Know your Nio from your Komainu – Exploring Nagoya’s Temples and Shrines

ByBert Wishart
Oct 27, 2023

Know your Nio from your Komainu – Exploring Nagoya’s Temples and Shrines

There are so many great things about living in Japan, but for me one of the best is the plethora of interesting religious iconography that can be found wherever you look. This is a nation in which you can’t swing a dead tanuki without striking some kind of religious monument, and around pretty much every corner looms something worshipable. Even my neighborhood around Nagoya Station, amongst the bars and izakayas, the scent of incense hangs heavier in the air than Axe Africa at a school dance.

Shinto and Buddhism

In Japan, there are two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto, meaning “way of the divine”, is a polytheistic religion with its allegiances to kami [gods], that are often connected to the worship of ancestors and the natural world. Though it was codified in the eighth century, there is evidence that it was around during the Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE), and with the emperor as its head, it remains Japan’s predominant religion.

Buddhism came to Japan sometime around the sixth century (though there is evidence that it may have been introduced some 200 years before) by way of the Silk Road through Korea and across the waters into Japan. There, thanks to the approval of the powerful Soga clan, it was promoted within the imperial court, though it initially faced resistance from some Shinto adherents who believed this invading theology brought with it disease and disorder. The Soga, it seems, were successful, as today approximately 84 million Japanese follow the religion, compared to Shinto’s 88 million.

Now, if you were paying close attention, you may have noticed a numerical anomaly in this country of 125 million. The thing is, many people worship both religions, and it is said that one is born into Shintoism and dies as a Buddhist (something about Buddhism’s reincarnation being a bit more appealing when you are about to pop your clogs than the Shinto belief of nothingness). This means that absolutely everywhere you go, there are Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.

Shinto shrines vs Buddhist temples

Sometimes, for the uninitiated, it can be difficult to discern the difference between an o-tera and a jinja. The first giveaway is probably the large torii gate at the entrance of Shinto shrines. Often bright vermillion in colour (though not always), these are the passages into the shrine, at which you should bow before entering, passing in and out on the left of the gate, as the middle of the path is “the place where kami pass”. Buddhist temples, on the other hand, will often have at their entrance a pair of Nio guardians.

These statues take on the appearance of two fearsome warriors, with bulging muscles and brandishing weapons, and are supposed to guard against not only evil spirits, but also human thieves. In case you wanted to introduce yourself, one is called Agyo and the other is Ungyo, and you can tell which is which as their terrifying mouths are captured mid-pronunciation of their names, the former saying “a” and the other “n”, the first and last letters of the Japanese alphabet, symbolizing birth and death. Cheery, eh!

Get cleansed and know your Nio from your komainu

Once inside, you need to clean yourself up, because you can’t be bringing all your filthy sins in with you. At a Shinto shrine you will find a temizuya water pavilion, often with a dragon fountain pouring water for you to scoop up and ritually cleanse your hands and mouth – left hand, right hand, mouth, never spilling back into the tub. Things are a little less formal at a temple, where incense is utilized to clear you up. At the bigger temples, you will find a big old bowl of the smelly stuff burning away, but if you go to the local ones as I often do, you can buy a stick or two for just a few yen tossed into an offering box. After lighting your incense stick, extinguish it by wafting your hand (don’t blow it out, it’s not your birthday. Actually, even if it is your birthday, don’t do that) and fan the smoke towards you. Some people waft the smoke into their mouths, but smoking’s not cool, right?

Inside the grounds, things get a little more confusing, but if you know what to look for, you can probably tell the difference, mostly due to the buildings. A multi-tiered pagoda will probably mean that you are in a Buddhist temple, but actually, a key giveaway will be if there is a big ole’ Buddha – the biggest is at Ushiku, Irabaki Prefecture, and is 120m tall – and at some places you might be able to find a smaller temple that holds a relic of the Buddha, like Nitai-ji in Nagoya that boasts the ashes of one of his toes (allegedly), donated by the government of Thailand. In Shinto shrines you will often find komainu, which are guardian lion/dogs – or in the case of Inari shrines, foxes – that perform a similar job to the Nio of Buddhist temples. You will also see ema, which are wooden plates upon which you can write your wishes and pray that they come true, and in some places you might even find miniature dolls with omikuji [papers that tell your fortune] that can bring you luck. Another clear demarcation of a Shinto shrine is the shimenawa, a straw rope with white shide zigzag paper strips that mark the boundary to something sacred, such as trees and stones, similar to those worn around the waists of Yokozuna, the highest rank sumo wrestlers, who to this day perform rituals in shrine grounds.

Oshō are skinheads you don’t want to mess with!

Perhaps the best way to differentiate between o-tera and jinja is whether within you find Shinto priests or Buddhist monks. You can recognize the former, the Kannushi [divine Master of ceremonies], by their flowing garments – often white – and you often see them around town, riding scooters as they go about their religious services (or just to pop to the 7-Eleven). Their Buddhist contemporaries, the Oshō, on the other hand, will almost always have a shaved head, and they intimidate me a little bit, perhaps because most mornings I can see the Oshō who lives in the temple opposite my apartment dressed in nothing but a loin cloth practicing martial arts. He’s got at least 30 years on me, but he’d definitely kick my arse!

Temple and shrine hopping

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering around Nagoya, scooting about on my bicycle, and discovering new shrines and temples. However, if you want to do something a little more structured than that, I can highly recommend that you try out one of the Nagoya International Center’s Walking Guides. These are downloadable directions that will take you around areas of the city, and give you a little bit of history on the local area. Some of them are a little more difficult to follow than others, but for me, that just adds to the adventure. 

NIC Walking Guides (Link to external website)

So, now you know what to look for, and where to find it, it’s time to get out there and get temple hopping!

Images: By Mark Guthrie
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About the author

Bert Wishart editor

Novelist, copywriter and graduate from the most prestigious university in Sunderland, Bert whiles away his precious time on this Earth by writing about popular culture, travel, food and pretty much anything else that is likely to win him the Pulitzer he desperately craves.

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