For the Winter 2015 issue of GetHiroshima magazine, I wrote and illustrated an article to help foreigners learn how to tell the difference between shrines and temples. Japan has a seemingly endless number of intricately beautiful sacred buildings and this easy-to-understand guide will help you quickly recognize the elements that are found at Buddhist vs. Shinto places.
The most basic distinction is this: shrines (神社 or jinja) are places of worship in the Shinto faith, and temples (お寺 or o-tera) are Buddhist places of worship. In Japan the two faiths exist in harmony; they are not mutually exclusive and most Japanese people practice traditions of both Shinto and Buddhism, depending on the occasion. In general, Shinto traditions center on life, while Buddhist traditions deal with death. Generally speaking, there is one temple for every 500 homes and one shrine for every 1000 homes. They range in size from sprawling multi-building complexes to tiny structures tucked in a remote corner of the forest. At a temple, you'll see the following: sanmon (main entry gate), statues and images of Buddha, bells, incense burners, pagodas, and cemeteries. At shrines, you'll generally see the following: torii (entry gate, often orange), komainu (the guardian dogs), temizuya (purification trough), shimenawa & shide, ema (wooden plaques to write a wish/prayer on), and omikuji.