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Monks, Priests, and Sexy Foxes

Experiencing Religion in Japan

Living in a secular society as we do, I think we're accustomed to religion being a relatively private aspect of our lives, including the all-important decision of whether or not one is a practitioner. We have many religious holidays and festivals in Canada. Many people that live here have strong ties to religion. And yet Canada's relationship with religion is masked, and the result is that it's pretty easy to avoid interacting with religion.

You don't really have that option in Japan. Religion is everywhere, both visually and conceptually. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are accessible nationwide with massive differences in scale. Lesser shrines are about as common and small as mailboxes. You can see Buddhist influences in the tile roofs of average homes too. Less obvious connections are cultural products like sumo and the tea ceremony, which have roots in Shinto and Buddhism respectively.

I don't know how deeply Japanese people study Shinto and Buddhism or actively participate in the finer points of these religions, but they certainly participate. Major temples and shrines are major tourist attractions for Japanese tourists as well as foreign tourists. Products with religious themes are also very popular, and even in the arts religion is so heavily intertwined so as to be impossible to remove.

It is an inescapable fact that religion is integral to Japan itself: its culture, its institutions, its values, its people. If you want to experience Japan, then you need to experience its culture. The great thing about this is that since religion is everywhere in Japan, it also takes form in an endless number of shapes and experiences.


Mountains have deep meaning in Japan. They're sacred in both the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. The nature of this importance is really varied. It can be scriptural as in Buddhism, and as fun as the belief that birdlike creatures called tengu inhabit major mountains. An entire Buddhist movement called Shugendo evolved around mountain worship, where monks would travel through mountains performing miracles. Today, people in climbing gear with jingling bells fill the trails of famous mountains. There's even a colossal pilgrimage of 88 temples that you can hike in Shikoku. Some of the most breathtaking temples in Japan are positioned on mountains, and there's also something deeply moving in finding a shrine gate on a mountain trail.

Many of my favourite temples and shrines in Japan are on mountains. It's far more gratifying an experience when you have to hike your way up a mountain to reach a temple, and it feels much more authentic than taking a train. That there are generally fewer people in these places is an added bonus.

I think another reason why they're so special is the sort of concentrated nature of the experience. When you can separate the temple or shrine from the urban sprawl and the noise and the unending advertising, you get something that is distilled, and that gives it more power. The scenery isn't all that bad either.

I can offer up an example to clarify. Travelling over the Christmas holidays, I went to Mount Koya, where an ancient temple community continues to practice today. I actually got to stay at a temple, but I didn't have time to really enjoy that experience. In any case, there's a famous temple there called Okunoin. It's famous for being the location of Japan's largest graveyard, with more than 200,000 moss covered graves nestled between a forest of huge cedars.

I didn't arrive until the late afternoon, with the air growing colder as the sun began to set. Stone lanterns line the wide walkway as you make your way through the forest. In the daylight it's an incredibly peaceful place, and the combination of moss, stone, and trees make it a beautiful place as well. Eventually, I arrived at the end of the graveyard, crossing into an area where one of the most prominent figures in Japanese Buddhism - Kukai - is supposedly still alive (now about 1200 years old) and meditating.

In the immense silence of the place - largely possible because of its remote setting - you can't help but watch how heavily you step and breathe so that you don't wake him up.

Walking back through the graveyard in the dark offered an altogether different experience. With the lanterns on either side providing the only light, I could only see the silhouettes of the graves and the trees. While I had no problem walking through the quiet place in the light, all alone in the dark I felt like an intruder. I'm not religious, but on that walk, it was hard not to believe that something more than birds were watching me.

Mountains in Japan are really special places, and even if you are only there for some hiking, the mountain trails are made all the more rich by the marks that religion have branded on them.

Some of my mountain recommendations:

Mt. Fuji


Osorezan (Mt. Osore)

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Koyasan (Mt. Koya)



There are actually lots of ways you an experience religion in Japan. Admittedly, I never got the chance to try either zazen (meditation) or shakyo (scripture calligraphy) but these are not the only ways to participate.

In Koyasan, I was able to simply watch the monks of the temple I stayed at perform their morning ritual. While we sat next to a space heater, the monks sat cross-legged on the floor in the winter cold. They chanted in unison for close to thirty minutes, taking turns breathing and then continuing the chant without missing a syllable.

Festivals are another good way to enjoy the religious experience in Japan. Cities have their own festivals which have varied meanings and purposes. Obon is a Buddhist holiday in Japan and is a time where everyone honours the spirits of their ancestors. Some cities, shrines, and temples hold specific celebrations.

A similar nation-wide tradition comes from the arrival of the New Year, with the first shrine visit of the year. I spent my New Year's eve in a tiny town near Mt. Aso in Kyushu. A short hike through a stone staircase and stone lanterns near midnight brought me to the small local shrine where people were awaiting the New Year with a bonfire and a sweet, non-alcoholic sake called amazake. Everyone sipped the hot, porridge-like drink while Shinto priests performed a ritual dance to the sound of drums deep in the forest.

There are dozens more festivals which I never experienced, among other things. Some of these you may or may not want to experience. The temple at Osorezan, translated as "Mt. Fear" is famed for being one of several suspected locations for the entrance to Buddhist Hell. At this temple in the far North of Honshu, blind women called itako communicate with the dead, and may contact a loved one on your behalf.


Japan is an interesting place because traditions from various sources somehow manage to blend together in seeming contradiction. Folklore, Shinto, and Buddhism all seem to do this in various ways, which in my opinion enriches these traditions. Some of the more well known Japanese monsters like the kappa, tengu, and the shapeshifting foxes and tanuki play a significant role in many legends and stories. Their images are everywhere, and often when you travel somewhere, particularly those mountain temples previously mentioned, you will hear stories of creatures like the tengu. This is a feature of history and culture that we've grown disconnected from in Canada, where similar traditions from our Aboriginal cultures have been oppressed and/or lost.

And that's really what this section is about. Just adding some mystery, humour and interest to the culture. Whether you see it as ridiculous, fun, interesting, or mystical, this aspect of Japanese culture is a marketable one. You see images of these monsters or yokai everywhere - from ukiyo-e paintings, to statues of tanuki and demon masks, to popular anime.

You can make a good argument that folklore shouldn't be classified with religion, but honestly religion itself is so enmeshed in the culture that it's really tough to classify or put into a single category. I'm arbitrarily placing yokai here, but don't be surprised if they pop up again elsewhere.


This is another instance where I'm really simplifying something by sticking it in a specific category, because gardens in Japan easily fit with the fixation on nature within the country. I wanted to highlight the aspect of Japanese Buddhist culture which is perhaps the easiest and most accessible to appreciate.

Once you've seen a few temples in Japan, it becomes a bit difficult to distinguish them solely based on architecture. They share very similar design features so that really, they blend together and beautiful as they are, there are so many as to make them all in some way aesthetically unremarkable. In my experience, what differentiates them are the temple grounds that they maintain.

Temple gardens are simply pleasant places to be. Whether you're walking through them, taking photos of them, or sipping hot tea outside, they're quiet, peaceful, generally selfie-stick free places where you can be alone with your thoughts or with your friend(s). You're encouraged to look at things from multiple angles, after which you realize that perspective can completely change the way you view the garden. 

These gardens use stone, moss, water, trees, flowers, grass, gravel, sand, statues, lanterns, rocks, architecture, season and any other available features to stimulate thought and relax the senses. In my first, very stressful week in Japan, I noticed a marked difference in my stress levels during and after garden visits. Just observing the space and the creativity of the designer is a therapeutic exercise.

For all of the intense imagery associated with religion in Japan, discovering some of its features really isn't an intimidating feat. It can be as simple as going for a walk through a garden, or as laborious as mountain climbing. The important thing is the approach that you take, and as with most things in life, an open mind is best.

Further Note: Two religious cultures not discussed here are the Ainu and Okinawan cultures. They're deserving of discussion on their own so I haven't included them here.

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