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Temples and shrines to visit in Kobe, Japan

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

A classic Buddhist shrine within the Suma dera temple complex in Kobe

Japan has a long history with Shinto and Buddhism. The two sometimes become difficult to separate, not least in the magnificent temples and shrines spread throughout the country.

While Kobe might be a relatively modern city, it has more than its fair share of temples and shrines. There are over one hundred, ranging from small structures hidden in side streets to large complexes dominating their landscapes.

These are my favorite shrines to visit in Kobe. Most are within walking distance of my home, and I'll often be found on a bench watching the world go by.

Ikuta Shrine: the heart of Kobe

A circle of bamboo, through which pilgrims pass, in front of the main temple hall at Ikuta Shrine, Kobe

One of the oldest shrines in Japan, Ikuta is also in the heart of the modern city. Barely a five-minute walk from the central rail hub at Sannomiya, it's a perfect stop-over if you're going to the Foreign Settlement or enjoying the shopping on Central Street.

Legend has it the shrine was founded in the 3rd Century by the Empress Jingu. She was returning from a campaign in Korea when a goddess of the rising sun asked to be enshrined. The temple was founded and thus started nearly two millennia of Buddhist and Shinto tradition.

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Suma-dera - founded during a plague

The pagoda at Suma-Dera rises out of the trees

According to legend, an epidemic spread across Japan in the late 700s. Shrines to the plague gods were erected in 10 locations across Kansai to contain the demons spreading the disease. Taibata Yakuyoke Hachiman Shrine is the oldest that still survives.

The Shingon-shu sect built a temple complex around the shrine a century later. Suma-dera is home to some beautiful art, including a dramatic statue of Buddha and statues depicting a famous duel between two samurai.

My favorite is a small statue of the Monkey god riding his magic cloud. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s might remember the badly dubbed Japanese TV show "Monkey" that told some of the folklore.

The spirit of monkey is irrepressible at Suma Dera temple in Kobe

The duel between Kumagi Naozane and Taira No Atsumori

Taira no Atsumori was a samurai during the Genpei War of the 1180s. During the nearby battle at Ichinotani, his clan was scattered and fled. As he swam to his navy's ships, he was summoned back by famed warrior Kumagai Naozane, and they dueled. Atsumori's helmet was knocked off, revealing the pale powdered face of a 17-year-old. Naozane, reminded of his own son, didn't want to kill him, but with more samurai from his own clan coming, he knew there was no "honourable" option. The older man recited prayers as he beheaded Atsumori, and this duel entered Japanese legend.

A statue of a Samurai warrior riding his horse, placed in the raked sands of a zen garden

Already questioning the violence of the samurai, Kumagai went on to become a Buddhist monk.

Modern festivals and worship

The temple still plays a role in modern Japanese life. There are numerous festivals throughout the year, including the "Evil Festival," for which it is most famed. This is to help ward off evil, misfortune and other misdeeds. It's particularly important for those of an "unlucky age."

And if you have bought a new car, you can ask the monks to perform an exorcism, although I still prefer Insurance.

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Tenjoji Temple - dedicated to mothers

A series of rocks rise out of a sculptured base in front of a shrine hall

This is my favorite of all the temples I've visited in Japan. It isn't the largest or the most significant by whatever index is in use, but it is a place I feel completely at peace.

Located near the summit of Mayasan, the tallest peak in the eastern Rokko mountains, it has been largely forgotten by tourists and hikers. Few people seem to visit, and those who do linger.

The temple dates back to the late 600s. Originally located further down the mountain, it was burnt to the ground in the late 70s and moved to its current location. This relative newness gives it such a calm aura. The site is carefully laid out to encourage contemplation and features many contemporary takes on traditional Buddhist motifs.

Unusually, the temple is dedicated to the Buddha's mother, Maya Bunin. It's said this is where the haraobi originated, a prayer belt worn by pregnant women to encourage an easy birth. You'll also find offerings to unborn fetuses who died before they were born in the form of small, brightly colored windmills.

If you do come to Kobe, Maya is worth visiting. As well as the temple, there are stunning views across Osaka Bay from the top of the mountain and a few hidden treasures.

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Hyogo Daibatsu: Kobe's giant Buddha

A giant Buddha statue seen in front of gold lotus flowers

Kobe has a giant Buddha statue. Located in an assuming side street and a temple you'd barely notice, it's one of the country's three largest statues.

The statue is found in the Nofuku-ji temple, about a 10-minute walk from Hyogo JR station and not far from the Aeon shopping mall at Minami. The temple was founded in 800, and the statue was erected in the 1890s. During the Second World War, it was melted down for weapons, only being reinstated by 1991. A couple of years later, it was damaged again when the Great Hanshin Earthquake damaged the wider complex.

It's well worth a visit, and once you're done, you can pop over to the Aeon Mall for a spot of lunch and a visit to the Hyogo No Tsu museum.

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Myohoji Temple

A sleeping Buddha depicted in a stone statue in classic Japanese style

This temple is a short walk from my home and a regular haunt. It's a small and unassuming complex by many standards, sitting quietly amongst bamboo and a river. However, its statue of a reclining Buddha is considered a culturally important artifact in Japan.

Both Myohiji and Arakuma are on a popular hiking trail over the Uma No Se ridge and Myohoji mountain. Apple Maps / Google Maps

Takatori Shrine

A Buddhist temple hall in the background with a lantern in the foreground and statue of a cat deity

Another shrine a short walk from my home. While Myohoji is a pleasant stroll, this requires the calf muscles of a mountain goat to reach. It sits on a pilgrim path, clinging to the ridge it sprawls across.

While it might be more of a challenge to get to, the views out across Kobe, Awaji Island and Osaka are spectacular. If you climb a little higher, you can see right across the plains behind the city.

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Etiquette

While Japan is a secular society, temples and shrines are still treated with respect. There's no expectation on tourists to follow Buddhist or Shinto practices, although you may wish to show some respect for those who do.

Entering and leaving

When entering or leaving, most people will face the main temple and bow. You might also be encouraged to wash your hands and mouth (look for a trough with running water near the entrance). This practice has diminished somewhat since Covid.

Praying

They are religious sites with festivals and practices taking place almost constantly. Don't interrupt or disturb those who are praying or making an offering, nor photograph them.

Offerings

If you go up to temple buildings or shrines (particularly to take photos) you'll find offering boxes. Keep a few coins on you to put into the collection. These donations help fund the continual upkeep of the buildings for future generations.

You don't need to hand over hundreds of yen, a few 10 yen coins is usually enough. If you amass a collection of one and five yen coins during your stay, consider dropping them in the local offering box before you leave.

Photography

Generally you can take photos in shrines and temples, as long as you don't photograph people praying or making offerings. However, keep an eye open for signs banning photography, tripods, selfie-sticks and using flash.

I have a handy guide if you want to read more about street photography in Japan.

Be quiet

Temples and shrines are supposed to be places of quiet reflection, so keep the noise down. The same goes for playing games, taking photos and wandering around. The general rule is don't make a nuisance of yourself.

More to come

I will update this feature as I visit more of Kobe's temples. There are a few hundred, and while I might not get to every one, I will make sure the most enjoyable to visit are added to this page.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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