JAPAN: Shrines and Temples
Award-winning writer Chrissie Walker visited Japan recently and explored the many shrines and temples on offer. Here she brings us a selection of her favourite ones to visit
This enigmatic land of beauty and mystery was, until European naval fleets reached Japan’s shores in 1543, little known in the West. Spanish Jesuit missionaries converted thousands of Japanese. Despite persecution, there are still Christians in Japan, but their places of worship are far less iconic than the shrines and temples of the main religions of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism.
Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students
Perhaps one of the most moving shrines in Japan isn’t actually devoted to any particular religion at all. There is a small statue under a tall tower in a quiet garden on the banks of the Motoyasu River. That name will likely not be familiar to many, but this is just a few yards from the Hiroshima Dome.
This metal figure at the base of the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students represents the main religions of Japan and is always bedecked with tiny origami cranes. She is the Goddess of Peace and there are eight doves around the tower. The bereaved families of the thousands of lost children began a charity to create a list of the dead and donated funds to build this tower. It is a stark reminder of the futility of war, in a most poignant fashion.
Those colourful pieces of folded paper also have a story and one which is known to every Japanese person. Sadako Sasaki was 12 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Afterwards she contracted leukaemia and was hospitalised. While there her father told her of the legend of a thousand cranes. An ancient Japanese story promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. She didn’t complete her 1,000 paper birds, but her classmates did.
Not far from the Tower in its shady spot is a memorial to Sadako in the Children’s Peace Park, but it is something of a crowded tourist attraction. Somehow that quieter place under the Tower, where ordinary people come to hang their cranes and where local people still come to say a few words of prayer, is more touching and thoughtprovoking. It’s a lesser-known monument but worth a visit.
This metal figure at the base of the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students represents the main religions of Japan and is always bedecked with tiny origami cranes. She is the Goddess of Peace
Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple
Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo. It’s a magnet for tourists with its streets of food and souvenir shops. The first temple here was founded in 645 CE, which makes it the oldest temple in Tokyo. During World War II, the temple was bombed and destroyed. It was rebuilt and is a symbol of rebirth and peace to the Japanese. In the courtyard there is a tree that was hit by a bomb yet has re-grown in the shell of the tree destroyed by war.
At the entrance to the temple is the Kaminarimon or 'Thunder Gate'. It holds a huge paper lantern painted red-and-black. Beyond the Kaminarimon is Nakamise-dori with all those shops. Be warned that photographing these stalls isn’t encouraged. The untutored might encounter loud and rude Japanese shop owners who take exception to anyone considering a picture of their cookies. The alley parallel to Nakamise Dori is much less crowded and has its own selection of food and gift shops.
The observant visitor to Sensō-ji might notice a straw sandal hanging on the red-painted TreasureHouse Gate. Yes, just the one sandal but it is hard to miss, being a considerable 4.5 metres in length! This style of traditional footwear is called waraji. This particular sandal is called owaraji indicating by the addition of that ‘o’ that it is a big one!
There has been such a straw sandal hanging here since the 1940s, when a town in Yamagata Prefecture donated sandals to the temple as a prayer for safety during the war. The first pair of
owaraji was destroyed along with the temple but replacements have been made whenever needed.
The temple isn’t as big and grand as some of the others in Japan, but it does have family appeal. There is an incense burner for which one can buy sticks to light, and one can also buy a prediction of one’s fortune. A few hours here could constitute an adventure for all the senses. One can snack, indulge in a little retail therapy, marvel at the architecture, and even pray. The crowds are, however, distracting so an early start is recommended – and don’t even think about going at weekends.
Temple of The Dragon at Peace, Kyoto
Ryōan-ji, or The Temple of the Dragon at Peace, is a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto. It belongs to the Myōshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. The temple and its gardens are listed as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a popular temple for visitors to Kyoto, so arrive early to avoid the crowds.
The first temple, the Daiju-in, and the still existing lake were built in the 11th century. In 1450, Hosokawa Katsumoto, a powerful warlord, bought the land where the temple stood and founded a Zen temple, Ryōan-ji. The temple was destroyed by war but rebuilt in 1488. The temple is a mausoleum for several emperors in what are today known as the 'Seven Imperial Tombs'.
Many references date the famous temple garden to the second half of the 15th century. It is the epitome of a Japanese gravel garden. It was originally described as a composition of nine big stones laid out to represent Tiger Cubs Crossing the Water. As the garden has 15 stones these days, it has evidently changed over the centuries. A great fire destroyed the buildings in 1779, and rubble of the burnt buildings was dumped in the garden. Garden writer and specialist Akisato Rito redid the garden completely, on top of the rubble, and published a picture of his garden in his Celebrated Gardens and Sights of Kyoto of 1799, showing the garden just as we find it today.
