Shrine or temple? The Quickie Guide

You’re craning your neck to see some gorgeous gold-leafed carving, and suddenly you’re overcome with traveler joy. “Isn’t this the most gorgeous…?” Uh oh. Shrine or temple? Because you know that temples are Buddhist and shrines are Shinto (and you don’t want to be that tourist) but which is which? Shrines and temples can both be plain-wood-and-gold or fancy-red-and-gold, but here’s how you can tell which is which, at a glance.

As you enter, you’ll pass through a gate and encounter some guardian figures

And once you can see the buildings, here are the differences:

And as you wander around the grounds, you’ll see these differences:

Another way to tell if it’s a shrine or a temple: the name

Temple names end in -ji, -dera, -tera, or –in (which means it’s also a monastery/convent for training nuns and priests)

Shrine names end in –jinja, -tenjin, -gu or -mangu

Trick question: Why are there shrines on the grounds of so many temples?

Basically, if you ask Japanese people if they are Buddhist, 84% will say yes. And if you ask them if they’re Shinto, 73% will say yes. Which…adds up to more than a hundred, because most people practice both. The eight million Shinto gods take care of people while they’re alive (which is why coming-of-age ceremonies and weddings all take place at shrines), but Buddhism takes care of them after they die (which is why there are never graveyards at shrines, only at temples).

But Shintoism is indigenous to Japan, so shrines were there first. As the temples grew around them, Everyone continued to honor the old gods, even after they became practicing Buddhists.

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan

For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

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The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan, the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

2 Replies to “Shrine or temple? The Quickie Guide”

  1. Thanks for the guide. The difference between a Shrine and a Temple can be quite confusing, especially when visiting Japan. In Vietnam, there is a difference between pagoda and temple as well.

    1. That’s so interesting! I didn’t know that. How are pagodas and temples different in Vietnam?

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