Buddhist Temples In Japan

In Japanese Buddhism, temples are places of worship. At a minimum, one temple may be found in almost every Japanese community, while larger cities like Tokyo have nearly 3000 Buddhist temples. Tokyo has a vast number of temples.

As a whole there are about 80,000 Buddhist temples in Japan, some are very modest in size and others incredibly massive complexes with multiple buildings, Visitors will have the option to explore them when you visit Tokyo or almost any city in  Japan.

Visiting tourists are sometimes confused between the huge varieties of Buddhist temples in Japan. In addition, maybe you are unaware of the origin, architecture, and elements of Buddhist temples. If so, here we have a complete exploration for you on the Buddhist temples in Japan.

Asakusa Temple Tokyo

The origin of Buddhist temples dates back centuries from the mid-sixth century. In addition, four main styles of architecture are followed in the layout of Buddhist temples. The purpose of the Buddhist temples is more than just worship but a place of meditation. Temples have distinct elements.

If you are trying to find peace in a serene environment, there can be no better option than Japanese Buddhist temples. So, keep reading to enrich your knowledge of Japanese Buddhist temples.

Asakusa Temple Senso-Ji

Origin of Buddhist Temples

Since the mid-sixth century, Buddhism has made its way into Japan. As a result, the construction of a good number of Buddhist temples began gradually. The very first temple in Japan is Hōkō-ji.

It was later renamed Asuka-dera. Soga no Umako built this temple in 588-596. Prince Shotoku ordered the construction of Shitennō-ji in Osaka and Hōryū-ji near his palace in Ikaruga. 

Worshipers in The Senso-ji Temple believe that inviting the smoke from the burning incense brings one`s good fortune. Temple was completed in the year 645, making it Tokyo`s oldest Buddhist temple.

During the eighth century, Emperor Shōmu ordered the building of temples in each province called kokubunji. Furthermore, there was an order to build Tōdai-ji as the head of all the temples. During 710-794 AD, the seven great state temples, Nanto Shichi Daiji, were a vital symbol of Buddhism.

Japanese Temple Architecture

Japanese temple architecture has significantly changed over the centuries. However, today basic elements are still similar to the ancient ones. The Japanese temple architecture mostly belongs to any of its four styles. The main four styles are Wayō, Daibutsuyō, Zenshūyō, and Setchūyō.

Traditional pagoda and main temple building Asakusa

Wayō

This is a style from the Japanese Heian period, with an origin of the then Chinese architecture. It uses horizontal timber to reinforce the corresponding upper columns. In addition, thin columns and low ceilings are often present.

Hokkesan Ichijō-ji (法華山一乗寺) is a Wayo style of Buddhist style architecture in Kasai Hyogo.

Daibutsuyō

This is another traditional architectural style of japan having Chinese origin. It uses a horizontal wooden beam. Its ends have a decoration with moldings known as ‘kurigata.’ Moreover, there is the use of a unique bracket complex (sashihijiki). A reflection of this style lies in the reconstruction of Tōdai-ji.

Tōdai-ji’s Nandaimon is one of the few existing examples of the daibutsuyō style architecture

Nandaimon Gate of Todai-ji temple in Nara

Zenshūyō

The Buddhist Zen sect introduced this architectural style. It has unique features such as earthen floors and decorative curve-like pent roofs. Moreover, it has prominent curve-like main roofs. Though the main hall is one story, it seems like two due to the covered pent roof.

Zen Temple

Setchūyō

his arc

This architectural style has an origin in Japan, being the fusion of the previous three styles. It is also named Shin-wayō for being a combo of wayō and daibutsuyō. An example of this style exists in the main hall of Kakurin-ji.

Purpose of a Buddhist Temple

The purpose of a Buddhist Temple is not limited to worshipping. Additionally, the main buildings of the temples hold sacred objects like the honzon (sometimes referred to as a Gohonzon, is the enshrined main image or statue of principal deity of each temple).

The great buddha of Kamakura was once housed inside of a temple building until destroyed by a storm

Moreover, people often meditate at a Buddhist temple. Important ceremonies, weddings and festivals also take place in and around the temples grounds.