The garden is a rectangle of 248 square metres. Placed within it are 15 rugged stones of different sizes. They are surrounded by white gravel, which is meticulously raked each day by the monks.
The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the verandah of the hōjō, the residence of the abbot of the monastery. And one should wait for a space to do just that. Strangely, the stones are positioned in such a way that all the rocks cannot be seen at the same time. Only 14 of them can be seen from any one position. It is thought that only through religious enlightenment can one view all 15 stones.
Tōdai-ji or Eastern Great Temple is a Buddhist temple complex located in the city of Nara, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being one of the 'Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara'. It has, for me at least, the most visual and emotional impact of any Buddhist temple anywhere. Its celebrated Great Buddha Hall or Daibutsuden houses the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world.
In 743 CE, Emperor Shōmu issued a law in which he demanded that the population should build new Buddhist temples throughout Japan. His belief was that such efforts would encourage Lord Buddha to protect Japan from disaster. According to accounts at Tōdai-ji, more than 2.6 million people helped build the Great Buddha and its Hall.
The striking figure of the Lord Buddha stands 16 metres high and was assembled from eight castings over three years. The Buddha was finally completed in 751. Construction demanded most of the available bronze in Japan at the time.
The Great Buddha Hall has been destroyed twice by fire. The current building was finished in 1709, and until 1998 it was the world's largest wooden building. The Great Buddha statue has been recast several times after earthquake and other damage. Its head once fell to the ground and was replaced with another that was better affixed.
The size of the Buddha is impressive but it’s not only its proportions that inspire respect and awe. The face is serene and composed, hands are delicate, and the seated figure gives the visitor the impression of a sleeping giant who might, at any moment, awake from a long and metallic slumber to right the wrongs of a troubled Earth. Perhaps it’s exactly that for which many worshippers pray.
Deer freely roam the extensive park grounds. According to local folklore, Sika deer from this area were considered sacred due to a visit from a god riding a white deer. From that point, the deer were considered messengers of the gods. Killing one was once punishable by death. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their religious status, and were from then on deemed to be national treasures. Today, visitors can purchase snacks to feed the deer, but bear in mind that most injuries to tourists are by deer at feeding time!
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of the god Inari and is found in Kyoto. Stone statues of the fox god Inari are in evidence here, but this shrine must surely be better known as the place with the most torii gates, and they are everywhere and of every size. The first reference to torii gates in Japan dates from the 10th century CE. They were traditionally made from wood, and here they are painted vermilion. There are so many of them that collections of the larger ones form tunnels; but there are also miniature versions leaning on rocks in more casual fashion.
Inari is the god of rice, but industrialists and entrepreneurs have traditionally worshipped Inari as the patron of business. Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate a gate in gratitude for their good fortune. Fushimi Inari Taisha has thousands of bright red torii gates and each one is inscribed with the donor's name. It seems like Kyoto is a good place to do business.
The main shrine sits at the foot of a mountain which is also named Inari. The mountain offers paths for hiking, which is a much-loved pursuit for locals and visitors. There are many small shrines along the path, but they become sparser with elevation. The walk to the top would take the intrepid a couple of hours.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan. Those torii gates have become a symbol of the nation (along with Mount Fuji). Images of torii are found on food packaging and maps and tourist information, and they are indeed photogenic. If one wants to get that perfect Instagram shot, then it’s best to go early in the morning.
Japan has a wealth of shrines and temples and they are enjoyed by tourists but still very much used by locals. Many of them are faithful reproductions of buildings destroyed by war or natural disaster. It’s a testament to the Japanese respect for heritage that they have kept alive the crafts that have enabled them to replicate these places of worship.
Below, left to right: A selection of gifts that can be bought near the Senso-ji shrine; The red lantern of thunder and lightning at the Thunder Gate; the straw sandal as a prayer for peace
Right, top: A prayer wheel at the temple
Below: One of the 15 stones in the temple garden, with the gravel carefully raked around it
Below: A visitor tries to take a selfie with a sacred deer
Above: Detail of a bronze butterfly at the Todai-ji Temple
Left: The largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world, Tōdai-ji Temple
Top left: Miniature versions of the torii gates lie against rocks at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine
Above, top right: Traditional snack of takoyaki, Octopus balls, at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine
Above, bottom right: Lanterns hanging at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine