religions. Given that the population of Japan is approximately 124.94 million (according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications "Population Estimates" in October 2022), it is clear that many Japanese are registered with multiple religions. Although often described as non-religious, Japanese society is more accurately multi-religious, a unique aspect of Japanese religious views we will explore further.


3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples



3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples


Keyword 1: Yaoyorozu-no-Kami (八百万神, The Eight Million Gods)


Firstly, a shrine in Japan, also known as a Shinto shrine, is a building dedicated to the Shinto religion. Shinto itself is divided into three types: Shrine Shinto, which existed historically, Sect Shinto, which emerged after the Meiji era, and Folk Shinto, which is practiced in homes and by individuals without formal organizational structure. Shinto is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, centered on the belief in Kami (gods or spirits).


Ancient Japanese perceived mystical beings worthy of reverence as gods, which originated from a complex mixture of ancient folk beliefs and rituals. This includes animism, a belief system where animals, plants, and even inanimate objects such as mountains, rocks, and waterfalls possess a spiritual essence. Notable mountains worshipped include Mount Fuji, Mount Aso, Mount Osore, Mount Tsukuba, Mount Tateyama, the Kumano Sanzan, and the Dewa Sanzan.


Even today, Mount Fuji is considered a mountain of good fortune. Both Japanese and foreigners adore viewing Mount Fuji, perhaps a reflection of a universal human trait towards mountain worship. The Akagi Shrine in Kagurazaka, for example, is believed to have originated from enshrining a part of the spirit from Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture, a site of mountain worship.


3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

The fundamental animistic belief that spirits dwell in all things makes the diversity of deities in shrines vast, commonly referred to as Yaoyorozu-no-Kami (the eight million gods). This openness likely facilitated the acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.


Notably, shrines related to the Imperial Family or past emperors, like the Ise Grand Shrine, often carry the title "Jingu." There are 24 Jingu shrines across Japan. By the way, there are as many as 84,206 Shinto shrines (religious corporations) throughout Japan.




Keyword 2: Shinbutsu-Shūgō (神仏習合, Syncretism of Shinto and Buddhas)


Conversely, a temple is a Buddhist building. Buddhism was introduced to Japan from the Korean Peninsula in the 6th century and quickly adopted by the influential Soga clan alongside figures such as Empress Suiko and Prince Shōtoku, who spearheaded the spread of Buddhism. The Soga clan built Asuka-dera Temple, Japan's first temple, while Prince Shōtoku established Hōryū-ji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

The Soga's enthusiasm for Buddhism likely served to counterbalance the Nakatomi and Mononobe clans, who were in charge of Shinto rituals at the court. Buddhism wasn't just a religious system; it brought with it advanced technologies and cultural practices from mainland China. Promoting Buddhism necessitated the construction of temples and statues and the procurement of religious garments and implements, thereby enhancing cultural exchanges with China and Korea and enriching Japanese arts and sciences. Buddhism's introduction marked Japan's entry into the community of civilized nations.


Shinbutsu-Shūgō is the religious phenomenon where native Shinto and Buddhist beliefs merged into a unified system. From Buddhism's arrival, the Japanese people revered kami and buddhas as essentially the same, reflecting the flexible nature of Shinto that embraced the myriad gods.



Keyword 3: Shinbutsu-Bunri (神仏分離, Separation of Shinto and Buddhas)


As the Edo period ended, the Meiji government initiated policies to separate Shinto and Buddhist elements in 1868 as part of establishing Shinto as the state religion. This separation policy aimed to modernize Japan through cultural reforms, including abolishing the mixed practices of Shugendō (mountain asceticism) and Onmyōdō (a traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology, a mixture of natural science and occultism). The policy also included the Edict of 1871, which mandated the cutting of the topknot and carrying of swords, symbolizing the rejection of the samurai class.


Shugendō was a unique Japanese religious practice that blended Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto elements, with practitioners known as Yamabushi who were believed to confer spiritual benefits to people. Onmyōdō practitioners, known as onmyōji, performed divinations and other esoteric practices.


Originally, the Shinbutsu Bunri was not intended to suppress Buddhism but triggered nationwide movements that led to the destruction of Buddhist temples and icons, a profound loss of Japanese cultural heritage.


Despite Japan's transformation into a less tolerant society under state-driven policies post-Meiji, some regions retained a blend of Shinto and Buddhist practices even after the official separation, with some temples and shrines still sharing sites. Occasionally, you might see a Shinto torii gate within temple precincts.

3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

World Heritage and the Legacy of Shinbutsu-Shūgō


Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a World Heritage site, houses a Buddhist pagoda built in 1650 by Sakai Tadakatsu, a significant figure in Kagurazaka. This pagoda, reconstructed in 1818 after a fire, symbolizes the lingering syncretism in designated cultural sites.


3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

Furthermore, the Kumano Nachi Taisha is adjacent to Seiganto-ji Temple, both part of the UNESCO-listed Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. The pilgrimage to these sites was inspired by Emperor Kazan, who, during his ascetic practices at Seiganto-ji Temple, was divinely instructed to revive the Saikoku Kannon Pilgrimage routes established by Tokudo Shonin, spreading the virtues of Kannon Bodhisattva. Intriguingly, it was the god Kumano Daigongen (a kami of Shinto) belief that urged the promotion of a Buddhist bodhisattva's virtues. Seiganto-ji Temple is the first temple on the Saikoku Thirty-three Kannon Pilgrimage.


3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

These examples highlight how World Heritage sites preserve the intertwined nature of Shinto and Buddhism, reflecting Japan's historical tolerance and religious pluralism. Remembering these facts when visiting sites like Mount Fuji, Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Kumano Nachi Taisha, or Seiganto-ji Temple can provide deeper insights into the complex nature of Japanese religiosity.


3 Keywords to Understand the Differences Between Shinto Shrines and Temples

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How to Access Kagurazaka


The Kagurazaka area is conveniently located within 30 minutes from any major station in Tokyo. This is because Kagurazaka is situated in the heart of Tokyo, at the center of the Yamanote Line. Please come and visit this convenient and charming Kagurazaka.



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