Tokyo might be seen as a mega modern metropolis, buzzing with flashing lights, crazy sounds and millions of people. But what people often don’t expect is the thousands of temples and shrines, from huge complexes to tiny displays dotted around the city. They provide not only a view into the history of Japan but also a tranquil and serine antidote to the overwhelming nature of this huge city. When we ventured to Tokyo we explored some well known, controversial and more obscure temples and shrines.
Visiting shrines and temples:
In Tokyo the main two religions are Shinto and Buddhism, both play a large role in modern day Japan and often most people with varying degrees will practice both religions. Shintoism is linked to the thousands of Shrines in Japan and is often where a couple will choose to get married in a very traditionally Japanese ceremony. Buddhism however is where the temples come in, here is where an overwhelming percentage of Japanese funerals will take place, even with the majority of the country claiming to relate more to Shinto.
Almost all temples and shrines are free to enter and walk around, this makes them great budget friendly places to go and see in a country which can be expensive. However there are some general rules you should respect when visiting. Most are not very strict places and certainly with the more popular shrines you won’t get turned away, but it is always good to be respectful.
When approaching the temple and coming through the main entrance most people will bow. They then wash their hands in a fountain close by and waft smoke from the burning incense over their shoulders to cleanse.
Upon approaching the main area of the shrine a small donation will be made in a box provided, two claps and a bow. Take a moment of reflection before leaving to explore the complex in more detail. You can also buy an “Ema” which is a small wooden prayer board on which you write out a prayer, wish or reflection and leave hanging for the gods to receive.
One of the biggest and most renowned shrines in Tokyo the grounds take up over a square mile. The shrine is set in a wonderful area of natural beauty compromising of a forest, gardens, lily ponds, museums, a tea house and an ancient well. Being located in the densely populated area of Shibuya it is a welcome break from the chaos of the well known crossing.
The shrine itself is dedicated to the “Deified Spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken” and is one of the most impressive we visited. Where others are colourful the Meiji shrine is wonderfully understated being mostly natural wood with highlights of white in the traditional Nagare-Zukuri style, given the forest it sits within this works beautifully to create a real sense of tranquility.
There are also huge collections of barrels of Sake around the site, each colourfully decorated with different traditional Japanese artwork and scenes including waves, sunsets, flowers and mountains. These “Kazaridaru” or “Decoration Barrels” might be now empty of the rice wine they once carried, but they are now full of significance and spiritual importance.
In Japan Sake and the Gods are closely linked, people visit shrine festivals and drink the wine to be closer to the gods. Sake producers donate for these festivals in order to be blessed for the coming year, the Meiji Shrine is one of only two who accept nation wide donations instead of only local.
Visiting the Meiji Shrine
JR: Harajuku Station
Metro: Meiji-jingu-mae Station
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
FREE, but entrance to other gardens and treasure house is 500Yen.
Founded in 628 this ancient Buddhist temple is one of the oldest and also most significant in the city as well as being an icon of Japanese culture. The complex as a whole is a large warren of gardens, markets and smaller shrines as well as the main temple and famous five storey pagoda in these beautiful gardens.
One of the most well preserved areas of “Old Tokyo” this temple and the streets that surround it take you back to a time before the loud modernity Japan has since become famous for. Despite being an oasis for the ancient it does lack some of the serenity of many other temples and shrines as it’s legend does bring with it popularity, however it is one of the must see sights of Tokyo.
The temple is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, this temple is much more decorative than many we saw. The ceilings are covered in detailed frescos, the central shrine a shimmering golden colour and the main construction an unmistakable bright red.
This was one of the first large temples we visited and the experience was one we had longed for when we dreamt for all those years of visiting Japan. Smelling the sweet incense and walking through the dominating Thunder Gate or “Kaminarimon” with it’s huge and dramatic paper lantern is something we will never forget.
Also be sure to explore the historic surrounding area of Asakusa, there are some wonderful examples of old Tokyo to be discovered!
