Today we’re introducing you to the basics of Japanese Buddhism, plus highlighting some of the Buddhist images you’ll see in Japan and help you distinguish them from Shinto ones.
Any proper itinerary for a trip across Japan should include stops in its three most famous Shinto shrines: Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine, Kyoto’s Heian Shrine, and the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Those, however, are just the tip of Japan’s iceberg of breathtaking sacred Shinto spots.
Even if you’ve got no pressing interest in Japan’s indigenous religion, its shrines are often sites of breathtaking natural and architectural beauty, and here are four that, while off the beaten path, are not to be missed.
Much like “humdinger” and “roughneck,” “foxy” is one of those words that’s far past its golden age. But really, why shouldn’t it be used to describe an attractively fashionable woman, especially is she’s sporting a pair of these cute knee-high socks decorated with Shinto-style kitsune fox spirits and other culturally quirky touches?
Every fall, parents in Japan who have children that are three, five, or seven years old celebrate something called Shichi-Go-San (literally “Seven-Five-Three”). The family heads to a Shinto shrine, where the priest performs a blessing for girls aged three and seven and boys aged five, praying for them to have long and healthy lives.
But since some pet owners will argue that their animal companions are their children, certain shrines now offer Shichi-Go-San blessings for pets, too, some of whom show up wearing delightful pet kimono!
If you’re spending even a short amount of time in Japan, visiting at least one Buddhist temple and one Shinto shrine should definitely be on your list. It doesn’t matter too much which one you go to — they all tend to be lovely places with great atmospheres. Of course, some are bigger and fancier than others, and some just have better locations, like on top of mountains or in forests.
However, it turns out that, according to certain legends flying around on Twitter right now, you might want to be careful about which shrines you visit, or something spooky could be waiting for you…
Even in a city as packed with people as Tokyo, some places, and times, are more crowded than others. So when and where can you find the largest, densest mass of humanity? Some would say the Yamanote loop line during the morning rush hour. Others would vote for Shibuya’s scramble crosswalk intersection on a Saturday night.
But before you go awarding the crown to either of those two candidates, take a look at the massive crowds that came out for the Kanda Matsuri festival last weekend.
Your first trip to Japan is bound to be a whirlwind visit as you try to pack so many things into a short period of time. Do go to Tokyo and see the white-gloved train pushers, the famous Shibuya scramble crossing, and many of the scenes depicted in anime and manga. Do go to Kyoto and see the shrines and temples that are simply amazing.
But as a country that has so much to offer, it can take years to really get to know and understand Japan, even when you live here. So if you want to take your understanding of Japan a step further, we’re here to suggest a few things you’ll want to experience in order to better understand Japanese culture: things that give you insight on what’s behind the Japanese way of thinking.
These experiences will help you understand who the Japanese people are, and why they act the way they do. Get ready to move from tourist to cultural expert after the jump!
When entering the grounds of a Shinto shrine in Japan, it’s customary to first stop by the water basin near the gate and rinse your hands, and sometimes your mouth, in order to cleanse them. Water isn’t the only classical element held to have purifying properties in Shintoism, though, since the same can be said about fire.
Obviously, worshippers aren’t called upon to put fire on their palms or inside their mouths. Instead, Shinto priests light pyres of charms and decorations during the Dondo Yaki ceremony, with the towering blazes regularly reaching 15 meters (49.2 feet) into the air.
The Japanese have long had a fascination with rocks. In fact, rock worship is an integral part of Shinto, Japan’s original religion. Iwakura (sacred rocks) can be found all over Japan. Rocks can be found in any Japanese garden, whether as stepping stones or objects of admiration themselves in dry landscape gardens or Zen rock gardens. One thing is for sure: Rocks are an integral part of the Japanese psyche.
So it’s no wonder that sacred rocks are popular among the Japanese as power spots. By harnessing the energy of these rocks, the Japanese are rediscovering their roots and the power of nature. But before we tell you about the three top rock power spots in Japan, we investigate how these monoliths and boulders gained their rock star status. Our rockin’ reporter uncovers the history and folklore of iwakura in Japan and gives suggestions on how to access the power of these rocks!
One of the trickier questions to answer about Japan is whether or not it’s a religious society. On one hand, the ideas of daily prayer, weekly visits to a temple, or consulting religious texts or advisors in times of personal crisis are about as foreign to most Japanese people as playing a game of cricket or eating a plate of grits and gravy.
Still, spiritualism is a big part of life in Japan. Most visitors to a shrine might not spend more than a few seconds reflecting on their place in the universe, but they’ll still toss a coin into the collection box in hope of pleasing the deity said to make its home there. Even as many Japanese people claim to have no religion, most homes include an alter with a place to hang photos of deceased relatives and offer incense.
The vagaries of theology in Japan are now being turned to in an effort to curb a growing problem in many neighborhoods, as people are putting up small versions of the torii gates that mark Shinto shrines to prevent people from illegally dumping waste, whether produced by their lifestyles or bodies.
In Japan, there’s a saying that goes: “Japanese people are born into Shintoism, get married as Christians and die as Buddhists.” Usually it’s meant to be a comment on Japan’s laissez-faire attitude towards religion. However, having experienced all three of these life events in Japan, it’s a surprisingly accurate aphorism.
In the case of birth, after one month it’s common practice in Japan to take the baby a Shinto shrine for its Hatsumiyamairi (literally “first shrine visit”) often shortened to Omiyamairi. Like weddings and funerals, these ceremonies can differ greatly depending on the region, so I thought I’d share my own recent experience at an Omiyamairi to shed some light on this lesser-known Japanese tradition.
Scattered across the landscape of Japan are Shinto shrines of various shapes and sizes. In many of the larger shrines you’ll find one or more especially old trees known as Goshinboku which means “sacred tree.”
Sacred trees are usually massive in size and centuries old with some reportedly over 1,000 years old. You can usually tell them from the shimenawa wrapped around their trunks. A shimenawa is an extremely thick rope which encloses something holy and wards off evil from outside.
These age-old trees are beautiful specimens of nature’s strength and longevity and add an extra level of serenity to their shrines. However, in the past month someone or some group has been killing off these sacred trees of shrines in 5 separate prefectures in Japan’s mid-west.