Convention Logistics
Food and Restaurants
Gift Bags
The Hamden Tour
Money and Prices
Street Scenes
Things We Liked
Travel and Transport
Yokohama Options

Home Japan Home Page Sidebars

[As I was putting the (supposedly) “finishing touches” on this site, nearly three years after I started work on it, I found that this page still said “Under construction.” Indeed, it is incomplete, and so it will have to remain. This is just too large a subject to do justice to, but the links provided cover what I cannot and will not attempt to treat.]

Kyoko, our guide, gave us figures on the percentage of Japanese who  identify themselves as Shinto and as Buddhist; the percentages total well over 100 percent. Obviously, there is an overlap. The conventional distinction is that Shinto is for the happy times (weddings, blessing of new children) and Buddhism for the sad times (funerals and burials).

Approximately 52% of the
Japanese profess to practice Shintoism, 47% practice Buddhism, with a
combined membership of both religions as approximately 194,000,000, which is
about 54 percent more than the total population of Japan

According to one Web site:

Urbanization has cut many Japanese off from their family ties to a specific Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine. Still, many people consider themselves both Shintoist and Buddhist. The Agency for Cultural Affairs statistics for 1996 show the combined membership of both religions as approximately 194,000,000, which is about 54 percent more than the total population of Japan. In the religious feelings of most Japanese, Shinto and Buddhism peacefully coexist rather than conflict. For the average person, however, religious affiliation does not translate into regular worship or attendance. Most people visit shrines and temples as part of annual events and special rituals marking life passages.

Such annual events include shrine and temple festivals, the first shrine or temple visit of the new year (hatsumode), and a visit to the family grave during the Bon Festival. Rituals commemorating the stages in an individuals life include the first shrine visit of a newborn baby (miyamairi), the Shichi-go-san Festival shrine visit of three- and five-year-old boys and three- and seven-year-old girls, a Shinto wedding ceremony, and a Buddhist funeral.

H. Neill McFarland provides a useful summary of Religion in Contemporary Japanese Society.

The following Web sites offer more information on specific aspects of Japanese religion.

A capsule explanation of Shinto

A more exhaustive treatment of Shinto

A capsule discussion of Shinto shrines

A more exhaustive shrine guide

A capsule explanation of Buddhism

An exhaustive treatment of all things Buddhist starting at this page

A capsule discussion of Buddhist temples

Discussion of Buddhist temple naming conventions

For our purposes as tourists, the important thing was to know how to distinguish a temple (Buddhist) from a shrine (Shinto). This is not always easy, as the two religions not only coexist but often overlap. It is not unusual to find a Shinto shrine within the precinct of a Buddhist temple, as we saw at Senso-ji (the Asakusa Kannon temple).

Another aspect of the religion that was not obvious to us is that there are numerous sects of Buddhism. This came to our attention when we visited Nishi Hongwanji, which is the global headquarters for Shin Buddhism (a Jodo or Pure Land sect). This diversity is not unreasonable; it is comparable to the multitude of denominations of Protestant Christianity. But in the United States, at least, if you visit a Protestant church, the name of the church will usually give some indication of its denomination, whereas the names of the temples do not (as far as I could tell) give any information of this kind.

The difficulty of operating as an ongoing religious institution after becoming a tourist attraction is a problem no doubt familiar to the priests at, for example, Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., all of which are parish churches with regular congregations. Although we occasionally encountered priests and other officiants engaged in religious ceremonies in the temples and shrines we visited, it was not till we explored Nishi Hongwanji on our own that we got a real sense of a temple as a true religious/educational institution with a wide variety of regular weekly activities and services to the community.

It must be said, though, that at every temple or shrine we visited, but especially at those that did not charge an entrance fee, we saw worshippers mingling with tourists. And even many of the tourists (the Asian ones, anyway) threw coins into the offering boxes, bought and lit devotional candles or incense, bought fortune papers or votive tablets, and the like.

Kyoko instructed us in the forms of reverence expected at each place we visited—removing our shoes, refraining from taking photos, maintaining a respectful silence, performing ritual ablutions or “bathing” in ceremonial smoke and the like. The brochure we received at Meiji Jingu also offered the following instructions.

How to Pay Respects at a Shrine

  1. In appropriate dress, you proceed along the path through the Torii Gate.

  2. You rinse your hands and mouth by using water from the stone basin at the place called Temizusha (the font for ablutions). You should not put your lips to the dipper directly.

  3. Then you proceed to the Main Shrine building. You may throw some coins into the Offering Box if you wish.

  4. In front of the Main Shrine, you bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once again.