Wakayama Prefecture doesn’t just feel like a spiritual place, it is spiritual. On its northern borders are holy sites such as the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture and Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture, which houses Japan’s largest Buddha statue. However, as you travel deeper into Wakayama itself, both the awesome natural surroundings and the proliferation of historic religious sites can provide a sense of spirituality to a lone traveler like myself.

Vast swaths of forested mountains stretch out across sparsely populated territory, from Mount Gomadan on the border with Nara to Asaki Shrine, which is situated on the southernmost tip of Honshu. In between, ancient shrines dot the lush, mountainous region, honoring the local gods of mountain, forest and sea, and Buddhist temples welcome those seeking enlightenment.

In Shingon Buddhism, headquartered at Kongobuji temple on Mount Koya, enlightenment is not a distant dream that takes many lifetimes to attain, but a real possibility for all of us in this world. The combination of breathtaking scenery, remoteness and dedicated spiritual practice makes Wakayama a truly spiritual place in Japan — one quite unlike any I have experienced abroad.

In fact, the presence of spiritual landscapes such as Wakayama is one of my favorite things about living in Japan. People frequently discuss the pros and cons of life in Japan to outsiders. The first positives to get mentioned are the trains, the food and the hustle and bustle of Shibuya. But what people rarely mention is the ubiquitous presence of a “spiritual geography” that covers the landscape: the temples and shrines that mark every mountain and fit into every neighborhood.

“I believe (temples and shrines) play a role in modern society as a place where people can discover ‘something’ about themselves,” says Yusen Onozaki, a former chief Buddhist priest and current owner of Nyojitsu-an, a Buddhist hermitage near Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture. “When you enter the precincts of a temple or shrine, it gives rise to feelings that you do not normally experience.

“I heard an anecdote from a young nursery school student that most children spend their lunch breaks not in the school cafeteria, but in the neighborhood shrine. Religious facilities of all kinds create a calm and extraordinary atmosphere that makes you feel as if you’ve ‘come home’ … a place for your soul to come home.”

I grew up Jewish in a suburb of Philadelphia, but relatively isolated from other Jews. There were churches around, but I never entered them. Why would I? I never woke up to the call to prayer that is common in Islamic countries, or witnessed the world completely tune out on Friday afternoon for Shabbat as in Israel. While very few Japanese are devout Buddhists or “Shintoists,” the persistence of spirituality in the landscape around me in Japan has become meaningful in ways that I never expected.

Shinto and Buddhist buildings, ruins and ritual throughout Japan can help fuel relationships with your spirituality regardless of faith and background. For me, Japan’s spiritual geography has prompted a deeper connection with nature, a more sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics, and a renewed dialogue with my own faith.

In praise of nature

Even if Shinto and Buddhist practice were to die out entirely, there’s much to be gained from the mere presence of these monuments in the urban and natural landscape. Temples, shrines and small but meaningful symbols — a miniature kamidana shrine on a mountainside, or a straw cord around a tree — act as ways to commemorate and exalt the natural world.

A 1,000-year-old cypress stands in the complex of Nagoya’s Atsuta Shrine. | ERIC MARGOLIS
A 1,000-year-old cypress stands in the complex of Nagoya’s Atsuta Shrine. | ERIC MARGOLIS

A Shinto shrine’s basic function is to serve as a house of residence for spirits. From that perspective, engaging with shrines is like going to an art museum for nature. Most often, a shrine is dedicated to a local nature deity, and requires a small trek up a hill or into a secluded grove of trees. Engaging with a shrine means interacting with and opening yourself up to the local landscape, whether it’s a spectacular seaside cliff or a hidden grove in the suburbs.

The enshrinement of local nature also makes said nature more valuable. You don’t need to believe in the spirits to understand the value of locating the sacred in the natural world. The deification of local mountains, forests and oceans is just as relevant to an atheist, so long as the atheist is keenly aware of human society’s relentless exploitation and destruction of the natural world around us.

I often visit the ancient cypress tree at Atsuta Shrine in central Nagoya. Seeing the tree in itself is magnificent. But its location within a shrine — and the reminder that, while the tree is natural, it only survives due to dozens and dozens of generations making intentional decisions to preserve it over a thousand years — marks its ascendance into the sacred. The heart of Nagoya is a developed, industrial place with a relentless eye on production and profit. The spiritual task of preserving this tree through all of the wars and development is profound. It matters, regardless of whether or not I believe in the local deities.

Temples and shrines have also inspired me to develop a finer appreciation of art, aesthetics, and philosophy. Each local shrine and temple has a unique history and mythology. These stories form a network of texts and art objects to engage with. Like any work of art, they can fuel new insight, appreciation and creativity. The omnipresence of temples and shrines throughout Japan means that art objects and historical artifacts are often a stone’s throw away, and not locked inside distant museums or private collections. Even the seemingly ordinary statues of bodhisattvas are carefully crafted works of art.

Onozaki adds that another layer of this experience worthwhile to an outsider is the changing qualities of architecture and nature of religion across time. By traveling to various sites around Japan, a visitor will see just how drastically the florid Zuihoden Mausoleum in Sendai differs from the rustic, ancient Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane. These divergent forms offer a greater variety of art and history to appreciate, and provide a lens into the way that spirituality in Japan adapted to new times.

All of this is hardly to mention morality. Onozaki believes that the greatest role Buddhism can play in modern Japan is by advocating open-mindedness.

“Japanese Buddhism has a basic attitude of forgiveness, compassion and mercy,” Onozaki says. This tolerance lies at the heart of spirituality in Japan, where people do not strictly follow one religion but freely drift among religious beliefs, practices, and faiths. Onozaki says that open-mindedness is especially needed in a digital age in which we are often so quick to criticize and dismiss others.

The Futagoji temple complex in Oita Prefecture is one of many holy spots located in natural settings. These types of settings can foster a connection to nature that people can appreciate regardless of their religion. | OSCAR BOYD
The Futagoji temple complex in Oita Prefecture is one of many holy spots located in natural settings. These types of settings can foster a connection to nature that people can appreciate regardless of their religion. | OSCAR BOYD

A tale of two temples

Japan’s spiritual geography has refined my relationship with my own faith. Temples and shrines have taken my own dialogue with Judaism in new directions.

For one, the network of texts, rituals and deities at these monuments contrasts with my own religious background. The practice of private prayer at Shinto shrines, or meditation at Buddhist temples, is a world apart from the communal Jewish prayers and songs I grew up with. But, as with any act of cultural exchange, interacting with these unique customs helps me grow. Without easy access to a Jewish community in Nagoya, I’ve developed new spiritual practice due to the presence of the temples and shrines. For example, a visit to a temple when traveling has become my time for religious study and reflection.

I’ve even come to celebrate the Jewish New Year with a mountain climb and a shrine visit. The muscle pain, accompanied by sweeping views of the landscape and the jangle of temple bells, feels strangely similar to hearing the call of the Shofar in synagogue after minutes of suspended, silent prayer.

Onozaki advises foreign residents in Japan to open their arms to temples and shrines, not for the sake of tourism but instead as a personal act of spirituality. Preparing and eating traditional vegetarian food in a temple, for example, or practicing zazen meditation, are unique experiences felt with all five of the senses. They can lead to new forms of spirituality and morality when taken on with genuine enthusiasm.

I could not be more grateful for the abundant spiritual sites throughout the Japanese landscape. Above all, it’s remarkable how open they are. Even outsiders can take advantage of their architecture, their natural beauty and their spiritual depths.

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