Top 10 Religious Sites in Japan

by GoWithGuide travel specialist


Japan is a religious country, celebrating both Buddhism and Shintoism. These ten temples and shrines from all over Japan, are said to be the most popular and most famous religious sites in the country. From World Heritage Sites to sacred mountain spots, you will easily find something of interest at these ten spiritual places:

1. Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)

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For more than 1,300 years, people have come to Fushimi Inari Shrine to worship the Inari God that assures bountiful crops. The shrine is the headquarters of the more than 30,000 inari shrines across Japan. The red torii gates and white foxes are the symbols of Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is said that the red color of the torii gates and the shrine building has power against supernatural powers and that the color also indicates the bountifulness of the Inari God. Foxes are believed to be the servants of the Inari God; it is said that foxes were chosen as the God’s servants because they prey on crop damaging mice and also because the color of the fox and the shape of their tails resemble ripe rice plants. Replacing the usual guardian dogs, a pair of foxes is placed at the Roumon gate as protectors against evil.  

The row of torii gates called Senbon Torii is the highlight of this shrine. Senbon Torii came about due to the custom that has spread since the Edo period (1603 – 1868) to dedicate a torii gate to the shrine to express gratitude regarding the worshiper’s wish that “will come true” or “did come true.” At present, nearly 10,000 torii gates line the main path and the tradition of donating a gate is still practiced today. Based on the idea that assuring bountiful crops for farmers is relevant to assuring prosperous business for merchants, since the Edo period and onward, the Inari God has been worshiped also as a god that assures prosperous business. The grounds of the shrine stretch to Mount Inari; it takes more than two hours to cover the approx. 87 square meter shrine premises. The Senbon Torii is a short walk away from the main sanctuary. From there, as you walk toward the mountain peak, you will reach the crossroad (yotsutsuji) where you can view the entire city of Kyoto. You can also rest at a tea house while enjoying this magnificent view. Though the shrine is opened to the public 24 hours a day, we recommend visiting the shrine during the day because it has many stone steps and the lighting during the night is limited.  

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Fushimi Inari Shrine
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Fushimi Inari Shrine
Tours of Fushimi Inari Shrine

2. Todaiji (Nara)

People have always loved Todaiji, which was completed in the year 752 and continues to be a religious place down to this day. The essential sights include the buildings that were rebuilt after being destroyed in fires caused by wars, Daibutsu (the great Buddha), masterpieces from the geniuses Unkei and Kaikei, and the statues of the guardian deities.

Todaiji is a cultural property in Nara that is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. It is home to countless works of art and structures that are designated National Treasures, and is full of objects of extremely significant cultural value. Here, you will experience the dynamic atmosphere of a history spanning the ages in such objects as the main temple building, which houses Japan’s largest temple, and Daibutsu (the great Buddha statue).

At a height of 8.4 meters, the huge wooden images of guardian deities (National Treasures) flanking Nandaimon on both sides are not to be missed. Records show that these figures were made by the genius Buddhist image sculptors Unkei and Kaikei and their 13 disciples in just 69 days during the Kamakura period in the year 1208. These vivid and powerful statues stand magnificently, captured in a moment with their clothes fluttering in the wind. They have an incredible realism so that even their blood vessels can be seen. The image of the powerful Rikishi is a masterpiece of art from the middle of the Kamakura period.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Todaiji
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Todaiji
Tours of Todaiji

3. Ise Jingu Geku (Mie)

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Among all of the shrines in Japan, Ise Jingu is the cream of the crop. Within this grand shrine, there are 2 main shrines: Naiku (Kotaijingu) which enshrines Amaterasu-omikami, the tutelary god for the Japanese people, and Geku (Toyouke Daijingu) which enshrines Toyouke-no-omikami, the tutelary god for the basic necessities of life. In October 2013, the process of building a new shrine and transferring the enshrined object to that site that takes place once every 20 years was completed, and all of the shrine buildings and torii gates have been newly reconstructed. When making the pilgrimage at Ise Jingu, it’s customary to start from Geku and then move to Naiku, a custom that has been in place since the ancient times. There is some distance between the two main shrines, but transportation by bus is possible.

Toyouke-no-omikami who is enshrined at Geku is the guardian deity of industry that provides the blessings of the necessities of life. Her story began about 1500 years ago when she was called upon to offer food to Amaterasu-no-omikami as the Miketsu-kami at Yamada-no-Hara near Naiku. Once you purify yourself by washing your hands and rinsing your mouth, pay your respects at the Shogu where Toyouke-no-omikami is enshrined. At the Mike-den at the back of the Shogu, a ceremony is held twice a day in the morning and at noon to offer meals to Amaterasu-no-omikami. This ritual has continued unabated for over a thousand years since the enshrinement of Toyouke-no-omikami.    

