Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner

Japan diaries 2.0. Shrines and temples. A note by an absolute beginner

Memories and notes of an European, first time in Japan, written or rewritten one year after the trip.

Japan is famous for its specific religious system combining Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism that roots in India came to Japan from the continental Asia. It is based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha and his successors. Shinto on the other hand is originally a Japanese ‘traditional religion’ based on ancient believes in ancestors and deities. For centuries, the two confessions overlapped. Japan had times (XIX century, the so called Meiji Restoration) of intensive politics to split the Buddhism from Shinto or even disroot Buddhism as not originally Japanese religion. Those efforts finally failed. Shinto and Buddhism coexist in the Japanese culture. Many Japanese declare even being tied to both confessions. This religious coexistence is however not easy to tackle for an outsider.

On our Japanese journey we saw numerous shrines and temples. I cannot say that I fully understand that what I saw, particularly that we traveled without a professional guide. Below I will sum up all that I realised on spot and later at home digging a bit in the Internet resources.


A Shinto shrine may be a very small spot marked by a torii (Japanese gate to a sacred place). It can however be a bigger complex of buildings, as well. A shrine is devoted to a specific deity. Even if in the Western nomenclature we would call it a temple, it will still be called a shrine in Japan. (This is of course an English description. Japanese have many different names describing different kinds of shrines.) The most of the bigger (sometimes quite huge) religious building complexes we visited in Japan were however Buddhist temples. Buddhist temples belong to and are run by different schools of Buddhism (sects), and simultaneously play a role of a monastery, with interiors accessible only to few. This is possibly why I had an impression that temple complexes are somehow bigger (more widespread) than shrines, which is of course not a thumb rule.


Entrance to the Yasaka-jinja shrine, Kyoto, well widespread, located at the eastern edge of Gion, the famous Geisha district. 

At the first sight, those bigger temple or shrine complexes, seemed to us quite similar in construction pattern – widespread premises with many buildings and more or less complex gates of comparable design. Now sitting at home comparing the pictures, recalling memories and reading information available in the Internet, I realise that they were not that similar at all. Some had statues inside, like those of the Buddha, or just gods or goddesses (deities), and the whole temple seemed to be organised around them. The others however, were just sanctuaries with some objects inside, the figures (statues) even if present did not play a central role. It turns out that these are the basic difference between a Buddhist and a Shinto temple or shrine. Continue reading

Japan diaries 2.0. What I knew before the trip

It has been a year since our trip to Japan. With 25 entries on places we saw and things we learned I am still under impression that I do not have it all. Looking through my original photos I still discover petty memories that summed up changed for good my initial comprehension of Japan and the Japanese culture. So there it is. The alternate diaries on those petty personal discoveries that I made day by day.

For the last couple of days I tried to recollect things I new about Japan before our trip. In my academic times, my first lecture I was commissioned to was about transnational corporations. My knowledge about Japanese business conduct and keiretsu (complex interlocking among companies) was quite comprehensive. But did I know anything useful about Japan and the Japanese society? The answer is – rather nothing.


Obviously these were words and vague impressions on geishas (and kimonos), shoguns and samurais and the tradition of seppuku, a kind of a ritual honorary suicide. My comprehension of the latter was a bit wider as some time ago I read memories of a kamikaze, a Japanese pilot who committed to perform a suicide flight to destroy an enemy object during WWII, but ultimately never got the order. Today, shoguns and samurais are words describing the Japanese past (unless you think of shogun and samurai bonds, but these are only funky ways to quickly distinguish kinds of securities). But the tradition of geishas is well preserved and maintained.


Seen in Gion, the traditional geisha district of Kyoto

Of things we learned quite quickly, was however that Japanese men and women are indeed accustomed to wear traditional clothing. These are obviously not the most elegant (or complicated) kinds of kimonos that traditionally consist of many layers. Those are worn by geishas or during festivities >>>. But a simpler form of a kimono, called yukata is worn as a kind of casual dress both by women and men. And there are the geta, traditional Japanese sandals. Unlike in the Western culture, the sandals are worn with socks. The socks are manufactured so that they fit geta, with the big toe and the remaining toes separated.


Japanese teenagers wearing yukata and geta


Among my work colleagues I had two, who spent some time in Japan. One of them used to live there for two years working at one of the Japanese universities. Of messages he conveyed to me one was very straight. Japanese were or are shy of foreigners. If there is a white person in the train even if it is crowded inside they would keep distance. This one I cannot confirm any way. As my colleague was in Japan more than a decade ago, I can imagine things changed. The Japanese travel much, and there are more and more tourists, who visit Japan. The relations with international community are no more uncommon. What is more, Japanese people seemed to us very forthcoming. A couple of times we were approached by Japanese, who either realised we needed assistance not being able to understand the communiques in their language or just asked us where we came from and what were our impressions of Japan. Only once I saw a European regarded with some discontent. He was loudly speaking on the phone in a metro train. To my observation, Japanese use their cells in public transport by sending messages or surfing in the internet, but avoid speaking out loud.


The other message was that Japanese were very clean people and there is no vandalism in the streets. This is absolutely true. I remembered him talking about a conversation with a Japanese colleague. He pointed out paper advertisements hanging in a train telling him, that in the most European countries they would be someday torn by more or less drunk guys. His colleague asked him a simple question: ‘What for?’ If I had to point out things the Western societies could learn from the Japanese, this would be it.


Inside a local train. It was quite quiet inside. The exception would be late evening trains carrying crowds of the Japanese, who enjoyed the night life in Shinjuku (a Tokyo district). The paper advertisements are absolutely in tact.


