Pick up any travel guidebook on Japan, and you will see temples mentioned on practically every page. Temples are endlessly fascinating.

Talk to any foreign tourist who has spent a week here, and they’re sure to say, “if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all.” Temples are crashingly dull.

Who’s right?

Visitors to Japan tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time in temples partly because they are so clearly “exotic” (especially to the Western eye) and partly because so little else of Japan’s past has been tangibly preserved. Or maybe it’s just because there are so darn many of them. It’s easy to see how people can overdose after a while. If you want to avoid getting “templed out,” there are two things you should do.

First, chose your temples carefully. With so many available, you shouldn’t go out of your way to visit any that don’t have some special distinction. (A short list of my favorites appears at the end of this article.)

Second, know what you are looking at. Here are a ten things to look for at most temples.


ADMISSION. Believe it or not, this is pretty routine at any temple famous enough to be mentioned in a guidebook, and it does not mean that the place is not religiously active. Some temples charge admission only to their most interesting part, such as the collection of rakan (Buddha disciple) statues at Kita-in Temple in Kawagoe. Others charge admission to the temple itself and then again to the interesting parts. For example, at Engagkuji Temple in Kamakura, you have to pay to get in and then pay an extra 100 yen if you want to see the graveyard at the rear of the grounds. At Koutoku-in Temple, also in Kamakura, you have to pay to get in to see the Daibutsu (giant statue of Buddha) and then pay an extra 20 yen if you want to go inside the hollow statue. Some notable temples are free, such as Narita-san in Narita or Asakusa Kannon in Tokyo, but don’t count on it.


I’ve heard two explanations for this. One of them is that evil spirits which crawl, or slither along the ground can’t climb over the beam and thus can’t enter the temple. The other is that since you must consciously step over the beam, it serves as a reminder that you are know moving from the everyday world into a sacred space.


These bear the names of pilgrims who have visited the temple in the past. Some pilgrims used to carry telescoping rods that could be used to place their stickers as high as possible in order to prevent them form being covered up by the stickers of subsequent pilgrims. Most of the stickers you see these days seem very old, which indicates either that leaving one’s mark in this way is a thing of the past, or that there just aren’t as many serious pilgrims as there used to be.


Strictly speaking, this is more likely to be found at a Shinto shrine, but Buddhism and Shinto have coexisted for so long here that they sometimes borrow one another’s accouterments. A metal dragon spits water into a stone basin. There are ladles available with which you may pour water over your hands and rinse out your mouth. Kiyomizudera in Kyoto is an example of a temple with a fountain.


This is not a standard feature, but some temples have a large pot or urn with a small roof over it for the burning of incense. You can buy a bundle of incense sticks at a nearby stand, light it, and stand it upright in the ashes of previous sticks in the urn. Usually there are about a dozen bundles burning at once, which can lead to some significant clouds of smoke. You will often see people sweeping cupped hands through the smoke and directing it onto their bodies. It is said to be helpful if you have an injury or illness.


Most temples, even those that charge admission, can be viewed only from the outside. You may go in if you are going to participate in a special ceremony, but the majority of visitors, including devout Japanese Buddhists, never get beyond the verandah.
They toss some coins into the outdoor wooden offertory box, stand for a moment in silent prayer, and then move on. It is possible to look into the temple buildings even though you can’t go into most of them. You’ll see elaborate statuary and perhaps a few percussion instruments. Of these, my favorite is a kind of bell that resembles a steep-sided metal bowl resting on a pillow. When struck with a wooden mallet, this kid of bell resonates beautifully, and for a very long time.


Those buildings that you can get into often house a larger-than-life kannon statue. Knowledgeable Japanese have described these beings to me in a way that reminds me of Catholic saints. A saint is a person who has achieved moral perfection and moved on to the next world. People still struggling in this world can pray to them for help. A kannon is a person who is perfect enough to achieve nirvana but who has chosen not to in order to stay in touch with people who are still trying to make it in this world. They also receive prayers to intercede in people’s earthly troubles.

Unlike a saint, a kannon has no historical identity. In fact, a kannon has no identity at all, not even gender. Perhaps in counterpoint to the male statues of Buddha himself, kannon are usually portrayed as beings with gracefully feminine physiques. On closer inspection, though, they often turn out to have faint mustaches. The contrasting sexual characteristics are supposed to cancel each other out. They are Everyperson.

Two types of kannon are particularly interesting. One is the many-faced kannon who has an interesting coiffure with several small heads poking out of it. These heads face in every direction. This is the all-seeing kannon, who watches and protects. The other is the many-armed kannon, who has dozens of little arms fanned out on either side. Most of the hands are empty, but many of them hold a variety of tools. This is the all-helping kannon, who can do anything.

Usually, though, kannon have only one head and just two arms. During the period when Christianity was suppressed by the Tokugawa shoguns, many Japanese Catholics kept statues of Mary in rather than crucifixes because Mary could be passed off as a realistic and particularly pretty kannon if the authorities came knocking on the door in the middle of the night.


