The Japanese temples and shrines may seem to be one and the same being that they are places of worship, this is quite confusing to the newcomer to Japan, especially when told that they are different, well its really not hard the major difference between a Japanese temple and shrine, is that those of the Buddhist faith worship in the Japanese temples, while the Japanese Shrines are for those of the Shinto faith.
In Japan the belief is that the Shinto gods, as well as the Kami reside in the Shrines, so the entrances to these shrines are always marked by either one or more torii gates, a torii gate is mostly made from wood and painted in orange and black, which is quite unlike the gates in a Bhuddist temple.
At the entrance of a Shinto shrine usually on each side, sits a pair of guardian dogs or lion statues, they are called Komainu. Before stepping into the main hall, all Shinto faithful or visitors must observe the important ritual, of rinsing their mouth as well as washing their hands, with water from the purification fountain.
Then they can now proceed into the innermost chamber of the main hall, where the sacred object which represents the Kami lies, it is here that all Shinto faithfuls can now pay their respects, as well as offer prayers to the Kami, but because the sacred object, cannot be seen by just anyone, visitors are ushered into a separate hall, where they can make their own offerings and prayers.
Choosing a Shinto shrine for worship, greatly depends on the kind of fortune or the answers to the prayers that one seeks, this is because each Shinto Shrine is dedicated to a specific Kami, for instance the Tenjin shrine which is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, who was a politician and scholar during the Heain era, is quite popular among students, they throng to this Shrine to present their offerings and prayers, especially when they are preparing for exams.
There are also other numerous Shrines in Japan, such as the Hachiman shrine, which is dedicated to the "Kami of war", so also Inari shrine which is dedicated to the "Kami of Rice".
In Japan it is mostly during holidays and festivals that Shrines become the popular destination, other special occasions are a birth of a new born and weddings, you might wonder why funerals are not considered, as an important feature for Shinto Shrines. Well they are a "no no" because in the Shinto faith, anything connected to death is considered impure. This is the sole reason why funerals, cemeteries and even funeral homes are never built close to a Shinto Shrine.
This is a major difference between Shinto Shrines and a Bhuddist temple, since the former isnít averse to issues surrounding death.
In Japan Buddhist faithfuls adhere to the teachings of Buddha Gautama Siddhartha, a temple is a very important feature of Buddha worship, as this is where Buddhist faithfuls congregate to present their offerings as well as pray to Buddha.
In the past, there were clashes between those of the Shinto faith with those of Buddha faith but things later calmed down and both religions were able to co-exist harmoniously together, this has even prompted some Buddhist faithfuls to feel that, the Kami as well as some aspects of Shinto beliefs are manifestations of the Buddhist faith.
The physical features of a Buddhist temple, is much the same as a Shrine but without the torii gates, also Bhuddist temples are devoid of a fountain but instead have huge incense burners, visitors as well as Buddhist faithfuls are expected to buy their own incense, which they light and place into the burner, then fan out the flame with their hands, which allows the trail of smoke to come out and encase them before entering into the temple.
Once inside the main hall of the temple, visitors will see the sacred object of worship called the pagoda, its five feet tall and is easily the most recognized temple structure, its said that the remains of Buddha is within this structure.
And just like the Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples are also besieged during holidays and festivals, such as the Obon festival which is an annual Buddhist event that commemorates oneís ancestors, it is based on the belief that ancestral spirits, always return to the world of the living to visit relatives for a week.
Today, most Japanese adhere to both the Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, with regular visits to both the temple and shrines.