“Gods, Buddha, ancestors, please help me!” is a common prayer in Japan. Although it may seem odd for adherents to monotheistic religions, Shinto gods and Buddha exist side-by-side in Japan. Nyakuichioji-jinja Shrine in Omachi City, Nagano Prefecture is a good example of Japanese thinking. A three-storey Buddhist pagoda stands next to the shrine’s gate. After people visit the shrine, they pay a visit to the temple. This is not the only place in Japan where a shrine and temple stand next each other. Kofuku-ji Temple, known for its national treasure, the Statue of Ashura, standing face-to-face with the Shinto Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara was built in the 8th century. Jingu-ji, or combined Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are a reminder of a culture in which gods and Buddha have existed in harmony for over 1,500 years.
According to Japanese mythology, gods and people were born of nature; and followers of Shinto have worshipped a variety of gods from ancient times. When Buddhism entered Japan, Buddha was accepted as another of these gods. Shrines are for the worship of nature, while temples are viewed as places to learn how to live a proper spiritual life. Some consider Shinto as shared belief, and Buddhism as a belief system for individual relief. For Shinto, which has many gods but no scripture, a key to understanding each shrine is to know what it enshrines. Both animism, which is the belief that the sun, mountains, waterfalls, large trees and stones, plants and other objects in nature possess distinct spiritual essences, and ancestor worship, in which the deceased are thought to become gods, coexist in Shinto. For example, Mt. Fuji is thought to be sacred and the three grand shrines in Kumano (Kumano Sanzan) enshrine the spirit of the mountains, while Meiji-jingu Shrine enshrines the souls of Emperor and Empress Meiji.
Temples are classified by sect, with each sect following different teachings. Two major examples are the Shingon Sect founded by Kukai, and the Tendai Sect, whose teachings were spread by Saicho. Shinto and Buddhism existed in harmony until the so-called Meiji Restoration, during which the Tokugawa Shogunate that had governed Japan for over 300 years turned over the reins of power to the Emperor. However, because the new government considered Shinto the national religion, many Buddhist temples were destroyed. Until Japan’s defeat in World War II, when Shinto was removed from the government, Buddhism was discouraged. After the war, the Japanese once again welcomed Buddhism. On New Year’s Eve, people listen to bells ringing out the old year (joya no kane) at Buddhist temples, and on New Year’s Day, people visit Shinto shrines to pray for fortune in the new year. Thus, the belief in gods and Buddha has blended naturally into the life of Japanese in the form of customs and habits.
The gate at the entrance of a shrine is called the torii, and the temple gate is called the sammon. The gate functions as a border between the physical and the sacred world. Going through the gate purifies us and allows us to pray to the gods. To show respect, people bow once at the gate before entering.
Objects of Worship
The major difference between shrines and temples is in their objects of worship. Shinto does not conceptualize gods in physical form because it believes that gods are in nature; namely, mountains, forests, and giant trees. Buddhism first worshipped pagodas with Buddha’s ashes placed inside them, and later shifted to statues of Buddha.
Worshippers first enter the gate at a shrine or a temple, symbolically purify their hands and mouth with water. At both shrines and temples, worshippers also place coins into a collection box as an offering before praying. At shrines, after placing their offering in the collection box, worshippers bow twice, softly clap their hands twice, say a prayer, and bow once again. This came from the way that people showed respect to noble persons in ancient times. At temples, worshippers place their palms together at chest level, bow slightly and say a short prayer in front of the sacred statue of Buddha.
The purpose of Takigyo is to cleanse the mind, body and soul by sitting under a cold waterfall and enduring the sound, pain and cold. In ancient times, Buddhist initiates called shugenja or yamabushi performed Takigyo before ordination. After sitting under a waterfall to be unified with nature, you may discover something new about yourself.
Takaosan Yakuoin Temple
2177 Takao-machi, Hachioji City, Tokyo
A manmade Sanzu River and a taiko, or arched Bridge that symbolize the separation between the physical and the spiritual world are located at the entrance of Mt. Osore, one of three great sacred mountains of Japan. Beyond the bridge, we see a mystical landscape that evokes heaven and hell in the afterlife. The bridge has a steep grade meant to symbolize a mountain of needles that prevents sinful people from crossing.
Osorezan Bodai-ji Temple
3-2 Usorisan, Tanabe, Mutsu City, Aomori Prefecture
Fasting is thought to free us from evil thoughts. Stop eating for a few days to face yourself. Fasting is an ascetic practice to strengthen the spirit; and because it is believed that prayers made during fasting will be answered, it is practiced by Buddhist priests. The experience of fasting at a temple gives a chance to examine your day-to-day life.
5500 Koshin, Jinsekikogen-cho, Jinseki-gun, Hiroshima Prefecture
Visit Hoto-jinja Shrine if the wish is to win big money at a single stroke. The name, Hoto, means to win treasures. The shrine got this name because many visitors won lotteries after praying here. Visit the shrine to see if it works.
523 Takashima, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture
Mikami-jinja Shrine is the only shrine for hair in Japan. The soul of Fujiwara Unumenosuke Masayuki, the first hairdresser in Japan, is enshrined here. The shrine is known as a power spot for people who wish to increase the amount of hair on their head and for people in the hairdressing industry. There is a mound of hair within the precincts at which prayers for hair are offered.
10-2 Saga-Ogurayama-Tabuchiyama-cho, Ukyoku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
Because Emperor Sutoku came to the shrine to break away from the world of the flesh, it became a place to pray for separation from ills, including bad relationships with people. Passing back and forth through the small tunnel, pray to end a relationship with illness and bad habits such as smoking or gambling, and begin a relationship with good fortune.
Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine
70 Shimobenten-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture