Fox Gods, Buddha and A Town Full of Cats: The Temples, Shrines, and Sights of Old Tokyo

This shinto shrine, in Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood, is dedicated to Kami Inari (Fox God) – a mythical fox who was said to be the messenger of the God of the Harvest.

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.

This path leads from the entrance to the various ares of the shrine.

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.

Shinto shrines often have a well of some kind, where people entering are supposed to wash their hands before entering. In this ritual of purification, one uses a wooden cup attached to a long handle  to pour water first over the left hand, then over the right.

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?

The entrance to a Buddhist temple, where monks chanted just behind this great door.

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.

The Buddha.

This sign sits near the Buddha.

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.

These graves are empty, as statistics show that 99.81% of Japanese are cremated after death. The wooden plaques are called Sotoba, and carry the new name of the deceased – tradition states that the deceased be given a new name after death.

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 many graveyards in America have statues of Angels or Jesus Christ, Buddha is a common sight in the graveyards of Japan. This statue in particular was a sight to behold.

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.”

Cats, cats, cats.

This cat was just one of many hanging around this feline heaven.  Many Japanese people stood around, eagerly waiting to take pictures of the cats.

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.

All dressed up for Halloween. Notice “Batman” in the background – but not Catman, surprisingly.

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?

A shopkeeper in Yanaka gives out candy to neighborhood kids on Halloween. Well, a few days before Halloween, actually.

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.

The entrance to the famous Nezu Shrine.

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.

About Josh

Part-time journalist & student of communication studies.
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53 Responses to Fox Gods, Buddha and A Town Full of Cats: The Temples, Shrines, and Sights of Old Tokyo

  1. McBride says:

    The cupcake lady! Every Friday, my daughter and I (and now her step father), get a cupcake at Saint Cupcake on Belmont. Until about 3 weeks ago, the same lady waited on us, and we loved her! She always had a funny story to tell us about her day, remembered our names, and was very interested in what type of cupcakes we bought. One week, we even arrived after closing, and she let us in, and gave us free cupcakes, because she had already closed out the till for the night! One week this fall, another lady was working. The next week, it was the same thing- we were very disappointed that our cupcake lady was never there. Last Sunday, we were walking downtown, when we noticed we were walking by another St. Cupcake. Suddenly, someone ran out of the shop and said “Hello!” to us. It was our cupcake lady! She works at a new shop now, so we know where to find her…..
    We have been studying Shinto (nature based worship), and it’s blend with Buddhism. I love the giant gentle faced Buddhas in Japan. They help calm me down! Must be nice to see those amid the bustle in Tokyo- Josh!

    Ms. McBride

  2. Huy says:

    In Vietnam there are lots of shops (at least 3 in every side streets and a lot more in larger streets), and people mostly went to the places where the prices were low, the food (if there were any) was good, how good the quality of the merchandise was, etc.. In Japan, what do you think made people had special ties with the shop keepers: were they nice (most likely), were their prices good, or did people just went to a shop repeatedly and over time, they got used to the shop owner?

    (Also, Japanese people must really love cats, but did they have any other special animal friends that were also popular?)

    • autofact says:

      Huy, thanks for the great questions! The special ties that many Japanese develop with their shopkeepers usually come from the fact that many Japanese families do their shopping each day. They buy just enough groceries for dinner and the next days meals, which means that it is important to go to a local store, so that they don’t have to travel too far each day.
      Also, in addition to cats, Japanese have a special fondness for a special animal that lives only in Japan – it is called a “tanuki” and it is a raccoon dog. Yep, you heard me right! A raccoon dog.

  3. Sophia says:

    Do you think it’s strange that kids trick-or-treat a few days before Halloween? I think it is so cool that Halloween is a holiday celebrated internationally. Was it strange that people went trick-or-treating before Halloween? Also, did they go during the day or night?