Usually, people visit the grave of their deceased loved one in a temple with graveyards. Worshipping together in a temple makes the community feel like a family.

Large Buddhist cemetary in Kyoto

Which Elements Do the Buddhist Temple Symbolize?

The Buddhist temples possess a design that symbolizes the five basic elements. These are earth, wisdom, fire, air, and water. In an ideal world, it is vital to have a balance of these five significant elements.

  • Earth: the square base of the temple represents the earth.
  • Wisdom: the pinnacle at the very top symbolizes wisdom.
  • Fire: the spire represents the fire.
  • Air: the crescent of a temple represents air.
  • Water: the dome symbolizes water.

Structural Features of Buddhist Temples

All the Buddhist temples in Japan have some common vital structural features. Among these are the main hall, the lecture hall, large bell, pagoda, and cemetery.

Main Hall

The main hall holds and protects sacred objects like honzon. Based on the sect and temple, the main hall might have different names. The Japanese often use terms like kondo, hondo, butsuden, amidado, or hatto to describe the main hall.

Main Hall of Todaiji Temple in Nara

Lecture Hall

Some temples have a lecture hall in addition to the main hall. The monks gather here to study and chant sutras. Moreover, this hall often has the purpose of displaying worship objects. In Japanese, the term koto defines lecture hall.

Kodo Lecture Hall of Toji Temple in Kyoto

Large Bells

Many Buddhist temples in Japan possess large bells. The monk rings the bells during occasions like New Year’s Eve, cemeteries, and others. The largest bell of Japan is in the Chion-in temple of Kyoto, weighing 74 tons.

 Japan`s largest ancient temple bell, located at Chion-in

Pagoda

The pagodas are often a vital component of Buddhist temples in Japan. Mostly, you can find either wood pagoda or stone pagoda. Wood pagodas either have two stories or that of an odd number. Existent ones are either three-storied or five-storied. Usually, stone pagodas are less than 3 meters.

pagoda of Seiganto-ji Temple with Nachi no Taki falls in the background at Nachi Katsuura

Cemetery

In Japan often the Buddhist temples have cemeteries as well. So, the Japanese can visit the grave of their ancestors occasionally. Mostly the families visit the graves during Obon week and anniversaries.

Cemetary at Eikando Temple in Kyoto 

What’s The Difference Between Temples & Shrines?

In simplified terms, temples belong to the Buddhists while shrines belong to Shinto. Temples contain several Buddhist statues. In addition, it may or may not possess a graveyard. On the other hand, shrines have a large torii or sacred gate at the entrance, often vermilion red.

Shinto Shrines as a whole do not have cemeteries. Shinto in general believes that cemeteries are not pure and thus will not have a cemetery close by.

Shinto Shrine

Therefore, temples and shrines are two vital sacred places of two distinct religions. Buddhism does not have an origin in Japan like Shintoism. But both temples and shrines are of equal importance to the Japanese people.

Importance of Buddhist Temples in Japan

Temples are a place filled with peace and purification. They symbolize the pure environment of Buddha. Moreover, the traditional Buddhist temples are designed to inspire people to attain peace of mind. A temple can often refocus the Buddhists to lead a simpler and less worldly life. In addition, meditating in a temple offers a more significant and clearer vision of life.

Praying with people of the same community strengthens the bond among themselves. Temples are the perfect place to worship with fewer distractions. Additionally, around 154 Buddhist temples of Japan belong to the list of national treasures of Japan. Some are even part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Horyu-ji Temple in Nara, Unesco World Heritage site

List of Few Japanese Buddhist Temples to Visit

For those interested in visiting the Japanese Buddhist temples. Hence, we are presenting a list of few Japanese Buddhist temples that are well worth a visit.

Hōryū-ji

Hōryū-ji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. In addition, it is one of the most powerful seven great temples in Nara. Moreover, it was the first pick from japan for the list of UNESCO World Heritage. This temple contains the oldest wooden structures in the world.

This temple is one of the must-see temples of Nara in Japan. Along with its rich history, it has an attractive ambiance inside. You can find some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world, including a five-storied pagoda. Moreover, the main hall is also one of the world’s oldest wooden buildings as well as a national treasure.

