One thing I never tired of during my trip across Japan was visiting all the different shrines and temples in each city. Despite not sharing the same religious beliefs and not knowing an ounce of Japanese, it was easy to appreciate and be fully immersed in its heritage. If you are overwhelmed with all the options, here’s my must-see list to get you started!
1. Senso-ji, Tokyo
Japan’s oldest temple, dedicated to the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. Unlike most temples, Senso-ji is perfect to visit any time during the day. The best way to is to go during the late afternoon, where you’ll still have full access to the inside as well as Nakamise-Dori, the street leading to the temple adorned with small souvenir shops that open until early evening. Then, have dinner in Asakusa and return after dark, when temple and lanterns will light up brightly for a beautiful sight. P.S. The giant red lantern at the entrance is not to be missed and makes a great photo-op.
2. Meiji Shrine – Tokyo
Located in metro-Tokyo within an evergreen forest is the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji (known for the Meiji Restoration) and his wife. Walking through the greens is a great pastime, but one of my favorite things to do is reading all the ema aka wishing plaques left by visitors around the world. From world peace to exam success, you get to appreciate the range of humanity in the form of heartfelt wishes. Purchase your own and leave (or take as souvenir) your wishes amongst hundreds of others for the kami (spirits/gods) to receive!
3. Itsukushima Shrine – Miyajima
One of Japan’s most iconic shrines and a UNESCO Heritage Site. However, it is actually best known for its floating torii gate. A torii gate, commonly found at any Shinto shrine site, marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. During high-tide, the gate will appear as floating in water whereas during low-tide, it is actually accessible by foot from the island. I’ve only visited in the evening and can attest the view is gorgeous and sunset absolutely beautiful. If you are planning a visit, please note that traveling here isn’t the most straightforward but I’ll be sharing the best route in a separate post!
4. Kiyomizudera – Kyoto
Iconic Buddhist temple most frequently seen on the cover of Japanese travel guides. Roads leading here are narrow and often packed with cars, so walking is your best option. It’s a decent trek, but take advantage of ice cream parlors along the way to help fuel you. Once there, you’ll see Japanese women (and tourists alike) dressed in kimonos as the walk up the trail for a panoramic view of the temple overlooking the rest of the city. This was the most crowded site we’d visited but still a must-see in Kyoto, and particularly great during Sakura season or autumn.
5. Kinkaku-ji – Kyoto
Otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion, whose name is, in fact, derived from actual gold-leaf coating that covers the fixture! The sight is majestic and the design quite tasteful despite all the glimmer. Many Japanese gardens in the US and elsewhere are modeled similarly – water, pavilion, traditionally Japanese trees, etc. in a modest arrangement. The view is similar to Ginkaku-ji aka the Silver Pavilion (no silver-leafing, unfortunately) but more expansive and, well, more gold. BONUS: Treat yourself to some gold-leafed ice cream on your way there at Kinkaku Soft.
Honestly, the beauty of these shrines and temples across Japan is evident no matter where you go. They are integral to its history and culture, and you can’t go wrong with any as long as you visit with an open heart and mind!