Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

by Luke - TripleLights travel specialist

Looking to see some authentic shrines and temples on your trip to Tokyo? Well, five such places stand out amongst the rest, and offer an insight into Japanese history, and an ancient culture based around Buddhism and Shintoism. The five places listed below are all conveniently located within easy access from Japan's sprawling train and metro system, and can each be enjoyed for free:

Sensoji Temple

Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

During the Edo period, Sensoji Temple was used as the main temple of prayer for the Tokugawa shogunate and resultantly, Sensoji Temple flourished in the city of Edo. Asakusa as a whole is representative of this shitamachi (downtown-style) culture during the Edo Period, and Sensoji Temple is the sightseeing spot that represents this history and culture of Asakusa largely due to the number of visitors it receives on a yearly basis. There are over a staggering 30 million worshippers whom visit the temple yearly and of this total, many are visitors from abroad. The main outer gate of Sensoji Temple, Kaminarimon, is the most famous landmark for this attraction and the large lantern connected to this gate is the top ranking photo opportunity location for visitors to the temple. This sizable lantern is 4 meters in height and weighs a whopping 640 kilograms. To the left and right hand side of the gate are images of the wind god and thunder gods. Derived from these images, the gate formerly was called the wind-thunder gate but eventually was abbreviated to the shorter thunder gate. The temple was destroyed in the great fire in the first year of the Keiou era (1865- 1868) but in 1955, the world-famous company Panasonic donated funds to rebuild this landmark of Asakusa.

After entering from the outer gate, there is a street heading to the main temple called Nakamise-dori lined with stores that sell various traditional local foods and merchandise. The local specialties of Aasakusa that you can find here are ningyo yaki, which are bean jam cakes formed in the shape of dolls, as well as sweet rice snacks. Since there are many options to try local specialties on this street, you should certainly attempt to sample a few different foods. As you proceed further down this street, you will eventually approach Hozomon gate which has been preserved as an Important Cultural Property. Also, you will encounter the main temple and the surrounding 5-story pagoda as well as Asakusa Shrine. The architecture of this five-story pagoda can withstand the intense pressures of the earthquake-ridden Japan and accordingly, the newly constructed Skytree has been constructed with the architecture of the five-story pagoda in mind. From Senosoji Temple, it is possible to also catch sight of the Skytree and compare the similarities and differences between the two towers.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Sensoji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Sensoji Temple
Tours of Sensoji Temple

Yasukuni Shrine

Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

Yasukuni Shrine had its origins as Tokyo Shokonsha Shrine when it consecrated all those who had fallen in battle during the period of revolution (the Meiji Restoration) as the age of the samurai changed from 1869 to a time of modern nation-building. Afterwards, it was re-named Yasukuni Shrine, and it was there that the dead from the end of the Edo Era in 1853 to the Second World War were also enshrined. 

At the shrine, please appreciate the beauty of the structures there. Ahead on the straight path into the area, there are grand and soaring torii gates before reaching the impressive haiden front shrine. This is the calm place for the repose of the spirits. There, not only are the war dead enshrined but also statues representing spirits of horses and dogs. Also at the Yushukan military museum, exhibits and data related to the war are on permanent display and you can learn about the history of the war. 

There is a Japanese garden within the grounds where you can enjoy a relaxing stroll. There is also a Noh stage and a sumo wrestling hall where Noh, Japanese dance and sumo are performed in dedication to the resting spirits. 

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Yasukuni Shrine
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Yasukuni Shrine
Tours of Yasukuni Shrine

Meiji Jingu Shrine

Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

Every New Year’s Day on ‘hatsumode’, Meiji Jingu, which is over 700,000 square meters in size, receives around 3 million worshippers, reflecting its ability to attract the greatest amount of visitors in the nation. Considering the amount of lush greenery located inside the perimeters of Meiji Jingu, it is hard to believe that it is located in the same vicinity as bustling commercial centers such as Harajuku, Omotesando and Shibuya. To reach the shrine from JR Harajuku station is a mere 5 minutes away and one could easily even reach it on foot from the above mentioned areas. Many people have become interested in Japanese religions such as Shintoism as a result of references to them in famous movies such as ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and other Ghibli animated movies. Naturally, this has sparked the motivation of many sightseers to pay a visit to Meiji Jingu. In Japan, regardless of your religion, feel free to visit during the New Year. As well, experience the customs and culture of the Japanese people visiting this place as a power spot.  

