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Published on 04.27.2016
In Japan there are thousands and thousands of temples and shrines. These places showcase some of Japan’s greatest architecture, as well as, culture. A visit to Japan would not be complete without visiting at least a few temples or shrines. However, for many visitors the difference between a temple and shrine can be difficult to notice. So what are these differences?
The most basic difference between a temple and a shrine is based on its foundation, that is, they are based on different religions. Temples are for practicing Buddhism, whereas shrines are for practicing Shintoism. However, although two different religions, they are not mutually exclusive. This means that, like other places in east Asia, such as Korea and China, the locals have engaged in practicing more than one religion at the same time. Thus, Japanese people have for centuries practiced both faiths and different aspects of life are associated with each religion. Shinto rituals are practiced for earthly matters, such as weddings or praying for success, while Buddhist rituals are for spiritual matters, such as funerals. These religions do not require visitors to follow it in order to access its place of worship, therefore people of all religious opinions are welcome, as long as, they follow the correct customs.
Shintoism dates back centuries and centuries ago before recorded history, and it is Japan’s own indigenous religion. It the past, there were many strong clans which had their own spiritual ideology. Every clan believed that spiritual deities, called kami, reside between heaven and earth and they exist in every geographic region and natural elements, such as mountains and rivers. By the sixth century, the Tenno clan became the most powerful and was the unifying source of this ideology. This is when Shintoism got its name, which means “the way of the kami” and is the source of the royal family’s justification to the throne.
A Shinto shrine is first distinguished by the presence of a gate called “torii”at the entrance of the shrine. This is usually a red gate with two pillars that are joined with symmetrical, but dissimilar sized lintels. The torii is believed to be the gateway to the realm of the gods, thus upon passing this gate the visitors enter the spiritual realm.
After passing through the tori and before entering the shrine, visitors should cleanse themselves at the purification fountain called “temizuya”. First, the left hand, then the right hand should be washed using the ladle provided. Then, the mouth should be cleansed by forming a cup shape using the hands and cleansing the mouth; this water should not be drunk, but spat out at the side of the temizuya. The last step is to use the remaining water to clean the handle of the ladle and return it to its place.
At the entrance of the shrine (or sometimes before the torii gate) there will be two statues either resembling lion-dog or fox-like creatures, who are the guardians of the shrine, warding off evil. Upon entering the shrine, the following etiquette should be observed:
1) Make a small offering by throwing some coins in the offering box
2) Bow twice
3) Clap the hands twice (this is to grab the god’s attention to listen to your prayer), or if there is a gong it is permitted to ring it
4) Say your prayer or make a wish
5) Bow once more
Originally emanating from India, Buddhism made its way to China, then to Korea from where on it made its way to Japan, arriving in the sixth century. Starting from the seventh century it began to acquire more followers when the Imperial Crown Prince Shotoku (537 – 621) became the advocate of this religion.
This imported religion brought Chinese architectural influences with it. Buddhist temples are usually bountiful in colours and detail with lavishly decorated ceilings, while Shinto shrines are minimalist in decoration when compared. Inside temples, there are various statues, the most important being a golden sitting Buddha. Sometimes there is a (clockwise) swastika sign on the Buddha’s chest, which should not be confused with a certain movement that lead to World War II. The Buddhist swastika is actually an ancient symbol meaning “all is well”. On Japanese maps, this sign designates a Buddhist temple.
When visiting a temple, visitors will notice a large attention grabbing incense burner before the temple entrance. Purchase some incense sticks, light them and a few seconds later extinguish the flame. Place the sticks inside the incense burner and fan the smoke towards yourself. This practice is based on the belief that incense has healing powers and the smell is uplifting which makes it pleasant.
Afterwards, proceed to the main building. Most temples in Japan have tatami floors which means shoes cannot be worn indoors. So don’t forget to wear nice socks when visiting temples and take off your shoes before entering the main building. Visitors should enter from the right side, and if there is someone prostrating, it is disrespectful to walk in front of them. Place some coins in the offering box, then bow deeply twice, make your prayer and bow once more before exiting from the left side.
Source: Subtokyo (Youtube)