There are approximately 180,000 temples and shrines in Japan. On a per capita basis that’s more than the number of churches and synagogues in the US. Like churches and synagogues, temples and shrines are very different.
Temples are associated with Buddhism, which originated in India and reached Japan via China about 1500 years ago. The main focus of worship in a temple are the beliefs and teachings of its religious and spiritual leader Buddha, and every temple has at least one statue of Buddha in it. Buddhist temples are ornate and services are conducted by monks. In every temple you will find burning incense, which is used to purify the space and prepare the occupants for enlightenment (Val and I have a broad definition of enlightenment.) Buddhists believe that our body is only a temporary place for our spirit to reside, and that good intent and action leads to good karma and a happy spirit, but bad intent and actions leads to bad karma and a bad life and rebirth. Buddhist rituals are therefore often observed at funerals or when honoring deceased loved ones.
Shrines are associated with Shintoism, which originated in Japan thousands of years ago. Shinto is a unique religious mythology because there is no founder, no written scriptures or text, no religious law or moral code and a very loose priesthood. Shinto beliefs are transmitted from generation to generation by the rituals practiced together in families or other group activities like festivals. A shrine is sacred place to “worship,” or more accurately “acknowledge” the spirits or “kami,” of which there are hundreds of thousands. Kami may represent a specific deity like the goddess of rice, or an ancestor, animal, rock, mountain, river or anything found in the universe. Harmony in the universe is the desired outcome. Shinto shrines have a gate, ropes, non-human guardians and often ponds. The gate or “torii” has a typical shape and marks the boundary between normal and sacred land. Decorative ropes are used on torii gates, or any other structure, for the same protective reason. Torii gates can be very large or small.
Each shrine is dedicated to a specific kami and contains a private “back room” called the “hondon” where the kami lives. In front of this area is a simple “hoiden” or public place where worshipers can pray.
Red colors are believed to drive away evil spirits, so the gates are often red or orange. Animals also guard the kami spirits, and are the kami messengers. To be extra safe, an animal guarding a kami may also be wearing a red scarf.
Shinto is a celebration of all things in nature (animate and inanimate) so Japanese tend to go to shrines for celebration of life events such as a birth or a wedding, or to honor a beautiful river or favorite relative or pet. Thus, a common saying in Japan is that you go to a shrine when you’re born (or get married) and a temple when you die.
Most Japanese do not consider themselves religious, but they are spiritual and visit temples and shrines frequently. Japanese mythology is inclusive and endorses both Shintoism and Buddhism, so don’t be surprised if a tour book sends you to a shrine and you find a temple there as well.
We’ve had a wonderful time visiting both shrines and temples. It’s clear that both beliefs have shaped Japanese culture, but Shinto is the dominant faith and is responsible for much of the homogeneous nature of Japan. The four affirmations of Shinto are:
- Traditions are transmitted from generation to generation by rituals practiced by families and other groups,
- Everything in the universe is sacred,
- Physical cleanliness is good, and
- Kami are sacred and should be worshipped.
As we’ve learned more, it seems likely that hardcore environmentalists and progressives like us would be very at home in the Shinto belief system. At the same time, we’ll hedge our bets and will continue to build up as much good karma as possible so that Buddha will let us come back later better off than we are now. Maybe as a pair of cats.
The desired outcome of Shinto practice is to create a sense of harmony within the universe. When nature is shown respect, the universe is better for all. This belief translates into behavior in Japanese society where people believe everyone should do what is expected of them, address people in certain ways, show love and respect for others and vice versa. Japanese believe that this “collective culture” depends and putting any group ahead of the individual’s needs. Harmony is called “wa” in Japan, and making sure that everyone’s “wa” is cared for animates most interactions between people and the environment.
Confusing to us at first were the tall structures we saw at various sites as shown below. These are called pagodas and are part of the temple or shrine. They house documents, valuable belongings or other items used at the temple or shrine.
Physical cleanliness is an attribute of Shintoism and the cleansing ritual is observed at shrines. The hands and mouth are rinsed before entering. This practice also carries over into another Japanese trait, frequent bathing.
Once a shrine is built, it is either maintained by those who built it, the community, or for famous shrines, the government. If the family moves away and no one takes responsibility, then the shrine is abandoned and falls into disrepair. These sites are all over Japan.
Bells are found at both temples and shrines. Usually the bells at shrines are used to attract the attention of the kami spirits, and at temples it is thought that ringing the bell will make your wishes come true. We rang them because it was fun.
Like most cultures, the Japanese can do things to excess, as in the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its hundreds of torii gates.
Or at the Mejii Jingu Shrine where local sake producers donate barrels of sake to the shrine and, as a gesture of friendship with wine producers in France, barrels of great French wine.
Pardon the classroom discussion about two important world religions, but like most Americans we had no understanding of the importance of Shinto and Buddhism on Japanese culture. Understanding the background has given us a deeper appreciation, not only of the sites, but also of the Japanese people.
And do what you can to improve someone or somethings “wa” today and everyday, and yours will benefit, too…….