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Sacred Places of Japan:

Sacred Geography In The Vicinity of The Cites of Sendai and Nara (1)

By James A. Swan, Ph.D

"In the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day --
How intriguing!

-Matsuo Basho (Ueda, 1991.p.102)


Drawing upon visits to sacred places in two regions of Japan -- Tohoku and Nara Prefectures -- this paper gives an overview into sacred places in Japan and contrasts these beliefs with those of North America.


The Japanese word "shi-zen" is the equivalent of the English word "nature" and yet the two words have different meanings that reveal important insights into the psychology of mind and nature in Japan. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary offers several definitions of "nature" in English, which include: the creative and controlling force in the universe, the external world, and natural scenery. Common among all the offered definitions is the concept that nature is something which is separate from oneself. In contrast, the Japanese word "shi-zen" has a different meaning. "Shi" is derived from two root words, "onozukara" and "mizukara." "Onozukara" means "of itself," and objectivity. It refers to a state that exists without any help from man. "Mizukara" is a balancing concept, which means "self" and subjectivity, and the product of the human will.
"Zen," the second half of the word "shi-zen" refers to a state of mind. (Not the same as the "zen" of zen buddhism.)
From this analysis one can deduce that onozukara means nature as we conceptualize nature in the west, and mizukara is similar to the western concept of self. In the Japanese mind then, one can say that the concept of "shi-zen" refers to a state of mind which arises from the unity of the human self with the natural world, which at their root are one and the same. In the words of Japanese author Isamu Kurita (1992, p.123):
"...the Japanese tend not to look at nature from a human point of view. They look at humans from the point of view of nature and try to abandon their individual selves and integrate themselves into nature. This attitude is made possible by viewing nature not as a disorderly chaos, but a higher level of harmony. Thus, grasping the natural order as the moment of the highest moral perfection, by observing it, and integrating oneself into it, one serves to discover the truth of life and make it sufficient."
As opposed to western natural sciences, which seek to dissect and name natural objects, describe phenomenon, discover the chemical and physical properties of nature, and study how natural objects may be used to meet human needs, all using research methods that call for objective measurement, a traditional approach to nature study in Japan, China or Korea, would be to contemplate nature subjectively, seeking to understand natural phenomenon as part of a dynamic, organic, ever-changing whole so as to bring human life and thought into harmony with nature. One this state of mind is then attained, a satori, then both nature and human society may prosper; as in the words of Tohoku University Biology Professor Yoshitaka Shimizu (1991), "real wisdom comes from contact with nature."
The goal of harmony with nature is cultivated in many ways in Japanese culture. One example of the many subtle ways for aiding attainment of harmony between the mind and nature is the Japanese nomenclature for the human face. The names of physical parts of the face are the same words as parts of plants. The eyes are seeds, the ears are fruit, the nose is a flower, and the teeth are leaves.
The quality of nature that creates life in Oriental thought is the life force energy, which is "chi" in China and "ki" in Japan. And on both the human body and the earth's surface there are said to be special places where the life force energy has an unusual abundance and quality, as well as connecting pathways or meridians which extra energy flows. These places on the body are referred to as acupuncture points. In the landscape, they are special holy places, sei-chi, where strong spirits, kami, in the Shinto tradition, are said to reside. The Japanese have a strong feeling for place, taking special care to acknowledge sei-chi as possessing a more spiritual quality, reiteki, through numerous ways, including in the Shinto tradition: delineating the boundary and entry port to a holy place with a torii gate; decorating the place through elaborate means such as gardens, temples and shrines; marking special natural objects with a special straw rope with tassels, shimenawa, hung over special rocks or wrapped around special trees; and performing special ceremonies and rituals. All these activities call attention to the place and honor its powers, seeking to gain favor with the spiritual forces present, the kami, and driving away evil forces. Architecture and landscape architecture at a sei-chi in Japan then not only mark their location and provide religious symbolism, they help to serve as conduits for the kami to enter more directly into human life, and thus the designs can be seen as invocations. Hence, pine trees are often planted around shrines, and special trees and stones which are felt to be conducive to serving as a temporary vessel for the kami, yorishiro, are given special recognition. Additional yorishiro include banners, wands, flags, light poles, dolls and puppets. Such decoration typically adds to the beauty of a place, but the Japanese name for places of spiritual significance is "sei-chi," which means literally "sacred place," and it is distinguished from the term "nadokoro," which is used to describe places of extraordinary beauty. Two may be the same, but this is not necessarily so.
One seeks out sei-chi with reverence, for kami can possess objects and people, resulting in special powers. According to Carmen Blacker, in his study of Japanese shamanism, The Catalpa Bow (1986, p.41), an essential quality of the kami is their amorality. Their nature is "...neither good nor bad, but can manifest itself as benign or destructive to human interests according to the treatment it receives...Treatment which all kami find pleasing consists of assiduous worship, correct offerings, and above all purity on the part of the worshipper. Frequent visits to the shrine, copious offerings of dried fish, rice-wine, fruit, lengths of cloth, swords, spears, horses are all calculated to win its favor."
In Japan there are two primary religions, Shintoism, the traditional religion, and Bhuddism, which in some cases have become a syncretism and in others remain distinct practices, and as well many others with smaller followings. While each religion has its own special customs and practices related to sei-chi, a belief in their existence as natural phenomenon, apart from any human activities, is shared by most, except for Christians. One of the most important differences between Shintoism and Bhuddism in regard to sei-chi is that Shintoism is more protective of the Japanese sacred places, placing greater restrictions on visiting them and making offerings to show proper respect. There are at least 80,000 shrines marking sei-chi, in Japan, and over 20,000 Shinto priests serving them.
It has been my good fortune to make two lecture tours in Japan. During these visits, thanks to my gracious hosts, I had a chance to visit some of the sei-chi of Japan. In this paper I will briefly describe some of the special holy places in the vicinity of two Japanese cities of Honshu, the main island -- Sendai in the north, and Nara, in the south, which I have been fortunate enough to visit on these visits. I will conclude with some brief comparisons of Japanese practices and concepts with those in North America.


