Tokyo Temples and Shrines – A Guide to Finding Peace Among the Chaos
A guide to Tokyo's best temples and shrines! Complete with must-know information on the history and practices of these holy sites.
Japan is renowned for its calming nature as well as its profusion of unique religious architecture. Shrines and temples litter the nation and are singular in their beauty.
By 2040, it is predicted that a third of the 77,000 temples in Japan could face closure as a result of the ongoing “crisis of Buddhism”. As the religion declines in prominence, so do the number of gifts that make up the bulk of its funding. It is a precarious situation and though their disappearance is not a certainty, it’s a good idea to try and see as many of these threatened buildings while you still can!
Shintoism, Buddhism, Temples and Shrines – An Overview
There are two major belief systems in Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism.
Shintoism was born in Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China and Korea in the fifth century. Though similar, both diverge on some matters of religious practice and architectural style. Generally speaking, Shintoism is practised at shrines and Buddhism at temples, though confusingly Buddhist shrines also abound.
Shrine, in Japanese, has several translations: Jinja 神社 (shrine of the gods), Taisha 大 社 (big shrine), jingû 神宮 (palace of the gods) and Myojin 明 神 (enlightened god). Temples are generally suffixed with ‘tera’, ‘dera’ or ‘ji’.
Shrines, commonly, are entered through a torii 鳥 居 (Gate), separating the sanctity of the shrine from the impurity of the outside world. Temples, on the other hand, are entered through a door 門. The sight of a torii is thus a good indication that a site is a shrine and not a temple. A shimemawa, a braided rope of rice and straw, plus statues of foxes, dogs and lions are also commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, whilst a Buddha statue is a Buddhist temple giveaway.
Visiting a Temple or Shrine in Japan
Temples and shrines are unbelievably peaceful, excellent for sightseeing and a great retreat from the fast-pace of the city. There are a few things to keep in mind, however.
Dignified and calm behavior is expected at all times. Guests should be quiet and respectful in the whole complex. Unlike some religious sites, there is no temple or shrine dress code, so don’t worry about that.
It is not forbidden to pray, in fact, this may be actively encouraged, especially if you’re visiting in a large group. Even for non-believers, this can be a great experience. For a small fee, most temples and shrines provide amulets (often sold in small cloth bags) or omikuji: small pieces of paper predicting the future. They are written in Japanese but make for excellent souvenirs.
Step 1: At the entrance, before passing through, bow with hands joined together.
Step 2: Wash your hands and rinse your mouth at the fountain.
Step 3: Make an offering of coins or burn candles and incense (“Senko” 線香) in a “koro”. Let the smoke, said to have healing power, wash over you.
Step 4: Leave your shoes outside, in a locker or in a plastic bag and enter the temple. Put your hands together and bow your head to pray.
Step 1: Pass through the traditional entranceway, the torii, whilst bowing slightly.
Step 2: Ensure you stick to the edges of the path, the middle is reserved for the Gods.
Step 3: Before entering a shrine you must purify yourself at the “mitarashi” (fountain). Use the small ladles to wash each hand in turn before risning your mouth.
Step 4: To pray, climb the temple steps, ring the bell in front of you twice and clap your hands. Then, join your hands, bow your head and pray. On completion, clap your hands once more.
Top 20 Temples and Shrines in Tokyo
Now you know what to do, go forth and practice! Here’s our guide to the 20 best temples and shrines in Tokyo to help you out, each complete with its own info page for further reading.
Located at the top of a 29-meter tall hill, during the Edo period, this shrine offered views across the city and out toward Mount Fuji. Its position also meant it was used as an observation point for fires, a common occurrence at that time. Consequently, Homusubi no Mikoto, a fire God, is the main spirit worshiped here.
Unfortunately, urban development means these views are no longer available.
Address: 1−5−3, Atago, Minato, Tokyo
Access: 5 minutes walk from Onarimon Station, Toranomon Sation or Kamiyacho Station.
Maneki Neko, the inescapably popular cat figure, considered a lucky charm, originates from this temple! The complex, located in Setegaya, is full of these statues and is well worth checking out.
Address: 2 Chome-24-7 Gotokuji, Setagaya, Tokyo
Access: 12 minutes on foot from Gotoku-ji Station.
Hidden amongst the skyscrapers and lights of Shinjuku, the discreet Hanazono Shrine invites calm and meditation in the metropolis.
Trees predating the city’s rapid expansion survive here and every Sunday the site is home to a traditional antiques market. At night, lights illuminate the shrine, enhancing its beauty.
Address: 5-17-3, Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Access: Shinjuku-sanchôme station (exits B3 and B5)
Kanda Shrine or Kanda Myojin is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo’s Kanda district, close to the Imperial Palace. Kanda Myojin Shrine is a breath of fresh air in the heart of the city and immensely important to the Shinto religion as one of Tokyo’s first.
Address: 3-30-1, Yushima, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Access: From Yushima station, 2 minutes on foot. From Hiroko, Sanchome and Okachimachi stations, less than 10 minutes on foot.
5) Kaneiji Temple
Kaneiji Temple is the main temple of the Buddhist Tendai sect. Originally serving as a prayer hall for the Tokugawa clan and the public, it later became the exclusive Tokugawa family temple and flourished as one of the most significant temples of the Edo period. Keneiji reamins an extremely popular Tokyo temple.
