So what exactly is the difference between a temple and a shrine? Working both at a church and as an English teacher ensures I am posed this question at least once a week. First, we have to realize that when used in Japan, the words “temple” and “shrine” don’t follow standard English usage. Typically a shrine is conceived of as a small altar or holy place devoted to a holy person or deity, whereas a temple brings to mind a larger edifice built primarily for the purpose of communal worship.
In Japenglish however, “temple” and “shrine” indicate a differentiation that doesn’t exist outside Japan’s particular cultural context. Here, a shrine refers to a Shinto place of worship, and a temple is a Buddhist place of worship. These particular meanings are specific to English spoken in Japan. On a practical level, how can you tell the difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple?
Things you see at temples:
statues of the Buddha
Kannon-sama, the lady buddha of compassion
How to pray Buddhist style: offering incense
Things you see at shrines:
Shinto-style gates, called torii
water for ablutions
How to pray Shinto-style: clapping and bowing
Things you see at both:
Jizo – Many women or couples in Japan who have terminated a pregnancy, suffered a miscarriage, or had a stillborn baby choose to honour the soul of this child through a practice called mizuko jizo. Mizuko means ‘child of the water’ and is used to refer to the soul of a child who has been returned to the gods. Jizo is the name of the Buddhist god who protects and guides that soul on its journey to another world.
Simple wooden buildings. This is the Awesome Club, the “not kids but not old and married” group I started at church.
Brightly painted buildings.
Ema – wooden tablets to write prayers on
Special books are available to collect the official seals of shrines and temples.
Both temples and shrines have seals.
water for ablutions
Mon, the Japanese equivalent of a family crest
No place in Japan is complete without a vending machine or two.