Kōtoku-in temple

This Buddhist temple is another ancient one of the Jōdo-shū sect. It is in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan. The temple is well known for the “Great Buddha,” a bronze statue. This is one of the most famous icons of Japan.

This is one of the national treasures of Japan. The famous bronze statue of today was preceded by a giant wooden Buddha. In a storm of 1248, the wooden statue was damaged along with the destruction of the hall having it. After the reconstruction of the hall, several natural forces destroyed it repeatedly. As a result, the Great Buddha finally stood in the open air.

Kōtoku-in temple Complex of building and the great buddha statue

Kiyomizu-Dera temple

This famous Buddhist temple of the early Heian period lies in Eastern Kyoto. The term Kiyomizu-Dera translates to “Pure Water Temple.” The temple belongs to the list of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site.

The large veranda of the main hall extends over the hillside. It offers an amazing view of the whole city. The Otowa waterfall is beneath the main hall. Three channels of water keep falling into a pond. If the visitors wish, they can catch and drink water. It is believed that this possesses wish-granting powers.

 Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto

Yakushi-ji Temple

This is one of the most famous ancient Buddhist temples in all of Japan. Once, this belonged to the list of Seven Great Temples of Nanto in Nara. At present, this temple is the headquarters of the Hossō school of Japanese Buddhism.

This is one of the sites which are collectively inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the name of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.” The temple has Yakushi Nyorai, or “The Medicine Buddha,” as the prime veneration object. This was one of the first Buddhist Deities to arrive in Japan from China in 680. Its East pagoda is an eighth-century structure.

Yakushi ji Temple in Nara, Unesco World Heritage site

Tō-ji Temple

This is an ancient temple of the early Heian period. Once, it had a partner, the Sai-ji temple. But a fire destroyed the Sai-ji twice. As a result, it was not rebuilt further. Tō-ji lists in the UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.

It has a five-storied pagoda which is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. The pagoda stands 54.8 meters (180 feet) high. It has a great collection of relics, sculptures, and paintings. At ground level, there stand statues of four Buddhas along with different directions.

Ko-do of To-Ji temple in Kyoto

Sanjūsangen-dō

This is a Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto, Japan. Its massive long main hall belongs to the list of national treasures. Moreover, it is one of the most famous temples of Japan due to its 1001 sculptures.

This temple attracts tourists mainly due to its huge collection of sculptures which includes standing Thousand-armed Kannon. In addition, it has 28 standing attendants, a statue of Fūjin, and a statue of Raijin. The name of the temple comes from its 33 bays (Sanjūsan) between the pillars.

 Kyoto – the Sanjūsangen-dō temple

Ninnaji Temple

This temple is one of the remarkable ones of Kyoto. It also holds a position on the World Heritage Site under the historic monuments of ancient Kyoti. This temple is the head temple of the Omuro School of the Shingon sect. The wars and fires of ancient times destroyed the initial buildings. However, there was reconstruction in the later years.

The residence of the former priest was rebuilt in an imperial palace style, which is worth visiting. In addition, the beautiful late-blooming cherry trees, Omuro Cherries, highly attract visitors. The temple itself possesses some beautifully painted screen walls and a beautiful walled garden.

 Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto

Kinkakuji Temple

This temple is one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. Moreover, it also belongs to the national historic site. In addition, it lies on the list of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which are World Heritage Sites.

The shining temple is on the bank of a large pond. Additionally, it is surrounded by trees and flowering bushes. If you visit, it won’t fail to bring you a serene feeling of peace and tranquility. The Kinkakuji Temple possesses a three-story building, the Golden Pavilion, whose top two stories are covered with pure gold leaf.

One of the most photographed and famous temples in the entire country.

The Golden Pavilion. Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto

Buddhist temples in Japan are a definite visit when traveling Japan. Their beauty and history make them an excellent place for tourists to explore. Just be sure to be respectful to the people residing and working in the temple and performing their religious duties. It’s a common complaint of Buddhists that tourists come to their temples and behave very inappropriately. 

They make unnecessary amounts of noise, litter, and are disrespectful towards them and their temple. So, be sure to follow the local rules and etiquettes and do not disturb the Buddhists in the temple. And if you do mess up somehow, just be sure to apologize.   

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MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.