Following last week’s small break from adventure (remember we talked orchids?!), we return to our travelling through Japan –Kyoto. If you remember, Kyoto is one of the most important religious centres in Japan. Continuing our journey, it is imperative to focus on the main religious sites that we can find here, as testament to the cultural impact religion has had on the creation of the Japanese people, for thousands of years.
In Japan, there are two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism.
Shinto is the religion that is a huge part of the consciousness of the Japanese people, intrinsic to their fabric and evolution across millennia. Shintoism is immemorial – its appearance is somehow shrouded in mystery and more often than not it is assimilated with the Japanese culture; they cannot be easily separated.
Shinto has taken its name around the 6th century CE from the Chinese shin tao which means literally ‘the way of kami’ (translated in Japanese kami-no-michi). However, the practice of Shinto has existed long before, from around 6th century BC, although there are no written sacred texts or prophets to give us an exact idea how this occurred. Shinto is full of rituals and symbolism, and gods and spirits (kami) can take the form of any living creature or natural creation (including mountains, rivers, stones etc.). Shinto is a religion with no set beginnings – no one knows about its origin. There are some clues about the first terrestrial Shinto elements (terrestrial kami) which occurred around the 4th century BC, that are a big part of the Shinto worship and rituals. Nonetheless, Shinto also refers to more spiritual, genesis like kami and the first written texts about them date from around the 7th century CE.
Kami are sacred, divine spirits, that are at the heart of Shinto rituals and beliefs. They embody any element of the natural world and resemble the creative forces of nature in wonderful stylized, abstract ways. They are living harmoniously, in great balance and symbiosis, urging their followers to coexist peacefully, in harmony with all other nature and human beings.
Shinto is at the heart of Japanese culture and it is obvious it has had a great impact onto the evolution of the Japanese as a distinct group of people. The focus on rites, has led to Japanese developing their way of life in highly ritualistic sequencing, using rituals as a way of linking their unique history and becoming, to the present time and the modernizing influences.
It is highly likely that Shinto is behind Japan’s paradox of being concomitantly so new and so old. I am not saying in any way that Shinto has put breaks on Japan’s development – contrarily: the possible existence of kami in any shape or form at any given time, has instilled the profound respect Japanese have for their ancestors and everything around them, with impetus on achieving excellence and perfection in all aspects of life to fulfill the promise of utmost harmony and resolution. This is why Shintoism also occupies the Japanese political space and religious festivals and ceremonies are being observed throughout all segments of the Japanese society, whether we talk about the public or the private sphere of life.
Shinto temples are at the heart of Japan’s institutional life.
One of the most beautiful and most celebrated Shinto temples is the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Fushimi Inari is only one train stop away from the Kyoto station, South of Kyoto, along the JR Nara line, next to the Inari JR station.
Fushimi Inari is a fantastical, indescribable, infinite tunnel of torii gates, in different shades of vermilion to orange, some washed by many seasons. The shrine is set in woodlands, on the sacred Mount Inari, 233 meters above sea level, and has been there from immemorial times. Fushimi Inari is the most important shrine dedicated to Inari – okami, the God of Rice, who is well guarded by statues of Kitsune, the white fox who is thought to be Inari’s messenger. The fox is at the entrance and it is a leitmotif throughout the grounds of the shrine.
The first torii gate at the entrance to Fushimi Inari, is the Romon Gate, donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1589. Behind this, there are the Honden and other buildings that are part of the shrine.
The tunnels of torii gates start at the base of the mount with two dense rows called Senbon Torii which means ‘thousands of torii gates’ and climb up as trails reaching the peak of the mount.
Half way to the peak, there is an observation point, the Yotsutsuji intersection, where you can watch Kyoto unravelling before your eyes.
From the base to the top, the climb can take approximately 45 minutes to an hour and the gates continue throughout the journey, although they become less dense, with many shrines in between. The torii gates have all been donated for hundreds of years and the name of the donors are inscribed on each gate. Anybody can donate a gate and the cost is between 400,000 to over 1 million yen, depending on the size of this.
Fushimi Inari is certainly a Shinto triumph in terms of its perennial existence, serene beauty and tradition and if you are in Kyoto you should most definitely visit.
The second biggest religion in japan is Buddhism, which unlike Shinto is an imported religion from mainland China, around the 6th century. Some Chinese sources refer to a 3rd century rise of Buddhism in Japan, however evidence from Buddhist monks from Korea (who seem to be the source of spreading Buddhism in the Japan islands) sustain the idea of Buddhism being introduced during the 6th century.
Like Shinto, Buddhism has been and has become intrinsic part of the Japanese culture and society. The interesting fact about this is that both religions coexist in perfect harmony and many Japanese identify themselves as both Buddhist and Shinto.
If you remember, we spoke a bit about Zen Buddhism when we visited Kyoto Daisen-in.
Buddhism has been ‘imported’ into China via the transcontinental trade roads (the Silk Road) that were being open by Chinese dignitaries (one in particular – Zhang Qian – an imperial emissary, that lived around the 2nd century BC during the Han dynasty).
Exchanges between Central Asia and China have continued to grow and expand and Buddhism has also flourished and expanded into China especially between the 3rd to the 7th century BC. Buddhism upsurge is being credited to the travel of Chinese pilgrims that sought access to the original Buddhist scriptures and artefacts in Northern India, especially after the 4th century.
