Japanese temples are places of worship and there is one in nearly every municipality. They are used as housing for sacred Buddhist objects that may be displayed or simply tucked away and protected. The structures in a temple are fairly consistent although not all are found at every site.

Main Hall – Where the sacred object is displayed. Also called hondo, kondo, amidado, hatto or butsuden.

Lecture Hall – For meetings and display. Also called kodo.

Pagoda – A three or five story structure that can be used to store remains similar to a reliquary in Christian churches.

Gate – Marks the entrance. There is usually one main gate and possibly others.

Bell – Rung 108 times on the New Year symbolising the Buddhist concept of 108 worldly desires.

Cemetery – Visiting relatives is an important family duty especially during certain occasions.

Kotoku-in, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefect


One of the most famous landmarks in Japan, the Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu), resides in this temple. The sitting Buddha made of bronze rises more than 13 metres and weighs about 93 tons. The statue was once gilded and traces of gold leaf can still be seen near the ears. The statue is hollow and the inside can be viewed.

It was made in 1252 and originally housed in a main hall. In 1334 and 1368 storms severely damaged the structure and an earthquake in 1498 that created a tsunami finally collapsed the building. The statue has remained in the open ever since which is highly unusual for an image of Buddha.

Kotoku-in is a National Treasure of the country and has requested World Heritage status from UNESCO.

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Honshu


The temple was founded in 778 and predates Kyoto as a capital city. The buildings have burned down several times but most of the current structures were raised around 1633. The structures are remarkable in that no nails were used in making them. The temple has most of the typical constructions including a main hall, Deva gate, three-storied pagoda and a bell tower.

Known as the Pure Water temple, Kiyomizu gets its water from a nearby waterfall that runs beneath the main hall. Visitors often stop to drink the water in hopes that its wish-granting powers will work for them.

The temple is both a National Treasure of Japan and a World Heritage Site.

Senso-ji, Asakusa, Tokyo Metropolis


The oldest and one of the most significant temples in Tokyo, it was founded in 645 and is an independent temple rather than being dedicated to one sect of Buddhism. The temple was destroyed during World War II and subsequently rebuilt. A tree in the courtyard that was also destroyed by bombs has regrown from the roots and is widely accepted as a symbol of the regrowth of the temple.

The Thunder Gate presents a dramatic entrance to the grounds followed by a Treasure House gate that leads to the inner complex with a main hall and a five-story pagoda. The main hall is devoted to Kannon, known as the compassionate Buddha. A contemplative garden is also situated in the grounds.

Tokyo’s most popular festival is held here and takes over the streets for several days.

Horyu-ji, Ikaruga, Nara Prefecture


Known as the Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law, this was once one of the Seven Great Temples of Nara. It’s currently both a monastery and a seminary. The pagoda is one of the oldest wooden structures in the world dating from around 711 AD, some time after the temple was commissioned by Prince Shotoku. Excavations in the area have discovered the remains of the Prince’s palace within the temple grounds as well as the remains of an older temple.

The actual construction date of the buildings is unclear but the temple layout and construction methods provide a narrow timeframe. The 32 m, five-story pagoda has been analysed and the centre pillar is estimated to have been felled in 594. A fragment of what is believed to be Buddha’s bones is enshrined beneath it.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto


The Temple of the Dragon at Peace has one of the finest dry landscape (kare-sansui) types of Zen garden. The gardens generally consist of small, polished pebbles swept into linear patterns around larger rock formations that are intended to facilitate mediation. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times and holds tombs of the Hosokawa emperors that ruled the region for many years.

The garden is believed to have been built around the mid 1400s by one of the Hosokawan emperors although a written description of it did not exist until 1680. It contains fifteen stones, only fourteen of which are visible from any angle. It is said that only through enlightenment would one be able to see the fifteenth stone.