Fragglepuss Visits Japan: Shrines and Temples
By: John Fragglepuss Evans
I finally made it to Japan! It was even better than I could have imagined. To provide recommendations for those traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun, I present this series of places to visit while in Japan.
You will not have a difficult time locating religious locations in Japan. What might be difficult as an outsider is differentiating between a Shinto Shrine and a Buddhist Temple. Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. It is based on Japanese myths, has no sacred texts, and no official founder. Spirits and rituals play a significant role. Buddhism came to Japan by way of China in the 6th century but was not widespread initially due to its complex theories.
While you’re in Japan there will be religious locations of all shapes and sizes. You’ll pass them whether you are walking down a random street or a main road. Below is a list of some of my favorites I saw while out there.
Shrines are Shinto locations distinguishable by the wooden guard frame, Torii, in front of them. The Torii acts as a gate between our world and the world of the gods. Water at the entrance as a means of purification is a Shinto tradition. It may seem silly to think of this, but a lack of Buddhist statues is another simple indicator that you are at a shrine rather than a temple.
This shrine is in the middle of Shibuya, Tokyo, but you wouldn’t know it as you travel inside. It is a large shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Sake barrels are offered every year to the enshrined deities to show deep respect for the souls of the emperor and empress due to their influence on supporting technological advancement and encouraging industry. Wine barrels are consecrated every year to the spirit of world peace and amity. Votive tablets are found at the shrine. After giving an offering, you write a wish on the wooden plaque then hang it at the shrine for the spirits to receive. If you are at the shrine at the right time, you may witness part of a traditional Japanese wedding.
Kanda meojin shrine
Kanda is a beautiful, peaceful shrine that dates back over 1,000 years. Due to its location in Akihabara, it now has several ties to anime culture. Not only is it close to Akiba, but “Love Live!” used it in their anime. The shrine administrators have recognized the anime relevance of the area and adopted the character Nozomi Tojo of “Love Live!” as their official mascot. When you visit take time to look at the votive tablets at this shrine. You’ll notice many of them contain beautiful artwork. Kanda also has O-mikuji, fortunes, that you get by giving an offering. If you receive a bad fortune, you tie it to the wire art with the hope that the back fortune will stay at the shrine, rather than follow you. If you receive a good fortune you can keep it for luck or you can tie it to the wire in hopes of greater effect.
This shrine is located adjacent to the Senso-ji Buddhist temple, making the distinction between the two slightly confusing if you are not familiar with the two religions. Look for the Torii as well as the other indicators of a shrine to differentiate between the two, which are interconnected in how Akakusa was built to worship the men that founded Senso-ji. Akakusa miraculously survived the air raids of 1945. The area of the shrine and temple is a must-see.
If you see statues of Buddha as well as gravestones, you are on temple grounds, a Buddhist location. Burning of incense at the entrance, using smoke as a method of purification, is another indicator of a temple.
Hasedera temple in Kamakura
Hasadera is known for containing one of the largest wooden statues in Japan, a 30-ft. tall likeness of Kannon. The temple grounds are expansive and include a cave. It is also home to hundreds of Jizo, small statues placed by parents mourning offspring lost to miscarriage. Hasadera is a beautiful and tranquil area. Despite the many visitors there was a calm and peaceful feeling the entire time I was there.
Kotoku-in temple in Kamakura
This temple is renowned for its 44-ft. tall Daibutsu, Great Buddha, which is an outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha. The statue possesses a long and trying history, beginning in 1243 when the original indoor wooden statue was completed. In 1248 a storm damaged the indoor Buddha and destroyed the structure surrounding it. The statue was recreated using bronze and the hall was rebuilt to contain it. The hall was destroyed by another storm in 1334, rebuilt, destroyed again in 1369, and once again rebuilt. A tsunami washed away the hall in 1498. Since then the Daibutsu has stood out in the open. An earthquake in 1923 destroyed the statue’s base, which had to be rebuilt. Kotoku-in temple is another peaceful and serene location to visit.
Senso-ji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, founded in 645 AD. The structures are remarkable, especially the main hall (Hondo). The pagoda was entirely covered due to construction when I visited, but it’s understandable. A sad fact is how Senso-ji was bombed and destroyed during World War II and had to be rebuilt. The temple is adjacent to the Asakusa Shinto Shrine.
The temple made famous through the Ako incident involving the 47 Ronin in the 18th century. I have been intrigued by this piece of Japanese history for a long time, so visiting this location was unbelievable. I was amazed to see the spots I had read about with my own eyes, imagining how it must have been at the time of the incident. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is one of the ultimate stories of Japanese loyalty. It is not the most aesthetically pleasing of the Japanese temples, but the history speaks for itself. When you visit, you can watch a video explaining the story, followed by a walk through a gallery of Ronin history. You can then visit the graves, placing an incense on each of the 47. Lastly you can visit a gallery of wooden statues of all 47 Ronin, complete with an explanation as to who they were.