• The temples and shrines of Takayama

In my previous post I told you about Takayama, a small town that ended up being one of the highlights of my first trip to Japan.

Today I want to show you another rather unique aspect of Takayama: its temples and shrines. For such a small city, Takayama has so many shrines and temples, it’s no wonder it’s sometimes called “little Kyoto”.

As in Kyoto, where some areas have an amazingly high concentration of religious buildings, most temples and shrines in Takayama are located in the Higashiyama Teramachi area.

Building at Shinto shrine, Higashiyama Teramachi, Takayama

Higashiyama Teramachi: Takayama’s “temple town”

The Teramachi (“temple town”) area is only 5 minutes walking from the busy historic district of Sanmachi (see my previous post), but is so green and calm that it’s hard to believe you are in the same town (even if Takayama is far from hectic).

There are thirteen temples and five shrines in Teramachi, all joined by a quiet path lined with pine trees and graveyards. I went there in the middle of the afternoon, and I barely run into half a dozen people. A sense of calm and peace pervades the whole area.

(All photos are © Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).

View of Higashiyama Teramachi walk

Tombstones and trees in Higashiyama Teramachi walk, Japan

Signposts along Higashiyama Teramachi walk, Takayama

The Higashiyama path is well signposted.

Japanese tombstone, close-up, Teramachi

You can start the walk at the North end, and head towards Shiroyama Park. On this woody hill you will find the castle ruins (there’s not much left, sadly), and some nice views of the snow-capped mountains located not far from Takayama. If I remember correctly, many of the trees on this hill were deciduous, so I expect the views to be much more impressive in the winter.

Beware of bears sign, Takayama

I wasn’t expecting to find a warning sign for bears, but this illustrates how calm and “wild” the Higashiyama Teramachi walk is, despite being on the edge of town.

Interior of praying hall, Teramachi

Detail of woodwork in roof of Buddhist temple gate, Takayama

Admittedly, the shrines and temples may start to seem repetitive after a while, especially considering that many of the buildings only open on special days, so you can just visit the grounds and see the exteriors. However, these places are so peaceful, the visit is well worth it.

Wooden doors at temple or shrine, Higashiyama Teramachi

Stone bridge, garden and stream in temple courtyard, Takayama

Typical Japanese painting on wood

Wooden roof, Japan

Shrines vs temples: what’s the difference?

One of the things I found confusing in Japan is the difference between shrines and temples. Basically, shrines belong to Shintoism, the religion practiced by about three-quarters of the Japanese population, whereas temples are Buddhist.

This means that Shinto temples are dedicated to multiple gods and spirits, as opposed to Buddhist temples, which honor the figure and teachings of Buddha.

Torii archway, Higashiyama Teramachi

A Shinto torii gate.

There are many architectural differences between Japanese shrines and temples. Perhaps the most distinctive feature is torii, the gates at the entrance of every Shinto shrine which are never found at Buddhist temples. In addition to this main gate, Shinto shrines often have many more torii archways inside the sacred enclosure.

Wash basin and ladles at Shinto shrine, Takayama

Another distinctive feature of Shinto shrines is the wash basin found after the main tori gate. Here, worshippers purify their hands and mouth before praying, in a ritual called misogi. Due to the historical relationship between Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, some Buddhist temples also have wash basins, but this is largely a Shinto feature.

Wooden tablets for prayer

Wooden tablets for prayer.

Bell tower, Higashiyama Teramachi

Bell towers are typical of Buddhist temples, but can also be found in some shrines due to intermixing between the two faiths over the centuries.

Shrine entrance, Takayama

The ropes represent the gods in Shinto shrines. Usually there is a bell at the front, that worshippers sound once to awaken the gods before praying.

Main hall of Shintoist shrine, Takayama

Woman praying in front of a Shinto shrine, Takayama

Finally, if there are people praying at the time of your visit, you will know immediately if you are at a Shinto shrine, because worshippers always start their prayers with a variable number (typically two) of bows and handclaps. If you’re interested in the exact etiquette, here’s a nice explanation.

What do you think? As always, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and share this post if you liked it.

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