[As I was putting the (supposedly) “finishing touches” on this site, nearly three years after I started work on it, I found that this page still said “Under construction.” Indeed, it is incomplete, and so it will have to remain. This is just too large a subject to do justice to, but the links provided cover what I cannot and will not attempt to treat.]
Kyoko, our guide, gave us figures on the percentage of Japanese who identify themselves as Shinto and as Buddhist; the percentages total well over 100 percent. Obviously, there is an overlap. The conventional distinction is that Shinto is for the happy times (weddings, blessing of new children) and Buddhism for the sad times (funerals and burials).
According to one Web site:
H. Neill McFarland provides a useful summary of “Religion in Contemporary Japanese Society.”
The following Web sites offer more information on specific aspects of Japanese religion.
A capsule explanation of Shinto
A more exhaustive treatment of Shinto
A capsule discussion of Shinto shrines
A more exhaustive shrine guide
A capsule explanation of Buddhism
An exhaustive treatment of all things Buddhist starting at this page
A capsule discussion of Buddhist temples
Discussion of Buddhist temple naming conventions
For our purposes as tourists, the important thing was to know how to distinguish a temple (Buddhist) from a shrine (Shinto). This is not always easy, as the two religions not only coexist but often overlap. It is not unusual to find a Shinto shrine within the precinct of a Buddhist temple, as we saw at Senso-ji (the Asakusa Kannon temple).
Another aspect of the religion that was not obvious to us is that there are numerous sects of Buddhism. This came to our attention when we visited Nishi Hongwanji, which is the global headquarters for Shin Buddhism (a Jodo or “Pure Land” sect). This diversity is not unreasonable; it is comparable to the multitude of denominations of Protestant Christianity. But in the United States, at least, if you visit a Protestant church, the name of the church will usually give some indication of its denomination, whereas the names of the temples do not (as far as I could tell) give any information of this kind.
The difficulty of operating as an ongoing religious institution after becoming a tourist attraction is a problem no doubt familiar to the priests at, for example, Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., all of which are parish churches with regular congregations. Although we occasionally encountered priests and other officiants engaged in religious ceremonies in the temples and shrines we visited, it was not till we explored Nishi Hongwanji on our own that we got a real sense of a temple as a true religious/educational institution with a wide variety of regular weekly activities and services to the community.
It must be said, though, that at every temple or shrine we visited, but especially at those that did not charge an entrance fee, we saw worshippers mingling with tourists. And even many of the tourists (the Asian ones, anyway) threw coins into the offering boxes, bought and lit devotional candles or incense, bought fortune papers or votive tablets, and the like.
Kyoko instructed us in the forms of reverence expected at each place we visited—removing our shoes, refraining from taking photos, maintaining a respectful silence, performing ritual ablutions or “bathing” in ceremonial smoke and the like. The brochure we received at Meiji Jingu also offered the following instructions.
How to Pay Respects at a Shrine