A Guide to the Wonderful Temples of Tokyo
Tokyo is often seen as the crazy capital of Tokyo, the metropolis which has an overwhelming array of lights, sounds, rushing crowds and a complete sensory overload. Whilst this is true for large areas of the city and one of the main reasons to visit this mega metropolis, many people think they have to travel out of the city or to other areas of the country to experience Japan’s ancient and serine side. But what Tokyo does brilliantly is provide an antidote to itself, from tiny shrines down side streets to huge complexes that feel a million miles away from the busy streets, these tranquil oases are worth searching out.
Here are the best:
Visiting Shrines and Temples
Most of the temples and shrines in Tokyo are free to visit but care and respect must be taken when you do. Shinto and Buddhism play a large role still in modern day Japan and religion is taken seriously.
Although these temples are a great place to visit as a tourist, you will most likely find devoted followers also in attendance. This can be a wonderful way to observe the traditions of this fascinating country.
Visiting these temples is a great way to have a wonderful day in what can be an expensive city without spending a lot of money. They are friendly and welcoming but there are a few general rules when visiting if you would like to take part in a prayer.
Enter the temple by bowing at the main gate, then proceed to cleanse yourself by washing your hands at the fountains and wafting the burning incense over your shoulders.
Approach the main area of the shrine or temple and offer a small donation into the boxes provided, clap twice and bow again before saying a prayer and taking a moment’s reflection. You may also want to purchase an “ema”, a small wooden prayer board to leave hanging with a prayer.
1. Meiji Shrine
The Meiji shrine is one of the largest in Japan with a complex and gardens spread over a square mile. This includes lily ponds, museums, a tea house, ancient well and a wonderful old forest. This shrine is also located close to the area of Shibuya, renowned for its scramble crossing, and so wandering around this temple almost feels like being transported to another place! This has to also be one of the most impressive of the temples we visited in Tokyo, the natural wood effect and the highlights of white really enhancing the peaceful charm of the wonderful setting and creating a real sense of tranquillity. The temple is also known for the large collection of Sake barrels, each one carefully decorated with traditional Japanese designs as an offering to the gods.
Sake in Japan is not just a drink, but a highly significant religious symbol which allows followers to be closer to god.
Visiting the Meiji Shrine
JR: Harajuku Station
Metro: Meiji-jingu-mae Station
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
FREE, but entrance to other gardens and treasure house is 500Yen
2. Sensoji Temple
The Sensoji temple is the most well known in the city and with good reason. Built in 628, it is one of the oldest in the country and an icon of Japanese culture. The striking red thunder gate with its huge hanging paper lantern and the sweet scent of burning incense really lives up to the Japan we had longed to see. The large complex is made up of well attended to gardens, smaller shrines as well as the famed five storey pagoda. The temple and the surrounding area of Asakusa is a real throwback to the Tokyo of old and really feels like you are stepping back in time. The detailed and shimmering frescos within the temple itself and the sheer magnificence of the architecture make this a must see. It does get a little busier than many of the other temples but visiting early on allows you to find peace here nonetheless.
Visiting the Sensoji Temple
JR: From Tokyo station take the JR Yamanote Line and change to the Ginza Line at Kanda Station. From Shinjuku Station, take the JR Chuo Line (orange) and change to the Ginza Line at Kanda Station
Metro: Asakusa Station
Hours: 6:00 to 17:00 (from 6:30 from October to March)
3. Tennoji Temple
The Tennoji temple is much less well known than many of the others on this list but don’t let that put you off, in fact that is why it is worth a visit. Located next to the Yanaka graveyard and hiding within it a massive bronze Buddha statue it is hard to see why hardly anyone makes the short walk from the underground station! If you want to discover true serenity within the big city then here is the place. When we visited, the only other people we saw were a couple of monks praying. This 800 year old temple is a slice of meditative paradise within the hustle and bustle of the world’s largest cities.
Visiting the Tennoji Temple
JR: Nippori Station (The temple is just off to the west of the station)
4. Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni shrine is actually one of the most controversial in the city as it is in honour of Japan’s war dead. Much has been argued over the years as to who should be remembered and whose name should be scrubbed from the board of honours. But despite the political angle of this temple it remains one of the most beautiful to visit and for the casual tourist many would never know of its significance. The huge tori gate can be seen all over the nearby neighbourhood and the dramatic curtain which adorn the main temple make it unique and rather stunning.
Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine
JR: Ichigaya, Iidabashi
Metro: Kudanshita Station
Hours: 6:00 to 18:00 (to 19:00 from May to August; to 17:00 from November to February)
5. Zojoji Temple
The Zojoji temple is not only fascinating to visit due to its history but also its location. Sitting just below the famous Tokyo Tower this temple most perfectly illustrates the old and new within Tokyo. The impressive “Sangedatsu Gate” is one of the oldest wooden structures in Tokyo, dating back to 1622 and one of the only original gates and temples to survive the war. The temple is also known to be the resting place of six powerful shoguns which really connects some of those wonderful stories of ancient Japan with the modern day. If that wasn’t enough history for just one temple, the complex also includes the huge Daibonsho bell which was cast in 1673, as well as a tree planted by Ulysses S. Grant which still grows to this day!
Visiting the Zojoji Temple
JR: Hamamatsucho Station (10 min walk)
Metro: Onarimon, Shibakoen or Daimon Stations
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00
Other smaller temples and Shrines
Tokyo isn’t just home to the huge temples and shrines which dominate the areas in which they exist, but one of the wonderful things about it is the small local temples around almost every corner. Wandering around Tokyo it is easy to get lost in the maze-like streets where old meets new and down every street is something wonderful to discover…including many temples and shrines.
The trick to exploring Tokyo is to allow yourself to get lost, to follow your heart and enjoy the yin and the yang of this beautiful chaotic and serene city!