Meiji Shrine is also known as a prime location to view the beautiful irises  which blossom in the summertime from June to August. Furthermore, Meiji Shrine is known to be a power spot and has resultantly attracted many young women who wish to benefit from these powers. For example, the large camphor tree that has been standing since the Taisho Period outside the ge-haiden hall of worship, is a popular power spot visited by for those who wish to gain marital harmony and family safety.

And if you have time, you may also be able to witness a Japanese wedding ceremony. Generally speaking, visitors can see a Shinto ceremony in which the bride and groom declare to the gods that they will become a couple and contribute to society. The majestic wedding procession with the bride in white being led by a Shinto priest and shrine maidens and the groom in a kimono provides a snapshot of genuine Japanese culture.  

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Meiji Jingu Shrine
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Meiji Jingu Shrine
Tours of Meiji Jingu Shrine

Sengaku-ji Temple

Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

(image by upload.wikimedia.org)

In the year 1612, the retired shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa established the temple at Soto-Sakurada near Edo Castle, but in 1641, it burned down in The Great Fire of Kansei. Following that, his grandson, Iemitsu, moved to current-day Takanawa and rebuilt it. In the temple grounds, 7 temple buildings were completed, and numerous monks from all over Japan come to study at this distinguished temple. It is also famous for being the burial site for the 47 ronin who died during the Genroku Ako Incident. The incident moved the citizenry of Edo and has been related throughout the centuries through many renditions of the traditional Japanese play of “Chushingura”, beginning from kabuki. Even now, the story has continued to be beloved through dramatization and its conversion into movies including the recent Hollywood picture “47 Ronin”. Within the temple, there is the Ako Gishi Memorial Hall where the ronins’ precious possessions are displayed.

The Genroku Ako Incident which occurred in 1701 began when Naganori Asano, the head of the Ako clan and head of carpentry at Edo Castle, tried to stab the master of protocol, Kira Yoshinaka. Asano was forced to commit ritual suicide on that day, and his house was abolished. There are various accounts for the reasons behind Asano’s attack on Yoshinaka, but the citizenry sympathized in regards to the heavy-handed punishment on the Asano family and the injustice, and with the rise in public opinion concerning their dissatisfaction with the Edo shogunate, the 47 retainers of the Asano family took their vengeance on Yoshinaka. Following their display of loyalty to their master, the 47 were ordered to kill themselves. Their graves are located alongside the grave of Asano at Sengaku-ji Temple. Plum trees in tribute to the ronin are planted at the temple and during February, they beautifully bloom. Annually on December 14th, the Ako Gishi Festival is held which attracts fans from all over Japan who celebrate through events such as a parade of the 47 warriors.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Sengaku-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Sengaku-ji Temple
Tours of Sengaku-ji Temple

Zojo-ji Temple

Five Unmissable Tokyo Temples and Shrines

(image by flickr.com)

At Zojo-ji Temple, there are several opportunities a year to view the gravesite of the Tokugawa family and the shoguns of the Edo Era. Along with 6 shoguns, 38 wives and children are also buried there. There are rare items such as books of seal stamps containing the family tree and family crest of the Tokugawas. During these times, not only can you pay a visit to the gravesite but you will also be able to visit the Black Image of the Amida Buddha. The entrance to the temple has a main gate known as Sangedatsumon. Passing through this gate, it is said that you will be released from the 3 evil passions of greed, anger and stupidity. Even though it is a gate, it is also a wonderful 2-storey structure with the Shakyamuni Buddha and the 16 arhat disciples of Buddha enshrined on its upper floor (open to the public for limited times) that has an air of gravitas.

As an event at Zojo-ji, there is the famous Setsubin Tsuina Shiki (ceremony to oust evil spirits at the end of winter). The annual February Setsubun festival is very lively. Lots of celebrities gather and there is also television coverage. Also, there is a monthly gathering to copy sutras on the 14th known as shakyoue. The sutras are recorded Buddhist teachings that are painstakingly copied down character by character. Through the transcriptions, the teachings are internalized. Even if the meaning is unknown, the soul is cleansed from the work of writing wholeheartedly within the stillness.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Zojo-ji Temple
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Zojo-ji Temple
Tours of Zojo-ji Temple

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