Jizo is a minor deity whose job it is to escort the souls of the dead from this world to the next. He’s a short, bald guy who is built like a salt shaker. His statues are rarely more than a meter tall. As the “patron saint” of travelers, it is not unusual to see his statue at a crossroads, especially in the countryside. His main responsibility, though, is dead children, since their journey to the other side is likely to be particularly harrowing, and they need all the help they can get.

The parents of dead children often buy a small statue of Jizo to place at the local temple to ask him to take care of their little one. On repeat visits, they may decorate the statue with a bib or a knitted cap. People often leave a gift of a colorful toy pinwheel tucked into the bib strings. As time goes by, the bibs and caps begin to fade and decay in the rain and the sun. Some temples have literally hundreds of little Jizo statues in various states of dress. When a breeze stirs the pinwheels in the rotting bibs, the effect is downright eerie.

It may seem puzzling that there could be so many dead children in a first-world country like Japan, but I can solve that puzzle in one word. Abortion. The politicians who have banned birth control pills in this country for the past thirty years should visit these temples alone and do some long and serious meditating.


Long ago, animal sacrifice was practiced at Shinto shrines, with horses being the first-class item. Because they were pretty expensive and out of the reach of most people, there gradually arose a custom of sacrificing artistic representations of horses instead of the real thing. These were known as “ema” or “picture horses.” At first, ema were large and expensive works of art, but through the centuries they became smaller and cheaper. They also became so popular that they are now used at Buddhist temples as well as Shinto shrines.

Today, the typical ema is a thin wooden board about 15cm wide with a picture of a horse stamped onto it. In addition to the original horse theme, you can also buy ema with the animal of the year on it. Because 1999 is the year of the rabbit, rabbits are more common than horses at most of the temples or shrines you may visit. There are also specialty ema such as the ones sold at Shoin Shrine in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. This shrine is dedicated to Yoshida Shoin, an intellectual who was executed in 1859 because of his attempt to leave Japan and study abroad. The ema there bear a picture of him poring over his books, and they are sold to people who wish to pray for success in their studies.

After purchasing an ema, the petitioner writes his or her prayer on the blank area next to the picture and hangs it up on an outdoor pegboard. That’s all there is to it. Since they are on public display, you can indulge in spiritual voyeurism by reading other people’s prayers.


For a devout Buddhist, it would be a good thing to read and understand all of the sutras. However, some of them are so voluminous that only a monk could possibly find the time to complete the job. Some temples have a shortcut around this problem. They place all of the sutras in a giant cylindrical bookcase. This cylinder revolves on a post that runs from the floor to the ceiling of a small building near the main temple. There are a number of wooden beams projecting from the cylinder at about waist level. Grab a wooden beam and push it ahead of you as you walk around the cylinder. Make one complete rotation with a pure heart and — voila! — you’ve just achieved the moral equivalent of decades of study.
It’s kind of like buying an indulgence, except that it’s free.


When visiting a temple, look up! The roof is often the most beautiful part, and the ends of the rafters can be elaborately decorated. At temples in forests or steep valleys, like Engakuji, the elegant tiles harmonize beautifully with the surrounding greenery. This is at least as nice as anything inside.


NIHONJI in Hamakanaya, Chiba Prefecture: This temple has the most impressive historical Daibutsu in Japan. It is31m tall and 200 years old. Furthermore, there are 1500 statues of Buddha’s disciples (rakan) scattered through the forest on the adjacent mountainside, and they have nearly 1500 different facial expressions. The temple grounds are accessible via a cable car that runs from the town to the mountaintop, which is a treat in itself.

RYOANJI in Kyoto: This is the site of the world’s most famous rock garden, the much-photographed three black boulders in a sea of white gravel. What isn’t so well known is that this garden is just one of many at the temple. Some of the others are larger and more beautiful (and less crowded with tourists).

HASE TEMPLE in Kamakura: This temple has it all. Kannon statues, about a thousand jizo, a sacred cave, ema with prayers in many languages, a hillside cemetery, a revolving sutra museum, and two ornamental ponds, including one shaped like a swastika. There’s also a view of the sea.

NARITA-SAN TEMPLE in Narita, Chiba Prefecture: Like Hase, Narita-san has a little of everything. A plus is that it is far more active than Hase, so you are more likely to see or hear ceremonies in progress or witness a procession of priests in colorful robes. A minus is that many of the buildings are quite new, which distracts from the historical atmosphere. However, it has interesting art and nice gardens including a waterfall. The town is known for eel, so there are good places to eat nearby.

KITA-IN TEMPLE in Kawagoe, Saitama: Admittedly, a big reason for me to include this one is that it’s in the town where I live. But if you happen to be passing through, stop for a look at the 100 rakan statues, indulging one who was sculpted in the act of picking his nose. The best times to visit are during the Daruma Festival in early January or the Kawagoe Festival in late October.
Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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