Shinto: The Religion of Japan

The torii of a shinto temple near our house – looking outwards.

This is my first time living in a non Christian culture. I am curious to learn more about the religion of Japan, which is mostly Buddhist mixed with elements of Shinto. I see many temples around here and want to understand them. I started reading on the subject and during my stay here, I am sure I will learn more. Note that I am not religious and being raised Catholic, I am now a secular humanist. I don’t believe in the supernatural, although I want to, and I am undertaking this study from intellectual curiosity, not a search for the meaning of life or other higher calling. I do think that religions are full of wisdom and my life can benefit from their teachings.

I started with Shinto because it would be like if Europeans still practiced pagan rituals. In a way they do I guess, because Christianity did incorporate some pre-Christian festivals like the winter solstice become Christmas, but most of beliefs have been lost to time and the power of Christianity. Shinto not so and it is the original religion of the first settlers of the island. It gives a window into what they thought was important and how they answered those big questions of why are we here and what happens to me when I die.

The central focus of Shinto is the kami or spirits. The kami can be of ancestors, great historical figures, or of natural phenomena like the sun, trees, wind, etc. Shinto started as honoring ancestors and family lineages, but as the population grew and time went on, the kami became more general. I think that is one way the early Japanese found immortality, by keeping the memory of their forebears alive.

warding off evil spirits

Besides the kami, the religion centers on rituals performed at shrines. There is no sacred scripture or teachings, no belief in a god or heaven. It has been passed down through the generations by repeating of group ceremonies or personal rituals. I enjoy going to the shrines, mostly because they are always surrounded by trees, plants, and peaceful surroundings. This is much like the monasteries of Serbia, they were placed in wilderness, away from attack from the Turks. Visiting them usually involves a hike in the surround hillsides and forests. Shinto shrines are surrounded by not so much forests because Japan is a crowded island, but they all have at least a small grove of trees. You can see it very easily in any view of Osaka from above. Where there are a bunch of trees, there is usually a shrine or temple in the center. Nature not only gives the worshipper peaceful surroundings, but also the kami are found in nature. That might be the thing I like best about Shinto, the reverence for big trees. I respect and cherish old trees.

All shrines have a gate, called a torii. This helps people move from their busy, daily lives to a peaceful spiritual time. The gates are guarded by fierce looking statues of dogs or lions. These ward off evil spirits and the bad things that plague humanity. There is usually a water fountain to ceremonially wash away pollution and negative spirits. It also involves a walk to a temple that holds a sacred object that symbolizes that particular kami, whether it be a former emperor, war hero, or the spirits from that local area. People leave offerings at the shrines.

I don’t think foreigners can become Shintoists. It is a religion that is really tied to the DNA and culture of Japan. During the Meiji Restoration through to World War II, the Japanese government tried to make Shinto the official religion and rid it of Buddhism. They were unsuccessful and today, Shinto is practiced by regular citizens. They form neighborhood networks to take care of shrines and some even become priests for the shrines.

Last week I watched a Shinto procession through our neighborhood here in Onohara (neighborhood of Minoh) consisting of a palanquin being carried by men in costumes. Inside the palanquin were drum players and it was followed by about 100 people in colorful robes.

I have a lot to learn, but hopefully I have given my readers an introduction to Shinto and one outsider’s cursory view of it. I hope to understand Japan better through a better understanding of Shinto and Buddhism.


Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono (Ono is a professor at the Shinto university of Kokugakuin Daigaku) with help from William Woodward – Charles E. Tuttle Company publishers, Tokyo 1962

Walking in Meiji no Mori Park

Morning View of the Mino Q-National Park – typhoon coming

Yesterday afternoon Owen and I went for a walk in the Meiji no Mori Quasi National Park. The park provides the backdrop to the view from our house and consists of forested hills near our suburb. I needed to recharge my batteries and get out into some “wilderness” for awhile, and with the perfect autumn weather we are having this week, it was a refreshing afternoon with my son.

The park was set up in 1967 and is called “quasi” because it allows for some development, more so than proper national park. It is nice to have a forest next to a metro area of 17 million people (see last post) and surprisingly, not that many people go up there. That is probably because it takes some effort to go up the hill. There are plenty of marked trails in the park, however, the signs are not in English so we are still trying to figure it all out.