In November of 1991, the city of Sendai in the Tohoku province, was the host for the fourth Spirit of Place Symposium; a five-year symposium series designed to explore the modern significance of the ancient belief about the unique power of place (Swan, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996). In contrast to Spirit of Place symposia held in the United States in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1993, each of which drew some 40-60 speakers and crowds ranging from 125 to 375, the Spirit of Place symposium held in Sendai drew 6,000, including representatives from the Japanese local, provincial and federal government. The size of this meeting is ample evidence of the interest and support for the spirit of place concept in Japan.
Sendai is a modern city of 700,000 located some two hours north of Tokyo by bullet train -- shinkansin. It was heavily damaged by fire bombs during World War II and so most of the buildings are very new. Sendai is called "mori no miyako" which means the city of the trees, and most all major streets are lined with trees. It is an east coastal city tucked between the mountains and the ocean, with 10 colleges and universities, and many corporate research facilities as well as farming, fishing and forestry industries.
Compared with other parts of Japan, Sendai is a "new city," developed heavily by the efforts of the shogun lord Masamune Date (1567-1636). Arriving in Sendai, one of the first special places one sees, rising up along the banks of the Hirose River, is a prominent hill to the west, Aoba hill, which is the site of the Aoba (green leaf) Castle of Masamune Date, which today has been preserved as a popular park, Aobayama-Koen Park. On the summit of the 433 feet elevation hill is a statue of the shogun lord riding a horse and wearing his helmet which was decorated with a large crescent moon. The castle stood until 1945 when it was destroyed by bombing, and so today the Gokoku Shrine covers most of the area once occupied by the castle.
According to tradition, spirits of deceased ancestors may become kami, and animals, such as birds, deer and foxes may serve as messengers of the gods, such as the powerful mountain god Yamanokami. Nearby Masamune Date's statue is a second statue of a taka or hawk, commemorating the legend that the emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC) was guided to victory in battle by a golden hawk. Aside from the enjoyable view from the summit, visitors also often see many hawks, kites, ravens and crows flying all around the hill, evidencing the power of this place. In the Orient, as well as elsewhere, an abundance of animals, especially of one species, is commonly recognized as a sign of a special place.
To the north some 35 minutes by train lies Matsushima Bay, which is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Japan; it is in fact one of three places named by the Japanese as their Three Big Scenic Wonders. In the bay there are some 250 small, pine-covered rocky islands, each with a distinctive shape and many unusual rock forms. Sited at the entrance to Matsushima Bay is the Zuiganji Temple, which has been declared a national treasure. Erected in 1606 by Masamune Date, this wooden building with many ornate carvings and paintings and landscaped with two ancient plum trees brought from Korea in 1592, is a training seminary for Zen Buddhist priests. Nearby in rock outcroppings are ancient natural caves once used for monks to practice meditation. Visitors to this park make offerings and receive small paper prayers which they tie on the branches of trees to ask the help of the kami in making the predictions come true and warding off evil spirits. Just inside the gate is a modest stone shrine to honor the eel god, whose presence is known by the abundance of eels that are commonly found in Matsuhima Bay.
To the south of Sendai, high in the interior mountains, is another spectacular sei-chi, Akyuotaki Park which protects and honors a spectacular waterfall. Visitors to the park may walk down a simple gravel path to see the cascading water, as in a park in place in the world, or they may take the path that leads to the Shinto shrine which honors the god, Fudo, said to be the shaman's god, the god of fire, who stands for truth and justice. Taking this second path the visitor is transformed from a tourist to a pilgrim.
The word "Shinto" means literally "the kami way," and there are four principal elements of Shinto worship -- purification (harai), an offering (shinsen), prayer (norito), and symbolic feast (naori) (Ono, 1962, p.51). One knows that one is entering a special place by passing under the overhead arch gateway, the torii. After passes under the torii gate, then one proceeds to a sacred spring where you wash out your mouth and wash the tips of your fingers to purify our mind. Then one moves to a small stand where candles, amulets and artifacts are displayed. This is the first place to make an offering. Traditionally offerings include money, food, drink, materials and symbolic objects. One makes an offering and then takes some incense and burns it in a large urn to dispel evil. A second offering may then be made in a wooden collection box at the foot of the shrine and then one prays, bowing slightly, then deeply twice, then clapping one's hands twice, before saying any prayers. To finish the prayer one makes a deep bow and a slight bow. Then one may ring the massive gong at the feet of the stature honoring the god, before setting foot on the gravel path to the waterfall. There is debate about the purpose of ringing the giant bell. Some say it calls the attention of the kami. Others insist it drives away evil. Then one moves on down the gravel path to the waterfall, passing many paper fortunes tied to tree branches and small piles of stones which mark similar hopes and wishes.
Aside from its natural beauty, the cascading waterfall has a special heritage value. Spiritual seekers traditionally stayed in small caves beside and under the waterfall, fasting and meditating, hoping for enlightenment. Blacker (1986, p.91) states that shamanic training in Japan once also called for neophytes to stand directly in the cascading waterfall for extended periods of time. While standing in the a waterfall, aspirants recited various chants and made prayers. On the way back from the waterfall, outside the area of religious worship, some local vendors offer pickled snakes and other amulets for sale, as well as rattles, candles, incense, jewelry and wooden carved objects. These may then be used for celebration.


