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 VS A BUDDHIST TEMPLE. THE BASICS

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.

JMA_Japan_094_medium

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

The path of torii

When sightseeing, we quite often visit sacred places, churches, monasteries or shrines. After visiting a couple of them in a short time span in our recollections we usually confuse one with another. Unless we see something really unusual. If I had to make a recommendation of a place worth to visit, this one would be high on the short list. Oinari San, a mountain you climb walking paths covered with torii.

Oinari San or officialy Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto is the head shrine of Inari, the patron of prosperity, harvest, business, merchants, manufacturers, etc. located in Fushimi-ku in Kyoto (Japan). jma_oinari_san_001

The shrine consists of two parts: the lower one – pretty much similar to other shrines in layout and colours (mainly vermilion that is said to protect against bad forces), and the upper one – long corridors of torii (vermilion, too) climbing a mountain, that in itself is a sit of deity. (Torii in Japan are gates to sacred places >>>).

There are approximately ten thousand large and small torii. They were donated through ages by worshipers as a thank to Inari for successful businesses or transactions, and other life achievements the deity could have taken care for. The large torii form  long corridors. The corridors of torii are broken from time to time either by smaller shrines or spots that look like cemeteries with many smaller torii spread over them. To go under all of torii corridors, you have for almost two hours climb up and down a mountain. If you want to make photographs and walk all the side paths you will need twice as much time.

jma_oinari_san_003

The map looks simple. But the rows of 10-20 torii on it are in reality paths covered with hundreds of them.

Oinari San was one of the most interesting places we saw in Japan. We arrived there late around six local time, and left around eight. It was too late to climb to the top. But as I now recall it, I think the most exciting part of this visit was going down the mountain under the torii in the dark, with only few lights in the area. At this hour there ware not so many tourists on the mountain, so the experience was great. It was just as many people to not feel secluded, but simultaneously not as many to not contemplate this place. I wish only we have arrived earlier, so that it was possible to reach the top and simultaneously be able to stop to make more photos. The place is very photogenic.

jma_oinari_san_002

The mountain path starts on the left. A the right hand side there is a sink where one can perform the purifying ritual, and behind, the main entrance to the shrine complex where people pay respect to deities.  (More about rituals in Japanese shrines >>>).

So the path begins, it is 18:20 local time. Continue reading

A Shinto shrine for beginners

Centers of worship, for different reasons, are usually on a tourists’ itinerary. Our Japan trip was not an exception. We visited a couple of temples or shrines. Some of them were at our list, some smaller ones, we visited rather by accident. A shrine is just a sacred place, so shrines may be located in bigger temple complexes, or itself form a bigger complex; but they can also be small spots that you recognise by a presence of a torii (a gate to a shrine).

At the first sight, those bigger temple or shrine complexes, seemed to us quite similar in construction patternwidespread premises with many buildings and more or less complex gates. 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.


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.


Shinto shrines are sacred places, where a deity (kami) is present within objects stored there or in an object, around which the shrine was built (like a tree or a mountain). Contrary, to Buddhist temples, you may not find a reflection of a deity (god or goddess) in a form of a sculpture inside a Shinto shrine. The very exception are animal guardians, usually in pairs, like lion-dogs, monkeys and foxes, who are told to be the messengers of the deity. If you approach them, they will convey the message to the deity. Contrary, in the Buddhist temples you will find bigger or smaller statues of Buddha, as well as some other symbolic figures and deities.

JMA_Japan_080_medium

Foxes guarding the gate in the Shinto shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto.

It is told that both, shrines and temples may have so many common characteristic features that only those well oriented are able to recognise the very specific features at the first sight.


To get to a Shinto shrine you have to cross a torii gate (>>>). Beyond torii you are on a sacred ground.

JMA_Japan_078_medium


But to begin prayers you still have to purify the body, at least symbolically. (The ritual is performed also in the Buddhist temples.) There different kinds of purifying rituals. The most popular is of course that with water. In all shrines, we saw stone sinks/basins, in which the worshipers or visitors could wash their hands and mouth. You take a kind of a wooden spoon (see pictures), hold it in the right hand and pour water onto your left hand, then the other way round. Holding water in hand you can also rinse your mouth. (For hygienic purposes, it is forbidden to take the spoon direct to your mouth.)

JMA_Japan_081_medium

The cleansing facility in the Koyosan cemetery (Buddhist).

JMA_Japan_088_medium

Cleansing facility in Ozaki shrine, Kanazawa.


Paying respect to a deity and praying includes ringing a bell and clapping hands. You do so by shaking a rope hanging down. Afterwards you have to bow and clap your hands. First you ring, then you bow twice, clap your hands twice so that the deity is hearing you, then bow once. At the end do not forget to put a coin into the offering box.

JMA_Japan_048_medium

JMA_Japan_047

Young people paying respect to deities in Shinto Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, Kyoto.


In a shrine or a temple (for a fee) you can also obtain luck charms in form of protective amulets and make wishes by hanging wooden votive plaques on special stands or discharge misfortune by leaving fortune telling pieces/rolls of paper in the temple. We saw all of those practices in both Shinto and Buddhist temples (the exceptions I remember was the Zen Buddhist temples, but I can be wrong). I suppose this is a way how the temples finance some of their expenses.

protective amulet (called omamori) you simply buy, take with you, keep it by yourself or hang in your car, etc. This should protect you from a bad fortune, but also helps you to fulfill your wishes, find love, prosper in marriage, etc.

JMA_Japan_086_medium

Amulets offered in an independent (Buddhist) temple Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.

On a votive plaque (called ema) you can write a wish (or it is already pre-written for you) and you hang it onto a special stand.

JMA_Japan_044_medium

A young woman hanging an ema in Kiyomizudera temple.  

The rolls of paper (called omikuji) are a bit more complicated. Through some kind of a lottery (even if done by a vending machine) you obtain a small piece of paper. It reads you your fortune. If it is good fortune, you take it with you. If it reads you bad fortune, you are supposed to leave it in the shrine to shed of bad luck. You look for a special stand or a place and hang the roll onto it.

JMA_Japan_089_medium

Ozaki (Shinto) shrine, Kanazawa. The omikuji stand is located close to one of the lion-dogs guarding the temple (look at the right hand side). Omikuji message will be passed by the guardian-messenger to the deity of the shrine.


Index of posts on Japan >>>