Religion has always had a major influence on Japanese culture. Elements of the country's two most popular religions, Shintoism, the country's indigenous religion, and Buddhism, have had an impact on everything from Japanese art (you'll notice countless religious works of art while traveling to Japan's many shrines and temples) to Japanese politics. Indeed, at the height of the Japanese Empire, people believed that the emperor of the time was divine, himself a living god. This is an idea that is deeply linked to Shintoism.
Temples (寺, tera) are the places of worship in Japanese Buddhism. Virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple, while major cultural centers like Kyoto have several hundred.
To discover such a religious site during a trip to Japan is to discover the true cultural center of classical Japan. If you are planning to visit one or more Japanese temples, monasteries or shrines, you are in luck, as you will find below the top 10 Japanese temples to visit:
1. OSOREZAN (MONT OSORE)
Mount Osorezan (恐山) is ranked with Koyasan and Hieizan as one of the three most sacred places in Japan. It was discovered over 1000 years ago by a Buddhist priest in search of a sacred mountain that resembles the world of Buddha. Today, it is the site of Bodaiji Temple.
Osorezan translates as "mountain of fear", a name that comes in part from the mountain's exceptional landscape. The area is rich in volcanic activity, and a strong smell of sulfur permeates the air. The ground is gray and barren and marked by breaches that let out steam, bubbles and hot water. Usori Lake, located next to the temple, is colored various shades of blue due to its high sulfur content.
2. KIYOMIZUDERA TEMPLE
Kiyomizudera (清水寺, literally "Temple of Pure Water") is one of the most famous temples in Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the forested hills east of Kyoto, and takes its name from the pure waters of the waterfall. The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools of Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965. In 1994, the temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden terrace facing its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside. The terrace offers visitors a beautiful view of the many cherry and maple trees that grow in spring and autumn in a sea of color, as well as the city of Kyoto in the distance. The main hall, which, along with its terrace, was built without nails, houses the main object of worship of the temple, a small statue of Kannon with eleven faces and a thousand arms.
3. THE TODAIJI TEMPLE
Todaiji (東大寺, Tōdaiji, "Great Eastern Temple") is one of the most famous and historically important temples in Japan and a landmark of Nara. The temple was built in 752 as the main temple of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan and became so influential that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to reduce the temple's influence on government affairs.
Until recently, Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall), held the record as the largest wooden building in the world, although the current 1692 reconstruction is only two-thirds the size of the original temple hall. This massive building houses one of the largest bronze Buddha statues (Daibutsu) in Japan. The seated Buddha, 15 meters high, represents Vairocana and is surrounded by two Bodhisattvas.
4. KINKAKUJI : THE GOLDEN PAVILION
Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple located in northern Kyoto whose two upper floors are entirely covered with gold leaf. Officially known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will, it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), of the same name, built by Yoshimitsu's grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city some decades later.
The Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built on a large pond, and is the only remaining building of Yoshimitsu's former retirement home. It has burned down many times in its history, including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto, and even more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatical monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
5. GINKAKUJI : THE SILVER PAVILION
Ginkakuji (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion) is a Zen temple located along the eastern mountains of Kyoto (Higashiyama). In 1482, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retreat villa on the grounds of the present temple, inspired by Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), his grandfather's retreat villa at the foot of the mountains in northern Kyoto (Kitayama). The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa's death in 1490.
As the retreat villa of an art-obsessed shogun, Ginkakuji became a center of contemporary culture, known as Higashiyama culture, in contrast to the Kitayama culture of his grandfather's time. Unlike the Kitayama culture, which remained limited to the aristocratic circles of Kyoto, the Higashiyama culture had a wide impact on the whole country. Arts developed and refined during this period include tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Noh theater, poetry, garden design and architecture.
Today, Ginkakuji consists of the Silver Pavilion, half a dozen other temples, a beautiful moss garden and a unique dry sand garden. It can be enjoyed by following a circular route around its grounds, from which you can see the gardens and buildings.
6. THE TEMPLE OF OKUNOIN
Okunoin (奥の院) is the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered people in Japanese religious history. Instead of being dead, Kobo Daishi is supposed to rest in eternal meditation while waiting for Miroku Nyorai (Maihreya), the Buddha of the future, and provides help to those who seek salvation in the meantime. Okunoin is one of the holiest places in Japan and a popular place of pilgrimage.
The Ichinohashi (First) Bridge marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin, and visitors must bow to pay homage to Kobo Daishi before crossing it. On the other side of the bridge begins the Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan, with more than 200,000 tombstones lining the approach to the nearly two-kilometer-long mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wishing to be close to Kobo Daishi in death to receive salvation, many people, including monks and prominent feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.
Yamadera (山寺) is a picturesque temple located in the mountains northeast of Yamagata City. The grounds of the temple lie on a steep mountainside, from which there is a magnificent view of the valley. The temple was founded more than a thousand years ago, in 860, as a temple of the Tendai sect, under the official name of Risshakuji. Its popular name, Yamadera, literally means "mountain temple" in Japanese.
The base of the mountain is about a five-minute walk from Yamadera Station, and there are dozens of stores and restaurants that cater to the many visitors to the temple. There is also a small visitor center just across the bridge from the station.
8. THE HASEDERA TEMPLE
Hasedera Temple (長谷寺) is located in the mountains east of central Sakurai. The temple was founded in 686, and today serves as the main temple of the Bunzan school of Shingon Buddhism. Located in a valley, Hasedera has more than 30 buildings built into the hillside that visitors can spend a long time exploring. The main hall is at the top and offers a beautiful view of the surroundings from its balcony, especially during the cherry blossom (sakura) and autumn color (koyo) seasons.
The approach to Hasedera consists of a small temple town, with restaurants and merchants catering to temple visitors for centuries. At the base of the temple is the Niomon Gate, which houses statues of guardian deities. A long covered corridor of nearly 400 steps leads up to the main hall, passing through various other buildings. From the top, the view can be breathtaking, and during the cherry blossom or autumn colors, the view itself may be reason enough to make the trip.
9. THE HORYUJI TEMPLE
Horyuji Temple (法隆寺, Hōryūji) was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, who was responsible for promoting Buddhism in Japan. Horyuji is one of the oldest temples in the country and contains the oldest wooden structures in the world. It was declared a world heritage site in 1993. The grounds of Horyuji Temple are spacious and separated into two main enclosures, the western enclosure (Saiin Garan) and the eastern enclosure (Toin Garan).
10. KOKEDERA : TEMPLE OF MOSSES
Saihoji (西芳寺, Saihōji), better known as Kokedera (苔寺), is one of the Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kyoto. Entry to this temple requires a reservation made well in advance.
Kokedera means "temple of mosses", referring to the approximately 120 different varieties of mosses found in the temple garden. Outside of winter, visitors to the temple can stroll through this spectacular garden, which has strongly influenced the later design of Japanese gardens.
Kokedera was originally the site of Prince Shotoku's villa before becoming a temple in the Nara period. In 1339, the temple was renovated and converted into a Zen temple under the leadership of the priest Muso Soseki. Muso is also credited with the creation of Kokedera Gardens.