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Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Osaka (New Year’s Celebrations)The Shinto religion is the native religion of Japan. The word ‘Shinto’ means ‘way of the gods’. Shinto embraces many kami (gods) which often take the form of things close to life and nature such as trees, mountains, rivers, wind, rain, and fertility. One of the Shinto beliefs is that upon death people become kami and are worshipped as ancestral gods by their relatives.
According to Shintoism people are essentially good. Therefore, anything bad that people do is believed to have been caused by evil spirits. As a result, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep evil spirits away. This is accomplished through prayer, purification, and offerings to the kami.
Shinto is deeply rooted in the history of the Japanese. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Shinto was officially recognized as the state religion but after the Second World War the state and the Shinto religion were officially separated.
Shinto shrines are considered to be the homes of the kami and are therefore places of worship. Shrines are visited during special annual events such as ‘Oshogatsu’ (New Year’s holiday) and festivals. People also visit shrines to pay respect to the kami and pray for good fortune.
Throughout the year there are countless festivals held all over Japan. These celebrate events such as the upcoming farming season, harvest time or important local historical events. Some festivals are small and local while others are huge and attract people from all over Japan. If you are lucky enough to experience such a festival, or matsuri, you will find it to be a memorable event.
How should you behave when visiting a shrine? It is not much different than visiting a church or cathedral. Visitors are expected to behave respectfully and to dress appropriately. Near the shrine’s entrance you will find a purification fountain. Pick up the ladle lying over the small well, fill it with the water provided, and rinse both hands. Then pour some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water out beside the fountain. You are not supposed to drink the water directly from the ladle. Many people only wash their hands or simply do not perform this purification ritual.
At the offering hall, throw a coin (any amount will do) into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of gong, use it before praying in order to ‘wake up’ the gods.
Although visitors are usually allowed to take pictures at shrines watch for signs prohibiting photography. Sacred objects representing the kami are stored in the inner chamber of the shrine where they cannot be seen except on very special occasions.
In the 6th Century, Buddhism made its way into Japan through Korea and China. Unlike Shintoism, which does not have a founder, Buddhism is based on the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, who lived almost 2,600 years ago in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. Initially there were conflicts between Buddhists and Shintos but eventually the followers of the two religions learned to live together in relative harmony.
Throughout history Buddhism gained political influence. During the 8th Century in Nara, it was this influence that prompted the move of Japan’s capital from Nara to Kyoto.
The first branch of Buddhism introduced to Japan was Mahayana Buddhism. This was soon followed by other sects of Buddhism from China such as the Tendai sect (805 AD), the Shingon sect (806 AD) and the Zen sect (1195 AD). Other popular sects like Jodo (1175 AD), Jodo-Shinshu (1224 AD) and Nichiren (1253) developed in Japan as well.
Currently about 90 million people in Japan consider themselves to be Buddhist although the religion does not significantly affect their everyday life. Buddhist rituals are more apt to be practiced on occasions such as funerals.
Byodo-in Temple, Uji, KyotoAs with Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples are places of worship and visitors should behave respectfully and dress appropriately. Every town in Japan has a temple. Some cities like Kyoto have thousands of temples.
Visitors can show their respect at a temple by throwing a coin (any amount will do) into the offering box in front of the main hall and then quietly saying a short prayer. When entering temple buildings, as a sign of respect you may be required to take off your shoes. Leave your shoes on the shelves at the entrance or take them with you in plastic bags provided at some temples.
At some temples visitors burn incense in large incense burners. The smoke from the incense burners is believed to have healing power or make you more intelligent.
Some of the temples function as monasteries while others only store and display sacred Buddhist objects. Photography is usually permitted on the grounds although some temples prohibit indoor photography. Visitors should watch for signs concerning the use of cameras.