It is one Japanese custom to visit shrines and temples. For example, the Japanese go to these places in January to pray for happiness for the coming year. During the Bon period in summer (August 13~16), they pay a visit to graves to make offerings to the dead. When a Japanese person is preparing for entrance examinations, or when babies are born, they visit shrines and pray for good luck. When someone dies, a funeral is held at a temple. Thus, shrines and temples are a part of life for the Japanese.

In fact, shrines and temples represent different religions: Shintoism and Buddhism, respectively. An indigenous religion in Japan, Shintoism worships animals, people and powerful natural forces such as mountains and rivers, as gods. In Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan around the 6th century, followers pray for the Buddha to save them from their suffering. Shinto and Buddhism influenced each other to help create a culture unique to Japan. The two religions are still deeply rooted in Japanese life, and lately they are experiencing a new boom.

Take the “boom for Buddhist statues,” for example. Buddhist statues, sculptures of the Buddha, used to be considered things that belonged in temples and on Buddhist altars and that were only prayed to by older people. Recently, however, their artistic beauty is being reappraised and they are gaining popularity among wider generations. “The Exhibit of the National Treasure Ashura” held in Tokyo for about two months in 2009 attracted 900,000 people, highlighting the new boom.

New fans of Buddhist statues are also active in making them as well. Buddhist statue sculptor SEKI Kouun started a school for making such statues two years ago, but added more classes because the number of students increased. “The average age of our students is younger than at other schools,” says Seki. “The students’ motivations are varied. Some say they love sculpting and others say they want to make statues to commemorate their deceased parents.”

A young couple who just joined Seki’s school say: “We had always liked Buddhist statues and often visited temples. Before long we found ourselves wanting to make one ourselves, so we jointed this school together.” “I would like to make a gorgeous statue with lots of decorations,” says the woman. “I like fighter statues, so I want to make a cool one like the four heavenly kings,” says the man.

A man attending the class with his son says: “I work in a computer-related field, so every day it’s a digital, virtual world. That makes me want to do something that involves making things by hand. That’s why I joined this school. The touch of wood is therapeutic, too.” Looking at a statue that his father had made, the son said he wanted to do it, too.

New efforts by temples are also leading to their growing popularity. Yakushi-ji Temple, which has 1,300 years of history, has incorporated comics into sanga-e, pictures drawn on petal-shaped pieces of paper. This paper is used for memorial services. “Buddhism teaches how to live, and a temple is essentially a cheerful place where people gather, rather than a place for funerals. So we have incorporated comics that will please children,” says KATO Choin of Yakushi-ji Temple.

“VOWZ BAR” (Buddhist monk bar) is another new endeavor by a temple, and there are two such bars in Tokyo. Started by Buddhist monks, these bars house Buddhist statues and altars. The monks recite Buddhist sutras every now and then. Here customers can listen to stories about Buddhism and talk about their problems over a cup of sake. “This is a temple that is open at night,” says HATORI Hiroaki, one of the monks.

New movements are also found in shrines. For example, Negai-no-miya Shrine in Osaka utilizes IT, allowing people to make wishes and interact with the guuji (the head of the shrine) on the Internet. It also lets people experience the job of a miko, a maiden who conducts ceremonies to worship gods at a shrine. In addition, the shrine offers classes in gagaku, a type of Japanese music from ancient times.

“We always put an emphasis on the idea of ‘helping people become happier.’ We’d like to continue with the new endeavors to help make gods feel more familiar to people,” says Negai-no-Miya’s guuji MOMOYAMA Kiyoshi. “We would like people from different backgrounds to experience traditional Japanese culture and Shinto culture, and above all to have the experience of purifying their hearts.” With this in mind, Momoyama makes the miko experience and gagaku lessons available to non-Japanese as well.

“It felt really sacred. Being caught up in hectic daily life, I had forgotten about my life-long dream, but doing this has made me want to pursue it once again,” says a woman who experienced the job of a miko. “If you pray at this shrine, your wish will come true, and I’m also attracted to the personality of the guuji,” says a man who has come all the way to this Osaka shrine from Ehime Prefecture.

Momoyama’s new activities are increasing the number of fans of Negai-no-miya Shrine. A woman living in Tokyo learned about the shrine through mixi, a social networking site. “I’m not religious, but I believe that some invisible power exists,” she says, referring to the shrine that she calls her “oasis.” “This is a place where your wishes are delivered to the gods. I like its atmosphere of freedom, too.”

Sometimes people gather in shrines and create new movements. Washinomiya Shrine in Saitama Prefecture became popular among anime fans because of one anime. In 2007 about 130,000 people came to Washinomiya Shrine for hatsumoude, a visit to a shrine at the beginning of the year. But the figure for 2009 increased to about 420,000. Now even anime fans from abroad come to visit the shrine.

The fans draw anime characters on ema and hang them in the shrine. Ema are wooden tablets on which to write one’s wishes, but these tablets mean more than that to these anime fans. Ema serve as their means of expressing themselves. “I come here on my days off to draw pictures on ema,” says MOTEGI Takanori, whose ema became well-known because of the high number he drew and his excellent drawing, and were even introduced on TV.

Although they visit shrines and temples, the Japanese also celebrate Christmas. “I kind of believe in gods and the Buddha and think that if I do something wrong, I will be punished. I like omikuji (sacred lots) and fortune-telling. I don’t care whether or not they are scientific,” says a woman. That would represent how many Japanese feel.

Text: SAZAKI Ryo

[From January Issue 2010]