Address: 1-14-11, Ueno Sakuragi, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Access: 10-minutes walk from JR Uguisudani Station
Meguro Fudo or Ryusen-ji Temple again belongs to the Tendai sect of Buddhism. The temple grounds house the grave of famous agricultural scientist Konyo Aoki, known for encouraging sweet potato cultivation in Japan. A sweet potato festival is held here each year in his honour.
Address: 3-20-26, Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: 8 minutes walk from Fudomae Station
As one of the largest and most central temples in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is very popular with Japanese locals, who come daily to pray and commune. Weekends are particularly popular here, ceremonies and weddings are common and a big hit with the tourists. Over 3 million people visit annually!
Address: 1-1, Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo
Access: 2 minutes from Harajuku Station (Omotesando exit)
Though situated off the beaten path, Nezu is a well-known Japanese shrine, popular for its beautiful gardens and red torri path. The thousands of azaleas that bloom here in the spring attract large crowds and are well-worth seeing.
Address: 1-28-9 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo Japon
Access: Head to Nezu, Sendagi or Todai-mae stations. Within 5 minutes walk from each.
Sengaku ji Temple is one of Tokyo’s most popular, well-known as the resting place of 47 Ronin warriors. The legend of the “47 Ronin” is a popular Samurai story and it was even turned into a movie starring Keanue Reaves!
Address: 2-chome, 11-1Takanawa, Minato, Tokyo
Access: From Shinagawa Station and Sengakuji Station, a 10 minutes walk.
Senso-Ji is the oldest and biggest shrine in the capital, set in the traditional Asakusa district. Senso-Ji has a unique atmosphere, delightful food stalls, traditional shops and much more. Certainly a must when in Tokyo.
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo
Access: From Tawaramachi Station, a 5 minute walk
Address: 7-10-3 Shibamata, Katsushika-ku, Tokyo
Access: 8 minute walk from Shibamata Station
12) Shofukuji Temple
Shofukuji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest remaining wooden temple and is considered to be one of the best surviving examples of Kamakura architecture. It’s one of two buildings designated as a national treasure in Tokyo.
Address: 4-chome, 6-1Noguchi-cho, Higashimurayama,Tokyo
Access: 5 minutes walk from Gion Station and 15-20 minutes walk from Hakata Station.
Tennoji Temple is famous for its huge bronze Buddha that watches over the place. Located within beautiful nature, a serene tranquility prevails. Rowdy crowds were once attracted to the temple fot its public lottery; such chaos being difficult to imagine today.
Address: 7 Chome-14-8 Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo
Access: a 5 minute walk from Nippori Station
A slice of tradition in modern Harajuku, the Togo Shrine, dedicated to the Marquis Togo Heihachirō (the “Nelson of the East”) after his death, is a great spot for those interested in Japan’s military history. A small museum and a bookshop dedicated to the Marquis Tōgō are located within the grounds of the shrine, though most of the merchandise is in Japanese. Also, on the first Sunday of each month, one of Tokyo’s best flea markets can be found here.
Address: 1-5-3Jingumae,Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Access: 5 minutes walk from Harajuku station
Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine, named after Hachiman-sama of Fukagawa, is famous for its annual summer festival which was one of three great festivals of the Edo period and still runs today.
Address: 1-20-3 Tomioka, Koto, Tokyo
Access: 3 minutes walk from Monzen-nakacho Station.
16) Yasukuni Shrine
Yasukuni Shrine is the site of Japan’s biggest temple controversy as the burial place of numerous Japanese war criminals, not helped by its adjoining highly nationalistic military museum. However, Yasukuni is also notable as one of the best places for sakura (cherry blossoms) viewing. The Japanese Meteorological Agency even use one of the trees here as a signaller for the start of the “official” sakura season!
Address: 3 Chome-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda, Tokyo
Access: From JR line Chuo/Sobu/Keihin-Tohoku/Iidabashi stations, 3 minutes walk
17) Yushima Seido Temple
Yushima Seido, literally the “Sacred Hall”, is a venerable Confucian shrine in Tokyo and a pleasant place for a contemplative stroll in the verdantly unkempt gardens. Nearby Yushima Tenjin and Yushima Seido is a popular place for students praying for success in school and university.
Address: 1-4-25 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Access: From Ochanomizu Station, Shin-Ochanomizu Station, Akihabara Station; 5 minutes walk.
The sacred spirit of this temple is the God of Learning, Ameno Tajikaraono. Unsurprisingly, students facing exams flock here to present small wooden plaques petitioning success to the spirits. The shrine is also famous for its beautiful blossoms which come to life in the spring.
Address: 3-30-1 Yushima, Bunkyo, Tokyo
Access: From Yushima Station, 2 minutes walk. Hirokoji Station, 5 minutes walk. Sanchome Station, 8 minutes walk and Okachimachi Station 8 minutes walk.
Yutenji Temple was built to commemorate the 36th Buddhist monk of Zojoji Temple, Yuten, by one of his disciples, Yumi. It is also one of the best spot to e,joy cherry blossom bloom as the temple is surrounded by cherry tree and offered in Spring a spectacular Sakura exposition
Address: 5-chome, 24-53 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Access: 5 minutes walk from Yutenji station
20) Zojoji Temple
One of the most popular Jodo Shu Temples in Tokyo. During your visit, you’re unlikely to miss the hundreds of Jizo statues, bringers of good fortune and peace for the deceased children buried in the cemetery next to the temple.
Address: 4-7-35 Shibakoen Minato-ku, Tokyo
Access: 3 minutes walk from Daimon, Shibakoen and Onarimon stations