Almost exactly five years ago a friend and a younger, happier and more idealistic version of myself visited Japan, spending 10 days in Kyoto. I have since come back twice to the archipelago, but never to Kyoto. These are my memories, five years on.
An old nickname for Kyoto, I’ve been told, is City of Ten Thousand Shrines. None of us was inclined (read: paranoid enough) to go and count them, but it seemed to us that, whilst in town, we weren’t ever far enough from a pagoda. And a vending machine. And a 7-11, but I digress: Kyoto is simply swamped with temples. Some of them, such as Nishi Honganji, are enormous complexes occupying whole blocks; others are much smaller and elusive, places you’re likely to bump into rather than go for; others, such as the famous Kiyomizu-Dera and the delightfully golden Kinkaku-ji, lie in a park or on top of a pretty hill with a fantastic view of the city (and it goes to the Japanese’s credit that they haven’t filled Kiyomizu-Dera’s panoramic terraces with bars al fresco and people sipping mojitos).
We visited plenty of these magnificient temples and if ever someone told you that they all look the same please erase him from your Facebook friends. We came to love the peace, the manicured zen gardens, the soft parfume of wood and frankincese, the gurgling of the elaborated purishing fountains located outside (don’t drink the water unless you want to look like a prick like myself). We spent ages admiring the intricate woodwork of the ceilings and roofs, the ornament embellishing the tiles. We read and marvelled at the fact that some of these temples were so well made that not a single nail was used. Some of these temples carried legends or had stories to tell that you wouldn’t normally hear about churches or mosques: for instance, locals believed that if you jumped from Kiyomizu-Dera’s viewing terrace and somehow survived the 15-meters fall, your wishes would be granted.
Something, however, was missing. You see, some temples were distinctively Buddhist, whereas some others didn’t seem so. For two guys used to the relative semplicity of Christianity or Islam (get in, sit down/kneel, point in a particular direction and do your thing) the typical Japanese temple was quite baffling. Where do you go? Why do you sometimes find a statue, sometimes two, sometimes none and sometimes the statue is of a man or a beast?
Luckily one day we met Mayumi at the hostel. She was a nice young girl from northern Sapporo and, much to our surprise, spoke a fluent Italian learnt, as she told us, during a year exchange spent in the San Siro terraces supporting Inter, something that – we suspected – gave her a good vocabulary of swearwords, a gift to roll perfect joints and possibly a criminal record.
On a nice day at a bar she explained us that most Japanese, when they are inclined to feel religious are both Buddhists and Shintoists. The preachings of Buddha have been known in the country for centuries but they didn’t replace the preexisting Shintō creed. This makes the Japanese one of the very few people in the world adhering to two religions at the same time, in what sociologists call a “syncretism”. A little bit like being rich and Communists… Oh wait.
Modern Japan is becoming less and less religious, and Buddhism is bearing the brunt of this massive flight from the temples. We visited plenty of Buddhist shrines and found them to be more or less all empty, just echoing of their former glory. The situation at Shintō temples was quite different, instead.
Shintōism is a religion that is intrinsically hard to understand for the average Joe used to the Abrahamic cults. There isn’t a single god, revealed in some sacred book obtained through some extraordinary experience. Rather than that, Shintō has a pantheon of kami, gods or spirits that manifest themselves in the nature, either in particular places or in certain animals or in given natural phenomena. It’s an ancient cult, dating back to 600 BC, probably born to explain all those kind of phenomena – earthquakes, storms, tsunamis, volvanoes – that seem to be liking Japan a lot.
Shintō is both extremely elaborate and surprisingly simple. It has a complex pantheon of deities and a mythology that would make The Lord of the Rings pretty straightforward, but practicing it is also incredibly simple. Turn up to a temple, purify yourself, raise the attention of the resident kami, perhaps talk to a priest, meditate and you’re pretty much done. I’m simplifying, obviously, but the point I’m interested to make here is that practicing Shintō is simple and it’s mostly about having the right frame of mind than willingness to adapt to certain divisive social rules – wear a kippah, don’t marry people outside your faith, don’t drink this or eat that – that the Abrahamic religions do.
I think this is the reason why Shintō managed to survive the arrival of a religion as pervasive as Buddhism and is still widely practiced by large swathes of an otherwise agnostic populace; and nothing displays this better than Fushimi Inari-taisha, the temple dedicated to Inari, the goddess of rice, tea, saké, agricolture, industry and – in general – wealth. As you can see it’s not only the Japanese that are hyper-productive, their gods are too.
The temple is simply enormous, stretching all around a mountain in East Kyoto. It comprises different shrines and, more notably hundreds and hundreds of torii, the votive arches erected by the faithful to ask the goddess to fulfil their dreams, inscribed on one of the pillars. There are so many of those that the path leading to the summit, some 3 km long, is practically indoors. Here and there at Fushimi Inari you’ll see statues of foxes, often holding a wrapped paper in their jaws. Foxes are said to be Inari’s messengers, an idea that mustn’t have come from Robin Hood: A Man in Tights but from an attempt to explain what the tiny mammals were up to around the rice paddies of Japan.
Inari’s foxes are said to be extremely intelligent and sometimes cunning animals, capable of possessing a person’s soul for their own amusement, up until a monk intervenes to free the poor sod. Fushimi Inari is also a monastery for Shintō monks and used to host a community of blind nuns, a way to give subsistence to a group of people whose sex and handicap, in medieval Japan, would otherwise have granted them a lifetime of poverty.
We spent a whole afternoon, up until dusk, wandering in the wonderful Inari temple, being taught by Mayumi. It was one of our best moments in Japan and one that gave me the most lasting memory of this country, the one of people of all ages, walks of life and sexes worshipping Inari and her foxes.