After visiting the Shogu, you will also want to visit the four other associate shrines at Geku. Once you cross the Kameishi which spans over the pond in front of the Shogu, the Tsuchi-no-Miya which enshrines the god of land is on your right while on your left is the Kaze-no-Miya with the god of wind. And up ahead is Taga-no-Miya. This shrine, located at the top of 98 stone steps and which enshrines the Aramitama of Toyouke-no-omikami is a prestigious structure for the Shogu. If you have the time, there is also the Tsukimi-no-Miya, a 10-minute walk north of Geku. At this associate shrine, the brother of Amaterasu-no-kami is enshrined as the god of the moon who presides over the night.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Ise Jingu Geku
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Ise Jingu Geku
Tours of Ise Jingu Geku

4. Okunoin Temple (Koya)

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Known as a power spot, Okunoin Temple is where the founder of the Shingon sect, Kobo Daishi (the monk Kukai), performed the ultimate ascetic training in which he practiced austerity to the point of death. To get to Okunoin Temple, visitors walk along a 2km approach to the temple from Ichi-no-hashi Bridge to the mausoleum. According to the tradition, Grand Master Kukai comes to this Ichi-no-hashi Bridge to greet you at your arrival and then later to see you off. For this reason, visitors bring their hands together and bow once toward this bridge as a form of prayer. Along the approach are more than 200,000 monuments including graves, prayer steles and memorials. The temple is also well known as the spot of the graves of famous, powerful feudal lords and samurai warriers who fought more than 500 years ago including the grave of Nobunaga Oda and the memorial pagodas of Shingen Takeda and Masamune Date. The remains and personal belongings of the deceased family members have been brought to the sanctuary of Mount Koya for generations by people praying for the rebirth of the deceased ones in the Pure Land.

The temple has been collecting people who make wishes and prayers for the repose of the departed soul, and by that, it has been collecting spiritual energy. This sacred spot has come to be revered by people of all social levels–members of the Imperial court, aristocrats, samurai worriers, and the commons–and it has prospered as a place of comfort and support for people regardless of their sect. Pilgrims, who are called ohenro-san, pray in gratitude to Grand Master Kukai in front of his mausoleum at Mount Koya Okunoin Temple before departing on a pilgrimage to express their joy of “kechien (to make a religious connection)” and after finishing it to report “kechigan (to finish ascetic practices for making a wish).” The temple premises is mystic and sublime; the gigantic cedar trees and moss-covered stone pagodas speak of the temple’s 1,200 years of history.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Okunoin Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Okunoin Temple
Tours of Okunoin Temple

5. Izumo Grand Shrine (Shimane)

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Izumo is the hometown for mythology. It is said that the god of nation-building Okuninushi who is enshrined in the main hall had been given Izumo Grand Shrine in exchange for giving his land to the goddess Amaterasu. Generally speaking, the month of October has the Japanese name of Kannazuki (the month without gods) which was actually pronounced as Kamiaritsuki (the month with gods) in this region. The reason for this was that October was the time when all of the Japanese deities gathered at the site of Okuninushi. The Nishi-jukusha and Higashi-jukusha buildings which bracket the main hall housed the gods when they visited. Every year in October of the lunar calendar, the Kamimukaesai (god-welcoming festival) begins, followed by the Kamiarisai festival and then the Karasadesai to see off the gods.

There are 4 torii gates at Izumo Grand Shrine. The main hall can be accessed from the west and museum, but if you can, go through the No. 2 torii because you can sweep away any impurities at the Harai-no-Yashiro on the way to the shrine. Then you can receive your destiny in a clean state. In addition, the way to worship at Izumo differs from the usual “2 bows, 2 claps, 1 bow” in that at this shrine, it’s “2 bows, 4 claps, 1 bow”. When praying, saying your name and address to yourself is a way of giving thanks which will bring good fortune.

Sengu refers to the transfer of a spirit of a deity and the renovations for the main buildings of a shrine before the spirit is returned. The National Treasure-designated main hall was built in 1744 and has undergone sengu 3 times. This time, the Heisei Era renovations with the main hall took place for the first time in 60 years between 2008 and 2013. Renovations on the auxiliary and subordinate shrines will continue until 2016. By all means, visit the main hall refreshed through the power of the gods.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Izumo Grand Shrine
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Izumo Grand Shrine
Tours of Izumo Grand Shrine

6. Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple (Chiba)

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Taking 10 minutes from Narita Airport by JR, you can reach JR Narita Station. The way from the station to Narita-san is called the Narita-san Sando (the path to Narita-san). The area around the temple once flourished with ryokan, and for that reason, there were many dining establishments to relax weary travelers. When walking along Narita-san Sando, you may notice a lot of signboards for eel which come from memories of hoping for travelers to work hard. On this path towards Narita-san which still retains vestiges of the active ryokan during the Edo Era, there are numerous restaurants lined up serving rice crackers, dumplings and eel. At Narita-san, which also has many visitors from abroad, there are many restaurants for foreign cuisine scattered about as well. For overseas tourists who don’t like Japanese food, they can still sightsee in the area. They can enjoy the hustle and bustle of the path until they finally reach Narita-san, and it is the ideal place to get a taste of what Japan is like. The 800m path to the temple continues on to the main gates.

