In the distance you can hear bells ringing and coins being tossed. Someone claps twice, bows and whispers something under his breath. Someone else is tying white pieces of paper to a tree branch, and a wedding ceremony is currently taking place right next door. This is what a visit to a mysterious shintō chram looks like.
Japan is becoming an increasingly popular and attainable destination for Poles. With direct flights and frequent promotions, it’s possible to fly there for £1,800 roundtrip already without much hassle, and it’s possible to fly there cheaper, too. On the ground, a clash with a completely different culture and society awaits us. Let’s testify to how much there is to know by the fact that several years after visiting Japan, we are still learning new things about the country, learning new customs and its tumultuous history. Traveling educates but also encourages further knowledge, as it is easier to read about something you already know or have seen with your own eyes.
We read a little about religion in Japan before the trip, and learned a little from the guidebook. We also knew about the basic differences between a shintō chram and a Buddhist temple and even so, being on site, we didn’t always have the opportunity to look at every detail. We explored the knowledge on the spot and upon our return, but what surprised us the most is the sheer attitude toward religion among the Japanese.
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Religion in Japan
Religion in Japan is not such an obvious concept as we know it in Poland. Poles overwhelmingly declare Catholicism (almost 90%
) and it is the dominant religion in our country. Catholics go to church, pray, celebrate church holidays, and it is not in their minds to look down on other faiths, go to the mosque or hold bar mitzvahs.
Things are different in Japan – here religions and related customs are intertwined. What is acceptable is something that may not fit in the mind of the average Pole – celebrating one ritual according to one religion, and then going to a temple associated with a completely different religion.
The Japanese are not religious, and their rituals are cultivated mainly because of attachment to tradition and habit. Up to 75 percent of the population admits to being non-believers, but as many as 90 percent practice rituals derived from the country’s two main religions: shintō and Buddhism. Interestingly, according to the shintō religion, birth and nuptial rites are held, and funerals are held in the spirit of Buddhism
. So it can be assumed that happy moments are associated with shintō, and in more difficult moments when people need calming and reassurance they go to a Buddhist temple. There is even a proverb in Japan: a Japanese is born into shintō and dies into Buddhism.
While Poles know a little about Buddhism, shintō is still an unknown and exotic religion. So we hasten with a word of explanation.
Shintō is a typical polytheistic religion that has its roots in Japan. It presupposes belief in numerous deities, called kami , who live among humans, on earth. These idols do not have any super powers, and are only guides for people. One will not find any book or code with guidelines on how a Shintoist is to act, what is allowed and what is forbidden within the religion.
Since there are no precepts, what does it look like to practice shintō? Religion leaves quite a lot of discretion in this regard. Believers should pray and visit the shrines, but how often they will do so and how they will do it remains up to them. However, having been to a few chrams, one can observe the way prayer is done: the Shintoists give an offering, bow, clap, say the “prayer” and bow again (sometimes they also use a bell). The whole thing lasts a few moments, but is something quite different from the familiar attendance at Mass.
While in Japan, you will encounter Shinto shrines and temples at every turn. It is worthwhile to distinguish them from each other although it may not always be so simple and obvious. As we mentioned above, elements of religion are intertwined, and no one is surprised. Here’s a look at what characterizes a Shinto chram and temple.
The simplest and most obvious way to distinguish between a chram and a temple is to look at their name. Shintō chrams have -jingu, -jinja, or – taishain their name (e.g. Meiji Jingu).
Shintō chrams are generally wooden, and no nails are used in their construction
. While this is quite interesting, it is not the first thing you should check when verifying whether you are in a temple or a chram.
The shintō chram has several elements that are characteristic of it and easier to pick out at first glance. One of them is the torii gate, very simple in its construction, consisting of two pillars and two horizontal beams, connecting them at the top. Generally made of wood, although we have also seen stone ones. They may or may not be painted orange and there may be more than one.
Another distinctive feature of the chram, and closely related to the torii gate, is a thick string of rice grass with paper bent in a zigzag pattern (known as shimenawa) hanging from it. It does not hang on every torii, of course, because those can be really many. This cord is supposed to stop and accumulate all bad energy inside.
The entrance to the chram is guarded by Komainu, or a pair of dogs, lions or foxes. These are stone statues located at the entrance.
In chrams, it is very common to encounter a special place where wooden placards (called ema) can be hung – the Japanese write their wishes and requests on them. It’s also popular to tie cards with prophecies (known as omikuji) – these were most often found on trees (although they can also often be seen in Buddhist temples).
The main building in the chram is the so-called honden, a place that houses secular items hidden from the eyes of visitors. Sometimes connected to the main building and sometimes separately is the haiden – the hall where prayers are said and offerings are made [source]..
Also, don’t be surprised by the small stages where art shows are held. It is a standard element of a Shinto chram.
Examples of Shintoist chrams:
A Buddhist temple has the typical -ji, -in or -dera in its name . E.g. Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo.
While simple torii gates led to the chrams, the gate to the Buddhist temple is sizable, with a more complex design. At its base, there are often guards enclosed in pillars, whose very appearance can be a deterrent. In addition to guards, the gate may have a lantern like the one in the temple Senso-ji. The gate is the entrance to the temple grounds, although there may be several other smaller gates besides the main one.
In the temple, there is a statue of Buddha in the main pavilion (other statues also occur).
If you see a pagoda it is also a signal that you are on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. These 3(sanju no to) or 5 (goju no to) story structures are generally built of wood and store relics.
A typical Buddhist temple should also include a bell tower, a hearth with incense sticks and a fountain/spring for washing hands. In the hearth, the Japanese stick lit incense sticks and draw the smoke toward them with their hand.
There are also cemeteries and Jizo statues in the area.
Examples of Buddhist temples:
We were really surprised by the Japanese approach to religion, especially this intermingling of two religions. Religions with seemingly nothing in common. And yet, it creates a kind of magical connection.
It’s also one more aspect that makes Japanese culture something you want to explore, because it’s so different from our everyday lives.
We also recommend you our TOP 17 places to visit in Japan and a practical summary of vacations in Japan.