Feeling Zen: visiting temples and shrines in Japan
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As we head into spring, the air is becoming warmer, flowers are beginning to bud and nature is awakening. I am finally feeling more cheerful and yearning to be outside. Spring is one of my favorite times of year precisely for these reasons, and it is the perfect time to visit the many breathtaking, calming and mystical temples and shrines around Japan.
For many people, it is sometimes confusing to understand Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism, as well as to make the distinction between temples and shrines. Many of us don’t have many chances to visit shrines and temples back home, which might make us feel as though we can’t understand and appreciate these meaningful places. Additionally, people with little experience or knowledge of Shintoism and Buddhism might find it difficult to differentiate between them because they often seem to overlap in Japan. You don’t have to be Buddhist or a follower of Shintoism to enjoy shrines and temples in Japan. Following proper etiquette just shows respect when visiting. This guide will help you better understand and identify the differences and similarities between Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism. Additionally, I hope it will help guide you through shrine and temple etiquette so you can enjoy your visits all year round.
Shintoism: “Way of the gods”
Shintoism is the animistic indigenous religion of Japan. It is characterized by the polytheistic worship of many gods also known as kami, and ancestral and natural spirits. In Shintoism, there isn’t a particular leader or scripture as there are in monotheistic religions. The principals of Shintoism explain that gods are inside or take the form of all natural objects found in nature, therefore there is a great sense of respect for nature and ancestors in Japanese mentality. All natural things: rocks, mountains, rivers, wind, waterfalls, lakes and trees are revered as having great kami inside. Additionally, it is believed that evil spirits create evil and bad things, so Shinto rituals keep these evil spirits away with offerings and prayers for protection. Shinto priests called kannushi perform such Shinto rituals and take care of the enshrinements of the kami. Each kami has a different purpose and prayer. Some examples are kami for fertility, business, study and love. People in Japan describe specific shrines as “power spots ” and often visit them to pray for good health, academic and business success, fertility, traffic safety, safe childbirth and overall fortune throughout the year.
A shrine (jinja) is a place of Shinto worship. Often a particular kami or important person will be enshrined there. People visit shrines any time of the year but especially during the New Year holiday, in order to summon the kami for good luck and protection in the New Year.
Shrines are considered holy places, so it is important to practice respectable manners when visiting.
Before entering, you will see a Shinto shrine gateway known as torii (two vertical pillars connected by a horizontal crossbeam). Often they are made of stone or wood, and many are painted a bright orange-red color. Torii indicate the boundary of sacred ground and you should enter by walking through. It is considered good manners to bow before entering and after exiting, and not to walk directly in the middle of the walkway to show respect to the kami.
Koma-inu are guardian dogs or lion statues that are in front of shrines to ward off evil spirits from entering. Sometimes foxes are guardians at inari shrines, which respect the kami for rice. Foxes are considered the messengers of the inari kami.
After entering, you will notice a water basin or water fountain like the one shown in the photo below. This is to purify your hands and mouth before approaching the main shrine.
How to wash
- Pick up the bamboo ladle with your right hand and fill it with water.
- Pour it onto your left hand to rinse, then change and rinse your right hand.
- Pour water again into your left hand, and rinse your mouth with it. Don’t drink from the ladle!
- You can spit out the water onto the ground outside of the fountain and return the ladle.
Depending on whether you visit a local or big famous shrine, there may be a few buildings for different purposes.
- Main sanctuary (honden), where the deity is enshrined.
- Prayer hall (norito-den).
- Worship hall (haiden).
Shimenawa is twisted straw rope with white-zigzagged folded paper. They usually hang on the main hall of shrines, trees, stones, and on torii to indicate sacred places and protect evil spirits from entering.
How to approach the offering box and make a prayer:
- Take off your hat, approach the “offering box” and toss in a few coins. Usually ¥5, ¥10 or ¥50 is enough. It is better not to talk when you are in front of the main shrine and box.
- Ring the bell to summon the kami to hear your prayers.
- Bow twice, clap your hands twice (a sound to attract the kami) and then take another deep bow.
- Pray or make your wish. Be sure not to cut off someone praying at the altar (you disrupt their connection with the kami).
- When you are finished make one last deep bow before you leave the front of the shrine.
Check to see if there are any signs forbidding photos. If there are none, ensure you turn off the flash if you are able to go inside and want to take photos.
The many shrines in Japan are peaceful places to visit surrounded by beautiful nature you can enjoy. There are also so many Buddhist temples in Japan that are worth visiting, especially the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many elements of Shintoism can also be seen in Buddhism as Japan absorbed Buddhism from other cultures.
Brief about Buddhism
Buddhism comes from an area in India and Nepal and is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. He is referred to as “Buddha”, the enlightened or awakened one, because he obtained the highest level of understanding and realization about life. There is no one god-like creator; instead there are many different gods with different kinds and levels of powers. There isn’t a major scripture; rather, Buddhist teachings are composed into a book. Buddhism has roots in Hinduism and so there are many similarities with both religions. Today there are many different sects of Buddhism around the world. Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea and China in the 6th Century, and it wasn’t originally accepted. Throughout Japanese history, many people rejected it as a threat to Japan while others supported and adopted it into the Japanese way of life.