The city of Nara in southern Honshu is originally an agricultural area, especially known for its rice and fine cloth. Founded in 710 by the Emperor Kammu, it was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. A famous attraction of the Nara area is Nara-Koen Park, which is the home of about 1000 extremely tame deer who roam freely among numerous temples and shrines. The origins of the practice of honoring deer here dates back to a time long ago when it is said that a powerful kami messenger, an old man, arrived with an important message, riding on the back of a white deer.
In the vicinity of Nara-Koen Park there are many places of special significance. Mount Wakakusa, a hill covered with lush natural vegetation, is set fire each year on January 15 by 15 priests, thus insuring ample new green growth for the deer of the park. The Kasuga Tashi shrine, founded in 768 by the Fujiwara family, is famous for its numerous lanterns more than 2,000 of which are stone and decorated with symbols of the sacred deer. In the Shinto tradition, lighting lanterns is a method of communicating with the Kami. The lanterns are all lit twice a year, February 2 or 3 and August 15, and each year the Kasugamatsuri festival is held on March 13. There are four shrines here, surrounding an art gallery, and in the Shinto tradition, shrines may be torn down and rebuilt every 20 years to purify the site. The Kasuga Tashi shrine has been rebuilt over 50 times. At the shrine there are many "sakaki" evergreen trees (Cleyera ochnacca) which are a sacred Shinto tree.
Within the Nara area lies Tenri, which is a religious city and the home base of the Tenrikyo Religion. The Tenrikiyo religion was born at 8:00 am on October 26, l836 when 41 year-old Miki Nakayama, a housewife of the rich farming family, Nakayama, had a divine revelation. She said that God the Parent, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto, spoke to her. As with many prophets, people initially did not understand, and she and her family suffered many hardships, while slowly her teachings gained respect. Between 1869 and 1882 her teachings were written down and preserved in the Ofudesaki, holy book consisting of 1711 versus written in the Japanese waka style, which today serves as a principle scripture for the Tenrikyo religion, which has grown to more than 16,000 churches and three million followers world-wide.
At the core of the Tenrikyo religion is the belief that one comes to fully benefit from this religion through entering into a mental state akin to that of the Foundress, and that once this happens, if one follows their religious practice with devotion and good spirit, the devoted will receive guidance, healing, and recognize omens. In some respects these beliefs are quite similar to Jung's concepts of synchronicity (Inoue, 1988).
In honor of the foundress, a magnificent wooden temple, The Oysato, the Parental Home, has been erected in Nara, marking the exact place where Miki Nakayama first had her revelation. This main sanctuary, which is said to be the largest wooden building in the world, contains an Inner Sanctuary and four surrounding worship halls which all face the Inner sanctuary. In the center of the inner sanctuary is a hexagonal wooden platform, the Kanrodai, rising up from the floor. This marks the exact place of the Foundress' revelation, and it is called the Jiba, or the place of human creation. There is a hole in the roof overhead, above the Jiba, otherwise all the rest of the worship halls are beautifully polished wooden floors covered with an elaborate and beautiful wooden structure.
