Wednesday, January 16, 2013

5 most historic temples to visit in Japan

5 most historic temples to visit in Japan

In today’s fast-paced, high tech world, the lines between personal and professional time are rapidly blurring. Many people get up in the morning, check their emails before leaving for work, work a full day, then come home and check emails again or finish up that spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation before going to bed. And for those that work from home, the lines are even fuzzier. The interconnectivity of today’s technology is a great boon in terms of professional productivity and personal connections, but it leaves most people overworked and overstressed much of the time. Vacation time is intended to give people a chance to get away from work and unwind and distress. But many people don’t take their vacation time, or if they do, they have trouble disconnecting from their smartphones, ipads or any other connected device and truly relax. But in this world where the constant connectivity means we work harder and longer, the ability to get away from it all is all the more important despite. However the very electronic culture that creates more of a  demand for true vacations also makes taking them all the more difficult.
But there is a solution: leave your tablet or laptop at home and take a vacation not only in space, but in time. The more you can get away from electronic devices and the internet culture, the more you can relax and de-stress. And you can’t get much further removed from the high tech, fast-paced internet culture than in the ancient temples in Japan. And with literally thousands of to choose from there are plenty to see and experience. There are over 2000 in Kyoto alone.
To truly appreciate the temples, you should know a little bit about the significance of the temples in Japanese culture. Temples in Japan have been an important part of Japanese culture since their first appearance 1200 years ago. However unlike Christian churches and Muslim mosques, they aren’t designed as houses or worship. The most important function of a temple is the safekeeping of sacred objects. Furthermore, these objects are not on public display. There are also other buildings that are specialized for certain rites. These building are also typically not accessible to the general public. However the public can visit these temples and enjoy the beauty and serenity. Below are some of the most historic temples that are well worth a visit.

Built in 788, the Enryaku-ji is one of the most important temples in Japanese history.  It was the headquarters of the Tendai sect founded by Saicho in 788 and is registered as a Unesco “World Heritage Site.” It has had enormous influence in Japanese Buddhist culture over the centuries, and the founders of Judo-shu, Soto Zen and Nichiren Buddism all studied for a time at this temple. In his attempts to unify Japan, Oda Nobunaga killed most of the inhabitants and burned most of the temple in 1571. Therefore most of the buildings date from the 1700’s: the restoration of most of the buildings. Visitors to this temple find it deeply inspiring. It’s a beautiful temple that is not “showy.” It has a spiritual feel to it that is inspiring to all visitors, regardless of their religious beliefs or even lack of them. This quiet, peaceful spot is the embodiment of a true Japanese Bhuddist temple.

This is the oldest temple in Tokyo. It was originally associated with the Tendai sect, however it became independent after World War II. The original temple was constructed in 645 and is said to have been founded by two fishermen. Legend has it that two brothers netted a statue of Kannon and returned it to the river. However it kept coming back to them. So Hajino Nakamoto, the chief of the village, turned his own house into a temple. Within the temple he enshrined the statue so that villagers could worship it. Much of the site was destroyed during World War 11 and it was later rebuilt. Within the temple grounds is a tree that hit by the bombs that destroyed the temple. The stump regrew and is today considered by the people as a not only a symbol of the resilience of the Japanese people, but further symbolizes rebirth and peace.
This temple is a bold and brightly colored temple. Popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists alike, it has a more festive atmosphere than some other temples in Japan. The entrance is dominated by a massive gate: “Thunder Gate.” Beyond the gate is a series of shops known as “Nakamise-dori which sell everything from sweets to scrolls and everything in between. While it sounds like a typical tourist trap, in face these shops are part of the culture of the temple and have catered to pilgrims for generations.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ryoan-ji is home to one of the most famous and perhaps the finest example of a zen rock garden or kare-sansui. The original temple was built in the 11th century by Fujiwara Saneyoshi. In 1450, Hosokawa Katsumoto acquired the land and built his residence and Zen temple on the site. While his temple was destroyed in a war between rival families, Hosokawa’s son rebuilt it in later years. While certainly the Zen garden is one of the most striking and famous of the attributes of this particular temple, it is still not know when or by whom it was originally built, but most accounts have it built somewhere around the 1500-1600’s. The garden itself is composed of 5 groups of stones: one of five, two of three and two of two. There are no plants or flowers in the garden, only some moss around the stones. Most importantly, the stones are placed in such a way that a view can never see all fifteen stones from any angle on the ground: only fourteen are visible at a time. This  has symbolic significance: it is said that only through attaining enlightenment can one see all fifteen boulders together.

Horyu-ji is believed to be one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. In fact, the site is unique in that it has many structurally significant buildings spanning the 7th-19th centuries. This makes the site a culturally significant site and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, many of the buildings and artifacts are listed as a Japanese National Treasure.

Horyu-ji was originally built by Prince Shotoku who is widely believed to be the one who introduced Buddhism to Japan. Completed in 607, it is believed to have burnt in down in 670 and rebuilt in 711, however recent research has raised questions as to the historical validity of this belief. In 1950, the maintainers of Horyu-ji broke from the Hosso sect. The temple is currently called Shotoku. The sheer number of building and the different ages and cultures they represent make this a highly desirable to visit for anyone wanting a true immersion in the culture of Japanese temples.


Shitenno-Ji is the oldest officially administered temple in Japan.  Built in 593 by the Prince who brought Buddhism to Japan, this temple is a favorite among the Japanese people. Prince Shotoku built this temple to celebrate his victory over the Monobe who were opposed to the Prince’s attempts to bring Buddhism to Japan. The location of the temple also meant it played a vital role in Japan’s trade. Being near to Osaka bay meant the temple was able to display’s Japan’s wealth, power and culture to the outside world.

That is just a short list of the thousands to choose from throughout Japan, but they represent some of the best the temples have to offer. However to have a true temple experience, you may want to consider going one step further: there are some temples in Japan that offer food and lodging for travelers. There are many of them throughout Japan and they offer a chance to experience a truly not only of a different culture, but of a different time. When you stay at a shukubo, you live like the monks do: you eat vegetarian food, sleep on a matt on the floor and rise early to pray. One particularly good town to visit for this type of experience is Koyasan as it has over 50 shukubo to choose from. Having so many to choose from facilitates reservations and communication. However, if you want a truly transcendental experience, you may want to find a more remote shukubo that is even farther removed from modern society. They are harder to get to, but if you are the type that likes unique and authentic experiences, it may be worth the time to really search for the perfect shukubo.

So, armed with some vacation ideas to truly remove you from the hectic, stressful, high tech lifestyle, pack your bags and take a vacation not only in space but in time. You will relax, distress and you may even find yourself reevaluating your life and your priorities. But if nothing else, it will be a truly amazing experience that will not only re-energize you, but give you a lifetime of memories.