Buddhism and Shintoism – a very basic guide to Japanese culture


In 710 AD the first capital city was established in Japan, Nara, and there it remained until 794 when it moved to nearby Kyoto for the next 1,074 years before Tokyo became the capital in 1868. While Nara was the capital, Buddhism became officially supported alongside Japanese Shintoism, hence the abundance of significant, old Buddhist temples and artefacts in Nara and Kyoto.


The two most culturally and spiritually significant sites in Nara are Todaiji (a Buddhist temple) and Kasuga Taisha (a Shinto shrine). That I expect many visitors to Japan, me included until I had been living there a year or more, don’t understand the difference between temples (“the brown ones”) and shrines (“the Campbell’s tomato soup-coloured ones”) is testament to the fact that in modern Japan the two kind of work together. However, in some respects, understanding a bit about the differences between temples and shrines, Buddhism and Shintoism, and that Shintoism is specifically Japanese and more a cultural mindset than a religion, gives an insight into Japanese culture.

Buddhism originated in India, present-day Nepal, in 5th or 6th century BC, after the 35-year old Siddhartha’s meditation awakened in him the truth of the universe and he became, long story, the Buddha. The belief is that our identities are connected to the universe and as the universe is constantly changing, so are we, meaning we can never have a defined “self”. As a result of our varied experiences, we should all be able to understand suffering and thus do what we can to offer compassion and assistance to our fellow human beings. Buddhism can very broadly be defined by the teachings of the Buddha (like Christianity is about the teachings of Jesus Christ and Islam the teachings of Mohammad), though unlike other major religions a Buddhist who is awakened following devout meditation to discover the truth of the universe and human beings, an enlightened one, can become a Buddha. Buddhist teachings are presented in intellectual doctrines and share guidelines for how to live according to the path you want to follow.

Nowadays, since the dramatic imperial regime change of Japan’s restoration from 1868, a Buddhist, non-native to Japan, temple can be distinguished from an intrinsically Japanese Shinto shrine by the structure being made of wood with an enormous, gently curving roof. As with a shrine, the main temple is not entirely a place of worship, rather to safeguard sacred objects. For example, Daibutsuden, the part of the Todaiji complex in Nara you pay to enter, was built for the purpose of housing the great, 500-tonne brass Buddha (his hair consists of 966 individually formed brass balls; look at the photo to see how big those hair balls are). As a result, when you visit Todaiji’s Daibutsuden it has more the atmosphere of a museum full of selfie sticks than a peaceful religious site. A temple will also be a monastery and religious activities will be performed, but in areas not usually open to the general public. Most temples will have a wooden veranda and sliding wood and paper doors so rooms can be extended or confined for particular purposes. There are quite a few temples across Japan that you can stay in overnight and where you can participate in meditative religious ceremonies – these are worth exploring and in my experience are fascinating, magical experiences.


The big brass Buddha inside Daibutsuden, which is far bigger than it looks in a photo

Shintoism is more about the Japanese way of life than adherence to doctrines or one main deity. There are around eight million deities, all of whom are kami (kind of like spirits) manifested in the natural world around us. For example, if you see a tree that is almost impossibly propped up despite typhoon/fire/earthquake/tsunami damage that in other countries would have long ago resulted in its being felled, it is probably hundreds of years old and had at least one significant use, such as sheltering passers-by from the sun. That tree would have divine status. Shinto is predominantly about how people interact with and respect nature and its connection to the past. It also centres on the belief that everything and everyone is good unless overcome by evil spirits. As a result, a lot of rituals are to ward off evil spirits rather than call upon good spirits


A plant worthy of keeping alive, Kenrokuen, Kanazawa

A Shinto shrine usually features torii (“gate”, usually in a distinctive vermilion, like Campbell’s tomato soup), offerings of fruit, sake or other food items, shide (zigzags of white paper) and at least a pair of stone animal guardians.

The torii (gate) denotes the entrance to a Shinto shrine and even indicates a shrine on a Japanese map. Some temples, from the time when temples and shrines were not required to be easily distinguishable, will also have a torii.


Koma-inu (lion-dog), part of a pair guarding Kasuga Taisha, Nara

The offerings of consumables in front of shrines are to invoke the presence of the kami, spirits, of the shrine. When humans die, they become kami, which accounts for the offerings also at gravestones.


Offerings in front of replica torii with prayers written on them, Fushimi Inari. Kyoto

The shide is paper or other natural fibre folded into a zigzag that hangs above shrines and on “wands” as part of a purification and blessing process. For example, a Shinto priest will slowly wave the wand over a person or newly-purchased car or house as a blessing.


Shide above a cleansing water fountain at Fushimi Inari. Kyoto

The two stone animal guardians are most commonly koma-inu, mythical lion-dogs who represent the power and “king of the jungle” lion with the dog as protector. One koma-inu will have its mouth open as if saying “A” (“A” representing the beginning of all things), the other its mouth closed (“Um” representing the end; yes, it is right to connect that to the Hindi Om). Also common are foxes, being messengers of the god of rice harvests (one of the Japanese words for rice, gohan, also means meal; rice is central to the Japanese meal, a factor of most significance in previous times of great poverty when rice, grown in abundance in Japan, actually was your meal). A fox with a key in its mouth is holding the key to the grain store. There are shrines all over Japan represented by different kami, nature spirits, and people will travel specially to pray to relevant spirits, eg for fertility, exam success, safe travels.


Guardian foxes at Fushimi Inari. Kyoto

As a slight aside to maybe explain why Japan was for so long a closed nation to foreigners (indeed the word for foreigner, gaijin, means foreigner/outsider and while I lived in Japan I was told it historically meant “white devil”, though that definition seems to crop up less now) and that foreigners are still often treated with suspicion, especially by older generations, is that a traditional Shinto belief is that bad things come from outside.


Fox with grain store key in mouth, Fushimi Inari. Kyoto

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