    • autofact says:

      Sophia, thanks for the comment. Most of the kids that I noticed went trick or treating during the day, or the very early evening, before it got really dark. The reason that people went a few days before Halloween is mostly because it fell on a weekday, and also partially due to the fact that Japanese don’t celebrate Halloween the same way that we do in America. They celebrate it as an “American” holiday, so they don’t feel like they have to be very strict about it.

  4. Danny says:

    I remember that we were talking about religious building structures, such as Chinese pagodas that the Japanese adopted, and the talk about religious temples and shrines reminds me of that. I also have a question for you, Josh. In Chinese temples, people bow kneel down on pillow-like mats and bow to Buddha there. Then they light a wooden stick as an offering to him. Do they do that in Japan for their Buddhist temples? Thanks!

    • Danny says:

      They bow and kneel on the mats, not bow kneel. Oops!

      • autofact says:

        Thanks for the great question, Danny. It depends on the temple, but I can tell you that they don’t have pillows to kneel on at the Japanese temples that I have been to. They just kneel on tatami mats, which are comfortable mats made out of bamboo.

  5. zephrym says:

    The manager at the nickel arcade AKA avalon. He recognizes us as regulars and sometimes gives us free movies. A few weeks back, he gave us free tickets to a 3-D movie! I also LOVE cats. What is your favorite animal?

    • kevin says:

      That’s so cool! And of course the swim shop. I buy swim caps and goggles on sale bcause my coach is friends with the owner of the store. I didn’t know Japan celebrated Halloween.The golden buddha was so big! Do you how many feet it is? How many pounds does it weigh?

      • autofact says:

        Kevin, thanks for the question. That golden statue was at least 10-12 feet tall, but I have no idea how much it weighs – I wouldn’t want to find out! It’s probably pretty heavy.

    • autofact says:

      Thanks for the great comment! I love cats, but my favorite animal in the entire world would probably have to be the Koala bear! I think they’re very cute, plus they are really interesting creatures. Did you know that the eucalyptus leaves that Koalas eat have very little nutritional value? They don’t eat them because it is good for them, but just because they love the leaves so much. That is part of why Koalas are so lazy – no energy! Still, I think they are just great.

  6. Kees says:

    I think it is very surprising that anybody in Japan celebrates Halloween! Do you know what the percentage of kids go Trick-or-Treating? Ms. McBride, I cannot believe you go to Saint Cupcake. I love that place! One of my personal connections is at the Dairy Queen down the street from my house! The workers there know us all to well!

    Thank You,

  7. Andrew says:

    Every time we go to sushi at ‘I Love Sushi’, we greet the cashier with a smile and a hello. We are always friendly and she is friendly back. It isn’t a huge friendship, but it is nice. I am asking you about Halloween there. What is the strangest costume you’ve ever seen there.

    • autofact says:

      Andrea, thanks for the question. Honestly, many of the Japanese costumes that people can buy are not very creative – just simple things, like nurses or witches. For some reason, however, I saw lots of people dressed as Mario and Luigi, from Super Mario Bros. Also, I saw some guys dressed up as horses – that was pretty strange! But, without a doubt, the strangest costume I saw was a Japanese Michael Jackson.

  8. Blalalala says:

    Hi person

  9. zaidie says:

    I think it is weird but cool that they celebrate Halloween in Japan. I thought that the shrines and graveyards were really beautiful and the city of cats sounds awesome because I love cats! When I go to the beech we go to one restaurant for breakfast every morning and the main waitress there always says hi and comments on how much we have grown. Thanks!

  10. Jolie says:

    Every Sunday after church me and my dad would go to the waffle window and the same guy would be there. He always knew my name. But now my dad and I don’t go there regularly anymore.

  11. Edil says:

    Some weekend when me and my mom want some nice breakfast, we go to a place called The Original Pancake House. It doesn’t only have pancakes but that’s one of my favorites. Every time we go, there is a waitress that we know very well. I used to go there when I was young, but I don’t really remember but the waitress does. My mom and I have a very good relationship with her. My favorite dish is the fresh fruit crepe. It has fresh fruits (the fruits change depending on what time of the year it is) and homemade whip cream which tastes REALLY GOOD! Also, have you seen anybody dress up as any anime characters for Halloween?

