If you have ever seen pictures of Japan, chances are one of them was of Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. One of the most visited temples in Tokyo, it’s easy to get to via subway and it’s impressively big, red and crowded.
After my visit to Tsukiji Fish Market, I decided to visit Senso-ji. I wanted to get there before it got too crowded, which happens fairly early in the morning (9am).
Religion in Japan
As a traveler in Japan, you may experience a deep sense of spiritualism and encounter hundreds of shrines and temples. However contradictory that may be, the Japanese don’t consider themselves religious. They may attend religious ceremonies tied to big life events like marriage or death, or visit a shrine or two, but in general that is the extent of their religious ties. This was extremely interesting to me because everywhere I looked while traveling in Japan I saw signs of what we would consider in the East, religious offerings and devotion.
In Japan, there are two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is the original form of worship in Japan and as opposed to other religions we are accustomed to, it has no founder, no written form and no rules of conduct. It’s akin to paganism as Gods are often tied to nature. If that wasn’t interesting enough, the concept of good and evil are equally acceptable. In fact, when visiting castles, you may notice the castle “guardians” (usually statues on the roof) have demonesque appearances and a lot of festivals in Japan celebrate Good Spirits and Demons equally. While visiting Himeji Castle I had the incredible luck to meet Toshi, an English-speaking volunteer guide that spent hours with me sharing the history of the castle, the country and the culture of Japan. Toshi explained that Shinto is not so much a religion, but a “way of living”. It doesn’t tell people how they should live their lives, it doesn’t require prayer or sacrifice. It just is. Often a person can be a Buddhist and a Shintoist. Shinto does not require exclusivity.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around these concepts until I started to notice the way the Japanese live their lives and what I felt firsthand travelling through the Land of the Rising Sun. Gratitude, responsibility, integrity, generosity and respect towards others are simply and deeply intertwined in the very fabric of Japanese society. Simply summed up, Shinto is about harmony and balance, leading a life of purpose.
A tree, an object or a place can be sacred and the criteria for what is sacred is based solely on one’s own beliefs. If you think a tree is a God, then by all means, that tree is a God to you. You may also choose to worship fallic symbols. Japan has a couple of festivals for that too, but I will save that story for later. The concept is that Gods, dead ancestors, plants, animals and inanimate objects have feelings and energy and they can be just as “happy” and indulgent as you. That is why food, liquor and cigarettes are left in Shinto shrine altars. Hey, the dead party too!!
It’s wild, but it practices acceptance and imperfection in all levels, so what’s not to love?
Buddhism was brought to Japan from Nepal via China and focuses on some very interesting tenets as well. Although like any other religion, it can vary from practice to practice, here are the basics. Buddha was mortal like you and I. The son of a king that wanted him sheltered from the outside world, he ventured outside the gate of his palace one day and saw things that made him renounce his wealth and place for the throne to live a life of abstinence and enlightenment. After many years of sacrifice, learnings and teaching, he eventually achieved enlightenment and that is the ultimate goal for Buddhists. On the path to enlightenment, one must rid themselves from the “poisons of life”, a female monk explained to me in South Korea. That also involves lots of meditation, communal work and sacrifice through prostrations and other forms of devotion depending on the branch of Buddhism practiced. Can you imagine prostrating for 9hrs straight in one day? I would fail miserably.
One interesting part of Buddhism is that arts, nature and music are also integrated as part of achieving enlightenment. I don’t know about you, but that makes total sense for me. I can lose myself in nature and in some creative endeavor and feel a lot more connected to my spirituality.
Ok, I will end this section here. Although I feel compelled to share this with you because it became part of my personal journey through Asia, this is still a travel blog after all.
10 things to know about Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines in Japan
- Purple is a high-ranking color in Buddhism, therefore the highest monks wear purple. There is a strict hierarchy inside temple ranks and women are also allowed to become monks.
- The swastika is prominently displayed in temple architecture. Look at the roof tiles and carvings. That is because before the Nazis used the symbol for warped purposes, it actually was a spiritual symbol found in many religions that meant good fortune or well-being (according to Google). Ironical, isn’t it?
- In Buddhist temples, there are usually monks about at all times of the day. In a Shinto shrine, it’s usually left unattended. I have no clue who takes care of it.
- The red color found in a lot of temples in Japan has a specific name: Vermillion.
- The writings found on lanterns displayed in many temples are actually the names of benefactors of the temple and not some spiritual message.
- Obey the signs posted in temples. The security guards will have no problem calling you out on offenses. (i.e. No pictures inside main area.)
- Ropes and paper hung in open areas signifies a sacred place, tree or object.
- Look up! There are some amazing decorations in the ceilings, rooftops and under lanterns.
- Respect the people attending ceremonies. It’s a place of worship after all.
- Some temples allow for a homestay or provide tea ceremonies. I didn’t get to do this during this trip, but will definitely try it in the future.
Visiting a Temple 101
Visiting a place of worship of a religion you are not familiar with can be daunting. Here are some tips to avoid faux-pas and make the experience more memorable.
- Get your fortune to see how hard you need to pray. (more about fortune reading below)
- Stop by the incense pit and think good thoughts/of loved ones and pull some of the smoke over your head and body for blessing. Incense is sold nearby or provided free of charge.
- Stop by the purifying fountain/basin and wash your left hand, right hand and mouth. IMPORTANT: All of the dirty water (i.e. that touched you in any way) should be discarded outside the main basin.
- Climb the steps and deposit money for the temple in the slatted box. Clap your hands and make a wish/prayer.
- Once inside the temple, no pictures are generally allowed. At Senso-ji, they allow it outside the ceremony room.
- Certain people also bow upon entering and exiting the temple’s main buildings and gates. If you do this, make sure you face the main building even while exiting.
Fortune Reading 101
One of the funnest things to do at temples is to read your fortune. No need to believe in the esoteric, just a bit of fun.
- Deposit the money in the designated place.
- Shake the metal container until a stick with symbols/numbers comes out.
- Look for the corresponding symbols/numbers on the wood drawers.
- Take out the paper and return the stick to the metal container.
- Voila, you have your fortune.
There are three types of fortune:
- Good fortune: lucky you!!! Frame that sucker.
- Regular fortune. Not here, nor there. A crapshoot.
- Bad fortune: run like hell and pray really hard! Actually, you can leave bad fortune behind. Tie it to metal rails or trees and apparently it ensures that your bad fortune does not follow you home. However, if you can’t read the ones in Japanese and take them home with you like I did, you have got no one to blame but yourself…
Other things to do around Senso-ji
Besides the main building, there are several other buildings in the complex and a nice garden. In addition, just past the entrance gate there are several stalls selling every type of souvenir and an array of snack foods that will have you wishing you could spend more time here. Ah, and let’s not forget the entertaining hustle of the extremely fit rickshaw crew.
Have you been to Senso-ji? What was your experience like?
Next- Taking a walk at Ueno Park.