Unless you are going to spend all your time in Japan shopping, eating and drinking – and we could hardly blame you – Japan is one of the great cultures of the world when it comes to religious, or spiritual, expression. Much Japanese art and architecture is devoted to spiritual matters, and the country is loaded with artifacts from grand temples to tiny shrines, sometimes in the unlikeliest places.
The twin religions of Japan are accessed through the country’s tens of thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Despite superficial similarities, they are actually quite different. But the rules for visiting them are quite similar – they are, after all, both Japanese – and most of those cautions are simple common sense. First, a few words about the places themselves.
Shinto, as the quintessential Japanese form of worship, finds expression in everything from large structures that could easily be called temples – the shrine/temple distinction is just for convenience – to something as simple as a rock outcropping, a tree or even a whole grove that has gained spiritual significance over the centuries.
It is this very ubiquity that best expresses the total integration of Shinto into Japanese daily life, as these shrines show the rather homey nature of Shinto worship. The numerous kami (spirits) of Shinto are familiar to all Japanese, and many have a shrine close to their homes, even inside the home.
Most public Shinto shrines are marked by either the iconic torii gates, which separate the mundane world and the spirit world, or by the braided straw ropes (shimenawa) that mark a particular tree or other natural object as a shrine. That said, there are also enormous structures of national importance, such as the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture, and the Itsukushima Shrine, with its grand torii. The shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto dates to the 8th century, and features a path lined with more than 10,000 red torii gates.
Unlike Buddhist temples, which often contain statues of the Buddha, Shinto shrines rarely feature depictions of the kami to which they are dedicated. More likely, they will have statues of perhaps foxes, horses or other animals that serve the kami. In keeping with the concept of wabi-sabi, most shrines are designed with as little emphasis on human creation as possible, a stark contrast to vast, artistically extravagant Christian cathedrals and Hindu temples.
Buddhist temples (tera in Japanese) are more familiar to many travelers, as such temples are all over Asia. But as with everything else, the Japanese have put their own cultural stamp on them. With the forced separation of Buddhism and Shinto during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, stronger distinctions were made between the two, with Buddhism, the “foreign” religion, being downgraded.
Buddhist temples are not necessarily for worship, though that occurs in them; more often, they are used to house sacred objects, often (but not always) statues of the Buddha. They often look very much like a Shinto shrine, right down to the torii gate.
Temples very often serve as monasteries as well, which is clear with the presence of monks (and sometimes, nuns). Given that, it is important to note that not only are temples great artistic treasures, they are also the homes of the monks.
On balance, Buddhist temples are the more grand, with their enormous, dominating roofs and expansive interiors, all of them rooted in the Chinese styles that have long dominated Japanese architecture.
Whether visiting Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines, it is important to remember several things in order to show simple respect. The world is full of tourists doing stupid or insensitive things. Don’t be one of them.
1 – As almost anywhere of importance in Japan, remove your shoes at the door. At any entrance gate (torii), it is respectful to bow. Nothing elaborate is required, just a simple bow.
2 – Modesty is important in all places of worship. Shorts are simply not worn, and women should be sure to make sure no cleavage is showing. This is not a nightclub.
3 – Places of worship are considered pure, and all visitors must make a symbolic effort to purify themselves. To that end, most Shinto shrines have a temizu basin from which to wash the hands. Take the ladle provided with one hand and rinse the other; switch hands.
4 – When you approach the shrine, you may ring the bell if there is one, and if there is a box for donations, a few small coins will show the proper respect. But best to simply observe others until you know the proper manners.
5 – Taking photos is often allowed, but don’t assume. Watch for posted signs. If photography is not allowed, don’t try to sneak a photo. It’s rude.
6 – At the shrine, the main form of ritual is to bow twice and then clap your hands twice, holding the second clap in front of your heart. After your prayers are said, a final bow is made.
7 – It shouldn’t need to be said, but please: No smoking. Most Japanese temples and shrines are made largely of wood. Burning down an ancient temple – or merely stinking it up – would not advance international understanding.
8 – The larger Shinto shrines have several chambers, the main hall (honden) being the sanctuary where the kami are said to live. Do not go into the honden; only priests are allowed there. The honden is marked by a heihaku, a stick with hanging streamers. Do not pass through.
9 – Natural sites that serve as Shinto shrines are called mori, and they must be treated with the same respect as more familiar buildings. If it is a rock, don’t climb on it for a picture.
10 – The shintai is the sacred object that often denotes the presence of the kami. It may be a rock or other natural object, often beautifully wrapped; it may be a mirror, which is a neat metaphor indeed.
11 – If you feel so inclined, offerings may be made at most Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Food (fruit, fish), tamagushi (branches), shio (salt), gohan (rice), mochi (rice cakes) and sake may all be offered.