Twice daily, sunrise and sunset, thousands of people, from near and far, gather in the Oysato, for service, which is led by priests. People in all four directions kneel, facing the jiba, and perform a series of mudras and chants, which begins with "Ashiki o harote tasuke tamae, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto" which is translated as "Sweeping away evils, please save us, Tenri-O-no-Mikoto." Evidence of the power of this place and religious services can be found nearby in a large collection of crutches, canes and wheelchairs which have been discarded by people who report being healed by their visit to the Oysato. Nearby schools and hospitals carry on the teaching and healing work of the Tenrikyo church. Several times a year as many as a quarter million people assemble at the Oysato as an expression of their devotion.
In the hills northwest of Tenri is Mount Miwa, another sei-chi. Here there are a number of shrines which dot the landscape, all sited along a gravel path that gently ascends the mountain. The most magnificent is the Suwa shrine. Manned by Shinto priests, who dispense fortunes, perform ceremoines and invite monetary offerings from pilgrims to show their respect for the kami, there are a number of revered shrines on this mountain, whose deity is the white snake. Legend has it that in ancient times one of the kami transformed himself into a white snake so as to gain access to a beautiful girl. In this disguise, he entered her compound and had sex with her. The child resulting from this bonding went on to become the first leader of a new clan with great power. As evidence of the truth of this legend, it is said that all descendants have a small patch of skin that is scaly like a snake.
Along the path ascending the mountain, one of the most interesting shrines honors the god of the alcoholic beverage saki. It is said in ancient times that people learned to make saki from monkeys, and this drink has a spiritual origin. The tale is told that once saki was used by a hero to defeat an eight-headed god of nature who came into villages and ravished young women. No man could defeat this god, and so the hero devised a plan to use the help of saki to defeat the god. When the god came into the village to pillage, the hero invited him to sit down and drink. The god accepted the offer and liked the sake so much that he became intoxicated. Then, when the god was inebriated, the hero be-headed him. While today one may consume sake for entertainment, Shinto and Ainu cultures brew and drink sake in religious rites. Aside from creating good feelings, one of the powers of sake is to make all people equal, thus aiding friendship.
Farther down the path, past the sake shrine, one comes to a sacred waterfall. Here one may drink from the water, which some believe is good for your health. Most people turn back at this point, but for the serious pilgrim, one then can rent a white scarf to wear around your neck, and climb to the summit of the mountain along a steep, narrow trail. The white scarf is for protection as powerful spiritual forces are present here. Along the way one sees many shimenawa marking special rocks and trees, and trailside shrines to honor the white snake deity.
Descending from the mountain summit, we then explored more of the shrines, which contain many works of art. On the summit of a nearby hill, there is a plaque which shows how shrines and torii in the area have been erected on special lines of subtle force to channel energies between sacred mountains. This is very similar to the concept of ley lines in England.
The strength of Shintoism, as it is expressed in shrine workship, is in its emphasis on direct invocation of spiritual forces through ritual. Theoretical questions and philosophical discourses are set aside and people go directly to the kami and seek their blessings and powers. This makes Shintoism a living religion, renewed every time and more mutable, resulting in a dynamic ethic, as pointed by Sokyo Ono (1962, p. 105), "In Shinto ethics, nothing -- sex, wealth, killing, etc. -- is regarded as unconditionally evil."


