The well-traveled person knows all too well the spiritual enrichment that comes from visiting religious sites around the world, how experiencing the myriad ways people worship will feed the soul in ways nothing else can provide. With more ancient worship sites continuously maintained and still in prominent use today than any other country, the experiences that await you in Japan can’t be matched anywhere else! Shinto, known as “the way of the gods” and built on the foundation of honoring your ancestors as well as divine deities, is the religion of ancient Japan. Shinto was first documented in writing in the 8th century but existed for millennia prior, while Buddhism made its way into the country in the 6th century. They make up over 80% of the country’s religion, and have coexisted harmoniously for over a thousand years, with many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples sharing grounds in the same worship complexes.
Senso-ji Temple Tokyo by Hans-Johnson / Flickr
Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Even upon approach, Senso-ji Temple will instill you with awe. The huge Thunder Gate, the Kaminarimon, looms in the distance like a crimson storm, enormous and hypnotic, with larger than life statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder. These statues are posed on either side of the gate to watch visitors as they walk beneath the 1500-pound, 13-foot-tall paper lantern painted scarlet and black like a flame of lightning and pass through the gate into the street beyond. As you enter, be sure to take a moment to turn around and thank the dragon gods, Tenryu and Kinryu, who will guard you on your visit. Their statues, a gift to the temple by 106-year-old master sculptor Hirakushi Denchu, are positioned at the rear of the Thunder Gate where they can look out over the Nakamise-dori. This street is lined with stalls and vendors participating in a living tradition dated back several centuries of selling goods and wares to pilgrims making their way to the temple. When the cherry blossoms are peeking out over the tops of the stalls and the air is thick with the scent of divine incense said to bless and heal any body that bathed in its smoke, and when the sound of the o-mikuji oracles shaking their cups of painted sticks while the Treasure House Gate, the Hozomon with its gargantuan Nio guardians protecting the entrance and the National Treasures housed inside, towers over the end of the Nakamise-dori, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more iconic image of Japan.
For a relatively small island-nation, Japan’s impact on the world is impressively oversized. Sushi and sake are popular staples in cities across the globe. Japanese innovation in technology informs the way we communicate, travel, shop, and even chart the stars. And from a cultural standpoint, Japanese influence can be found from fashion to film, and everything in between! Before you head out on your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, check out these ten films that will not only whet your appetite, but also expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.
Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli
You’ve probably heard of the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, but did you know that when the film was theatrically released in 2001 it became the most successful film in Japanese history? Anime (Japanese animation) is so prominent in the country that hundreds of thousands of people gather each year for festivals surrounding the characters, art, and stories.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who wanders into a magical world ruled by witches and spirits, and where humans obsessed with worldly greed are transformed into beasts. The film is infused with a variety charming lessons steeped in traditional Japanese folklore. More importantly, Studio Ghibli films are well-known for depicting daily life in Japan in great detail—especially the often overlooked, quiet moments such as pouring tea, making offerings, or lighting incense. In one such moment, Chihiro sheds tears of relief having found joy in a gift of rice balls from a new friend.
If you’re in Tokyo, consider stopping by the Studio Ghibli Museum during some down time to get an insider look at all of the wonderful films made by this award-winning animation studio!
CHECK IT OUT: Travelers often ask “when is the best time to visit Japan?” Everyone knows about the high and low season… but the truth is: Japan is amazing 365 days a year! From blossoms to snowfall (and every season in between!) there’s something unique to experience all year long.
Like a beautiful bonsai tree, we’ve spent years cultivating our classic Japan packages to give you the very best this ancient country has to offer—no matter what time of year you visit! Learn more about our packages.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.