We have been in the park a couple of times and we still have not seen any of the famous monkeys. I thought we were lucky yesterday late in the afternoon, but it turned out to be a squirrel. We also heard a strange call from the forest. You can hear it in the video below right at the end. I will do some investigation to find out what it is. I think it might be a monk from a nearby temple.

(video coming soon…)

We made it to the further point in the park than we have gone so far. On the other side is pure countryside and will be nice to explore once we get a car. So far it is my favorite place in Osaka.

The view back to Osaka

Visualizing 17 Million People

Looking up at the Umeda Sky Building

One of the biggest adjustments for me in our move to Japan is living in a very large city. The metropolitan area of Osaka – Kobe – Kyoto has a population of over 18 million people. That is larger than Moscow, Cairo, Los Angeles, and Bangkok and ranks #14 in the world, just below Mumbai. The three cities are known as Keihanshin and the GDP of this area is roughly the same as London or Paris. There is a lot of people here and a lot of money. The most populous metro area in the world is Tokyo with almost 40 million people. It has a population density higher than Bangladesh. I will certainly be exploring Tokyo in future visits.

The view towards Osaka Bay from the top of the building

Although we live in a big metro area, we do not feel it on a daily basis. The school is located in the suburb of Minoh, which is 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the city center. By train it is about 20 minutes. We live only a few blocks away and it is about a 5-minute walk to school. Minoh is full of parks, wide sidewalks, bike paths, and is minutes away from the forested hills of a “quasi national park” so one gets the impression of living in the suburbs of any city. The only time we get a sense of the vastness of Keihanshin is when we take the train into the center or go over to Kobe. The apartments, houses, and businesses go on endlessly.

Our goal yesterday was to get to the top of the Umeda Sky Building. This is an Osaka landmark, built by Toshiba in 1993. During the heady real estate boom of the late 1980s they had originally wanted 4 interconnected towers, but only built two. In between the two towers at the top, there is an outdoor observatory, an escalator on one of the top floors leading across the open space, and modern sitting area with restaurants and cafes. The views are spectacular. They really helped me see how big Keihanshin really is. It goes on forever with hundreds of skyscrapers, all the way out to the Osaka Bay. Around the Sky Building, there are some parks, wide walkways filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops. It is very pleasant, except when one gets closer to the Umeda train station, as there are too many people for my taste in that station.

The garden next to the Umeda Sky building

We had dinner in the basement floor of restaurants. In Japan, it is common for entire floors of buildings or train stations to be devoted to restaurants and bars. There were probably 20 different restaurants to choose from. We chose an Indian restaurant and it was really good. I recommend a visit to the building. The architecture is interesting, it is a really nice area, and the views, especially at night or at sunset are beautiful. It gives one a good sense of the layout of the city.

Growing up in a small town of 900 people in a very rural and isolated part of northern MIchigan, living in a city that has twice as many people as the state of Michigan, is going to take some getting used to. In some of my previous postings overseas, I have lived in cities of around 2 million (Perth, Santa Cruz, Barranquilla, Belgrade) but never this big.

View looking towards our house – Yodo River in foreground

My First Ride on the “Bullet Train”

On Sunday I took my first ride on the Shinkansen or in English it is known as the bullet train, from Osaka to Tokyo and back. Shin means new in Japanese, although the high speed train is celebrating 50 years of service in Japan. It was very easy to get a ticket and get on the train. The train left from one of the major stations on the daily commuter train line, Shin-Osaka, and with 16-car trains leaving every 10 minutes, it was easy to buy a ticket moments before getting on the train. The return ticket was a bit expensive, around $250, but getting to Tokyo, a 5 and 1/2 hour car ride in 2 and 1/2 hours, is worth it. Especially with Tokyo traffic! The 3-hour mark is the cut-off for convenience over flights, and considering getting taxis, baggage, check-in, etc. it is the easiest method of going between Osaka and Tokyo.

The ride was comfortable, with much more leg room than a plane and my seat had a pull down table and electric charger. I struggled with reading or getting work done however, as the train did shake a bit and it made me a little motion sick. The outside scenes whir by and you can tell how fast the train is going. They can reach speeds of up to 150-200 miles per hour (320 km/hr).

The shinkansen has lines connecting the big cities on the two central islands of the Japan archipelago.  They had planned to expand it to Hokkaido and further south, but those have been postponed. Around 150 million passengers per year take the line between Osaka and Tokyo. The train uses only 16% of the carbon of a car, so it is good for the environment.

