Japan has a culture of contrasts like nowhere else on earth. It’s the most technologically advanced place in the world, yet is intimately connected to its ancient heritage and deep spiritual traditions. Leaving Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis and heading to small towns and villages is like stepping back in time. Out in the Japanese wilderness, multi-tiered pagodas sit shrouded by misty forests and tumbling waterfalls. From sacred temples and Shinto shrines to tea ceremonies and ancient rituals, here we delve into the magical world of spiritual Japan.
Until the 6th Century when Buddhism arrived from mainland Asian, Shinto (meaning, ‘the way of the gods’) was Japan’s main religion. Today the two have intertwined and coexist in harmony. Both are underpinned by compassion and celebrated through worshipping at shrines and temples.
To witness the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, visit Mount Koya, Japan’s holiest mountain, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Deep within its woods, you’ll find a community of temples and monastery lodgings. Established in 819 AD by the monk, Kukai, the sacred site is off-the-beaten-track but a must-visit for those wanting to retrace ancient footsteps. Enjoy a traditional vegetarian lunch served by local monks at a shukubo temple inn.
Located in the heart of Ise City, Mie Prefecture, the Ise Jingu Shrine is Japan’s most venerated Shinto sanctuary. The vast complex of 125 jinja shrines, centred around two principal shrines, Naikū – the inner shrine – and Gekū – the outer shrine – is dedicated to the worship of sun goddess, Ameterasu. Constructed from wood only, with no nails, the shrines are torn down and rebuilt every 20 years according to Shinto law.
Meditate on the beauty of nature at Kyoto’s jaw-dropping Sagano Bamboo Forest where towering stalks of bamboo sway in the breeze, which gently whistles through them. Afterward, visit the majestic Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. The head temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, it’s in the most tranquil of settings by a pond surrounded by acer trees that turn beautiful shades of russet and burnt orange in the autumn.
Japan’s spiritual heart is found in the Kumano region, at the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. For over 1,000 years, pilgrims have been drawn to this area, walking the Kumano Kudo pilgrimage trails to three shrines. It’s often referred to as the ‘Land of the Dead’ as it’s believed family ancestors reside here after death. Ancient cobbled pathways weave in and out of vegetated rainforest, past lakes and the arresting Nachi waterfall, Japan’s tallest.
Green matcha tea’s popularity has exploded in the West though its origins lie in ancient, spiritual Japan. Buddhist tea ceremonies – known as The Way of Tea – involve the graceful and considered preparation and presentation of tea. The ritual is an almost meditative practice harmonising poise and mindfulness. When in Kyoto (the home of the tea ceremony) try and attend tea ceremonies in temples and tea houses.
To connect with Japan’s mystical spiritual side, click here to discover a captivating Trafalgar tour.
Image Credits: Main image © iStock/AzmanJaka. Nachi & Kyoto Bamboo forest © iStock/SeanPavonePhoto. Tenryu-ji Temple © iStock/Javarman3. Mount Koya © iStock/ncousla. Tea ceremony © iStock/DavorLovincic.