Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!
Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!
Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?
All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.
Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.
Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.
More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.
There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.
The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.
Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.
But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!
We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.
But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.
On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.
The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.
We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.
Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.
Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.