Temples & Shrines

Temples & Shrines

Photos + Words: Adam Johnston

We arrived in Tokyo at the dark end of a day that had not yet dawned in Los Angeles. We slept for a few fitful hours and then walked to the Meiji Shrine, a vast silence in the middle of the city best visited in the early morning hours before jet lag has worn off.


We often use temples and shrines interchangeably when talking about places we must see in Japan. A Shinto shrine and a Zen temple are the same in the way that a church and a synagogue are the same.

In Japan torii gates traditionally mark the boundary between the sacred and the profane, a divider of worlds, where your prayers will more likely be heard.

The gardens in Zen temples were never constructed to actually appear natural. They were instead designed to imitate the essential essence of the natural world in order for us to better understand our place in it.


When we visit Japan's shrines and temples most of what we see is a reconstruction; fires are followed by facsimiles, air raids by reconstructions, conquests by copies. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion you now tour was built in 1955, the year Kris Jenner was born.

"An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence.”

We are overcome with the feeling that in this corner of the atmosphere there reigns silence.

I had always thought my fellow American tourists to be the loudest, pointing our fat fingers and calling out the mispronounced names of the ancient wonders of Europe. I was wrong. The Chinese are louder.

At Shinto shrines worshippers write their prayers on small strips of paper and ema, small wooden plaques in the shape of crests, signs, gods and animals. The ema of Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine are modeled after the head of a fox, a playful and shape-shifting creature considered a messenger of happiness, success and fertility. Their hand drawn visages adorn the shrine like anime characters.


The deer of Nara have been considered divine emissaries ever since a local deity was seen riding a white deer. Killing one was once considered a capital offense punishable by death. Today tourists feed them specially formulated deer crackers that taste like rough communion wafers.

Bamboo is the fast growing organism in nature, capable of adding three feet in a single day. Shinto priests believed the spirits of nature resided in its hollow stalks and built their shrines near groves to ward off evil spirits. The gentle murmur of swaying towers settles over the sound of camera shutters below.

When I was a small child my father would tell me he loved me more than all the grains of sand on the beach, all the pebbles in the riverbed, all the hairs on my head.


A bowl's utility is measured by its void, love by the emptiness it fills. Were it not for shadows there would be no beauty. Without silence we could never hear ourselves.

During a few carefully watched weeks every spring thousands of people visit the temples and shrines of Kyoto to catch the blooming of the cherry blossoms. We arrived too early, the temples framed by bare branches; the cherry blossoms would not flower until after we were gone. Back home they bloomed on the streets of Little Tokyo.