Visiting the Sensoji Temple
JR: From Tokyo station take the JR Yamanote Line and change to the Ginza Line at Kanda Station. From Shinjuku Station, take the JR Chuo Line (orange) and change to the Ginza Line at Kanda Station
Metro: Asakusa Station
Hours: 6:00 to 17:00 (from 6:30 from October to March)
After the strange contrast of the spirituality of Sensoji with it’s busyness and buzz came the wonderfully overlooked Tennoji Temple. Located next to the huge Yanaka Graveyard is this beautiful, well kept and tranquil temple with it’s famous massive bronze buddha statue.
The temple itself is over 800 years old and when we paid a visit the only other people in the grounds were a couple of praying monks. The visit was one which offered a relaxing and uplifting break from the chaos of the rest of the nearby city, even the graveyard was beautiful to explore.
if you want to discover true buddhist serenity then this the place to head for, it almost feels as though you have wandered upon an undiscovered piece of mediative paradise within this pocket of nature in one of the worlds largest cities.
Visiting the Tennoji Temple
JR: Nippori Station (The temple is just off to the west of the station)
The Yasukuni might be one of the most stunning shrines in Tokyo and for the casual visitor might appear significant only because of it’s unique decoration. However this shrine is not without controversy or political importance as it is dedicated to the Japanese war dead.
Given Japan’s actions during the second world war this Shrine is no longer the neutral experience of the others we had visited. Although it does bring up the question of how we should honour those soldiers who, following the directions of their governments, fell on what we would describe as the wrong side of the war.
The grandiose shrine and huge Tori gates dominate the nearby landscape and are located quite close to the site of the Imperial Palace. The signature curtains for us really made this one of the stand out Shrines of Tokyo.
Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine
JR: Ichigaya, Iidabashi
Metro: Kudanshita Station
6:00 to 18:00 (to 19:00 from May to August; to 17:00 from November to February)
One of the temples of Tokyo where the old and the new sides to the city are really illustrated in perfection. With the Tokyo Tower casting a shadow over this ancient complex it is quite a sight to see. The renowned “Sangedatsu Gate” which dates back to 1622 is reputed to be the oldest wooden structure in Tokyo and one of only a few original gates and temples to survive the bombings of Tokyo during the Second World War.
The temple is also known as the last resting place of six of the fifteen Tokugawa shoguns and the temple itself has strong associations with this powerful family who once ruled Japan. The giant Daibonsho bell, which was cast in 1673 is still tolled six times a day, and as if that historical significance is not enough, there is even a tree still growing today which was planted by US president Ulysses S. Grant!
Given the location, history and prayer session we witnessed at this temple it has to be one of the most memorable experiences of our trip to Japan. The rhythmic beating of the monks drums and hum of their meditation was something that stopped us in our tracks and again was something we dreamt of seeing when we planned our visit.
Visiting the Zojoji Temple
JR: Hamamatsucho Station (10 min walk)
Metro: Onarimon, Shibakoen or Daimon Stations
9:00 to 17:00
Other smaller temples and Shrines
One of the beautiful things about Tokyo is just how easy it is to wander around and get lost. Around almost every corner, down every side street and behind every street is something wonderful to discover and often that is a small and very local Shrine or Temple.
Follow your heart and also your sense of smell, most shrines have an incense burner which is a tell tale sign there is something lovely to discover. Go down those alley ways and take the opportunity to really explore Tokyo, getting lost here is a blessing not a burden!
Tokyo has literally thousands of Temples and Shrines out there to discover and the beauty of these smaller ones is the fact that you are almost always going to be the only person there. They are in courtyards connected to ancient houses, apartment buildings and built around as the city evolved in nooks and crannies of this warren like city.
So there you have it, just some of the many temples and shrines this amazing city has to offer!
Have you discovered any of these temples, or any others we have missed out?
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Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.