10 Differences Between Shinto and Buddhism

| © YUSUKE YAGI / Unsplash

Buddhism and Shinto are the most popularly practiced religions in Japan. Though the two often overlap and many Japanese consider themselves members of both, they are distinct religions with unique origins and traditions. To better acquaint yourself with these fascinating ancient Asian faiths, read our list of 10 differences between Buddhism and Shinto.

Loved by over 40s

Buddhism’s beginnings are well-known, but nobody really knows how and when Shinto started

Shinto and Buddhism are both old, Asian religions; records of both go back to at least the 8th century. While Buddhism has a widely agreed up beginning, the origins of Shinto are ambiguous, as little was written down about this tradition until Buddhism came to Japan.

Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, emerging from a cave as told in a famous legend.

They originated in different parts of the world

Though less is known about Shinto than Buddhism, it is thought to have originated in Japan and is considered the indigenous religion of modern day Japanese. Buddhism came to Japan across the sea from China via India where it was founded by Siddhartha Gautama between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE .

They follow different belief systems

Shinto is an animistic religion, meaning its practitioners believe that every living thing – and even inanimate objects like rocks – is animate and possesses a spirit. These are called kami and important ones are worshipped by humans. Buddhism isn’t a theistic religion at all; rather, humans who have achieved enlightenment, like the Buddha himself, are venerated.

A temple in Kyoto.

There are many types of organized Buddhism whereas Shinto is whatever you want it to be

Buddhism has a clear doctrine and rules. Even though there are many conflicting but coexisting sects – such as Zen, Pureland, and Shingon, all of which are popular in Japan – certain truths are always maintained. Shinto is more ambiguous, with no religious texts or set doctrine. As a polytheistic religion, it allows more freedom for believers to worship the kami – or other deities – of their choosing.

A Shinto shrine gate in Osaka.

Believers pray at separate holy sites

The difference between a shrine and a temple in Japan is the religion it represents; shrines (jinja) are Shinto sites of worship and temples (tera) are Buddhist. Occasionally, complexes include both places of worship since these two ways of life, once at war with each other, now exist in harmony.

A Buddhist temple pagoda in Tokyo.

Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines each have their own aesthetic

There are aesthetic and architectural differences between the two. Shinto shrines usually have a large gate (torii) at the entrance, are often decorated vermillion, and are guarded by fox, dog, or other animal statues. Temples tend to be a more reserved color on the outside, but the interior area dedicated to the Buddha is often filled with ornate gold statues and decorations. There is usually a large incense burner out front for purification. Shinto shrines have a water basin where visitors wash their hands and mouth before entering.

A chozubachi (water basin) at the entrance of a shrine.

How one prays at a shrine or temple differs, too

Practices at shrines and temples also differ slightly. People typically pray silently at Buddhist temples, though occasionally the more devout will chant mantras. At Shinto shrines, people must ring a bell and clap their hands to rouse the gods and pray.

People praying and giving offerings at a temple.

They recognize different holidays

Japanese people celebrate both Shinto and Buddhist holidays with an equal amount of reverence and enthusiasm. Japan’s three greatest annual festivals – the Kanda Matsuri, Tenjin Matsuri, and Gion Matsuri – are all Shinto. The busiest travel period of the year, during which families return home to pray to the spirits of their ancestors, is the Buddhist holiday Obon. Similar holidays and festivals happen around the country year round.

Buddhist monks and nuns have different lifestyles from Shinto priests and priestesses

The most devout Buddhists may become monks or nuns, people who dedicate their lives to the religion and forgo most worldly possessions. Shinto priests used to become so only by birth, but these days anyone in Japan – male or female – who can pass an exam can become a priest. Buddhist monks and nuns tend to live a more ascetic life whereas Shinto priests are typically in charge of officiating shrine ceremonies.

Shinto priests and miko (shrine maidens) at a ceremony.

The two religions have different myths about the afterlife

Buddhists believe in a cycle of death and rebirth that continues until a person achieves an enlightened state. Shinto tradition holds that after death a person’s kami passes on to another world and watches over their descendants. This is why ancestor worship is still an important part of modern-day Japanese culture.

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider


women sitting on iceberg


2 years.


It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.


I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.