The Shinto religion is the traditional/indigenous religion practised by an estimated 80% of the Japanese population to some degree and focuses on ritual practices that are performed meticulously in order to establish a connection with Japan in its current state, as well as its past one. This means worshipping ancestors and spirits within sacred places such as public shrines and domestic altars.
Shinto religion can be traced back as early as the 8th century through written records of the Kojiki (a collection of Japanese myths, hymns, legends, oral traditions, and genealogies) and Nihon Shoki (often referred to as The Chronicles of Japan) and gets its name from the Chinese word 'Shendao' - the Chinese philosophical perspective on religion.
The Buddhism religion is made up of a variety of traditions, including spiritual practices and beliefs accredited to Buddha and other illuminating philosophies. Most Japanese families have a Buddhist altar of some sort in their homes.
Buddhism goes back even further in Japan with the first reports of the religion recorded in the 6th century (around 538 up to 552) when it was introduced by royalty from Korea. It wasn't until 35 years later though (in 587) that Buddhism was widely accepted and Buddhist temples began to be built in well-populated cities including Heian (now known as Japan) and Nara.
The level that religion plays in day-to-day life can differ depending on how religious a Japanese person identifies as being but usually, big life events such as birthdays or weddings are marked with a trip to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple. The birth of babies is also celebrated by visiting a shrine or temple, along with birthdays of three, five, seven, and twenty as a way of celebrating and paying thanks for the aging process.
When it comes to events such as funerals, over 90% of death rituals performed are from the Buddhist religion. This means the funeral will be performed by a Buddhist priest and allows attendants to remember, mourn, and seek closure for the deceased as they transition from life to the afterlife.
A range of public holidays also has religious aspects attached with New Year's Eve and Obon being the main ones. These holidays are usually accompanied by a trip to a Shinto shrine or a Buddhist temple where worshippers dress up in kimonos, hang special decorations, eat particular foods, present offerings, and pray for good fortune and other blessings. Obon refers to the setting up of spirit altars in front of freshly cleaned Buddhist family altars in preparation for returned spirits. This holiday often brings with it a sense of togetherness as family members who've left home return to celebrations filled with folk dancing, family-led rituals, and prayers.
There are over 100,000 Shinto shrines around Japan and roughly 80,000 Buddhist temples so you're spoilt for choice when it comes to visiting these special and sacred sites. Chances are you'll have already come across photos of these places of worship during your research as Japan is quite famous for its intricately detailed and perfectly architectured shrines and temples. We've put together a list of the most popular shrines and temples for you to seek out on your trip:
- Izumo Taisha Shrine, Shimane Prefecture
- Byodo-in Temple, Kyoto
- Todai-ji Temple, Nara
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto
- Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
- Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima Island