“The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.”
Japanese people do not shy away from the topic of religion. In fact, they seem to thrive on the subject, eager to share their philosophies and explain how two coexisting faiths define their culture.
Our three tour guides in Tokyo talked about religion, and so did our guides in the other Japanese cities we visited. They not only wanted to explain their customs, but also seemed curious about Western practices. One of our guides told us that her son had married an English woman and talked about how different their U.K. wedding was for her family. “It was so long compared with Japanese weddings,” she told us. “And the dancing…We don’t dance, and we were the only table sitting down while everyone else was dancing. Finally, my husband decided to join in!”
Shintoism and Buddhism
Two religions dominate Japanese culture – Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism originated in ancient Japan and carries the philosophy that everything in the universe has a spirit, from mountains and rivers to stones and trees. There are eight million Shinto gods called kami. Shinto shrines are located in sacred places where a holy ceremony once took place, and shrine priests and maidens work there year-round. Vermilion red torii gates stand at the shrine entrance, acting as a separation between this world and the world of the gods. Shrines are a place where happy celebrations such as weddings and blessing ceremonies for children are held.
Buddhism was brought from India to China and spread throughout Japan during the Heian Era. Each of our guides explained that it was a welcome addition to the Shinto culture. Buddhist temples feature a large incense burner and various statues of Buddha in many different categories and may have a graveyard attached to them. Buddhism believes that a spirit of Buddha exists inside a statue. Monks live and train at the temple, which is used for solemn occasions such as traditional Japanese funerals.
Our guides explained that many Japanese people also celebrate Christmas, but in a secular sense. We noticed Santas and colored lights decorating some homes and businesses on our mid-November visit and asked our guides about the tradition. “Like many Japanese people, we usually go to Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Day,” one guide told us. “That’s the only time we go there!”
Wishes, Luck & Karma
I was most fascinated by how strongly the ideas of wishes, luck and karma are woven into the two religions. At Shinto shrines you can make a wish, which we did at each shrine we visited, by tossing a small coin – 5 yen is recommended – into the money box, bowing twice, clapping twice, making a wish while putting the palms of your hands together in a praying position, and bowing again.
You can also purchase a fortune called omikuji at a shrine or temple by inserting a small coin into a box until a stick with a number falls out. The number will match a drawer, where a fortune is waiting. If you receive good luck, you keep the fortune; if it’s bad luck, it’s best to leave the fortune at the shrine or temple, tying it to a tree where the other bad luck fortunes are found.
I had planned to purchase an omikuji, but our guide at Sensō-ji Temple pleaded with us not to participate. “I know someone who got bad luck, and terrible things happened to him,” she told us. “Please do not do this!”
I decided to heed her advice.
The first stop on our final day in Tokyo was Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Meiji ruled from the late 1860s until 1912 and was known for abolishing feudalism, introducing a democratic government and establishing Japan as an imperial power.
Meiji Shrine sits in a 170-acre evergreen forest that seems a world away from the city that surrounds it. It’s as if you’ve escaped to a tranquil rural retreat where trees envelop you in solitude and leaves dust the ground as you walk. We entered on a gravel-covered path, passing rows of empty sake barrels, lampposts housed in wooden roof-topped houses and two massive torii gates made from 1,700-year-old cypress wood. After such a grand entrance, the shrine itself was almost anticlimactic.
We stopped at the purification stand to clean our hands and mouths before making wishes at the wishing box. I left the group to seek out the goshuin window, adding a new stamp to my book, and returned to find a wedding procession making its way through the shrine grounds.
Our next stop was Hama-rikyū Gardens, a public garden on the site of a villa belonging to the ruling Tokugawa family in the 17th century. The garden was the family’s former hunting grounds and functioned as an outer fort for Edo Castle. Its tidal pond is the only remaining seawater pond from Tokyo’s Edo Era.
It felt invigorating to walk the grounds and take in the autumn morning. Tokyo’s modern skyline provided a sort of periphery around the property, just as it had at the Imperial Palace gardens, and I was once again struck by the number of parks and green spaces that grace this extraordinary city.
Odaiba & The View from Fuji TV Tower
Odaiba isn’t an area that I would have put on my first-time-in-Tokyo list, but it was the last stop on our tour and close to the port where our cruise ship was docked. Originally a set of small man-made fort islands built in the late Edo Period to protect Tokyo against possible attacks from the sea, it was turned into a futuristic new city in the 1980s and became a tourist attraction and entertainment destination in the mid-’90s.
Known for its Yurikamomi Monorail, Statue of Liberty replica and Rainbow Bridge that lights up at night using solar energy obtained during the day, Odaiba is a sharp contrast to the older parts of the city we had visited. After a short drive through the area, we stopped at the Fuji Television Building and headed to the 25th floor’s globe-shaped observatory for a view of the city.
I never find transitions easy, especially when I’m somewhere that captures my heart. Tokyo had quickly won me over, and I could have remained there for much longer, soaking up the overwhelming kindness and politeness of the people and the city. This was a place that had clearly gotten under my skin, and I wanted to take it home with me…all the orderliness and quiet energy and bowing and clean streets and wonderful department stores and foldable stands for my purse!
And yet, I was excited to move on, to explore Japanese cities that weren’t the biggest and the brightest. To see if this elegant culture would prevail in other parts of the country. I was fairly certain that it would, and I was eager to find out.