Kyoto: Where Japanese Come to Experience Japan

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. The allies in World War II also avoided bombing the historic city, hence, it is a place full of old, beautiful temples, shrines, and traditional Japanese architecture. It is about an hour’s drive from Osaka, and makes up 1/3 of the tri-city metro area that includes Osaka and Kobe. We spent the weekend in a traditional ryokan near the Kiyomizu Temple and really enjoyed the experience. We were surprised to see so many Japanese people dressed in kimonos. They also come to Kyoto to experience their own culture. Japan is a very modern country and most of the cities look and feel like western suburbs. The hills of Kyoto are the exception and there are literally thousand of Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples. We only scratched the surface of what Kyoto has to offer.

Owen in front of the soldier memorial

The girls, Nadia, Ale, and Ocean were a big hit with their kimonos. People were asking to get their picture taken with them, as you can see above. The Kiyomizu Temple is one of the biggest tourist attractions and was great for the kids. There is a lot to do and see in the compound, much of it a bit kitschy, like drinking the water of the waterfall to get your wish to come true, fortune telling, etc. I do need to read up on Buddhism to understand fully what is going on at the temples.

It got crowded in the afternoon and we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the amount of hustle and bustle. The girls loved the shopping. We got away from the crowds and visited the unknown soldier memorial and watched a local music concert while they finished their shopping. I highly recommend seeing Kyoto and spending a few days. The temples vary quite a lot so there is something for everyone.

Our Stay at a Ryokan

The kids thought they were ninjas!

This week we have family and friends visiting us from China and Yemen. We wanted to give them, and us, a Japanese experience so we stayed last night at a traditional ryokan hotel in nearby Kyoto. You sleep on tatami mats, wear robes, use the public bath and eat Japanese cuisine. It was one of the most memorable nights I’ve had, and I highly recommend this different experience for everyone. It is a bit expensive, but worth it as a special treat or if you really want to experience old Japanese life.

The robes were hilarious and we were asked to change immediately by hotel staff. The kids thought they were ninjas or geishas and it was a bit like halloween. The bath was another interesting experience. Japanese bathe naked publicly, something that does not happen in the USA.  They are segregated between males and females. The boys wore their trunks because they were shy, but Jim and I went as the locals did. The bath had the squatting shower, three temperature pools, a sauna, and facilities for shaving, etc. It was really relaxing and reminded me of the European spas. The meal was traditional, with the tables near the floor and diners on the pillows. There were multiple courses and many of the dishes, we didn’t know what they were. At night we went for a walk in the old streets of Kyoto and saw the big temple nearby all lit up. When we came back to the room, the futon mats were laid out for us. The staff was superbly friendly and at our service, despite the language barrier.

There are many different kinds of ryokans and we will definitely stay again. We stayed at the Hotel Riozen, which was a mid-level price range in a great location.  A big thank you to Masago Sensei for the recommendation and to Jim for arranging the transport! Domo arigato!

Noh Theatre: Ancient Japanese Opera

Last weekend I got to see a short Noh play during the 125th celebration ceremony at Kwansei Gakuin University. They were opening the new auditorium and they had an Oscars like ceremony, with lots of music and lights between speeches.

The most unusual aspect of the ceremony was the ancient Japanese theatre form called Noh. This started over 800 years ago and is very traditional without innovation so it was like going back in time. It was strange to watch! The chorus sang in few tones and in character. The two women in the front row had solo parts and they sang in a deep voice, but forced. The music ensemble consisted of a primitive flute and these drummers making the oddest noises with their voices while occasionally beating on the drum.

This group wrote an original play, which is rare in the Noh art form as they have a traditional list of around 250 plays. The play was based on the founding of the university by American Methodist missionary, Charles Lambuth. 125 years ago he started a school in Kobe and it has now grown to over 24,000 students from K-12 schools to graduate university programs.

I am glad the university put Noh into the ceremony. It is a distinctly Japanese art form and those isolationists, the Tokugawas, had it be the official theatre form of the their court. I can’t say it was entertaining, but it was fascinating. I couldn’t understand the weird vocal grunts and what appeared to be random beats of the drum.

There must be something to it because it is still performed today and there are theatres in Tokyo and Osaka dedicated to Noh. I am not sure if I will give it another try, but it was an experience and gave me a better understanding of Japan.