Unlike any other country in the world, Japan is highly spiritual with a unique belief system. One of the most interesting things about Japanese religion is how no one preaches about it, yet it acts almost like a moral code, a way of living.
The Japanese don't discuss religious matters on a day to day basis, nor they frequently worship. Spirituality in Japan is primarily practised during birth, marriage, death and matusuri (festivals)
Table of Contents
Japanese Religion: Shinto and Buddhism in Japan
Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's two major religions. Shinto is the basis of the Japanese spirituality and considered the country's indigenous religion. Shinto is concerned with living in harmony with nature and living creatures. Everything in the natural world is a kami (god). Take for example the Fushimi Inari Shrine, an iconic spiritual site which attracts countless curious tourists from all around the world. Fushimi Inari is a Shrine dedicated to the Inari god of rice. Throughout the sites, you will see many kitsune (foxes) which are considered to be God's messengers.
In Japan, all four seasons are highly cherished and celebrated, which is one of the main principles of Shinto. When I visited Kyoto, in December, I have been explained how food in the Kansai region is usually different depending on the season. During Spring, when Japan becomes a dreamy pink landscape, snowed under the delicate sakura flowers, the locals embrace this seasonal change, by incorporating sakura flavours in the food, sweets and snacks. Winter is a season focused on hot, heavier food, to comfort and keep the soul warm.
Buddhism arrived in Japan during the 6th century and established itself in Nara. Throughout the years, Buddhism evolved into different sects, with Zen Buddhism being the most widely spread in Japan.
With time, Shinto and Buddhism became the basis of the Japanese way of life, both carrying different spiritual symbols. For Shinto is generally associated with the celebration of life, birth marriage, whereby Buddhism is mostly practised during funerals, concerned with the afterlife.
Shrine and Temples in Japan
One of the most recurring questions in Japan was "Is this a Temple or a Shrine"? Kyoto, known as the city of 10,000 shrines, had a vast combination of both shrines and temples. Needless to say, I had no idea how to differentiate them. For a while, I even presumed a temple is in effect a larger shrine.
This changed when I learned that in fact shrines refer to Shinto and temples refer to Buddhism. Shrines can usually be identified by a large torii gate placed at the entrance. One must pay respect to the spirits when entering a sacred place, and torii gates represent a way of passage.
There are many places throughout Japan whereby I came across a Shinto shrine, located in the same place as a Buddhist temple, hence is sometimes difficult to separate or identify the two.
How to pay your respects in Japan
Paying your respects to the spirits in Japan is an action independent from any religious beliefs. When entering or exiting a Shrine, you should bow once. After passing the torii gate it is common to find a water fountain where you should use the bamboo ladle to wash your hands and your mouth, to clean and purify. Rinse your left hand, then rinse your right hand. Pour some water into your left hand and rinse your mouth. Rinse your left hand again and rinse the dipper.
In order to make a wish, look for the altar. It's usually where you will see a thick thread hanging from the top, attached to a bell. If you put coins in the provided wooden box, you should bow twice, clap your hands twice and make a wish. At the end, bow again.
When entering a Buddhist temple, you usually need to take your shoes off. If you wish to pray, you can kneel on the tatami in front of the altar.
Charms and Ema
Charms and superstitions are deeply integrated into the Japanese way of life. Many buy lucky charms and use them for specific needs, such as fertility, luck and wealth.
When I visited various temples, I found interesting wooden tablets, with scribbles on them, called ema. These wishing plaques can be purchased for a small fee, then used to write a prayer on. The emas are left behind, so the spirits from the temple grounds can take care of the wish.
Another way of entering the charming spiritual world of Japan is to figure out what the future holds for you. You can do so by drawing on omikuji, or a fortune telling paper strip. Usually seen like a game of fate, you have a draw a bamboo stick with a Japanese inscription on it. The characters will point you to a corresponding wooden drawer where you can take your written fortunate from. Should you be blessed, you can keep your paper strip with you, otherwise, wrap it around a dedicated wooden stand and leave it behind so the spirits take care of your misfortune for you.
In order to catch of glimpse of the true Japanese spiritual life, it's best to visit a variety of Shrines and Temples. When I first visited Senso-ji, in Tokyo, I was still a novice in understanding how come that a nation with so many religious grounds can called itself non-religious.
With time, the more sacred places I explored, the more I understood that Japanese spirituality is related to the unpredictable forces of nature, ever changing seasons and the sheer amount of living creatures all around us.
I learned that hikes on Mount Inari or Mount Hiei, represent a rite of passage into the natural worlds, where we, humans, found a place to coexist and adapt.
Hidden Buddhist temples in Arashiyama, hold the true core of zen, which is the essence of finding inner peace and happiness.
Senso-ji, Kiyomizo-dera, and countless others, are a reminder of our how our infinite minds, can be used for good, for self improvement, knowledge and kindness.
The land of the raising sun is where people learned to coexist with their nature counterpart and allow for the religious heritage to evolve into spirituality.