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I will be staying in Japan for a few weeks late this summer, and would like to find a bunch of back-woods, off-the-beaten-path temples and shrines, especially if they are dilapidated and not "new" looking.

On my last trip to Japan I made some photo essays on night-life and modern culture, but I want to see the other, older side of Japan this time.

Any and all recommendation are very much appreciated!!

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Lots of views but no answers... Even if you just know of one good place, please post! I want to get a collection of 30-40 such spots to visit and photograph – jake9115 May 9 '13 at 20:56
Why do you think they exist? – Karlson May 9 '13 at 21:15
Not directly related to temples, but to abandoned/old looking buildings is UrbEx. Google UrBex Japan and see if you can get in contact with any of these people to get to know the deserted spots. However, keep in mind it can be a closed community and sometimes the UrBexers guard the knowledge of deserted places closely. – Bart Arondson May 9 '13 at 22:40
@jake9115: Are you only interested in older/traditional religious ruins? Japan seems to have a good few ruined castles and lots of abandoned buildings from the 20th century. Are those within the scope of what you're looking for? – hippietrail May 9 '13 at 23:26
Ah, I see what you mean. I've been to many of these castles, and although beautiful, aren't exactly what I was looking for. However, your link has several castles that are much later in the aging process than the ones I've seen, so it may be a good place to start! – jake9115 May 20 '13 at 20:21

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The word you are looking for is haikyo (廃墟, "ruin"), and Japan has plenty of them for pretty much every conceivable category of building... except temples and shrines.

Unlike corporate enterprises that get abandoned as soon as they stop making money, temples and shrines were never intended as money-making enterprises in the first place, so their costs are low and, in rapidly-aging Japan, temples' incomes are fairly high thanks to their stranglehold on the funeral industry racket (see kaimyo). Shrines, while not quite so flush, do decent business with weddings and blessings as well, plus get support from community festivals (matsuri).

What this means that you'll only see abandoned temples and shrines in the most remote areas of the country, which have been entirely depopulated and have nobody left to look after them. And since these abandoned temples and shrines tend to be small and obscure, they're not particularly impressive and don't end up on haikyo sites either. I've run across a few in my travels, but invariably in the deepest countryside (Sado Island, Iya Valley etc) and not a single one was memorable enough to recommend.

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Excellent points... It makes sense now that I think about my previous time spent in Japan. Thanks for all of the input! – jake9115 May 10 '13 at 15:08

Great answer by jpatokal. One more thing to add to the kaimyō topic is that Japanese temples are run by private people as a business under something you could call a "religion business license" which is 100% tax-free. These businesses however do not only operate religious services such as funerals but also a lot of other non-religious operations such as golf courses and even love-hotels. As an effect people running temples in populated areas are very rich. So as long as there are people, they have enough money to renovate the temples.

On top of that, the renovation costs are relatively low since temples in Japan are mostly made out of wood and much smaller than a European church. So on top of them being (relatively) easy to renovate, they do not remain visible for a long time after being abandoned.

An exception would be if you are running a really old temple with antique rooms and artwork, some of the items in the temple can be VERY expensive to renovate. The replacements of special types of wood, renovating old 60-meter high statues and other items can quickly rack up a multi-million dollar bill for a few square meters - if the temple has the wish to stay as grand as in the old days.

However, these old temples have a quite high amount of visitors therefore receive a high amount of money. If you go to any temple, most of the items you can interact with are charging money to do so. There are parks to visit, donated sake barrels, lucky draws, boxes t throw coins in, papers and wooden plates to write wishes on and sometimes papers that are stuck on the windows of stone lanterns. All collect money and are used in large quantities by tourists and local residents alike.

Just to give a better example how seemingly mundane things can cost a fortune in Japan, I recently visited a very old (non-religious) building in Nara, where I was informed that the replacement of the main wooden structures in tea-room alone (only 9sqm large) would cost more than 2 Million USD to replace, specially because of the "tokobashira" beam and other wooden structures being so expensive.

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Good points, I knew the Shinto racket was so profitable, and so I guess I'm not sure why I expected to find crumbling shrines. In China those aging ruins are very common! – jake9115 May 10 '13 at 15:10
@jake9115 yes, but also stone buildings are much more common in China! – uncovery May 11 '13 at 1:36

When I went to Japan I wanted to hunt for some abandoned places as well, even though I was mostly interested in modern-looking places like Nara Dreamland.
Anyway, my starting point was Jordy Meow's site. He is a French photographer based in Tokyo specializing in urban exploration.

Temple of Lies* is just an example. Beware that he doesn't give any information about where the place actually is so you have to figure it out yourself using Google (and Google images, possibly).

I also did a small section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, from Kii Tanabe to Kii Katsuura. This is a spectacular trip on a somewhat forgotten part of Japan. Since it was a pilgrimage route you will stumble upon many temples and shrines along the way in a variety of different conditions. My suggestions is to start from Kii Tanabe and head to the tourist information office. If nothing changed in the last year you'll find a old woman who can just speak a few words of English. Don't give up! In fact in the city there's a pretty amazing Canadian guy named Brad Towle who works there promoting the tourism in the whole Kii peninsula and he knows everything of the area. Ask the lady where his office is and he will be more than glad to help you in any possible way. He got detailed maps of the whole area and he can help you planning your hunting for temples.

* The domain doesn't match with the one I previously pointed to because it's his old site.

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You might interested in Kawaradera Temple Ruins in Nara.

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Famous ruins like this are carefully manicured lawns of grass with neatly calligraphed wooden plaques denoting what used to be were, which is not quite what the original question was looking for. – jpatokal May 13 '13 at 4:26

It might be interesting to check Pilgrimage places in Shikoku, which is one of the four big islands in Japan and the smallest. This place is famous for pilgrimage. There are 88 temples associated with the famous Buddist monk called "Kobo Daishi." There are also lots of small temples and beautiful nature. Some of them are in the mountains.To complete the journey it is said to take more than one month because people usually get around on foot, wearing a white robe. I've never been there, but people who went there all said that it was great. I don't know if this helps you or not, but there are lots of videos on you tube and articles. Please type " Shikoku Pilgrimage" and check them if you're interested.

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I expect those temples to be pretty well preserved – Geeo May 10 '13 at 12:02
I agree with Geeo, but appreciate the input anyway. I've heard of Shikoku and always thought such a pilgrimage would be a lot of fun – jake9115 May 10 '13 at 15:11

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