On the Move

Japan’s Off-the-Beaten Path Temples and Shrines

All roads lead to Rome, save when in Japan where it probably could be said all roads lead to a temple or a shrine. Some are so famous that they are known throughout the country, whereas others are so local they are only known around the neighborhood. And then there are the ones so wild and unique that they are almost surreal, and occasionally even kept secret.

Though it’s certainly possible to confuse Buddhist temples with Shinto shrines, as they have a fair amount in common, there are a few distinguishing features. A temple, for example, will almost always have a statue of Buddha somewhere, usually inside the temple building.  Furthermore, temple gates when present are quite large, and usually will be encased with nio (仁王), two demon-like warrior guardians who stand protecting the temple. Gates featuring nio are called niomon (仁王門). Shrines, on the other hand will almost always have a gate called a torii (鳥居), which consists of two vertical parallel pillars on the sides and two horizontal ones above that are often slightly curved upwards at the ends (think of the symbol for pi with an extra horizontal bar). They are usually stone or wood, with the latter often being painted bright orange-red, and may also have two statues of “lion-like” dog protectors, called komainu (狛犬).

Roadside torii gates Japan

So which ones to visit?

The reality is, if you are lucky enough to experience traveling in Japan, or better yet live here, you would no doubt have a chance to see more than several Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines along your travels.  To be honest, said temples and shrines are so numerous that when getting around a city it’s probably harder not to pass near one, albeit sometimes unknowingly. Whether on your way to work or just heading out for the day, there is probably a neighborhood holy spot that would likely be a short detour from your planned route. Some elderly Japanese make daily visits to their local spot on their morning or evening walk, and even people on their way to or from work can be seen stopping by or at least bowing respectfully at an altar or gate. This is especially common with local shop owners who often pray for success in their business, i.e. more customers and more money.

In no way is this meant to be any sort of definitive guide. It would be better to view this for what it is, some “boots on the ground”-type observations accumulated over years of living in Japan and being a regular traveler. Think of it as motivation to get off your ass and check out some new spots wherever it is you may be. Many readers have probably heard about some of the most famous temples and shrines, or at least seen them in photos. And it’s certainly true that if it’s in a guide book, most (if not all) are worth taking a gander. Some possibly require multiple visits in the different seasons to really enjoy their true magnificence.

Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) Kyoto Japan

However, the really popular ones are obviously usually pretty packed, especially during peak seasons. The main ones being cherry blossoms, Golden Week, summer vacation, Silver Week, the fall foliage, and New Year’s, so basically it can seem year-round. You’ll most likely have to contend with large crowds of tourists blocking your shot and squeezing by, fully equipped with smartphones and selfie-sticks that always somehow seem to be entirely too close to your face. Sound terrible? Well it should probably be somewhat expected, and realistically the calm serenity of the postcard pics you envisioned taking are going to be all but castles in the air.

Still, if not on a schedule, the masses can sometimes be avoided in off-peak seasons, which are basically the few weeks in between the above-mentioned holidays. Also, first thing in the morning (and possibly again just before closing) can be surprisingly serene, but it doesn’t usually last long so don’t be shocked if you see a queue of a couple dozen waiting in line at the gate or ticket window when you arrive. An added bonus of earlier or later in the day would be the lighting, as this is the so-called “golden hour.” Taking pics midday, when the sun is at its highest and brightest, often turns a blue sky either hazy or grayish blue (partly due to pollution). Japan likes to place all the blame on China for this. But in all honesty, yellow sand and PM 2.5 are only part of the story, as local pollution, pollen, and humidity are often factors as well. Either way, unless you want to test your luck, the earlier or later times of day will often be less crowded on a nice brisk day, especially throughout much of the winter.

View of Japanese torii at sunrise

Let’s be clear, the top-tier temples and shrines of Japan are still considered must sees. Kyoto’s Rokuonji (鹿苑寺 / Deer Garden Temple) or as it is better known Kinkakuji (金閣寺 / The Golden Pavilion), or Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu (鶴岡八幡宮) and similar standouts are absolutely worth checking out even if you basically are just queuing up in line and waddling through the grounds.

As implied by the title, though, this is not an article about the famous spots. There are also too numerous to mention minor shrines and temples that might not be in guidebooks but are well worth a look. These, along with moderately famous local ones, are not only fun to visit but encountering crowds would be the exception as opposed to the rule. Most of these places are simply waiting for the adventurous to explore. The really off-the-beaten path ones often offer some amazing scenery, tend to be quiet, are much less touristy, and some are incredibly unusual and wild.

So how does one go about narrowing down options? Funnily, Japan is one of the easiest places to travel and become an “in the know” local. There are a few reasons for this. First, foreigner communities exist in most areas and regions of Japan, and while some might feel cliquey, they are usually helpful in terms of being a source of information on said local area. Hopefully you can find some true knowmads who are always open to share and usually have an enormous amount of interesting stories and useful advice. Second, Japanese are generally hospitable towards visitors, especially outside the Kanto region. Unfortunately, around Tokyo there is quite a bit more hustle and bustle that leads to some being less outgoing, though most are still friendly enough to at least try to help, if asked. That being said, there are still loads of Japanese in and around Tokyo who would be more than happy to offer help, give information, or even take you sightseeing. In addition, Tokyo has a larger foreign community, which makes it easy to gain info. Lastly, but also most importantly, is the fact that Japan is extremely safe to explore around an area, basically day or night. Even getting lost, not slightly confused as to which direction, but rather dangerously lost as in no idea where you are without food or water is a rare feat, as the relative size of an area makes it hard to get too far away from the town, station, or nearest convenience store.

