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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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 Tem­ple

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.