Buddhist temples in Japan

The hondō, or "main hall", of Higashi Hongan-ji in Kyoto.

Buddhist temples are, together with Shinto shrines, considered to be among the most numerous, famous, and important religious buildings in Japan.[note 1] The Japanese word for a Buddhist temple is tera (), and the same kanji also has the pronunciation ji, so that temple names frequently end in -dera or -ji. Another ending, -in (), is normally used to refer to minor temples. Such famous temples as Kiyomizu-dera, Enryaku-ji, and Kōtoku-in illustrate this naming pattern.

Buddhist and Shinto structures

A torii at the entrance of Shitennō-ji, a Buddhist temple in Osaka

In Japan, Buddhist temples co-exist with Shinto shrines, and both share the basic features of Japanese traditional architecture.[1] Not only can torii, the gates usually associated only with Shinto, be found at both, but the entrance to a shrine can be marked by a rōmon, a gate which is Buddhist in origin and can therefore very often be found also at temples. Some shrines, for example Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū, have a Buddhist-style main gate called sōmon. Many temples have a temizuya and komainu, like a shrine. Conversely, some shrines make use of incense or have a shōrō belltower. Others – for example, Tanzan Jinja in Nara – may even have a pagoda.[2]

Honden of the Zennyo Ryūō shrine, inside a Shingon temple in Kyoto

Similarities between temples and shrines are also functional. Like a shrine, a Buddhist temple is not primarily a place of worship: its most important buildings are used for the safekeeping of sacred objects (the honzon, equivalent to a shrine's shintai), and are not accessible to worshipers.[1] Unlike a Christian church, a temple is also a monastery. There are specialized buildings for certain rites, but these are usually open only to a limited number of participants. Religious mass gatherings do not take place with regularity as with Christian religions, and are in any event not held inside the temple. If many people are involved in a ceremony, it will assume a festive character and will be held outdoors.[1]

The reason for the great structural resemblances between the two lies in their common history. It is in fact normal for a temple to have been also a shrine, and in architectural terms, obvious differences between the two are therefore few, so much so that often only a specialist can see them.[1]

Shrines enshrining local kami existed long before the arrival of Buddhism, but they consisted either of demarcated land areas without any building or of temporary shrines, erected when needed.[3] With the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in the 8th century, shrines were subjected to its influence and adopted both the concept of permanent structures and the architecture of Buddhist temples.[3]

A Buddhist-style gate (karamon) at Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū

The successive development of shinbutsu-shūgō (syncretism of Buddhism and kami worship) and of the honji suijaku theory brought to the almost complete fusion of kami worship and Buddhism.[4] It became normal for shrines to be accompanied by temples in mixed complexes called jingū-ji (神宮寺 lit. shrine temple) or miyadera (宮寺 lit. shrine temple).[note 2] The opposite was also common: most temples had at least a small shrine dedicated to its tutelary kami, and were therefore called jisha (寺社 temple shrines). The Meiji era's eliminated most jingūji, but left jisha intact, so much so that even today most temples have at least one, sometimes very large, shrine on their premises and Buddhist goddess Benzaiten is often worshiped at Shinto shrines.[note 3][5]

As a consequence, for centuries shrines and temples had a symbiotic relationship where each influenced the other. Shrines took from Buddhism its gates (Mon), the use of a hall for lay worshipers, the use of vermilion-colored wood and more, while Chinese Buddhist architecture was adapted to Japanese tastes with more asymmetrical layouts, greater use of natural materials, and an adaptation of the monastery to the pre-existing natural environment.[6]

The clear separation between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, which today is the norm, emerges only as a result of the shinbutsu bunri ("separation of kami and Buddhas") law of 1868. This separation was mandated by law, and many shrine-temples were forced to become just shrines, among them famous ones like Usa Hachiman-gū and Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.

Because mixing the two religions was now forbidden, jingūji had to give away some of their properties or dismantle some of their buildings, thus damaging the integrity of their cultural heritage and decreasing the historical and economic value of their properties.[7] For example, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū's giant Niō (the two wooden wardens usually found at the sides of a temple's entrance), being objects of Buddhist worship and therefore illegal where they were, were sold to Jufuku-ji, where they still are.[8] The shrine-temple also had to destroy Buddhism-related buildings, for example its tahōtō, its mi, and its shichidō garan.[7]


General features

The roof is the dominant feature of a Buddhist temple.

Buddhist architecture in Japan is not native, but was imported from China and other Asian cultures over the centuries with such constancy that the building styles of all Six Dynasties are represented. Its history is as a consequence dominated by Chinese and other Asian techniques and styles (present even in Ise Shrine, held to be the quintessence of Japanese architecture) on one side, and by Japanese original variations on those themes on the other.[9]

Partly due also to the variety of climates in Japan and the millennium encompassed between the first cultural import and the last, the result is extremely heterogeneous, but several practically universal features can nonetheless be found. First of all is the choice of materials, always wood in various forms (planks, straw, tree bark, etc.) for almost all structures. Unlike both Western and some Chinese architecture, the use of stone is avoided except for certain specific uses, for example temple podia and pagoda foundations.[9]

The general structure is almost always the same: post and lintel support a large and gently curved roof, while the walls are paper-thin, often movable and in any case non-carrying. Arches and barrel roofs are completely absent. Gable and eave curves are gentler than in China and columnar entasis (convexity at the center) limited.[9]

The roof is the most visually impressive component, often constituting half the size of the whole edifice.[9] The slightly curved eaves extend far beyond the walls, covering verandas, and their weight must therefore be supported by complex bracket systems called tokyō. These oversize eaves give the interior a characteristic dimness, which contributes to the temple's atmosphere. The interior of the building normally consists of a single room at the center called moya, from which sometimes depart other less important spaces, for example corridors called hisashi.

Inner space divisions are fluid, and room size can be modified through the use of screens or movable paper walls. The large, single space offered by the main hall can therefore be altered according to the need.[9] The separation between inside and outside is itself in some measure not absolute as entire walls can be removed, opening the temple to visitors. Verandas appear to be part of the building to an outsider, but part of the external world to those in the temple. Structures are therefore made to a certain extent part of their environment. The use of construction modules keeps proportions between different parts of the edifice constant, preserving its overall harmony.[9](On the subject of temple proportions, see also the article ken).

Even in cases as that of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, where every available space is heavily decorated, ornamentation tends to follow, and therefore emphasize rather than hide, basic structures.[9]

Being shared by both sacred and profane architecture, these architectonic features made it easy converting a lay building into a temple. This happened for example at Hōryū-ji, where a noblewoman's mansion was transformed into a religious building.


Ichijō-ji's pagoda is an example of the wayō style

The architecture of Buddhist temples, as that of any structure, has changed and developed over the centuries. However, while the particular details may vary, the general themes and styles have strong similarities and common origins.

The already mentioned Hōryū-ji was one of the first Buddhist temples built in Japan. Its primary structures represent the style current in 6th century Sui dynasty China. The Kondō (Golden Hall) is a double-roofed structure, supported by thick, strong pillars, and giving a feeling of boldness and weight.

Most Buddhist temples in Japan belong to one of four main styles:

Layout and geomantic positioning

Part of Tōshōdai-ji's garan (left to right, the kondō, the kōdō, the korō and the Raiō)

Buddhist temple complexes consist of a number of structures arranged according to certain concepts or guidelines.

The arrangement of the major buildings (garan haichi (伽藍配置)) changed over time. An early pattern had a gate, tower, kondō and kodō in a straight line from south to north. Corridors extended east and west from the flanks of the gate, then turned north, and finally joined north of the kōdo, forming a cloister around the pagoda and the major halls. This pattern, typified by Shitennō-ji in Osaka, came from China via Baekje; the Chinese style of Buddhist temples, though altered somewhat by China via Korean peninsula, ultimately was based on that of Chinese palaces, and this is evident in many of the basic design features which remain today in the temples of all three countries.

A Buddhist temple complex in Japan generally follows the pattern of a series of sacred spaces encircling a courtyard, and entered via a set of gates. These gates will typically have a pair of large guardian statues, called Niō.