    • autofact says:

      Edil, thanks for the great comment. I love when you guys share stuff like this with me. And yes, I have seen some anime characters – I saw someone dressed up as Pikachu, and another dressed up as Totoro – do you know these characters?

  12. Annie says:

    There’s a guy who bikes around my neighborhood every week and sells berries. He always stops at my house and he’s really nice.

  13. Sona says:

    In Ms. McBride’s class we are learning about medieval Japan (as you might already know) and I remember learning about how the Chinese made Buddha look kind of stern and how the Japanese borrowed that idea but then made Buddha look a little bit more pleasant and serene.

    • Sona says:

      also i forgot to ask you this: how many different mascots have you seen?

    • autofact says:

      Sona, thanks for the great reply and the great question. Yes, it is interesting but if you look closely you can see that Buddha looks very different in China, in India, and in Japan. One possible reason that he looks different in Japan is because they wanted to make Buddhism “their own,” so that they weren’t just copying the Chinese. Also, life in Japan was very hard for many people at this time, and the Buddha as a compassionate figure was important for giving people some kind of piece of mind and relief.
      As for the mascots, boy, I don’t even think I could count – I’ve seen hundreds!

  14. Justin says:

    The purification ritual at the Shinto shrines are very interesting because of how when you wash your hands, you’ll feel purified. I also like how people receive new names after death. Why do people receive names after death? Did you see a lot of Batman costumes in Japan?

    • autofact says:

      Justin, thanks for the great questions. I only saw the one Batman costume, and it was definitely homemade! Haha.
      Part of the reason that people received new names after death in Japan is due to something called “kotodama.” Kotodama means something like “magic words,” and refers to the ancient Japanese belief that words (and especially names) can have magical powers. For instance, they believed at one time that having your name spoken in an evil place, like a graveyard, could bring you very bad luck, as evil spirits would know your name and how to find you.
      Another reason is that in Buddhism, people would have to become monks just before they died, in order to be ‘pure.’ They became monks by receiving a new monks name, and having their head shaved, shortly before they thought they would die. If they died suddenly, this could be done afterward.

  15. Anandi says:

    In class we learned that Japanese celebrated Funerals and more sad occasions with Buddhism and celebrated weddings, birth and other happier occasions with Shinto. That sounds the same as your article, because the graveyards were at the Buddhist temples. You said that the Shinto shrines were dedicated to various gods, what are some of the Japanese gods?

    • autofact says:

      Anandi, thanks for the question. They are not all gods, some are deities as well, which are like gods. For instance, there is Fudo, the god of thunder, and also a god of the harvest. However, there are also deities like Tanuki, a raccoon dog, and a fox that served as the messenger for the god of the harvest.

  16. Youki says:

    At my Synagog, we have a party during Purim(kind of like a jewish Holloween), and there are many sweets and costumes. It is the one time of year where our Rabbis get drunk! You said there was a “cat town”. Was it really that full of cat related things?
    What are you being for halloween?

    • autofact says:

      Youki, thanks for the reply. Yanaka really is full of cate related restaurants and shops! It became famous for having many stray cats, and so people started taking care of them and then making them a theme of the shops.
      I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I was too busy to dress up for Halloween this year! I know, pretty boring.

  17. Duy says:

    I am Buddhist and I have been to about 3 temples here in Oregon. The temples here are small but beautiful but not as beautiful as the ones in Japan! I go to the temple about like 5-7 times a year so I am familiar with Buddhism. It seems so cool that in Japan the dress up for Halloween like us, I wouldn’t have noticed the person dressed like Batman if you didn’t write it. I wonder why people who are deceased receive new names. It seems odd. I wish I could clap my hands 2 times, bow then clap my hands again and all my worries about good grades go away. That would be awesome if it actually worked!

