Religion is complicated in Japan. There is no one religion completely worshipped. The Japanese celebrate births according to Shinto beliefs, get married in a church, according to Christian beliefs and hold funerals according to Buddhist beliefs. This mix extends to the many celebrations that they have each year. The same house will have mini Shinto and Buddhist shrines and when they pray, the mention all the gods they know. They’re really into these mash-ups — many identify themselves with several religions.
So. We went to Kamakura, a 1-hour journey from Tokyo, once upon a time Japan’s medieval political center (in the 1000s) that’s also home to the many super old Buddhism and Shinto shrines, to experience both the zen and shinto rituals.
Zazen meditation at Engaku-ji
So first stop, JR Kita-Kamakura station, where Engaku-ji, one of the more important shinto temples was located.
We had a session of zazen meditation at the temple, instructed by the priest. Basically zazen meditation is about focusing and being with yourself. It it can help increase your concentration level, so you get clarity or something like that. Of course the priest put it in a way that sounds a lot more philosophical.
We sat on our respective cushions and one by one, shared our goals for the day with everyone. Most people say they want to get clarity, because with our hectic schedule we feel like we’re all over the place most of the time.
We sat crossed-legged, with soles facing upward, hands placed on the lower abdomen, eyes not closed but softly looking at the ground. With the priest’s signal, we were supposed to not think about anything else and if something crossed our minds, we’re supposed to snap out of the thought and go back to concentrate on nothing. We’re not even supposed to see or hear the sounds of our surroundings. We did this for like 15 minutes. Twice.
So… the takeaway for most people including me, is that meditation is not easy. Sitting in that position is so lenguh. Concentrating on nothing is hard to do, especially when I’ve a long list of things to do and my mind is always jumping from one thing to another (Reza boleh attest). I’m not alone — most people were confused as to how they can “think of nothing”, but priest says it’s normal and said that being aware that the mind is straying is a good start.
Classmates who are actively or are experienced with meditating say that meditating, once done right, does help them in concentrate better in their daily lives. It’s like training the mind, they say.
After that we had a Q&A session with the priest. He’s still super young, so I asked him why he chose this path — to become a priest. He said while he was in college he travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and experienced many different cultures, but it struck him as to how little he knew about the Japanese culture. So he went to the zen temple to learn more and on his 4th year in college, decided that it was his calling. He’s gets salary from the temple. His daily routine involve waking early in the morning to meditate, meeting visitors and updating the zazen blog the temple is running. At night he chills and watches TV. He’s also married (marriage is okay for priests in Japan). That’s the life of a modern Shinto priest 😆
Anyway, it was so good to roam around the huge temple ground. It was a gorgeous place.
Exploring Tsurugaoka Hachimangu
Next stop, JR Kamakura station for the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the center of Kamakura, also the most significant Shinto shrine that’s built some century ago. The main road at Kamakura leads you straight to it.
So as learned in the culture class, before we walk into the shrine, we’re supposed to wash our hands and gargle our mouth first, part of the purification process. Before this, someone told me that the water is the holy water that they drink when they visit the shrines lololol but no, it’s not. It’s just water to clean oneself.
There’s generally more people here early in the year, as that’s the time when they go pray. They throw coins inside this long rectangle box, clap their hands and make their wish.
Many get these wooden boards, write their wishes on them and hung them at the shrine, too.
Then we took a stroll at the gardens within the compounds of shrine. It’s breathtaking.
These were only some parts of Kamakura. The place is huge and it’s got many shrines, gardens and monuments worthy of a visit. Kamakura is generally tourist-friendly, too, so near the main station, it’s got rows of shops and restaurants that you can go to.
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