In addition, many of the more important or powerful temples are built in locations which are favorable according to the precepts of Chinese geomancy. For example, Enryaku-ji, which sits atop Mount Hiei to the north-east of Kyoto, is said to defend the city from evil spirits by being placed in that direction. The arrangements of mountains and other geographic features in particular directions around the temple play important roles as well. This custom continued for a long time. Eight centuries after the founding of Enryaku-ji, the Tokugawa shogunate established Kan'ei-ji in a similar direction for the protection of their Edo Castle. Its mountain-name, Mount Tōei (東Tōei-zan), takes a character from Mount Hiei (比Hiei-zan), and can be interpreted as meaning "the Mount Hiei of the East."

Kamakura's Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū is now only a Shinto shrine but, before the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order (神仏判然令) of 1868, its name was Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū-ji (鶴岡八幡宮寺 Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine Temple) and it was also a Buddhist temple, one of the oldest of the city.[14] The temple and the city were built with Feng Shui in mind.[15] The present location was carefully chosen as the most propitious after consulting a diviner because it had a mountain to the north (the Hokuzan (北山)), a river to the east (the Namerikawa) and a great road to the west (the Kotō Kaidō (古東街道)), and was open to the south (on Sagami Bay).[15] Each direction was protected by a god: Genbu guarded the north, Seiryū the east, Byakko the west and Suzaku the south.[15] The willows near the ponds and the catalpas next to the Museum of Modern Art represent respectively Seiryū and Byakko.[15]

Geomancy lost in importance during the Heian period as temple layout was adapted to the natural environment, disregarding fengshui.

In addition to geomantic considerations, Buddhist temples, like any other religious structures, need to be organized in order to best serve their various purposes. The most important space in any Buddhist temple complex is the sacred space where images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas are kept, and where important rituals are performed.

Hattō designed by Itō Chūta at Sōji-ji

These areas are always separated from those accessible to the lay worshipers, though the distance between the two and the manner of their separation is quite varied. In many temples, there is little more than a wooden railing dividing the sacred space with that of the laypeople, but in many others there is a significant distance, perhaps a graveled courtyard, between the two.

Another structure or space of great importance accommodates the physical day-to-day needs of the clergy. Spaces for eating, sleeping and studying are essential, particularly in those temples that serve as monasteries.

According to a 13th-century text,[16] "a garan is a temple with a kon-dō (main hall), a (pagoda), a kō-dō (lecture hall), a shōrō (belfry), a jiki-dō (refectory), a sōbō (monks' living quarters), and a kyōzō (scriptures deposit, library)."[17] These are the seven listed as shichidō elements of a Nanto Rokushū (南都六宗 Nara six sects)[18] temple.[19]

A 15th-century text[20] describes how Zen school temples (Sōtō (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済))[21] included a butsuden or butsu-dō (main hall), a hattō (lecture hall), a kuin (kitchen/office), a sō-dō (building dedicated to Zazen), a sanmon (main gate), a tōsu (toilet) and a yokushitsu (bath).

Common temple features

In present-day Japanese, sotoba usually has the latter meaning.

Temple names

A temple's name (jigō (寺号) or jimyō (寺名)) is usually made of three parts. The first is the sangō (山号 mountain name), the second is the ingō (院号 cloister name) and the third is the san'in-jigō (山院寺号 temple name).[24]


Even though they may be located at the bottom of a valley, temples are metaphorically called mountains and even the numbers used to count them carry the ending -san or -zan (), hence the name sangō. This tradition goes back to the times when temples were primarily monasteries purposely built in remote mountainous areas.[24] The founding of a temple is called kaisan (開山 lit. opening of the mountain) for this reason.

No fixed rules for its formation exist, but the sangō is basically topographical in origin,[24] as in Hieizan Enryaku-ji: these two names together mean "Mount Hiei's Enryaku-ji". For this reason it is sometimes used as a personal name, particularly in Zen. There may be however some other semantic relationship between the sangō and the san'in-jigō, as for example in the case of Rurikōzan Yakushi-ji. The sangō and the jigō are simply different names of the same god.[24] Sometimes the sangō and the jigō are both posthumous names, for example of the founder's mother and father.


