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A Crash Course in Tokyo's most Iconic Temples and Shrines




A Crash Course in Tokyo's most Iconic Temples and Shrines


Tokyo is a city definitely not short on historical sites. This incredibly diverse city is home to a sprawling family of shrines and temples that attract millions of tourists every year. While each and every one of the city's sacred spots is an irreplaceable part of the nation's rich spiritual legacy, there are definitely some shrines more famous and influential than others. Here's a quick run-down on the city's most iconic shrines and temples, so you know just where to go.



What's the difference between a temple and a shrine?


Shrines were built for the Shintoism, a type of faith best described as more a spirituality than religion per se. Shintoism has no founder or sacred scriptures, and followers of Shinto believe sacred Gods or kami come in the form of things important to life, mountains, the sea, trees, and even objects. The shrine is built in the context of its surroundings and place in which to worship sacred objects. Shrines, not temples, are the sites with towering torii gates, which are separators of the everyday world and the sacred one (the site of the shrine).


A temple is where monks live, pray, and worship, it's home to Japan's Buddhist followers. A temple doesn't have a torii gate, but instead a large temple gate, which is often much bigger and more detailed than a torii. Shrines and temples were once amalgamated, but following the Meiji Restoration, they were separated due to a policy known as shinbutsu bunri.



Is there temple and shrine etiquette?


At Buddhist temples, most folks pray silently, while some of the more devout chant mantras, however at Shinto shrines, visitors ring a bell and clap their hands to rouse the gods and pray. When you pass through both a torii or temple gate bow and try to be conscientious about where you position yourself. It's said that the center of a torii gate is for the gods to pass through, so walk slightly to the left or right. At the front of a shrine, you'll also find a purification fountain with ladles, here guests are expected to 'purify' themselves by rinsing each hand (left then right), then rinsing your mouth. If you are nervous about getting anything wrong, don't worry too much. As long as you're polite and respectful, you're doing just fine!


Meiji-jingu Shrine


Where is it?

Next to Yoyogi Park and just a few minutes from JR Harajuku Station by foot.


Why you need to see it?

Compared to some of the city's other significant shrines, Meiji-Jingu Shrine, also colloquially known as Meiji Shrine, is relatively young. It was built in 1920 as a dedication to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji passed away eight years before the shrine's existence, but his legacy remains strong up to this day. He was the first emperor of modern Japan, he ruled and lived during the nation's time of modernization and internationalization, so it makes sense that the area neighboring this site is one of Tokyo's most modern corners, Harajuku. In October 2019, the modern-minimalistic but traditionally inspired designed Meiji Museum opened, it was designed by world-loved architect Kengo Kuma. Inside you'll find of displays treasures from the shrine's collection.


While it's flanked by Yoyogi Park on one side and Harajuku, on the other, Meiji Shrine's grounds are incredibly peaceful. It's home to over 100,000 towering trees donated from regions across the entire country that together create an urban forest, as diverse as the country's landscape. Tranquil, central, inspired by the past, but a product of futuristic thinking, Meiji-Jingu Shrine is the embodiment of what makes Tokyo so great.

If you want to get a bit of extra insight into the history of the shrine, or learn more about the area, Tokyo Localized runs free regular tours of Meiji Jingu Shrine and Harajuku, more info here.



Hie Shrine

Where is it?

Between Akasaka and Nagatacho, a short walk from Tameikesannō Station.


Why is it famous?

Hie Shrine is home to one of the city's biggest festival celebrations, Sanno Matsuri. Hie Shrine is very much at home nestled right by some of Tokyo's most important buildings - like the National Diet Building - as it was designated as a First Class Government Shrine before the Second World War. Today it's still regarded as an essential place of worship for Tokyoites. While the history of its origins is a little sketchy, it's estimated that the shrine was founded in 1362.


Wander around the grounds of Hie Shrine, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you've somehow been transported to Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine. Its impressive collection of torii gates lined up to create a vermilion tunnel, perfect for the impromptu photo shoot.



Kanda Shrine


Where is it?

Right by Akihabara, 10 minutes walk from the station or just six minutes from Ochanomizu Station.


Why is it famous?

