By Madison Roper
“You’ve been blessed by God for seeing that,” said Megumi Yoshihisa, after witnessing a monk bang a drum at a temple.
Megumi and her husband Yasushi are part of my family, and a huge reason I was able to see so much of Japan.
Out of everything I saw in my month there, I learned the most from the countless shrines and temples.
They are scattered all over Japan, and not one looks exactly like another.
Japan is estimated to have over 75 thousand temples and 80 thousand shrines.
Tokyo alone has at least 1,479 shrines.
The temples and shrines do not all fall under one specific religion.
Shinto is the traditional Japanese religion.
It was created with many ritual practices, in order to keep modern day Japan linked to its past.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, with a slight fight from people with differing beliefs.
The two religions most often get combined in modern time.
There were many things in the religions that people believe complement each other.
Not once did I see a shrine or temple that was run down or overgrown with plants. All were extremely well preserved and respected. There wasn’t a single piece of trash on the ground.
Everything had barriers, so human touch could no longer break down anything of value.
Not value meaning monetary value, but the value these building have in history.
Shinto shrines are massive pieces of history for the people of Japan. A popular Shinto shrine in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine that dates back to 711 A.D. It’s a mountainside shrine that has a path with 100 traditional gates.
“A way to know what you’re visiting is if you walk through a gate. Gates are exclusive to shrines,” said Yasushi as we trekked up the mountainside. “You will never see a temple with a gate as you enter, but you could come across a shrine in a temple.”
Some of the gates were made of stone and holding steady in age. Others were splintering from wood rot. But no matter what, if one gate fell, another quickly took its spot.
When visiting a popular temple or shrine, one thing to observe are the amount of children on school field trips.
In Japan, religion and education are not separated like they are in the US.
Some students could be seen praying to their believed God(s), while others were simply happy to be outside in the crisp spring air.
At all shrines and temples, a small shop could be found where charms or amulets could be bought for multiple blessings involved in everyday life.
When I picked up my first charm, Yasushi said “that is holding a God, keep it close so he can protect you.”
Every location had charms or amulets that ranged from ‘health and happiness’ to ‘a successful childbirth’.
Many students were found wandering over to the shops for charms meant for ‘successful study’ or a ‘prosperous life’.
Along the shop walls, there would be fortunes at shrines and boards of wood called wish amulets hanging around the temples. At the more well-known temples, multiple languages could be read on the wish amulets.
Many young people could be seen getting fortunes at shrines. “They’re probably thinking about exams and life. Wanting to get the best possible fortune to give them hope,” said Yasushi at one point.
I got a fortune that was all in Japanese, there are some that can be found in English, so I handed it over to Yasushi, my best translator.
“This is a very good fortune.” he said with a wide smile. “But… I do not know if I can translate everything exactly.”
Yasushi then explained that many of the concepts and rituals in Shinto were hard to translate into English, since Western religions differ so much from it.
“I can tell you the idea as best I can, but I don’t know if you would be able to really understand.”
Even with Google translate, some words really could not translate into English.
I lost count as to how many temples and shrines I visited in my time in Japan. Being in the middle of Tokyo, a shrine or temple could be randomly found.
Every location had a different story, and a rich history.
All the carvings and buildings were awe-inspiring. They did not have modern machines to build on mountainsides, or carve detailed images of mystical animals.
So much hard work was put into building the shrines and temples of Japan.
That is why there is hard work to now preserve it all.
Generations to come will be able to visit these historic sites, whether for religion or not, and be able to experience what so many people did before them.
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