The character in (), which gives the ingō its name, originally indicated an enclosure or section and therefore, by analogy, it later came to mean a cloister in a monastery.[24] It is in this sense which it is applied to temples or, more often, subtemples. It can be also found in the name of formerly minor temples risen by chance to great prominence. For example, Kawagoe's Kita-in used to be one of three subtemples of a temple which no longer exist. Less frequent in an ingō are -an ( hermitage) and - ( monk's living quarters). - ( hall) is normally used in the name of particular buildings of a temple's compound, e.g. Kannon-dō, but can be employed as a name of minor or small temples.[24]


The only name in common use is however the jigō, (ending in -ji, -tera, -dera (〜寺, ... temple)) which can then be considered the main one.[24] The sangō and ingō are not, and never were, in common use. The character -ji it contains is sometimes pronounced tera or dera as in Kiyomizu-dera, normally when the rest of the name is an indigenous name (kun'yomi).[24]

Unofficial names

Temples are sometimes known by an unofficial but popular name. This is usually topographical in origin, as for example in the case of Asakusa's Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa-dera. A temple can also be named after a special or famous characteristic, as for example in the case Kyoto's Saihō-ji, commonly called Koke-dera, or "moss temple" because of its famous moss garden. Unofficial names can have various other origins.

See also


  1. The term "Shinto shrine" is used in opposition to "Buddhist temple" to mirror in English the distinction made in Japanese between Shinto and Buddhist religious structures. In Japanese the first are called jinja (神社), the second tera ().
  2. The fact was reflected in their name. Kamakura's Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, for example, was then called Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gūji, or Tsurugaoka Shrine-temple.
  3. An extant example of the syncretic fusion of Buddhism and Shinto is Seiganto-ji, part of the Kumano Sanzan shrine complex. It is one of the few jingūji still in existence after the forcible separation of Shinto and Buddhism operated by the Japanese government during the Meiji restoration. For details of the subject of shrine-temples, see the article Shinbutsu shūgō.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Bernhard, Scheid. "Anleitung: Religiōse Bauten in Japan". Religion in Japan (in German). University of Vienna. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  2. Fujita Masaya, Koga Shūsaku, ed. (April 10, 1990). Nihon Kenchiku-shi (in Japanese) (September 30, 2008 ed.). Shōwa-dō. p. 79. ISBN 4-8122-9805-9.
  3. 1 2 Fujita, Koga (2008:20-21)
  4. Scheid, Bernhard. "Shinto:Versuch einer Begriffbestimmung". Religion in Japan (in German). University of Vienna. Retrieved 17 October 2010.
  5. "Jingūji". Encyclopedia of Shinto. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  6. Young & Young 2007, p=47
  7. 1 2 Kamakura Official Textbook for Culture and Tourism
  8. Mutsu (1995:172)
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Hozumi (1996:9-11)
  10. 1 2 Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=737
  11. Nishi & Hozumi 1996, p=20
  12. 1 2 3 Fletcher & Cruickshank 1996, p=738
  13. Young & Young 2007, p=44
  14. Kamakura Shōkō Kaigijo (2008: 56-57)
  15. 1 2 3 4 Ōnuki (2008:80)
  16. Shōtoku Taishi's Denkokonmokurokushō (聖徳太子伝古今目録抄)
  17. Kōsetsu Bukkyō Daijiten (広説仏教語大辞典)
  18. The six Buddhist schools 南都六宗, introduced to Japan during the Asuka and Nara periods
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Iwanami Kōjien
  20. Sekiso Ōrai (尺素往来)
  21. The Obaku School (黃檗) arrived in Japan in the 17th century.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 JAANUS
  23. Fujita & Koga 2008, pp. 84–85
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Seckel, Dietrich (Winter 1985). "Buddhist Temple Names in Japan". Monumenta Nipponica. 40, N. 4: 359–386. JSTOR 2384822.


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