In 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright made an extensive tour of Japan, calling the country “the most romantic, the most beautiful on earth.” He was to live off and on in Japan for the next seventeen years, designing fourteen buildings including Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. The influence of Japanese culture and architecture on his thinking was significant; especially his belief that “Buildings should serve to honor and enhance the natural beauty surrounding them.” There are few greater examples of that organic architecture than the stunning Shinto and Buddhist structures in Japan, and Kyoto has over two-thousand of them.
I’ve visited Japan three times over the past forty years, most recently in January, 2017. My wife and I chose to spend most of our time in Kyoto; it’s much smaller than Tokyo yet has more cultural sites, and is the home of my friend, Jay Klaphake, Organizer of TEDxKyoto. Jay, a law professor at Kyoto International University, is a Minnesota native I met at TED events in Berlin and Amsterdam.
Jay says to appreciate Kyoto, you need some understanding of Japanese culture. To understand something of Japanese culture you need to know more about Shinto, the dominant religion of Japan. Shinto has no founder nor are there sacred scriptures, yet Shinto has been deeply intertwined within the Japanese culture for over a thousand years. Sacred spirits, or gods, are called kami, and take the form of wind, trees, mountains, rocks, rivers, and concepts like fertility. Humans too become kami after they die and are then revered by their families. You may visit a Shinto shrine, but only priests may enter the honden, the main hall where the kami are thought to live.
Visitors are welcome at most Shinto shrines and while most western visitors are unaware of the etiquette expected in a shrine, they won’t be asked to leave if not in compliance.
Here’s the drill: On arrival at a shrine you will first pass through a torii gate, which symbolizes the boundary between the secular and the sacred world of the kami. Japanese believe that it is wrong to go near the kami in a state of impurity, so every shrine has a temizuya: this water trough has bamboo ladles provided for you to dip the water to cleanse your hands and then pour a small amount in the palm of your hand to rinse your mouth, and finally spit the water beside the fountain. You may then approach the offering hall where you toss a coin into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds, then back away.
Visiting a Buddhist temple is different. Behave calmly and respectfully, showing your respect by making a short prayer in front of the sacred object (usually a statue of the Buddha). You should also purchase and burn incense for good health. In most temples and shrines it is customary to remove your shoes; sometimes courtesy socks are provided, but think ahead and wear a nice pair. Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since the sixth century. Most Japanese worship at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, or both.
Buddhist Priest Takafumi Kawakami, of Shunkoin Temple, graduated from Arizona State University and hosts English language zen Buddhist meditation on his blogspot. (shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.com) Kawakami is also a past speaker at TEDxKyoto. His meditation sessions in the Shunkoin Temple are impressive; the six-hundred year old temple and the zen rock garden outside soothe and focus the mind.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the Emperor’s residence for one thousand years (until 1858), and is the soul, the center of Japanese culture. No other city in the world has as many UNESCO world heritage sites (seventeen). Visit three or four of the most famous (always crowded) and then focus on a couple of lesser-known but still stunning sites.
Words and photos by Doug Coleman