    • autofact says:

      Duy, thanks for your great reply. I hope that you can come to Japan and see some of the beautiful temples here one day – I’m sure you would love them! Part of the reason people receive new names has to do with the old Buddhist ways, when people had to become monks in order to be pure before they died. They would take on a special monk’s name and have their head shaved.
      Also, Japanese used to believe strongly in the magical power of names, and would often change names when they took a new job or went through other life changes. Some professions still take new names – kabuki actors, for instance, are given a new name when they become very famous.

  18. Lilith says:

    My parents and I go to eat Pho soup every weekend so the people who work there know us very well, I’ve been going there since I was one! They have memorized our orders and we don’t even need menus anymore!

  19. Molly says:

    I am familiar with a lot of the people and places I get food from: My family gets all its food local and we go to a lot of farmer’s markets and meet the venders. Also, we used to go to a Thai restaurant called Thai Spoon, and the people there memorized our orders. When we walked in, they said hello and asked, “The usual?” We nodded, and they got us our delicious food

  20. Noah says:

    I don’t really have any personal connections with any markets and stuff, unless you count Safeway. I don’t think that counts, though. But the people at Papaccino’s, the coffee shop I go to near me, know me pretty well because i had a D&D campaign that played there once and I went there every Friday. I also know the people at First Cup coffee shop because my dad likes going there. I think these relationships are important to know your neighbors better and stuff and things like that.

    • Aaron says:

      Noah, remember when it was really raining and the people at Papachino’s gave us towels? Also, I go to a Red Castle, a game store, and I am really great friends with a guy who works there. Is there a tiger god in Japan? They are my favorite.

  21. It is very interesting to learn about Japanese religious customs. It reminds me of China where you can probably easily find temples/shrines on mountains. In Chinese, they are called miao, pronounced kind of like meow. There we believe in Daoism and Buddhism. Both of those religions are no longer exactly pure because they have been very influenced by the views of Confucius. The temples/shrines exhibit many statues and are usually elaborately decorated. They both have tall pagodas and places to explore. In the Buddhist temples, they have carvings of the Buddha and other immortal spirits. To pray, we take small squarish pillows and kneel on them. To show our respect, we also burn incense wood which are thin sticks of wood that when burned, give off a distinctive smell. Another common sight at these places are pools of fish because they represent wealth and prosperity. Do you know anything about interesting symbols in Japan? Like in China, a Chinese knot represents harmony and togetherness while jade represents peace. Anything like that in Japan?

    • Also in China, we have markets kind of like Saturday markets except they are permanent. There you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and even spices. It is really convenient because it is always really close, a few blocks away. We always have good relationships with the sellers that we buy from often. Therefore, we sometimes get discounts. In America, I miss the fizzing sound of fresh cooking Chinese pancakes. They are similar to US pancakes but are more like stacks of thin layers made of crispy dough. I even fondly remember the sound of the weighing machines and arguments over the price. I really miss fresh food.

  22. Ashok says:

    I have had no connection with any business people in my area. In class, we learned how Confucius heavily influenced the Japanese constitution of Japan, and how people from that era weren’t Shinto or Buddhist, rather they celebrated certain Shinto festivals and certain Buddhist festivals. Also, do people still follow both Shintoism and Buddhism, or is it now just one or the other? And have you ever been friends with someone from a business that you visited often?

    • autofact says:

      Ashok, thanks for the great questions. Japan is still both a Shinto and Buddhist country, where most people celebrate aspects of both religions. There is a saying in Japan that Japanese are “born shinto, marry christian, and die buddhist.” However, there were periods where Buddhism was more popular than Shinto, followed by periods where the opposite was true. However, more or less the country has been Shinto/Buddhist for several hundreds of years.
      Right now there is a yakitori cart down the street from my house, and I buy food there at least once a week. Also, when I lived in Portland I used to always eat at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Ichidai. Another business I loved was “Potato Chamption,” wich is a food cart on SE Hawthorne and 12th street.

