Japan is certainly not short on epic cultural sites. As well as world-beating museums and soaring castles, your tour will likely take in some remarkable Shinto and Buddhist temples. 

Visiting temples and shrines is an important part of any tour here; we’ve put together an overview of the most impressive religious sites all across Japan.

Scattered widely across the islands, most of the below are genuine national treasures. Speak to our passionate consultants to discover how these temple experiences – and much, much more – can be included on your luxury tour of Japan!

Sensoji & Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Tokyo & Around

Starting in the capital, our must-see temple in Tokyo is Senso-ji, located in the historic Asakusa district. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. The five-story pagoda dates to 645 AD and is one of Japan’s most important tourist and pilgrimage sites, attracting around 30 million visitors yearly. 

Across in the modern Shibuya district, you’ll find the famous Meiji Shrine. Dedicated to deified spirits of former Emperor Meiji (1852 – 1912) and his consort Empress Shoken, the shrine is surrounded by parkland. It is particularly beautiful in spring, backed by blossoming cherry trees.

Where to go in Japan
Toshugo, Nikko & Great Buddha, Kamakura

Near Tokyo

Located around 2.5 hours north of the capital, Nikko makes a fantastic day trip with gorgeous hiking trails, beautiful scenery, and several excellent cultural sites. The Toshogu Shrine is one of the most impressive in Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for over 150 years.

Closer to Tokyo is Kamakura, a coastal city reached in just under an hour from central Tokyo stations. Here you’ll find Kotoku-in – the ‘Great Buddha of Kamakura’. The most iconic of all Japan’s Buddha statues, this enormous construction stands at a whopping 44ft tall.

Where to stay in Japan
Kinkakuji & Ryoanji, Kyoto

Kyoto

Japan’s premier cultural destination, Kyoto is packed with magnificent cultural sites. It’s hard to pick the best, but Kinkaku-ji is simply unmissable. This Zen Buddhist shrine, also known as the ‘Golden Pavilion’ shimmers in gold leaf and is surrounded by a large ornamental pond and stunning landscaped gardens. 

Nearby is the equally famous and impressive Ryoan-ji: the ‘Temple of the Dragon at Peace’. The temple grounds are known for their stunning rock gardens, a fine example of the ancient art of kare-sansui Zen garden design.

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Kiyomizurdera & Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

Kyoto continued...

Equal mention goes to Kiyomizu-dera. This huge wooden structure is surrounded by forests that erupt in spectacular color during spring and autumn and offers stunning views over eastern Kyoto. Reach the temple through the atmospheric streets of the Higashiyama District, an area that has provided shopping and dining to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. 

A journey out to the southern suburbs of Kyoto finds you in Fushimi Inari. Here you’ll find thousands of vermillion-red torii gates form tunnels that snake up and down sacred Mount Inari. At the summit is an atmospheric Shinto shrine, dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. With the trails alone making up around 4km, the site makes a wonderful woodland walk as well as an impressive cultural visit.

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Todaiji, Hara & Itsukushima, Miyajima

Nara & Hiroshima

A popular day trip from Kyoto, Nara was Japan’s first imperial capital. Its most famous site is Todai-ji. The temple was established in 752 as the head temple of Buddhist Japan and is known as the largest wooden building in the world. It also houses the Great Buddha Daibutsu, a pure bronze structure that stands nearly 15 meters tall. 

The peaceful island of Miyajima sits just across from Hiroshima. With a pleasant island atmosphere and several excellent places to stay, it’s our preferred base for exploring the city. The island is famed for the Itsukushima Shrine – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – with its photogenic torii gate which seemingly floats on the water at high tide.

Where to go in Japan
Mount Koya & Nachi Temple, Wakayama, Japan

Wakayama

The Wakayama peninsula which sits south of Kyoto and Osaka is a densely forested and deeply spiritual region of Japan. Intrepid travelers will marvel at Mount Koya, the center of Shingon Buddhism, home to over 100 temples and associated dwellings. Stay overnight in temple lodging to truly soak up the atmosphere of this magical place. 

Nearby in Wakayama are the ancient pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo. This three-day hiking route through forests and temples culminates at Kumano-nachi Taisha: an incredible three-story pagoda, backed by the cascading waterfalls of Nachi no Taki. 

These temples can be included in an adapted version of our ‘Alternative Japan’ itinerary, which includes a visit to Mount Koya.

Alternative Japan
Takayama Inari Shrine & Mt Haguro, Japan

Northern Japan

If Inari shrines appeal, we also recommend visiting the equally impressive shrines of Takayama Inari. Located in Aomori prefecture in the far north of Japan you’ll find scores of torii gates stretching through the forest. The exact number of gates is unknown. 

An equally atmospheric shrine can be found on Mount Haguro, located deep in the pristine forests of Yamagata Prefecture. This five-story pagoda is one of the ‘Three Mountains of Dewa’, and is a call back to Japan’s ancient culture of mountain worship. This temple has huge significance in Japanese folk religion and is a popular Shinto pilgrimage site.

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