Beliefs of Buddhism
The main belief in Buddhism is that life is a constant cycle of being reborn into a life of suffering. The way to break this cycle is to rid oneself of evils and desires such as greed, ignorance, hatred and attachment to physical things, and to live a life with meditation, humility, gratitude and compassion.
Temples (寺, tera or ji)
A temple is a place of Buddhist worship and enshrinement of various deities and protectors. In Japan there are many large, famous temples as well as local, smaller ones. Popular touristy temples often have entrance fees and pamphlets you can find that explain the history of the temple. Since there are many different sects of Buddhism, temples have different layouts according to the sect and when it was built.
At larger temples, you will walk through a temple gate or mon (門). The gate serves the same purpose as the torii at a Shinto shrine. Nio statues, which are guardian Hindu gods, stand at the gate to protect temples. Sometimes a water-basin is at a temple where you can wash your hands as you would at a shrine. The primary buildings are the main hall (hondō, kondō or butsuden) and the pagoda tower (which is said to hold the remains of the Buddha and has levels based on the elements in the Buddhist universe). Not all temples have a pagoda tower.
When you go up to the prayer hall there is an altar with a butsuzou, a Buddhist image or statue. Sometimes if it is open, you can walk inside, so be sure to check if you need to take off your shoes. If not, the offering box is sometimes on the outside. Usually taking photos of the Buddhist image is not permitted, so make sure you check first. Sometimes there are offerings such as flowers, rice or fruit on the altar as a sign of respect and gratitude to the Buddha. These things shouldn’t be touched.
There are three general different kinds of Buddha statues.
- The nyorai is the highest form of Buddha, which has reached enlightenment. The nyorai is typically empty-handed, making a hand gesture, has longer ears and without jewelry. The nyorai can be depicted in different ways.
- The bosatsu or bodhisattva is undergoing religious training in order to reach Buddhahood. It supports the nyorai and usually carries accessories. There are many different kinds of bosatsu that help suffering people, like the famous Takasaki Kannon sama “goddess of mercy”.
- Last, the myouou is the protector that fights evil and guards Buddhism from enemies. Typically, myouou have a scary face to ward off evil, and have many arms, eyes, heads and body parts.
- Jizo are tiny, cute statues that are protectors of children, children and babies that have died, and travelers. They are often dressed in hats, bibs or small cloths for protection. You can see them at temples, cemeteries and small countryside roads.
Respect and prayer
You can show respect and make a prayer the same as you would at a shrine. Sometimes there is a bell to ring like at a shrine, to summon the gods. First toss coins into the offering box, (typically in front of the Buddha image) and bow deeply twice. If there is a bell, clap your hands twice and make a prayer. If there is no bell, bring your hands together and make a prayer. When you are finished, bow and back away silently. Be sure not to disturb others who are praying around you. Often you can purchase incense to burn for the spirits of the dead.
Some temples have ryuzu, or a bell , which is traditionally struck on the New Year holiday to welcome a new year and send off any evil desires. Sometimes visitors shouldn’t touch these bells. Usually you will find a cemetery at a temple because death is a part of Buddhism, while Shinto’s main principle is that life is in all things. Be respectful when visiting a temple, as it is also a cemetery where people come to visit the tombs of their family members.
The fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism: shrines and temples
Over time, Japanese culture fused parts of Shintoism and Buddhism together. Often shrines and temples are located side by side and are interconnected. Here are some other things that you can find at both shrines and temples.
Omikuji are slips of paper with various kinds of luck and fortunes written on them. They are chosen randomly and can be tied to a tree or string at the shrine or temple. It is said that this will make the luck come true or divert bad luck. English omikuji are available at bigger shrines and temples.
Omamori are protective amulets that contain special prayers inside to a particular kami or Buddhist deity. There are various kinds of omamori for different protections and good luck. You can purchase them at shrines and temples. They are carried, tied to a bag or backpack or hung up, and shouldn’t be opened. People bring their omamori to a shrine or temple at the end of the year for disposal, and start the New Year with a new one.
Ema are wooden plaques where visitors write their wishes. They are hung at the shrine in order for the kami to hear.
How both religions fit into Japanese culture
To better understand Japanese cultures and customs especially regarding both religions, it is essential to recognize people’s respect toward kami and Buddhist gods rather than respect toward a specific faith. The Japanese way of practicing religion and worshiping is different compared to the western mentality and understanding of religious concepts and institutions. They have adapted and blended many ideas together since their early history of cross-cultural exchange.
Even today in modern Japanese customs, Shintoism and Buddhism can be seen in showing respect through rituals such as the mannerism for exchanging business cards, praying and purifying construction areas, and practicing traditional culture like Japanese tea ceremony.
I hope this may have cleared some confusions or misunderstandings about shrines and temples in Japan. There is so much rich history in these beautiful shrines and temples, and by visiting it’s a great opportunity to learn more about Japan, see wonderful sights and feel at peace :). Cheers!
Please check out these sources for more information.
- Manners at Japanese Shrine | MustLovejapan
- Japanese Buddhism: Beliefs, history and symbols, Hugo Deslippe
- John K. Gillespie Japan: A short history Revised and Updated Edition
- Japan’s Shinto-Buddhist religious medley | The Japan Times
- A Guide to Japanese Buddhism