Besides the Shinto shrines, Japan also counts numerous Buddhist temples. Both religions can even appear as complementary in the daily Japanese life. Japanese Buddhist temples are called tera or jiin.
The architecture of those temples isn’t quite different from the shrines, for the separation between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples was only effective at the Meiji era (around 1868). Before that, it was common to find a Shinto shrine beside a Buddhist temple. Thereby, there are also purification basins, votive plaques, oracles, amulets stalls or lanterns. The obvious difference would probably be the multi-storey pagoda, which I haven’t noticed around Shinto shrines. The entrance gate is also way more impressive than the torii, which are often guarded by two gigantic statues.
First of all, it’s quite hard not to feel uncomfortable with all of those Swastikas everywhere. Those are originally related to Asian religion as Buddhism or Hinduism and are good omen signs (in Sanskrit it literally means ‘it’s good’). Even if the Nazi’s Swastika is inclined, it’s hard for a European to witness this symbol everywhere, for it’s a considerable taboo in Europe. Looking at the Kyoto’s touristic map, every temple is designated by a Swastika.
Then, Buddhist temples look also considerably more wealthy and golden than the Shinto shrines. They are also more crowded and noisy and less peaceful. However, architecturally speaking, I must say it’s hard not to fall for the majesty of the coloured pagodas.
The prayer is also quite the same, except that you don’t clap in your hands, you just bend.
Since I was lucky enough to visit numerous temples in three different cities, let me invite you with me to three Buddhist temples I visited while in Tokyo, Nagano Prefecture and Kyoto.
SENSÔ-JI, ASAKUSA, TOKYO
The Sensô-Ji temple is the oldest temple in Tokyo, it was built in 645. It’s dedicated to Kannon, a goddess who symbolises compassion, for the legend says that two brothers were fishing in the Sumida River and found in their net a statue of Kannon. This is when the two brothers converted to Buddhism and dedicated their life to Buddha. The temple was sadly bombed and destroyed during World War II and was skilfully rebuilt as a sign of peace for Japan.
What’s impressive about this temple, at first sight, is the main ally of 89 shops you have to go through to get there. First, you’ll pass the Kaminarimon gate (or ‘Thunder Gate’), with its two impressive statues of wind and fire deities and then you’ll get in this Namikase-dori ally where you can find food and loads of little Japanese souvenirs. It’s said that sellers are here for centuries now, trying to sell overpriced souvenirs to tourists while they’re going to the temple.
Noriko is buying me an incense stick that I have to burn and drop in the huge incense burner in front of the temple. Then we make big gestures to get the smoke coming towards us, mainly towards the head in order to purify ourselves. While burning my stick, I got my hand burned. Thanks, Buddha.
Also, Noriko initiates me to the oracle and its divinations, called Omikuji which means sacred lottery. Basically, you have to pay to get a prediction coming from an Omikuji box that you previously shook. In my case, I got a stick with a number first and then had to look at a kind of big rack with numbers to get my prediction. I’m lucky, I get the number 50 and my prediction says that “to start a trip is good!” among all kinds of great things! There are actually several types of luck, the awesome luck called daikichi, the regular luck called chûkichi (the one I got), the little luck called shôkichi, tiny little chance called suekichi and the very bad luck called kyô. Keiko is lucky too, although Noriko and Takafumi got very bad ones. And here in Japan, when the oracle is predicting you bad omens, well, it’s truly bad things in all of your life’s aspects! Love, health, success, everything’s a disaster. In order to ward off the bad omen, you have to fold the paper and tie it to a little wooden stick or a tree.
The Sensô-Ji is an amazing building, with bright red colours. And since it’s one of the most famous temples in Tokyo, it’s crowded as hell, mostly with Chinese tourists. You can see there, with the Namikase-dori ally and all, that the place isn’t that much authentic but dedicated to tourists.
LET’S GO THERE!
Senso-Ji, Tokyo. JR Yamanote or JR Chuo Line until Kanda Station, then Ginza Subway Line towards Asakusa.
The Zenkô-Ji temple is the most famous temple of Nagano Prefecture. The temple was built in the VIIth Century, and the legend says it’s hosting the very first Buddha statue brought in the country. Unfortunately, no one can see it and it will never be shown to the public. Apparently, people can see a replica of this statue every six or seven years (!!!) during a ceremony called Gokaichô, which attract obviously a lot of visitors and tourists.
While in this temple, I get to experience the ‘Key to Paradise’ with Noriko and Masashi. You have to go through a kind of underground pitch black corridor, touching the wall to guide yourself through it and eventually finding the Key supposed to bring you enlightenment. Lucky me, I found the Key! When I come back to the light, a Japanese guy who’s working at the temple tells me to look at myself in the mirror. There’s a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ the Key he says. I look closely but don’t find anything besides the fact that I have a giant sunburn on my face and that I already look like a novice adventurer with bruises over my shoulders, a burn on my hand and some scratches on my knees. That’s the perfect moment to touch this golden Buddha statue on the same spots where I’m hurt. Noriko tells me it will help me heal faster.
LET’S GO THERE!
Zenko-Ji, Nagano. Can be reached on foot or by bus from the JR Nagano Station.
KIYOMIZU-DERA, HIGASHIYAMA, KYOTO
Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera is part of the Unesco World Heritage since 1994. It’s a huge complex of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, one of the most famous places of interest in Kyoto. The temple was funded in 778, although the present buildings were built in 1633 after a fire burnt everything.
I get to experience another underground corridor called Tainai Meguri, in which I got to discern, in pitch black, a big round and glittering rock that you can touch to make a wish. Of course, I’m wishing myself a safe travel. And a bit of happiness.
Another thing the place is famous for are those two love stones at the Jishu-Jinja shrine, a shrine dedicated to Ôkuninushi, the god of love and good matches. To guarantee you finding love pretty soon, you have to walk the 18 meters in between the two love stones with your eyes closed without falling or going in the wrong direction. I haven’t tried, although I kind of wish I had considering my love life is such a mess. But the place was crowded with teenagers from all over the world. I guess I’ll just postpone the love issue then.
Walking amongst the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines is such a nice stroll, there are even a waterfall and some nice paths.
Since the complex is built on the hillside, the view over Kyoto is incredible! The pagoda is also pretty impressive, and I can’t get enough of taking pictures of this place.
LET’S GO THERE!
Kiyomizu dera, Higashiyama, Kyoto. Bus n°100 or 206, bus stop Gojo zaka or Kiyomizu-michi.
Visiting Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines is surely a part of your adventure while you’re travelling Japan. And the fact that both religions cohabitate peacefully is something worth mentioning. As the adage says “Japanese people are born Shintoists and dies as Buddhists”. And it’s not just a legend, for the Japanese people will worship with the same enthusiasm Buddha or the numerous kami.
I really enjoyed this immersion into the Japanese religions. I liked both elegant architectures and traditional rituals like Omikuji or Ema. Stepping inside a temple in Japan is like taking a deep plunge into Asian culture and all its beauties.