Also known formally as Kanda Myojin Shrine, this shrine boasts an impressive 1,300 years of history. It was initially built in the Otemachi district as a way to accommodate the expansion of Edo Castle, but was later moved to Kanda and then moved again to right by Akihabara, where it still resides. Like so many of the city's historic buildings, the shrine was destroyed by the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, but because it was rebuilt with concrete, it survived the firebombings of WWII.


The site is also home to one of the three major Shinto festivals of Tokyo, the Kanda Festival, which is held every odd year. If you're gamer, then a visit to Kanda Shrine is definitely in store, as it's close to the tech capital of the city, Akihabara. Here you'll even find talismans sold to bless electronic devices to prevent the harm that could possibly happen to them.

Kanda is also one of the main locations on Tokyo Localized’s free Flagship Tokyo, so if you want to check it out, join us!



Zojoji Temple


Where is it?

Onarimon or Shibakoen Station on the Mita Subway Line.


Why is it famous?

If Zojoji Temple looks familiar that may be because it was the backdrop for one of the film's most exciting scenes where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) battles yakuza at a funeral. The temple is far more interesting than just a Hollywood backdrop of course, though. It's the head temple of a sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto region known as Jodo.


Tokyo Tower sits just behind the temple like some bright orange guardian looking down on the temple grounds, which houses a mausoleum for the Tokugawa Ieyasu family. Look a little deeper, and you'll also find a small museum in the basement of the main temple hall, dedicated to the previous incarnation of the Tokugawa Mausoleum before being damaged during WWII.



Gotokuji Temple

Where is it?

Gotokuji, a five-minute walk from Gotokuji Station.


Why is it famous?

If there was one temple that would win the award for being the most Instagram-worthy, it'd have to be Gotokuji Temple. This buddhist temple tucked into the laid back district of Setagaya is literally overflowing with cats. Not real ones though, but adorable red and white figurines of maneki-neko, aka 'the beckoning cat.'


As the temple's legend goes, sometime during the Edo period, a feudal lord from Shiga Prefecture was traveling through Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and found himself trapped in a thunderstorm. During his story travels, he was met by a cat who led him to the temple and out of harm's way. Over time the lord collected enough money to rebuild the temple, which became his family temple and of course, Gotokuji. As time passed, visitors would leave figurines of maneki-neko at the temple as a sign of appreciation when their wishes were granted, hence the now huge family of cats.



Senso-ji Temple


Where is it?

Night next door to Asakusa Station.


Why is it famous?

Arguably the city's most famous temple, Sensoji is one of the city's oldest landmarks and most well-trafficked tourist destination. The first version of the temple was erected in 628AD by fishermen brothers by the names of Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. The temple's story goes that while out to sea, the pair found a statue of the Kannon (Godess of Mercy) submerged in the nearby Sumida River. The brother took it back to their village (at the time, which is now part of Tokyo city) and the town's chief, who was a devout Buddhist, Hajino Nakamoto, was so inspired by the holiness of the figure, he remodeled his home as in impromptu temple so locals could come and worship the statue. It officially became a temple in 645 AD, making it the oldest in the city.


One of the temple's most iconic features, beyond its impressive architecture - Sensoji at night is a spectacular scene - is Nakamise street. Nakamise is the broad shopping street that runs from the outer gate up to the doors of the temple. With gift stores and food stands lining the road, it's become an incredibly popular place to pick up some traditional Japanese snacks and gifts.

If you’re exploring the area, consider also signing up for a free walking tour of Asakusa which Tokyo Localized runs multiple times daily.



Tokyo Localized provides visitors and travellers to Tokyo with a unique perspective of this great city, what makes us unique is that our walking tour guides live and work in Tokyo, have a passion for this city and love meeting and welcoming new faces. Find out more about our Unique Day and Night Tours of Tokyo - we can't wait to meet you!


A great experience for: Day Tours in Tokyo, Night Tours in Tokyo, Group Tours in Tokyo, Private Walking Tours, University Walking Tours, Things To Do at Night in Tokyo, Activities in Tokyo, Tokyo Sightseeing Tour, Tokyo Tourist Attractions.


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