According to Nihonji (or Nihon Shoki translated as ‘The Chronicles of Japan’), one of the earliest books of Japanese history (dating from 720 AD), the official introduction of Buddhism into Japan seems to have taken place in 552 AD, during the Asuka period (538 – 710). At the time, a King from the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Baekje, Silla and Goguryeo which existed between 57 BC to 668 AD), Seong of Baekje (523 – 554), the son of Muryeong of Baekje (462 – 523) who made Buddhism the state religion in his kingdom, has sent a mission to the Japanese Emperor Kinmei (509 – 571). The mission transported diplomatic gifts such as an image of Shakyamuni Buddha and several volumes of Buddhist texts. The spread of Buddhism was very slow and the uptake of the new religion mostly increased later, during the reign of Empress Suiko (554 – 628), daughter of Emperor Enmei, who openly encouraged the acceptance of the religion.
Buddhism was also heavily encouraged in Japan by one of the most powerful families at the time, the Soga clan, who between the 5th and the 7th century had to overcome other powerful clans who were supporting the local religion, Shinto (especially the Mononobe and Nakatomi clans). However, the Soga clan were ultimately decimated and overpowered in 645 by Prince Nakano Oe, future Emperor Tenji (626 – 672) who reigned from 661 to 671 and who re-instated the Fujiwara family to power (they were descendants of the Nakatomi clan).
Despite this, Buddhism continued to grow and the Nara Period (710 – 794) was one of the most prolific for the spreading of Buddhism in japan. The Nara Period is known as such, due to the first Japanese capital being established in Nara, after the model of the Chinese Tang dynasty (618 – 907) and the Tang capital, Xian.
The Empress Genmei who reigned in Japan between 707 and 715, was the one to set Nara as the capital until Emperor Kammu (737 – 806) moved the capital at Nagaoka in 784 and to Heian (Kyoto) in 794. History says the capital was moved because of the huge power that Nara was accumulating through the religious sites that had been erected there.
The Nara Period was an unprecedented period of Sinicization, and probably one of the most influential for Japan’s history, when not only Buddhism penetrated Japan from the mainland (artisans created Buddhist artefacts and erected grandiose Buddhist temples), but Chinese language and culture were literally absorbed into Japan. The Japanese language adopted the Chinese characters, and many Chinese manuscripts, including Buddhist ones, were being translated into Japanese and used as bases for legal codes which replaced the less regulated Japanese traditional legal customs.
Also, a major Chinese influence was the adoption of the Chinese term t’ien-huang into the japan culture as tenno, which meant ‘heavenly emperor’ and imprinted the idea of the emperor being considered an almost divine, symbolic figure that sat at the centre of the government and the state, as the Shinto religious leader. This may explain why Shinto and Buddhism have survived and thrived together so harmoniously in the Japanese culture and state.
One of the most prominent remains of what Nara had been are the Buddhist temples and artefacts.
Nara is situated about 45 minutes to one hour away by train from Kyoto. Nara Koen (Nara park) is about 10 – 15 minutes walk from the Nara station and is one of the oldest parks in Japan. The park is well populated by tame deer who live here and sometimes can be over friendly (especially if you buy them the crackers shika senbei that are being sold by enterprising villagers). In all honesty, I would suggest you don’t try to feed them – they can be really aggressive and annoying… and the smell… I feel sorry for them – wild beings trapped in the cycle of survival with human made crackers… yikes!
After you pass through the park, you will find the Nandaimon Gate, a huge wooden construction which is guarded by the Nio Guardian Kings, who look almost grotesque and are used to guard Buddhist temples from evil spirits and demons, as well as humans. The Nandaimon Gate is considered part of Japan’s national treasure.
Beyond the gate, you will find one of the oldest and most significant of the temple complex for the Buddhist early influence in Japan – Todaiji (or the ‘Great Eastern Temple‘).
Todaiji was built during the 8th century by Emperor Shomu (701 – 756) as a centre of power in 752 and grew so powerful that a decision was made to move the capital from Nara to lessen the influence it had on the state politics.
Initially, Todaiji was built with two main temples in the form of seven – stories pagodas, and the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden). The structures were huge and more complex building techniques were used for the first time (the temples themselves have not survived time wise).
Other structures were also erected as part of Todaiji, such as the Shosoin, a store house where the Empress Kymyo stored mourning offerings at the death of her husband, Emperor Shomu in 756.
Shosoin is today the oldest existing structure of this type and it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden) is the world’s largest wood structure which is in fact a downsized reconstruction from 1692 of the initial structure from the 8th century.
Once you step inside the Great Buddha hall, you will find one of the largest Buddha (Daibutsu) bronze statues in the world, measuring 15 meters tall. The Buddha is seated in Vairocana (representing the seven points of body posture, translated as ‘illuminating clarity’: spine straight, hands in posture resting equally, elbows slightly sticking out, slightly lower the chin, unwavering gaze, lips natural – tongue against the palate and legs in full lotus position or ‘vajra’).
Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, ‘Bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish and a compassionate mind to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings’. They are popular figures in Buddhist art.
Further more, in the Daibutsen you will find a popular attraction which is a pillar with a hole in its base (which is the exact measure of one of Buddha’s nostrils). The legend says that those who are brave to venture and squeeze through this hole to the other side of the pillar are granted forever enlightenment in a future life. But just to let you know: you should better start to diet if you want to squeeze through – I promise you, it is quite tight! And you don’t want to be forsaken from enlightenment in a future life, do you?! 🙂
I’ll continue talking about Japan next week – probably Kyoto still! I have so many things to tell you!
Meanwhile, keep happy and inspired! Kawaii Easter!
Run fast, run strong, run free!
The Running Blogger xx