I have to admit that while in Japan I was a bit confused about whether it was a shrine or a temple that my friend and I were visiting. By the way, there are a lot of temples and shrines scattered throughout the country in big and small towns alike. That fact explains why visitors to Japan visit so many temples and shrines! So, after learning a little in Japan and then further looking into the matter, things have cleared up a bit—but just a bit! Buddhism seems a real challenge. I couldn’t tell if there was one Buddha, or many Buddhas although it was clear there are many different sects of Buddhism believing in and/or practicing slightly different ways. Also, it seems that there can be a large Shinto shrine for all to attend or small neighborhood shrines for local use; I think this is due to the fact that there are many different and/or localized deities.
Regardless of my lack of knowledge about Buddhism and Shinto, I really enjoyed observing the uniqueness of each practice, the unique features and history that make each temple or shrine special, the many picturesque and well-maintained accompanying gardens, and the beautiful and ornate building structures of the temples and shrines, many of which are very, very old. Most temples and shrines charge admission fees, but the fees are very reasonable and average around $5.00.
Here is some helpful information.
Part of the confusion for me is that it seems the Buddhist and Shinto religions are both practiced almost alongside each other and almost interchangeably. Well, apparently they are, sort of, although Shinto is practiced at a shrine; Buddhism at a temple. My research indicates that Shinto seems to be viewed as a religion of earthly matters (pray for success in life or business, use a shrine to host a wedding); Buddhism as a religion of spiritual matters (pray for ancestors, use a temple to host a funeral).
So far, I have posted about the Ryoan-JI and Ginkaku-JI temples. The “JI” in the name is a clue that one is visiting a temple. On the other hand, Shrines often use the suffix “jingu” (not always, though!)
- Are marked by entrance gates, called a “Torii” gate, either really close by or set off a little distance. For instance, the Heian Shrine has a huge Torii gate spanning across the entire road a little walking distance before the site. Other gates may not be as large, but likewise you walk through the gate to enter the shrine grounds. Plus, the gates are usually bright orange and black.
- Will have some sort of purification fountain near the entrance where you can wash your hands (and mouth) to prepare for prayer.
- Will often have a pair of guardian dogs, lions or foxes on each side of the entrance.
- Have areas within the grounds where one can purchase prayer sticks/plaques to write requests on which are then hung or placed on a provided rack.
- Have areas special for the shrine’s deity where gifts of food are often placed.
- Have a statue of Buddha.
- Often have incense burning.
- Often have a pagoda somewhere on the temple grounds.
More basic info: Both religions date way back. Shinto dates back from the feudal days in Japan when each clan identified with its own “kami” (god). Shinto believes in many deities (gods) inhabiting heaven and earth. Buddhism was introduced around the 6th century from China and gained acceptance when it was endorsed by nobility.
As a Christian I also wanted to visit a church while in Japan. Churches are considerably fewer and more far between, but conveniently right around the corner (2 blocks) from the Heian Shrine (Kyoto) we visited was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which also operates a kindergarten school on premise. The front doors were wide open, and we entered and looked around the attractive sanctuary with beautiful stained glass window. I paused at the altar to thank God for my trip and for my kind friend. My friend stood by and waited for me just as I waited for her while she prayed at the Shinto shrines. Visitor information was available in the entranceway (in Japanese, of course), and a prayer ledger for those wishing to list their prayer needs. We did not meet any body in person; but then neither did we meet any temple or shrine staff…
On a Personal Note: Now, of course, a Christian can pray and thank God anywhere at any time and does not need to be in a church building to do so, and I’m really not sure if Buddhism or Shinto believes that way. Jesus came for all people everywhere, and God’s Spirit is present with believers always. This aspect of my Christian faith remained very clear to me even within the contrasting setting of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Naturally, though, I felt more comfortable in the familiar church setting. And, as a Christian, I did not pray at the temples or shrines because to me that would be a visible statement of worshipping another god. However, during my short stay in Japan, I did not feel uncomfortable being Christian nor did I feel uncomfortable that my friend is Shinto/Buddhist. For instance, she said her meal prayer; I bowed my head and said mine. I mentioned I worshipped one God; she knew that. I asked her if many gods was difficult; she paused but light-heartedly replied it was fine for the Japanese. Maybe during a longer stay in Japan conflicts would inevitably arise. But I believe God put us together as friends, and I thank my God for this visit with my friend of 30 years while on her turf, on Shinto ground, in Japan. I welcome any comments from my readers on this subject of thought.