  23. Julie says:

    I think it’s really cool that the Japanese religion is so fond of the buddist religion, I’m not fimilar with the religion since I’m catholic but its still real cool. I learned in class that in the Heian period that the women believed the greater amount on yourself would equal to more beauty like cosmetics and clothing. Also, I think it’s weird but yet really cool that they go trick or treating before Halloween, which is today! We are really close with people who sell cookies to my house. Who aren’t the Girl Scouts and they always tell us that’s we’ve grown so much! Do the trick or greater get candy or different types of treats?

  24. Greta says:

    In class we learned about Shinto and how it was focused on the beauty of nature and Buddhism, but in our book it said Buddhism was about pain and suffering, is that right? Also I didn’t know people in Japan trick or treated. The treak or treating and religion also connects to my shop relation: candy! Down my street there is a small candy shop called Candy Babel which got its name from the tower of babel which connected all languages, since the shop sell sweets from all around the world.

    • autofact says:

      Greta, thanks for the great post. A major difference between Shinto and Buddhism is that Buddhism is concerned with the “other world” after we die, while Shinto is concerned with this world. At the time when Buddhism was Japan’s primary religion, times were very hard for many people, who suffered badly under the samurai class. Buddhism offered them some relief from the suffering of daily life, and also helped to control them – people focused on the afterlife and accepted their place in society, however low, in real life. Buddhism also preached great compassion for all things.
      Shinto focused on nature and beauty, but just as importantly, it didn’t focus on the afterlife as much as Buddhism did. As Japan started to modernize during the Tokugawa/Meiji Restoration, it was important to have a national religion that made people think about their daily lives, so the government persecuted Buddhism and raised up Shinto.

  25. Rebecca says:

    Most of the shops and things where we get food are larger than the little street-side markets that I see in those pictures, so they often have many people working and we don’t often talk to the same person. Somtimes when we go to the farmers market though my mom will always make a point of going to some dahlia stall and some particular bakery and tomato stall. I’m not sure if she really knows these people very well but she always enjoys their food and wares.
    I’m more interested in a tradition of giving someone a new name after death. Wouldn’t that prove to have all sorts of problems? What if a family friend came over and heard you talking about the person using their new name, and didn’t know who it was? That would be awkward. And if you changed your name during your life, would you get three names? Do they change your name to something you wanted to be called? What if they call you something weird? I guess if you are dead you couldn’t tell but it seems like a very odd tradition.

    • Josh says:

      Rebecca, thanks for the great question. Actually, in Japan the idea of taking on a new name at different stages in life isn’t that strange. Not everyone does it, of course, but in many professions it is not so strange. Actors, performers, and various other professionals sometimes take on a new name when they reach a certain high point in their career. In ancient Japan, it wouldn’t be strange for someone to have 2-3 different names in their lifetime, depending on their class and the kind of life they’d lived.
      The answer to your question about confusion is easy to answer: At the time when this was a more common practice, people wouldn’t have talked about the dead at all. Even today, Japanese will rarely speak of the dead by name.

  26. Anna says:

    My grandma knows a lot of the store people. We will go into the grocery store or coffee shop or bike store or anywhere in her neighborhood and she will stop and chat with an employee. She is very friendly and knows everyone in her neighborhood.

  27. Zeno says:

    My mom is friends with a woman at a pizza place. The weird thing is that when my mom and I go there, my mom’s friend is always there.

  28. Simon says:

    We eat at a lot of Chinese restaurants very often and my Mom always talks to them a lot, so she’s friends with basically every Chinese place we go to and we always get coupons or free food.

  29. Simon says:

    Are there other important religions in Japan besides the 2?

  30. Sam says:

    I have come a cross graveyards by walking and riding in the car. It sometimes is eerie because no one is around but the dead are. I once visited a Korean grave site but it wasn’t a graveyard. There were many shelves with glass protecting them. Each of the selves had jars with the ashes of the people who have died. So many Koreans are cremated when they die. Did you see any bowls of cat food on the streets of Yanaka? I really love cats. I have two of them and they are both indoor cats.

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