Japan 2014…Of Temples and Shrines

This is part 2 of my Japan 2014 Pentalogy.

The Japanese are probably unique in the world, in having two co-existing religions, both being practiced by the same individuals. It has been said that 80% of Japanese are Buddhist, and 80% of them are Shinto. I know of no other place or culture where two different religions are so intertwined with each other, that most common Japanese practice the rituals of both in their lifetime.

Sumiyoshi Taisha

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Of the two co-existing religions in Japan, Shinto is said to be the older one. The religion is indigenous to, and practiced almost exclusively within Japan, whereas Buddhism came to Japan through Chinese influence.

The Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka is one of the most important Shinto shrines in the Kansai region. It is said to have been established before the influence of Buddhism became prevalent in Japan, and therefore it is one of the few shrines in Japan that are built in purely Shinto tradition.

In Shinto belief, everything in the environment has a spirit, including the Sun, which is considered the highest among the spirits (hence the importance of the sun in Japanese culture). This is also probably reflected best in the way Sumiyoshi blends with the environment. It is in a middle of one of Japan’s biggest cities, yet it is very quiet, very peaceful, and you can forget that you are within a highly urbanized area. I’m neither Shinto nor Buddhist, but I can definitely feel the divinity of the place…it’s as if God, by whatever name you call him, can appear infront of you there any minute.

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Kinkaku-ji

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Kinkaku-ji, meaning “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” is a Zen Buddhist temple in northern part of Kyoto. Built during the Ashikaga Shogunate more than four centuries ago, it is one of the numerous historical sites in Kyoto, but if there’s only one temple you can visit, then it has to be this one. Covered in gold plating and set in perhaps one of the most beautiful manmade landscapes you could find, the Kinkaku-ji is trully a sight to behold.

In typical Zen style, the temple and its surroundings have a “minimalist” beauty. The shimmering temple stands behind a lake that elegantly reflects the gold plating, and all around them are just rocks, trees and shrubs, but arranged in such a manner that aspiring landscape artists should learn from. Behind the temple are lush mountains that provide an equally elegant backdrop.

Though the current structure is just a replica (the original was burned by a disturbed monk in the 1950’s), it is a sight to behold nonetheless.

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Todai-ji

An hour and a half’s drive away from Kyoto is yet an older Japanese capital, the City of Nara. Nara was the Capital of Imperial Japan before the era of the Shoguns, and it was originally modeled after the old Chinese capital of Chang’an (present day Xian). Today Nara is a small, pleasant city of just over two hundred thousand people, but it still holds much historical value.

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The Todai-ji temple in Nara is perhaps one of the largest buddhist temples in Japan, and it houses the largest bronze Buddha. Made largely of wood, the temple does not hide its age, yet the sheer size of the structure and of the statue inside it still command awe. Built some time in the 8th century, the temple is one of the historical treasures of Japan.

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The Deers of Nara

Todai-ji is right next to the Nara Deer Park, which is home to around 1200 deer at present. Visitors will see deer roaming around the place, and the good thing is that the deer are already so familiar with humans that they are not threatend by even a large crowd. Visitors can touch and pet them, and even feed them crackers which are sold in the stores within the vicinity.

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Kasuga Taisha

A short distance from Todai-ji is Kasuga Taisha, another Shinto shrine, built at around the same period as the Buddhist Todai-ji. Kasuga Taisha is notable for its long uphill walkway lined by a multitude of stone lanterns. Like neighbouring Todai-ji, deer still roam around freely in the shrine’s grounds, where thy are considered sacred animals. Kasuga Taisha is also located within a forest park and botanical garden, giving it a very “close to nature” feel.

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A Buddhist monk, in Nara.

A Buddhist monk, in Nara.

*All photos taken June 2014, using an Olympus EPM2 with M.Zuiko 14-42mm IIR. The panorama of Kinkaku-ji was taken with an iPhone.

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