In my new articles I will be speaking a lot about “otera” and “jinja” and since many of you might not know or not even have heard of them, I decided to write an article about what they are and how these two places of worship differ from each other. Let’s start with the basics:
Religions in Japan
Japan’s history is divided in different periods (時代 Jidai in Japanese), this resembles the way the Chinese history is classified as well. The first period is called Jomon from 12,000-300 BC, then Asuka 550-710 BC when the Buddhism was imported from the Korean kingdom of Baekje and got popular during the Nara period when the prince Shotoku pledged to spread the Buddhist religion and Chinese culture throughout the entire Japan.
At the same time, in Japan, an indigenous religion was already developed, the so-called Shintoism. This religion is unique to Japan and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The main point of Shintoism is worshipping the countless Gods that make up its Pantheon, which at the top resides the sun God Amaterasu. The name was created after the importation of Buddhism in order to distinguish the two religions: 神 read as “shin” or as “kami“, which means God, and 道 dou, which means path so the final meaning is the “path of the Gods“.
Otera – お寺
Let’s start with something easy that will allow us to understand whether the temple we are visiting is a Buddhist or Shinto one: the name. Most of the time, Buddhist temples have a Ji 寺 in their name, for example: Toudaiji 東大寺,Touji 東寺, Sensouji 浅草寺. As you might have realized, the Ji in the name is written with the same kanji of Otera. The name is more important than you might think thus always have a look at it before entering.
Also the structure of a Buddhist temple is a bit different from a Shinto shrine’s and changes according to the type of Buddhism. I will not talk about this in details since I do not know it well myself but in Japan, after the importation of Buddhism from Korea, many different branches sprang up, among them we have Zen Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism, Hosso Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism.
The main and more common features of a Buddhist temple are:
- Mon 門 the gate at the entrance, usually made of wood
- The Main Hall called Kondo 金堂 or Butsuden 仏殿 in Zen Buddhist temples is where the main object of veneration is enshrined. The object is different in every temple, for example in Engakuji temple in Kamakura it is said the tooth of Buddha is treasured while in the Sensouji temple in Tokyo the Asakusa Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, is enshrined.
- The stupa, normally found in India or Thailand, or the pagoda, which is just an evolution of the stupa, found in Chinese and Japanese temples. It is usually multiple-stories high. The Japanese pagoda originated from the Chinese pagoda but the two are a bit different in their design. The pagoda’s function reminds me of the bell tower’s, for those who are accustomed with Catholic religion.
- Chinjusha 鎮守社 , which is a small shinto shrine found in most of Buddhist temples. The fact that the two religions can cohabit so well amazes me. Not only people can practise two religions at the same time but every Buddhist temple must have a Shinto shrine in it.
There are, of course, other parts but these are the most evident and important ones.
How To Pray In a Otera
When you want to pray in a buddhist temple, what you need to do is heading towards the Main Hall, where he main object of veneration is enshrined, and once there, throw some coins in the offering box. Then join your hands in prayer, like you would do in a church, and make a wish.
Jinja – 神社
As I have just explained above, the easiest and fastest trick is checking the name. For Shinto shrines it normally ends in Jinja 神社 or Taisha 大社 . While the Jinja is a normal Shinto shrine, the Taisha is more like a cathedral, a bigger complex than a Jinja could be. For instance the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto or the Kasuga Taisha in Nara.
The more common and most important features are:
- Torii: the shinto gate, which informs us that we just stepped into the holy territory of the shrine. It can be of various colours, mainly red or white.
- Sando: the path after the torii that leads you to the Main Hall.
- Chozuya: the fountain placed at the entrance of the shrine when one is supposed to cleanse their own hands before praying. Hold the dipper in your right hand and wash your left hand, repeat the same sequence just with the left hand and then put it back.
- Toro: the decorative lanterns
- Honden: the Main Hall of the shrine, where the God is usually eshrined.
- Komainu: the statues, which normally are lion-shaped animals, located in front of the Honden.
- Kagura-den: the stage where the miko perform.
Unlike Buddhist temples, normally shrines are always open and the entrance is free. Those who look after the shrines are the Kannushi 神主, in a nutshell they are the priest. Unlike in Buddhism or Catholicism, they can marry and have children.
There are also the Miko 巫女, young girls that help the Kannushi to maintain the shrines. They are normally the daughters of the priest but also normal girls can become one. In the past once a Miko had to be married, they had to leave their “work” at the shrine. Although nowadays this rule does not exist anymore, most of them still do it.
How To Pray In a Jinja
The way of praying in a Jinja is slightly different from the Buddhist way. Like for the buddhists, you go to the Main Hall, where the God is enshrined, then you throw some coins in the offering box and you bow and clap your hands twice. After you clapped, join the hands together like the buddhist way while expressing your wish to the God and bow for the last time.
All the shrines you encounter are dedicated to a certain God. For example in Dazaifu, a small town near Fukuoka, there is the God of Wisdom where all students go and pray for their success at school. Other common Gods are the Seven Gods of Fortune, like Ebisu the business god, or the Inari Okami, the God of rice, fertility and agriculture.
Places of worship dedicated to Inari can be found throughout Japan, among them the most important one is the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. Take into consideration that more than one third Jinja in Japan are dedicated to Inari, without including the smaller shrines on the sides of streets or in remote places.
The Inari God is depicted both as female or male but it is often associated with the fox (Kitsune 狐 in Japanese), which is why most of the time you find fox statues at the entrance of the Inari shrines. The foxes are, indeed, its messengers. The fox-shaped statues always have something in their mouths or pawns, like a scroll or a sake bottle. Also the torii and the Main Hall itself are often painted in a bright red colour, a distinguish feature of the Inari shrines.
If you know something more about this topic, please feel free to write down in the comments below. Have you ever been to a Jinja or a Otera? Let me know your experience 😉