Japan: Temples and Spirituality

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of our week-long trip to Japan was visiting temples, shrines, and other sites of spirituality. In all three cities, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara, these sites provided a look into Japanese culture, beautiful architecture, and a brief respite from busy city life through immersion in nature.

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Kinkakuji, famously known as the Golden Temple is a Buddhist temple that sits on a pond surrounded by nature.

Shinto, a local folk religion, is by far the most prominent “religion” in the country. I use the term religion loosely as its considered more a way of life than an actual religion, and it isn’t organized the same way that many religions are. Rather, Shinto people will pray at a Shrine on their own time rather than attend a worship or service. At just over half of the country, Shinto is intricately woven into Japanese culture. Buddhism follows with about a third of the country identifying.

We were fortunate to arrive in Osaka just in time for a summer festival at the Sumiyoshi temple and shrine. The festival featured food stands, carnival games, and trinkets around the temple, and performances, like a dragon dance, at the actual shrine. The dance is performed by local families that take care of the temple grounds, a responsibility passed on through the generations.

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The dragon dance, performed by youth at the temple.

The site also features the famous Taiko Bashi bridge, which cleanses individuals of sins and filth before entering the shrine. Furthermore, crossing the bridge symbolizes crossing into the spirit world.

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Taiko Bashi Bridge lit up in the night.

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A mobile shrine at the Sumiyoshi festival.

Our friend Alex, who researched Japanese culture in university and now lives in Osaka, explained that Shinto and Buddhism share many similarities. At one point the country attempted to merge the two into a unified religion. The goal was never achieved, but the two practices exist in harmony.

One thing that really stood out to me about religion and spirituality in Japan is how intricately it is connected with nature. I’ll be writing a post about nature in Japan in a few days, but I almost wanted to combine it with this post.

Each spiritual site we visited had important elements of nature woven into it. At the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, we walked through the famous red arches only to find ourselves on a winding forest path that took us to more humble stone shrines and a secluded waterfalls. In Nara, deer roam the park and shrines in harmony with human visitors.

Entrance to the Inari Shrines.

Hidden forest shrines.

Coming and Going at Inari.

It’s no surprise that nature plays a prominent role in the landscape of shrines and temples in Japan. Nature is an important aspect of Shinto, and in fact deity symbols are derived from nature. Nature similarly plays an important role in the practice of Buddhism.

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Todaji Temple in Nara Park, where the deer roam freely. The Buddhist Temple is the largest wooden structure in the world.

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The largest wooden structure is appropriately accompanied by the largest indoor Buddha in the world.

Kofukuji Temple, and the famous five story pagoda in Nara Park.

On the topic of Buddhism, the practice of zen seemed to be a prominent feature of Japan, at least from the perspective of a traveller. Zen gardens can be accessed all over the areas we visited, offering a quiet space among nature and calming architecture to meditate or reflect.

We were fortunate to visit a few zen gardens to enjoy a moment to rest our tired legs and enjoy the singing of cicadas against the quiet calm of the garden. One of the gardens we visited, the Daitokuji Zen Garden, actually prohibited photos which was a refreshing change from the clicks and poses of tourists (including ourselves) everywhere else.

The other garden we visited was part of Ryoanji, a Buddhist temple surrounded by forest and pond. Unfortunately, we had to rush through faster than we would have liked as the temple was closing. However, this was one of our favourite sites on the trip and I would highly recommend arriving here with plenty of time to contemplate through the forest and enjoy the quiet of the rock garden.

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Another fantastic garden we visited was at the Shoren-in Temple in Kyoto. Located at the Northern end of Marayuma Park, the temple is easily accessed from Gion by a leisurely walk through the park.

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What are your favourite spiritual sites in Japan?

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