One of the great things about our travels has been the chance to be in each place with someone who could guide us. In Japan it was Professor John Traphagan who speaks Japanese and is from the Religious Studies Department at UT. He comes to Japan every summer to teach summer school at Waseda University. His wife is Japanese and so they also visit family in Japan.
John was taking his class to a Shinto Festival and so we were able to join them. This festival is at a Shrine that specifically remembers those who died in war https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasukuni_Shrine. There is a museum there that has the Japanese perspective on World War II. There is a controversy surrounding this shrine. You can read about it here if you are interested.
What did I learn?
Shintoism is the main religion in Japan. I learned that there are hundreds of Shinto Gods and that if you are Shinto you mainly go to the shrine when you need something. You will first see a gate and then pass through two lion/dogs. The one on the right has his mouth open and the one on the left has his mouth closed. This represents the whole world.
After passing by there you get to a fountain that is set up so that you can wash your hands and cleanse your mouth before approaching the god. Then you get to the actual building and there is a bell that rings when you pull on the rope. You pull this in order to call the god and then bow twice, throw some coins into the box, clap twice keeping your hands in a prayer pose for a bit and finally bow once.
Now for what I am learning from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto: Shinto means way of the gods. Although about 80% of the Japanese practice some form of Shinto religion, but many of them do not consider themselves Shinto. The article said that there are 85,000 Shinto priests in the country. I wonder what makes someone decide to become a priest? Can women be priests? Are priests celebate?
Buddhism is the other very obvious religion in Japan. In general, we (Americans) know a bit more about Buddhism than we do about Shintoism. Steve and I kept seeing shrines that had both Buddhist items and Shinto items and we could not figure out what type of temple or shrine it was. The article in Wikipedia said that it is not strange for someone to participate in lots of Shinto ceremonies and festivals with their children, but to have a Buddhist funeral.
In our experience it seems like often Buddhist temples were part of a cemetery. All people are cremated, but they have elaborate altars/headstones because respect of the dead is really important. People are tied to the Buddhist temple by the remains of their ancestors. Death days are extremely important.
Buddhism is extremely complicated and I only understand a tiny bit, so I will not attempt to explain anything. If you want to know more you can look at the article on Wikipedia and follow some of the reference links. It came to Japan from India, where it started, through China on the Silk Road.
According to the Wikipedia Article Tamamuro Tajiro coined a term “Funeral Buddhism” which describes what Buddhism means to many Japanese. From a very shallow one week visit it looks like this is true.