At Narita-san Shinsho-ji, you can experience shakyo. Shakyo is the work of hand-copying sutras, or the words of the Buddha. It is said that performing shakyo quietly without being disturbed earns the Buddha’s favor, and in recent years, it has become popular as a way to relax. You can get a taste of Buddhism within an atmosphere of serenity. There are also the Goma prayer rituals, a custom that has been taking place daily ever since Narita-san was first opened. This is a prayer service that has continued since the Heian Era when Narita-san was built. Many people come to pray in case of troubles or to achieve their wishes. Within these rituals, there is the fire ceremony. During the ceremony, fires are stoked over which a person’s valuables (wallets, etc.) are held which earns good luck from Fudo Myoo. If you don’t want to do that, you can purchase a Goma charm (there is a charge). Anyone can participate in the Goma prayer rituals which can be applied for at the reception area in the Hon-do hall.

Going further beyond the Hon-do hall at Narita-san Shinsho-ji, there is a 58m large pagoda that is called the Great Peace Pagoda. The large Narita-san Park stretches out at the bottom of the pagoda. In the lush green park, there is a pond with koi swimming in it and a waterfall that makes the park a calming place for many visitors to relax. You can enjoy that Japanese feeling throughout the four seasons with the plum blossoms in spring and the beautiful fall colors.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple
Tours of Narita-san Shinsho-ji Temple

7. Toshogu Shrine (Nikko)

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Toshogu enshrines Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun (military governor) of the Edo Shogunate (government), and it is also the location of Ieyasu’s grave. It was originally a simple and plain structure but the third Shogun Iemitsu built a host of brilliant shrines. This section introduces the must-see spots of Toshogu shrine.  When the temple bell of Rinnoji is sounded at 8 o’clock in the morning, the gate of Toshogu shrine is opened. The shrine begins to get crowded from around 9 o’clock so you would probably want to enter the shrine immediately after the gate is opened. One of the highlights of Toshogu shrine is the animal related ornamentations. What must be mentioned first is the holly stable for the horses that serve the Gods on which the “Three Wise Monkeys” are depicted. The stable features eight pictures depicting the tale of a monkey from when it is born until it becomes a mother. Among these, the famous three monkeys symbolizing “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil (Mi-zaru, Kika-zaru, and Iwa-zaru, a pun between saru or vocalized zaru “monkey” and archaic -zaru “a negative verb conjugation”)” are depicted on the second picture. The meaning behind this picture is to prevent the infant monkey from seeing, hearing or talking about the wickedness of the secular society. Another highlight is the “Sleeping Cat” at the top of Sakashita gate, the entrance to the grave of Ieyasu. This artwork was carved by the grate craftsman of the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Jingoro Hidari. Although it is not well known, sparrows are depicted on the back of the cat. It is said that this design–sparrows playing right next to their predator–symbolizes Ieyasu’s wish to create a peaceful world free of wars and conflicts.  

Yomeimon gate, the entrance to the main hall, is the symbol of Toshogu shrine. Dragons are depicted all over the gate. Some of these dragons are portrayed with unconventional characteristics such as hoofs and nostrils, and there are even ones that are depicted without whiskers. According to a Chinese tradition, dragons are a transformed form of carps; meaning, one can ultimately become a grand dragon by practicing daily. There are four columns at the back of the gate. Interestingly, patterns are depicted upside down on the second column from the right. Since it is said that buildings begin to demise from the instant they are completed, one column was purposely left in an incomplete state in hopes that the building will not collapse. 

Admission: Adult: ¥ 1,300 / Child: ¥ 450

Guidebook from Planetyze about Todaiji Shrine
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Todaiji Shrine
Tours of Todaiji Shrine

8. Hasedera Temple (Kamakura)

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If you set aside time to visit Kamakura during your trip to Japan, Hasedera Temple is one of the spots that must be visited during your time in Kamakura city. The wooden carving of the Kannon Bosatsu in the main hall, also known as the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, towers at a colossal height of 9.8 meters and is the largest of its kind domestically. The eleven-faced wooden seated statue of the Kannon Bosatsu has been designated as an important cultural property in Japan. In addition to the significant cultural properties present at the temple, there is also a gazebo from where you can catch stunning views of the city and ocean of Kamakura city. Moreover, the beautiful garden with its flowers blooming all year long makes the temple a paradise. In particular, the blooms of the hydrangeas and iris flowers are considerably exquisite.