Just before our trip, I was also warned by a female friend, a fan of the Japanese culture, who visited Japan several times, not to wear deep décolletage. ‘Your skirt may be as short as you wish’, she said, ‘but do not take some of the summer cloths you wear here at home’. This was not confirmed by our guide, a young male, graduate of Japanese culture studies, but I listened to the advice. I can confirm however the short skirts and covered necklines. My both colleagues also observed that the Japanese wear more decent clothing that we here at home, but the things are of good quality. The notion of elegance in Japan is different than in Europe. It is more about aesthetics, cleanness and taking care. My female colleague once told me: ‘No matter how much I tried, as I compared myself to the women I sat with in public transport, I always felt messier. They were so decently spruce.’ Yet another thing I can confirm. But there was another thing out of the female world I realised in Japan, nobody told me before. These were the Japanese cosmetics, to be exact the quality of cosmetics that you can buy in Japan. If I had to come back to this country, I would take only small quantities to live through a day or so, and buy me things I need on spot. And, I would plan in some additional time to shop more at the end of the journey, to be able to pack it into the main luggage.

The other advice was ‘smile and nod when you ask for something and you thank for something. This would help you, even if your Japanese interlocutor speaks no English’. The latter turned out to be absolutely true.

/to be continued …/

Index of posts on Japan  >>>

Learning Japan

Learning a foreign country and culture, while travelling has its limits. I spent some time in two foreign countries living there for a while. Have lived through a culture shock. Finally returned home. Learning while travelling is different. Being a European, having a cable or satellite TV, speaking or just understanding a number of languages, while travelling Europe, we are usually aware of many differences. But with any trip to another continent, we bring back more than only pictures of nice places to see.

I already posted around twenty entries on Japan (>>>), but still find photos I would like to comment just to remember things. It is about impressions, about what I considered common knowledge and confirmed on spot or about things absolutely knew to me.


Izakaya. A Japanese kind of a restaurant. I took this picture on our second evening in Tokyo. Believe or not but it was in Shinjuku, the Tokyo office district with sky scrapers all around. We went there to enjoy our first sake served traditional way (>>>). As far as I can recall, this one was located under a railway flyover. The contrast was incredible.


Japanese work till late hours. Instead hurry back home they go out with their co-workers to grab a bite, but also to drink, and these are barely soft drinks they enjoy. And Japanese have a drinking problem. You can often see drunken or half drunken white collars taking last night trains home. But sometimes they do not manage to take the last train like this one on the picture. So they spend the night somewhere in the city centre. I made this shot around 8 am in one of the Japanese main cities at the main entrance to bank premises.


That Japanese like toys and animated movies (called anime), it is common knowledge. Toy shops, pachinco (game plazas) are everywhere. On the picture above a fraction of a poster I saw at the front of the bank. A credit card with an anime figures on it. Cute.


Very light housing and and a jungle of power cables flying over everywhere. In comparison to city centers with skyscrapers, the average city district or a suburb looks like the one on the picture above. I think the kind of buildings has something to do with earthquakes that can destroy everything in a minute or contrary, lighter houses are earthquake resistant. But the power grid looking like that (absolutely common) is an absolute contrast to the great infrastructure you see everywhere in Japan.


Colorful street decorations, festivals, and … many symbols where you do not expect them. The street decoration on the picture above is koinobori – windsocks that represent carps, a national symbol. The carp is capable of moving up stream, thus it is a symbol of perseverance and strength. Koinobori displayed around a house, tell you how many family members live inside, sizes and colours will tell you, who they are (>>>).


The kids in uniforms just out of school. You see many of them walking in small groups around the streets or journeying in public transport, no matter whether in small villages or great cities. They seem to be very self-reliant. On the other hand, Japan seems to be a very safe and reliant country, and there are always people around you that are ready to assist.


People in white gloves, no matter whether in public transport or in the streets. They are there to keep an eye, provide for order and assist you, always very polite. There are many of them employed by the Japanese railway companies. But we often also saw people who were standing in the streets around a construction site, and were assisting you in going around the site. Even at the exits of car parks in the malls there were people stopping the cars to give passage to pedestrians. 

When talking white gloves and public transport – in Japan it is impolite to touch people or get too close. Also loud talking in public transport means is considered impolite. Japanese people use their smartphones in public transport, however very rarely you see or hear a person talking. They just read or send messages. It is worth to remember it.


The public transport, comfortable and efficient. No matter whether a Shinkansen or a local train. The public transport is expensive, but if you are a tourist you can buy a railway pass. It is valid for most trains – you just pay a lump sum depending on the duration of your stay in Japan. Of things worth to know – the air conditioning is of a very good quality. So even in the hot summer season it is good to have something with long sleeves.

By the way, the Japanese do not like to sun bath, the pale skin is of value so even on hot days you will see people fully covered, women often in gloves and with hats of different kind on their heads.


Shinto, Buddhism and the shrines. Japanese have a specific attitude to religion. As I understand there is nothing there like church going, but Japanese like to pay respect to deities – no matter whether Shinto or Buddhist. And there are many different kinds of charms you can buy and carry with you or just leave in the shrine in a special place (>>>). 


Yukata and kimono. A traditional kimono consists of many layers. Its simplest form (looking a bit like a house coat) is called yukata. You can see people dressed traditional way in the streets and in public transit. As I understand traditional clothing is considered a casual but elegant one. Of course there are very elegant traditional dresses, too (>>>). On our first days we tried to secretly or more openly photograph people dressed traditional way, buy after a couple of days we had so many photos, that we stopped doing it. 


Aesthetics. Japanese are very aesthetic and clean people. No matter whether we talk gardens, public transport, inside of the houses, clothing or personal hygiene. You do not see any devastation in the streets, people do not smell around, you can easily find a restroom everywhere. If you are in a hotel you have all possible cosmetics in big quantities around you, always a single use shaver and toothbrush with a small toothpaste tube. In that respect Japan is a very comfortable country to visit.