I have long been wholly ignorant about Japanese religion. With a vague sense of the coexistence of Buddhism and Shinto I've visited shrines and struggled to identify them as one or the other. Yet I really love visiting shrines! There's a peace and acceptance there that lack of knowledge hasn't prevented me from experiencing.
Since I've been in Japan, some Japanese and non-Japanese friends have helped me to untangle the mass of rituals and symbols around me...
-Statues of Buddha (seems like it should be obvious, but it wasn't!)
-Incense and oranges...this is what gets offered instead of cash
-Omikuji...meaning 'sacred lottery', you pay for a random slip of paper with a fortune on it. If it's good you can keep it for luck or tie it to pine tree or a wall of metal wires in the shrine grounds. If it's bad, you always tie it up in the shrine. A possible reason for the custom is a pun on the Japanese word 'matsu' which means 'pine tree' and 'to wait'.
-Purification...washing your hands and mouth before entering temples. There's a specific procedure you're supposed to follow. At the basin you hold the ladle in your right hand, pouring water on your left, then vice verse. Finally you pour water into one hand and wash your mouth with it.
-red gates...translated 'bird perch',they mark the passage from the profane to the sacred at the entrance to the shrine. Some shrines have multiple ones, apparently designating increasing levels of holiness. I'm not so sure how this works at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, with it's millions of gates ascending the hill, but it sure is beautiful:
-Paper streamers...called 'shide', they are zigzagged and often found hanging in the shrines.
-Clapping, bowing, throwing money...in the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo there were English instructions on how to donate money. Standing in the main shrine building, in front of a large wooden box which is covered on top by rectangular wooden bars, you clap to announce your presence to the kami, throw your money into the box (it often bounces before falling though), clap again and bow.
-Omikuji...again! It's a Japanese thing!
-Ema...these are small wooden plaques on which you write a prayer or wish. You buy them in the shrine and leave them hanging there for the kami (Shinto gods/spirits) to receive
Despite these clarifications, it's also become clear to me that religions in Japan are seriously intermingled and interrelated. Many Japanese people don't identify with any particular religion but participate in rituals associated with multiple ones. As one JTE of mine paraphrased, 'Many Japanese are brought to Shinto temples as children, have Christian white weddings, and then Buddhist funerals'.
My confusion about Japanese shrines was compounded when I noticed that some...in fact many, shrines exhibit a range of features from both lists. It seems that a Buddhist shrine was often built alongside a Shinto one and they later amalgamated! This is a serious culture shock...
I've been asked why there was so much fighting over difference of religion in Ireland...and failed to adequately explain the mess of religious-political alignment very well. I've wondered about the divisive motives of Christian leaders back home who criticise worshippers for attending a Protestant Church when the usually attend a Catholic one. Isn't religion supposed to be about love and acceptance? It looks to me like religious freedom can be about more than freely choosing one religion to be restricted by.
Considering that 84% of Japanese people claim to have no personal religion, while a similar percentage of Irish people call themselves Catholic, I find it surprising that people in Japan don't vilify one another on the basis of religion, shrines here aren't deserted and there's a much greater sense of spirituality there than you find at Sunday mass.