Seeking the Sacred in Japan

7BF38602-128C-4DD2-B425-C12766238A44I love to travel. I enjoy learning about other cultures and seeing how other humans live. This is one of the reasons why I decided to move to South Korea and why I’ve been to Japan twice.

Seeing the human experience and how others interpret the divine is something I especially look forward to in other countries. So I always make a point of visiting local shrines and temples. Some local traditions have been lost to colonization and time and sadly we will never know how those people lived through those traditions. However, there are some that have survived and we can see the vast richness that is part of humanity.

The first time I went to Japan I was able to visit several temples and shrines. Japan has tens of thousands of temples and shrines, so I can only speak about the ones that I have visited.

Whenever I visit a sacred place I try to remember to show respect towards the divinity in that space, as well as the people who hold this place sacred. I think that it is important to remember that a religion and tradition holds special meaning to those whose cultural that it belongs. Whether or not the people practice or follow the religion they still view it as an integral part of their culture. Come into these spaces with knowledge, respect, and gratitude towards the people and the divinity.

The first shrine I visited was Hōkoku-jinja Shrine (豊國神社) in the Osaka Castle Park. I was very excited to see this shrine because my friends and I hadn’t planned on visiting and we happened upon it when we were exploring around the castle. There also weren’t that many people there, probably because it was getting late, so we were able to enjoy the quiet of the shrine.

The next sacred place we went to was Tōdai-ji Temple (東大寺) in Nara. However, before we could reach the temple we were greeted by many eager deer that were happy to walk alongside us searching for food. We decided to buy some food and feed the deer. They’re very used to humans and are friendly and sweet. Seeing them before arriving at the temple felt as though they were welcoming us to this place. 

When we arrived at the temple I couldn’t help but feel awe. We couldn’t see anything of the modern world and it looked as though we had been transported in time. I couldn’t hear any noise besides what was made on the temple grounds. I was thankful that the other visitors were quiet and seeking blessings as well.  We washed our hands at the spring and then we went into the temple to pray to the Great Buddha. The statue was much larger than I had anticipated and we felt so small in comparison.

Afterwards, we decide to walk a little further away from the crowds and we found a shrine. I don’t remember what it was called or if it was connected to the temple, but there was a shrine gate with a path that led up the mountain. We saw a few more deer along the way and there weren’t that many people. It was very beautiful and easy to walk around without the crowds. There was also a resting area inside with fans, which we desperately needed.

The next day we ventured to Kyoto to the Monkey Park. I didn’t expect to see a shrine at the base of the mountain, but I was glad that I had an unexpected opportunity to see another sacred place. Ichitani Munakata Shrine (櫟谷宗像神社) is a small shrine that is worth seeing. There were many people climbing the mountain to see the monkeys, but no one was stopping to visit the shrine so it was empty. We couldn’t go into the shrine itself because the gates were closed, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying some peace and quiet on the shrine grounds.

Later in the day, we ventured to Tenryū-ji Temple (天龍寺). This temple is right beside the bamboo forest, so we couldn’t pass by without stopping for a bit. We stayed a little longer than we had anticipated, a few hours, but there were so many different things to see that it was difficult to leave. The gardens are extensive and there are various pathways that you can walk on without being bothered by other visitors. There are many buildings and walkways leading between them that I couldn’t resist walking on. Walking were others who have dedicated their lives to their path have walked feels very sacred to me. I try to connect to the energy of the place and feel what they have felt. And I realized that even though they lived in a serene environment they were human like me. It’s very comforting to know that even those who I see as spiritually evolved go through the same human emotions that I do. I was able to leave this temple with a full heart and ready to see what else this land had to offer.

Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) is another famous shrine in Kyoto. We didn’t enjoy this one as much because it was so hot that we were literally running underneath the shade whenever we had the chance, but this shrine was gorgeous. It was very crowded and a little difficult to see some parts of the shrine without people standing in the way, but it was still worth it to go.

We walked a little further and we saw a few unoccupied areas and that is when stumbled about the best rickshaw driver ever. Not only did he give us a rickshaw ride, but he also told us about the history of the area. He gave us a break from walking and an unexpected guided tour. May he be blessed.

That ride led us to the last temple that we visited, Kiyomizu-dera Temple (清水寺). Because the temple was under some construction we couldn’t go through certain areas, but there was still so much to see. There were various sized Buddha statues lining the pathway and plenty of shade from the sun. The most interesting part of this temple is the spring that offers health, longevity, and success in studies to those who drink from it. There were many people lined up that wanted to drink from the spring and touch the water. I hope those people received the blessings that they sought.

Each sacred site gave me different feelings and perspective, but what I felt from each of them was that while each path may be different we are all striving towards oneness with the divine.


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