Japan has a good deal of volcanic activity, and one consequence is an abundance of hot springs, which are called onsen. There are onsen all over Japan, and most all have been recognized in some fashion, for public bathing is a Japanese national pastime. Some of the springs in the mountains have been incorporated into the development of resorts, some with private homes and others in large resorts and hotel complexes. The chemistry of the waters varies and the unique properties are recognized. One of the springs that I visited which had an especially strong healing quality had iron-rich water that was a dark reddish-brown color. Nearby pools had hot and cold water. After bathing, one then is invite to enjoy tea and elegant meals served in traditional Japanese fashion.
In contrast, in downtown Nara, another natural onsen has been developed as part of week-end retreat featuring massage, movie theaters, restaurants, and pachinko games. In this spa, there are a number of pools with water of various temperatures as well as a special pool contains many dissolved herbs. In Japan today, a serious public health problem is karoshi, which means working oneself to illness, even death. As an antidote to stress at work, some Japanese simply spend the week-end at such resorts.


The Japanese landscape is dotted with many wonderful sei-chi of all descriptions -- caves, rivers, hot springs, mountains, hills, waterfalls, etc. In contrast to North America, where sacred space is defined solely by human-made buildings, or scarcely, at best, marked by indigenous tribes, the Japanese take special measures to insure that their sacred places are well-known and honored. Elaborate shrines and temples are sited at special places, or at their threshold, and local spirits associated with each place are known and respected in ceremonies, rituals and arts. Similar shrines may be found at many homes, both inside and outside, integrating distant spirits with those which preside over the home. The result of the extensive marking of sei-chi is to elevate the overall feeling of sanctity of the land, and to provide a constant reminder of how nature, spirit and the mind are interconnected. Religious rituals, ranging from formal festivals and ceremonies, to individuals making pilgrimages to place to make offerings to invoke the gods, draw upon centuries of respect for natural powers, and enrich Japanese life. The visitor comes away wondering if somehow Japan is more sacred than North America.
There is a sharp contrast between Japanese attitudes toward proper behavior toward sacred places and those of native people indigenous to North America. In Japan one makes a great amount of effort to show honor and respect for places and invites as many people as possible to come and pay homage to the places. There are special customs relating to how one shows respect for sei-chi, such as making offerings, wearing a white scarf to visit very special places, and taking no photos of especially sacred sites, but people are encouraged to come and visit and learn from first-hand experience what the powers of these places are like, for the places are there to benefit everyone who shows proper respect. Indian tribes of South and Central America traditionally paid more public attention to their sacred places, sometimes erecting large temples to honor various gods and spirits. In North America, however, such human-made structures are virtually nonexistent, except for the burial mounds of the Midwest. Among American Indians, sacred places are frequently secret and not visited, except perhaps by shamans and or select leaders.
The difference in attitudes toward place can be explained due to differences in the nature of the religious practices in each area. Shintoism, an indigenous religion of Japan, is a nature-oriented polytheistic religion with many shamanic qualities. The mountains, caves, waterfalls, and forest goves are the homes of the kami, and each is worshipped through special rituals and shrines. Buddhism is more a commemorative religion, and yet there are still shamanic elements in some sects, and in Japan, Buddhism has frequently incorporated many aspects of Shintoism and even blended with it in some cases. Much the same has happened for Confuscism, and even Chrsitianity to a certain extent. One consequence is that various religious orders have staked claim to specific sei-chi, especially the spirit mountains, reizan. The most prominent Shinto mountains are Mount Fuji and Mount Nantai. The syncretistic Shinto-Buddhist sects gather at Mount Yamabushi, where a mountain ascetic tradition flourishes. At Mount Ontake, a favorite place for yo or pilgrim clubs to gather, mediums assemble and perform the yorigito ritual to enable them to predict the future and manifest other psychic powers. Farther north, the Ainu of Hokkaido represent the people of Japan with a core shamanic religion closest to Indians of North America, however according to Hitoshi Watanabe (1972), "there are no longer living Ainu who have (fully) personally experienced traditional Ainu life."


