Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood is truly sacred ground – full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and also full of history, as one of the few corners of the city to survive both the 1923 earthquake and World War II bombings. Yanaka is one of the rare places to glimpse life in old Tokyo.
As I spent the day walking through many of Yanaka’s temples and shrines, I couldn’t help but think about the important connection between the festivals that we discussed in last week’s post, and these sacred places.
Japan has two primary religions, and most people practice a mixture of both – Shinto (which means “the way of the gods”) and Buddhism (which came to Japan from Korea during the 6th century). Japan is full of both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, most of which have been around for hundreds of years. During the Meiji Restoration, when Japan’s government stopped supporting the temples and shrines, they were forced for the first time in history to support themselves.
The temples managed this by hosting festivals, where food, games, and entertainment for the whole family could be found – for a small fee, of course. Maybe some of you been to a similar event at your church or school?
The atmosphere of the temples I visited in Yanaka was much, much different than the lively festival that I described last week, and definitely different than a church bake sale. The Shinto shrines, which are often dedicated to deities associated with nature, featured many different rituals of purification and prayer.
Some of the deities from Shinto folklore may have even ended up in manga or anime that you are familiar with – can you think of any?
Buddhist temples, meanwhile, often feature many images and statues of the Buddha, as well as sutras (kinds of writings or prayers) on peace and compassion. This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that Buddhism flourished in Japan during times of extreme violence, war, and widespread poverty. Buddhism provided many of Japan’s most poor and miserable people with something to look forward to – reincarnation into a better life, if they are good in this one.
Much to my surprise, many of the temples that I walked through on this day also contained something else: Graveyards. That’s right, these same places that served as the beginning point of so many happy festivals are also home to many family graves. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, Buddhism has long been associated with Japan’s burial rituals.
I was just as surprised by the different purposes that temples and shrines serve as I was by how well preserved and cared for these beautiful temples are, considering that many of them are hundreds of years old. Have you ever happened upon a graveyard in America? I usually find them creepy, but these old temple graveyards were beautiful, peaceful and gave me an idea of just how much the Japanese respect their deceased loved ones.
In fact, there are special days of the year set aside for the entire family to go visit the graves of family members, say prayers for them, and leave offerings.
While walking from one temple to another, I happened through Yanaka’s famous Ginza shopping district. Food vendors, fish markets and sellers of keepsakes retain some of the old atmosphere from Tokyo’s Edo Period. As it turned out, Tokyo’s hidden graveyards weren’t my only surprise for the day: According to a large sign at the entrance to the shopping district, I had just entered “Cat Town.”
Many of Yanaka’s shops take their neighborhood mascots quite seriously – this one sells cat-themed candies and baked goods.
On my way out of the shopping district, I saw a few Japanese children dressed up for Halloween. It was only then that I realized how strange it was that I’d spent the whole day in graveyards, and didn’t once think of zombies. None of these kids seemed to be worried about zombies either.
I asked their parents if Halloween was a holiday that the kids looked forward to.
“Oh, yes, many of the kids in the neighborhood really look forward to it,” one father told me. “They love to dress up, and of course they love the candy.”
Because Halloween isn’t celebrated by everyone in Japan, many of the parents told me that they arrange with their local butchers, fish mongers, and markets to bring their children by for trick-or-treating.
Even in a large city like Tokyo, most Japanese households do their grocery shopping every single day, a little bit at a time. Japanese families often have very close ties to the shops and markets in their communities.
Can you think of any special shops, farmers or other merchants that your family has a good relationship with? Do you think that these kinds of relationships are important, and if so, why?
One parent was dressed up as Batman, in what appeared to be a home-made costume. I asked him about his costume, and he simply replied “Batman desu!” – which means, “I’m Batman.”
After my run-in with the caped crusader, I headed to my final destination for the day – the famous Nezu Shrine. This Shinto shrine, which was built in 1705, is a perfect example of what we’ve been talking about, as it is famous for an Azalea Festival, held each year in April.
While Buddhist temples tend to have a strong connection to funeral rites and rituals, Shinto shrines often honor various gods, aspects of nature, or even aspects of daily life. For instance, there are shrines dedicated to couples, to famous mountains and streams, and even one dedicated to doing well with your school studies!
All you need to do is throw a five yen coin into the shrine’s well, clap your hands together twice, bow your head and clap twice again, and all your worries about getting good grades could be over. At least that’s what they tell me.