There are two main things that I like to experience when I travel- culture and nature. However, I have a very shy personality, so the first of those two can be difficult to experience fully at times. Nature is also one of my greatest passions in life, and I believe it offers even greater opportunities to explore than culture due to its nearly endless variability. In any case, I prefer to focus on the natural world when I am away from home, and I think that this is reflected in many of my entries here.
In the case of Japan, visiting natural sites ended up being only a small portion of my trip. Big cities, endless canyons of concrete, smog, and crowds tend to tire me out, and leave me feeling spent. While I am a city dweller myself, Phoenix has a lot to offer the nature-lover, places where you can easily find solitude and spiritual rest amid the mountains that are scattered throughout the area. Such places are much harder to find in Japan, at least in the highly developed and visited places that we found ourselves exploring. So, about half-way through the trip I found myself feeling quite spent, and in need of some quiet, natural respite.
Quite luckily, the traditional religion of Japan, Shinto, is also closely linked to the purifying and healing properties of the natural world, and eventually our pilgrimage through the great shrines of Nihon brought us to Nikko and the many shrines of Rinno-ji. When we first arrived there, we visited the shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was much like the previous shrines that we had visited. Beautiful and intricate, we followed the carefully planned path for us through the lovingly maintained buildings, stopping only to remove our shoes, snap pictures, and talk with other, friendly visitors.
When we were done, my fiancé wanted to go to the Rinno-ji museum, but not being particularly fond of museums myself, I opted out. Over a hot cup of tea and a bit of cheesecake, I unfolded my map of the Rinno-ji area and traced out where I wanted to go. There are many things to see there, and I knew that in the span of an hour or so, I wouldn’t be able to make it to any of the other major attractions of the area that I wanted to see. So, thinking that it might be nice to go for a bit of a hike, I set off for the little Takino Shrine, which was perched on the upper edge of the map at the end of a quiet-looking trail.
The map itself proved to be somewhat hard to follow, but after wandered through Rinno-ji’s busy roads near its main shrines, filled with curious visitors, I skirted along a shrine fence and then followed a stone path up into the forest. Immediate upon entering the trees, alone amid the mountainsides of green and a gentle rain, I felt a great sense of peace and awe. Perhaps it was somewhat akin to the feeling evoked by the kami of Shinto, and within my own spiritual understanding of the universe, it made me feel close to God.
On the trek, I stopped to make small offerings at the little Buddhist statues that were balanced along the edge of the trail. More so than any church or shrine that I have visited in the world, this place seemed the most appropriate for prayer. Almost as though, in that quiet wood, God was listening especially close. I continued down the trail, loath to leave these feelings of peace and well-being behind, but I was eventually led to an unassuming waterfall attended by a single tourist. Not wanting to break the solitude of either of us, I kept my distance and then climbed the stairs that led up past the waterfall to the shrine itself.
Here in the mist of the rain that had been falling on and off for much of the afternoon, I found myself alone once again. Tucked under the eaves of the shrine, and surrounded by the peace of the forest and the sacred trees, the same feelings of renewal and calm engulfed me. All of my worries seemed to matter little, and with the donation of a coin, and a traditional bow and double clap, I found myself offering up little prayers for the future and my friends and family throughout the small sites of the shrine. Far from any church or pastor, amid the buildings and sacred objects of Shinto, I felt closer to God and nature than I think that I ever have before.
The point of all this is two fold: (1) to write about and share this amazing and unique experience, and (2) to relate the innate and unique quality of Japanese spirituality that I read about before leaving for my trip, learned about by visiting many different shrines, and experienced for myself so very strongly on the day that I have described above.
As I have read in S.D.B. Picken’s 1980 book Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Roots, a kami is an inhabitant of the heavenly realm, and they are manifest in all things that inspire in humans a sense of awe, reverence or mystery, often in connection with nature. While in some ways, Shinto may be considered a form of nature worship; it is more truly a cultural acknowledgement of the ways in which nature can inspire human beings to experience the divine. Shrines themselves, like Takino Shrine, are built in places that emanate this sacred and divine sense.
Of course, simply reading about these things makes it easy to distance yourself from them, but after experiencing what I did at Rinno-ji, I have a much clearer sense the impact that Shinto practices can have. Certainly, whoever built Takino had found a place that did exude a sense of the divine, and even without much knowledge of Shinto, this was something that I clearly experienced. It is also, in a way, a principle and effect that I have considered in my own life. I have never felt particularly comfortable worshiping in a church setting, as my shy and solitary personality keep me from truly expressing myself in church crowds. Phoenix’s mountain preserves, oddly enough, have served as more of a place of worship for me than any air-conditioned auditorium. The complexity, beauty, and un-predictableness of nature has always seemed like the most fitting setting for God. After all, nature seems to me to be the art and essence of any creator, something that both nurtures and challenges us.
I wish we had something closer to the open and inviting shrines of Japan in the US for Christianity. No matter who you are, and where you are coming from these are places where the divine can be experienced, whether you understand it in terms of God, the kami, spirits, or anything else. It is a place where you feel that your prayers are heard, and your thoughts are calmed. For some, I am sure that they find this in churches, and while I enjoy visiting open churches when I can, they never seem to be as all-encompassing as what I saw in Japan nor do they speak to my spirit in the same way.
Brief disclaimer! The following post consists primarily of my own personal musings concerning a very spiritual experience that I had while visiting Japan. My understanding of this experience, and my discussion of it are based on my own spiritual beliefs. However, my beliefs are not up for comment or debate here, and I will not be approving or addressing any comments of this nature. Furthermore, it is important to me that this blog is culturally sensitive, so no comments debating the validity or superiority of any religion will be approved or addressed either. There are certainly places on the internet and in the real world where debates such as these are appropriate and productive, but my blog isn’t the place.