When cultures move from shamanic religions to commemorative religions, replacing shamans with priests, then public rites become more commonplace and serve to anchor many cultural values and customs, creating community as well as invoking spirituality. An important question that one is faced after having seen and visited the sacred places of Japan and studied sacred places of North America, is, is anything diminished in the powers of place through widespread, respectful recognition of the place?
In a world with a growing population and galloping technological development, this question seems very important to study, for Japan, as well as inhabitants of other nations. It has relevance for both heritage preservation, as well as the mental and ecological health of society, annd social customs regarding the spiritual values of nature.
One of the criticisms made against modern Japanese culture by some is that while the Japanese have a heritage of love for nature, and have developed extraordinary landscape and horticulture arts to maximize natural beauty, they prefer to watch and tame natural environments, and then regard them from a distance rather than coexist with it in a more dynamic state (Kim, 1991). In my limited experience, it seems that in modern Japan there is reluctance to go out into nature and appreciate it without any human alteration, in contrast to the United States where many recreationists go hiking and backpacking in wilder realms of the American Wilderness Preservation System. This distancing oneself from nature may be linked with the modern Japanese cultural tendency to avoid individuation through personal exploration the deeper mythic and symbolic meanings of dreams and visions of the unconscious, preferring instead to conform to group standards (Kauai, 1991). Nature has a tendency to loosen ego boundaries, facilitating exploration of the unconscious through dreams and visions, etc. (Swan, 1992), by removing barriers to accessing the unconscious due to the pressures of modern life.
In contrast to the Japanese preference to regard natural beauty aided by human actions, and modern Americans who create parks and reserves to preserve wilderness, the circumpolar Inuit have no word for "park," as they traditionally live in wild places. Modern Inuit refer to the parks and wilderness areas designated by modern society as "places white people play." Inuit, like Sammi, Bushmen, and other traditional hunter-gather peoples live in a constant state of dynamic interplay with nature which is essential for their survival, for in nature lies their source of food.
Regardless of our cultural heritage, there is a common urge among all people to make contact with sacred places (Swan, 1990). In modern society this can be a source of serious problems for land managers and heritage preservationists. At Stonehenge in England, visitation to the original stone circle is heavily restricted due to the numbers of tourists who seek to visit this place. An important difference between use of Stonehenge and Japanese sacred places, however, is that Stonehenge is not considered by most people to be a center for ongoing active religious practice, but rather a historical artifact representing a previous religion and culture. The difference in cultural perceptions of place between modern society and traditional societies is one example of how mind and nature have become split in modern culture, resulting in alienation within and pollution and destruction of the natural world without. In a modern world, where material values are given so much weight, it would seem that we could learn much from the Japanese legacy of sacred places and the cultural values that preserve and respect them that could be translated to other soil, helping shape values of love for nature that could help guide us to create a more ecologically harmonious world.


(1) In preparing this paper I wish to thank Fumio Suda, Tadaaki Kanno, Akio Inoue, Tomohide Cho, Mr. and Mrs. Takashi Tsumura, and the many other gracious Japanese people who supported my visits to Japan and introduction to the study of Japanese culture and thought.


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