After you take the time to explore Hasedera Temple and its surroundings, you could perhaps take on the challenge of participating in the copying of sutras (shakyo) and tracing of Buddhist images (shabutsu). This activity is an everyday occurrence at the temple. The former activity refers to the copying by hand the sutras of the Buddha and similarly, the latter refers to the drawing of images of the Buddha. As you will only need to trace the rough copy of the scripture or drawing with a writing brush, there is no need to worry if you cannot write Japanese to participate in this activity. Historically, the transfer of sutras and images was practiced to reach enlightenment but in recent years and in the modern context, these two practices have risen in popularity for its relaxing effects. After finishing the copying of the sutras and images, you have the option to give your finished work as an offering to the temple.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 300 / Child: ¥ 100

Guidebook from Planetyze about Hasedera Temple 
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Hasedera Temple 
Tours of Hasedera Temple 

9. Zenko-ji Temple (Nagano)

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Built about 1400 years ago, Zenko-ji Temple has garnered wide worship as a base for the hearts of the people. Founded in Japan before Buddhism was split into different sects, it has become famous as a temple that doesn’t ascribe to one particular denomination. Also, it became well known nationwide during the Heian Era as a temple that rescued women which was unusual in Old Buddhism when temples wouldn’t allow women to enter. Regardless of social position or gender, a visit to Zenko-ji would mean that anyone could rise to Heaven, and even now, it is visited by young and old and by men and women from all over Japan.

The No. 1 highlight of Zenko-ji is the principal image of Buddha, Ikkou Sanzon Amida Nyorai, which is enshrined in the Hondomain hall. The Daigaran temple edifice which has an entrance width of 23.89m and a depth of 53.67m has been designated as a National Treasure. As a wooden structure, it boasts a scale on a national level that marks it alongside Nara’s Todai-ji’s Great Buddha Hall and Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo Temple. Since ancient times, it was a custom associated with a visit to Zenko-ji for the many visitors to stay at the main hall (inner temple) that lasted until the middle of the Meiji Era but no longer exists. In the inner temple which boasts a size of about 250㎡, the vestiges of those times can be glimpsed.

Zenko-ji is most famous for its Gokaicho ceremony that is held every 7 years. The ceremony takes place over about 50 days ranging from early April to late May. In place of the principal image of Buddha that is never shown, a replica known as the Maedachi Honzon which is normally enshrined in a repository is opened to the public. During the period of the Gokaicho, a sacred pillar is established in front of the main hall, and many worshipers gather at the pillar to touch it. With a thread attached to the image, this pillar is linked to the Maedachi Honzon. For this reason, when the pillar is touched, it is believed that an act of piety has been performed similar to directly touching the Maedachi Honzon itself.

Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 50

Guidebook from Planetyze about Zenko-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Zenko-ji Temple
Tours of Zenko-ji Temple

10. Byodoin Temple (Kyoto)

Byodoin temple was established in 1052 when an aristocrat named Yorimichi Fujiwara decided to turn his second house into a temple. The temple building and the Buddha statues created nearly 1,000 years ago have been collectively listed as a World Heritage site. Adding to its glory, the temple’s Phoenix Hall is featured on the Japanese 10 yen coin. The Phoenix Hall recently underwent nearly 2 years of restoration work including a roof replacement and re-coating of its exterior layer; the building has been restored brilliantly to the state it was at the time it was first built, bringing back the splendor of the Heian period (794 – 1185). Though the Phoenix Hall was built as a hall for containing the statue of Amitabha Tathagata, people began to call it the Phoenix Hall because the shape of the entire building resembles a phoenix with wings spread open, and also because the hall’s roof is decorated with a pair of copper phoenix statues. This valuable building attests to the glorious days of prosperity during the Heian period. Built on an island of a pond, the hall’s gorgeous reflection on the pond makes it appear as though it is a palace floating in the treasure pond of heaven. The people of the Heian period regarded the Phoenix Hall as heaven on earth.

The interior of the Phoenix Hall is filled with splendid National Cultural Assets. Sitting in the center is the statue of Amitabha Tathagata, a work of the best Buddhist image craftsman of the Heian period. Some playing instruments, some dancing, and others praying, at the upper part of the wall are the “52 Worshiping Bodhisattvas on Clouds” also crafted during the Heian period. On the walls are a drawing of heaven and a drawing depicting the 9 different levels that the spirits of the dead are directed to–according to the amount of virtue they have accumulated–by Amitabha Tathagata. The lights reflected by 66 copper bells hanging from the ceiling create an ethereal atmosphere in the hall. In spring, the flowers of 280 years old wisteria trees and azaleas add extra beauty to the temple grounds.  

Admission: Adult: ¥ 600 / Child: ¥ 300

Guidebook from Planetyze about Byodoin Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Byodoin Temple
Tours of Byodoin Temple

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