Avoiding temple fatigue

As I’m exploring the relatively unknown world of Buddhism and Shintoism (specific to Japan), there are so many unfamiliar sights, actions, and sounds at the temples and shrine, that I often can only stand back and admire instead of getting into the action.

Traveling during the off-season has it’s perks: Empty tourist sites. But this means there are few people to ask, and even fewer that can give you an answer in a language you speak. So I took some pictures and did a little research, and found some interesting tidbits that I thought I would share. (If any experts out there catch some errors, please let me know!)

And certainly knowing a little more helps to appreciate the immensity of the tradition within all of the lovely temples and shrines here in Japan.

So here we go. There is a quiz at the end, so take notes 🙂

Ema

Wooden votive plaques. Bought and hand-written with your wishes and hung outside the temple.

Omi kuji

Paper fortunes that you can buy at various temples. Through a random process (sometimes more or less complex), you receive a fortune- if it is good, take it home. if it is bad, leave it at the temple to be cleansed by the gods.

Senjya fuda

The old sticker ‘calling cards’ of pilgrims visiting the temples and shrines to state that they have been there. You seem them stuck all over the place on the buildings. As it was eventually found to be defacing the facade, the pilgrims now use strips of paper to state their visit to that temple. White paper for the novice, red for 10-19 site visits, silver for 20-29, gold for 30+. The colours and numbers vary,  sometimes gold only is granted after 100+ site visits.

Jizo altars

Jizo is a Bodhisattva (an enlightened person who has chosen to stay on Earth to help guide other people to enlightenment) who provides supreme compassion, optimism and salvation for the living and the dead, particularly children. Sadly, the tiny Jizo statues represent miscarried children. Along with the children’s toys, the altars are decorated with red (the colour for healing and fertility) hats, bibs and capes to ask Jizo to ‘cloth’ their lost children in protection.

Wheel Jizo

These long stakes are placed at altars throughout, and when a wish is made, you turn the wheel down if it is for the afterlife, or up if for the present life.

Sacred rocks and trees

Coins of 100 Yen are placed into the crevices of the rocks and into the bark of the sacred trees. A beautiful shiny sight from a distance.

Shimenawa

Typical for Shinto tradition, the Shimenawa braided rope and Shime strips of white paper are often hung at entrances to shrines. You can also see the devotional practice on the handy (if you read Japanese) placard- donate, ring bell or pull beads around pulleys (if applicable), bow twice, clap twice, pray, bow again.

Shinto Shrines vs. Buddhist Temples

This is a tricky when there isn’t a good way to verify your guess, but the defining feature between the two is the entrance. Shinto shrines are famous for the red torii gates, but I have yet to see one quite so obvious. Buddhist temples tend to be much more ornate and have sturdy looking gates (also called -mon). The one below is definitely a Buddhist gate.

Shinto shrines also are defined by their use of the swastika. No reference to the Natzis who made the symbol famous, but an historically sacred symbol representing luck. So here below is a Shinto shrine, with a more simple gate structure as well.

So quiz time: can you spot the rather weathered shimenawa hanging from the gate and the omi kuji tied onto the wood lattice of the door? Even a few old senjya fuda still holding on as well.

Hope this helps and that you are now ready to venture a little deeper into the beautiful traditions of Buddhism and Shintoism!

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8 thoughts on “Avoiding temple fatigue

  1. Cool pictures and explanations. Did it look like all the temples were actually used for worship or were they more like museums and curiosities/

    1. Yes, that was a really cool part! Many monks still live in the temples- practicing, copying texts, organizing celebrations, gardening- and you can see them around. It makes the temples more meaningful but also means that many buildings are off-limits.

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