I'm often asked by my students, "What is the difference between shrines and temples?" "How do you know which is which?"
Good questions! Temples are, needless to say, for Buddhism, and shrines are the holy places of shinto, or Japanese native religion that worships sacred spirits called "kami" gods.
Ancient Japanese believed that there are 8 million kami (it actually means "myriads") residing in this world, in both animate and inanimate objects, natural phenomena or even concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers, rocks, storms, fertility and prosperity. Humans also become ancestral kami to protect their descendants. Some kami have human-like forms, while most of them are invisible forces.
Shrines are the dwelling place of "kami" and people visit there to pray for good fortune or just thank kami for their peaceful daily lives.
The most symbolic structure of shrines is a 鳥居 torii gate, which marks the approach and entrance to a shrine. It comes in various colors, sizes and materials. The photo below shows a blue torii of Kanda Shrine.
You go through the blue stone torii gate, walk about 20-30 meters, and reach the entrance of the shrine (the photo below).
This is the main shrine (photo below), where some holy objects that represent kami are stored, but no one is allowed to see them.
The two people facing back are a bride and a groom in traditional kimono costumes. The young girl in the middle is "miko", a shrine maiden.
Another symbolic objects in shrines are "komainu," a pair of guardian dogs or lions, often found on each side of a shrine's entrance or near the inner shrine.
Look at the photos below. They are the komainu of Atago Shrine in Minato-ku, Tokyo. One of them opens its mouth saying "あ a, " the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, while the other closes the mouth as if it pronounces the last letter "ん n", representing the beginning and the end of all things. In some shrines, they are foxes rather than dogs.
Today's useful expression: しゃしん を とっても いいですか。Shashin o tottemo iidesuka?
May I take photos?
At shrines you'll have more chances to see people in kimono, but it would be nicer to ask for their permission before taking photos of them.
*If you have any questions, don't hesitate to email me. Also, I'd appreciate if you correct my grammatical & vocabulary errors. Thank you!