Giant stone Buddha Nihonji Japan daytrip

If you are in the Tokyo area and don’t have means or plans to travel very far, Kamakura would be a great example of a place that offers both well-known and smaller, quieter sights nearby. There is the main Daibutsu (鎌倉大仏殿高徳院 / Great Buddha Statue) temple and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Both are great places, and if patient enough you can hopefully get some interesting photos and enjoy the uniqueness of their atmosphere. But just a stone’s throw away from either of them there are some amazing spots that are nowhere near as crowded. One requires walking though rock caves (長谷寺 / Hase-Dera), while another a bamboo grove (報国寺 / Hokoku-ji). Just start exploring around and you’ll be amazed at what one can discover if looking hard enough. To be honest, these ones are still actually quite popular, and well-known, but have never been that crowded on numerous visits. Sure, that could just be the hit-or-miss luck hinted at above, but there are literally a dozen other temples and shrines, all basically walking distance or a short train or taxi ride away. Enoshima Shrine (江の島神社) and its neighboring shrine and temple are a bit farther away, but certainly worth checking out. Plus, the island which has a nice walking course is right next to the two main beach areas. Help yourself to a few Enoshima beers while you wander around.

Another two easily accessible Tokyo area picks are the Tokyo Daibutsu and Chiba Daibutsu. Tokyo’s Jorenji (乗蓮寺) is located in Itabashi Ward (a 15-minute walk from Narimasu Station), and the Great Buddha statue is 11 m (36 ft) tall and can easily be done in a morning or afternoon. Chiba’s is more of a day trip from Tokyo. Nihonji (日本寺), located in Kanaya, Chiba, has a 30 m (100 ft) tall Great Buddha statue, along with hundreds of other statues, stunning ocean views, and due to its location, is usually pretty quiet. For those interested in checking it out or just reading a bit more about it, an extensive guide can be found here.

Japanese shrine countryside

Even better, though, would be outside of the main city areas, meaning heading off into the countryside. This is where the hidden gems will be found. Actually, the truly off-the-beaten path ones almost never have an entrance charge, another perk of getting away from the tourist spots. While donations are appreciated, most people leave a few small coins (whereas entrance charges are at least a few hundred yen.)

So how to go about finding these spots?

One common-sense tip is just check Google maps on your PC or phone, and simply look for temples and shrines. Even in the rural areas they are still usually marked. Temples are usually designated by a swastika-looking mark, called manji (万字 / 卍). This is actually a symbol for infinity which implies good luck. Shrines are marked with torii gates (explained and pictured above). If you have too little time to make friends or plenty of time and like the discovery aspect this can be a good option. However by doing this, you bring in that same hit-or-miss luck factor again, as some of the places you find will probably feel rather humdrum. Not to be rude, but some will literally be a box-sized altar on the side of the road or trail, covered with some scattered coins and jars of sake. While that is actually pretty cool, once you have seen a few dozen that seem to have little differentiating them, they can start to get a bit repetitive.

Sunlight shining at Japanese shrine

It’s always possible that you might stumble across some amazing ones this way, though, and it’s definitely the easiest option. However, finding out some info first from the locals is probably your best bet, especially if you are going to be in an area for a while and can recruit some quality assets.

While most Japanese are happy to share about their culture, there are actually some spots that are so secret that locals either don’t know about them or that occasionally they like to keep them secret and might be hesitant to share willingly. Whether this is to keep them from becoming touristy or just for the allure of seeming even more special if there is a bit of mystique surrounding them is anyone’s guess.

So what about one of these wild ones? While there are some interesting and bizarre festivals that include bonfires, deadly log rides, and phallic-shaped ice creams, what about the off-the-beaten path year-round temples or shrines?

Japanese boar hunting sign

Actually, one such “hunter’s shrine” was recently introduced only under the condition that it could not be specifically named (or even photographed) for this article. It even came to the point of the brakes being slammed on and threats to turn the car around if the anonymity was going to be compromised in any way. This was out of respect for the shrine itself and that we were not hunters, so we had to consider ourselves outsiders.

After much convincing, promising, and a bit of negotiating the car started moving again, winding through the mountain roads and finally arrived alongside a forest stream with a small visible torii. After crossing the stream on a low foot bridge, walking through the gate, we took a small path leading away from the main shrine. The foggy overcast day and earlier car debate led to a somber mood, and the path quickly came to a dead end with a huge rock cliff on the left with jungle-like brush growing off various ledges. Needless to say, scrambling the 30–40 meter (100–130 ft) slippery rock face having to use multiple chains for support was a bit sketchy. Nevertheless, what was discovered at the top was totally worth all the hassle in the car and the danger of the climb—a cave filled with neat rows of knee-high piles and piles of wild boar and deer skulls that had been left by hunters from all over Japan, completely filling the cave and making a narrow walkway leading up to a miniature shrine. As someone who eats wild boar and deer meat but is not actually a hunter, the whole scene was quite macabre. At the same time, it was one of the single coolest things I’ve had the joy to experience in Japan.

Not every temple or shrine is going to be this memorable, or if you visit enough even memorable at all, but getting out and enjoying the road less traveled at least gives one the possibility of finding something truly amazing. So whether you’re just looking for a change of pace sightseeing or are a photographer looking for less of a crowd, get out there and find some of the lesser-known temples and shrines.

Let us know some of your favorite off-the-beaten path spots in Comments below.