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Posts Tagged ‘japanese temple’

What does Nishiarai mean?

In Japanese History on July 17, 2013 at 2:04 am

Nishiarai (West New Well)

Main street leading to Nishi-Arai Daishi. In the Edo Period and earlier, this would have been a typical monzen-cho.

Main street leading to Nishi-Arai Daishi.
In the Edo Period and earlier, this would have been a typical monzen-cho.
Now it’s just shitamachi (the lower city).

I have no idea why this name is officially written in rōmaji as one word. It seems to me, one would write it Nishi Arai or at least as Nishi-Arai[i].

But no one ever consults with me.

Oh well.

Let’s jump way back to the Heian Period (of which I know very little) to talk a bit about the spread of Buddhism in Japan (of which I know even less). At that time there was this supermonk named 空海 Kūkai. All sorts of amazing shit is attributed to him, including the invention of 仮名 kana the Japanese syllabary. Of course, since he was a supermonk, we can believe this at face value. C’mon, religious people never make shit up, right?

Anyways, after homeboy died, he was referred to as 弘法大師 Kōbō Daishi Great Teacher Who Spreads Buddhism, which sounds generic in English, but it’s pretty specific in Japanese.

So he came to this area when it was in the middle of a massive epidemic and people were dying all over the place. Instead of helping the people, he did what religious people love to do. Nothing. So he commissioned a temple with a statue of an 11-faced Kan’non[ii] and he knelt down and prayed in front of the statue for 21 days.

11-faced Kan'non. Note all the spooky heads on her head.

11-faced Kan’non.
Note all the spooky heads on her head.
(yes, kan’non is female)

Luckily for him, by chance (or more likely because someone started digging), a well magically appeared and water started bubbling up and gushed forth and the people had drinking water. Even more magical was that fact that when the sick people drank Kūkai’s magic well water they were instantly cured (praise jeebus!) and they all lived happily ever after.

The magic well was located on the west side of the temple[iii], so it was called 西新井 Nishi-Arai West New Well. The temple took its name from the well. (Or so they say…)

Main prayer hall of Nishi-Arai Daishi

Main prayer hall of Nishi-Arai Daishi

The temple still stands today. In fact, it’s a very famous place in Tōkyō for 初詣 hatsumōde the first temple or shrine visit of the year, so it’s very crowded during the New Year holiday. The temple is called 西新井大師 Nishi-Arai Daishi Nishi-Arai Great Teacher. I’ve never been myself, but it seems to be a pretty cool place. They have ponds and gardens in the precincts and the surrounding 門前町 monzen-chō[iv] looks pretty interesting.

Main gate of the temple

Main gate of the temple




[i] I prefer the hyphen, so for here on out, I’m using Nishi-Arai as the name.

[ii] Kan’non-sama is a Buddha. I see her explained as a goddess of mercy. But my understanding is that technically Buddhism doesn’t have gods per se, but examples of enlightened souls upon which to reflect. It’s a question of semantics in my opinion, but maybe “goddess” isn’t really the most accurate word.

[iii] Very convenient, since the temple could control the well.

[iv] C’mon, you guys remember what a monzen-chō is, right?

Japanese Manners (part 3)

In Japanese Manners on February 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm

In my commute back from work today, I thought of some more Japanese manners that I hadn’t mentioned before.

If you haven’t seen parts 1 and 2 yet, please take a look:

PART ONE – 4 manners that you absolutely must know when visiting Japan.
PART TWO – 4 more manners that will help you enjoy the culture experience of Japan more.

Today’s manners are little things that you may or may not know, some might seem trivial to non-Japanese.

Using Chopsticks


chopsticks may be kawaii, but only if you have good manners.

I’m going to assume you know how to use these already, if not, get 2 pencils and check out some videos on YouTube.
However, there is some etiquette which may or may not be self-evident.

1Don’t play air drums with your chopsticks
2Don’t tap your chopsticks together to make noise
3Don’t hover your chopsticks over food while deciding what to choose. Choose what you want first, and then pick it up.

Those three are all considered childish and uncouth. These next 2 manners are actually taboos relating to the dead and can be extremely offensive or off-putting and as such you should avoid them at all costs.

1Two people shouldn’t touch the same item at the same time with chopsticks. (At a Japanese funeral, after cremation, the small bone fragments are gathered from the ashes in this manner. The bones are then brought to the family grave. If you do this people will be aghast!)
2Don’t stick your chopsticks into the rice. Always set them on the side of the bowl or dish. (In Japanese cemeteries, rice bowls with chopsticks stuck in them are left as ceremonial offerings for the dead.)


pleeeease don’t be THAT guy!


Visiting Shrines and Temples

Japan has a kind of syncretic polytheistic religious history. The native religion of the Japanese isles is Shintō. It’s polytheistic in that there are many 神 (kami – usually translated as “gods” or “spirits”) who reside in various special spots all over the country. See a beautiful mountain? There is a special kami there. See a funky looking tree? There is probably a kami there too. A nice vista from the side of a hill? Most like there’s a kami living there too. And so on.

Kami are enshrined in… um, shrines. A shrine can be identified by a torī (you can think of it as the entrance to the sacred space), relatively plain, wooden architecture and a fountain for purifying your hands.


shrine on you crazy diamond!

Early in Japanese history, Buddhism was imported to Japan. Buddhism doesn’t have kami, rather it focuses on the examples of real people who have reached enlightenment. Before the Meiji Period (let’s say industrialized Japan), there was a syncretism (blending) of Shintō and Buddhism. Nikkō Tōshōgū is a prime example of this mixed style. It’s essentially a shrine, but it houses the enlightened spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was very much a real person.

A temple can be identified by a large wooden gate (or sometimes just a fence), “heavy” architecture, usually with much more decoration than a shrine. There is often a large incense burner in front of the building.


note there’s no torii, there is an lamp-like looking incense burner. you can’t see the main gate, but this temple has one, but it blocks the main hall’s view.



Visiting a Shrine

1Walk through the torī.
2 From here on in, be respectful. No shouting, no smoking. Taking pictures is probably OK, but be aware that some particularly important shrines may have no flash/picture rules in some areas, keep your eyes open.
3Go to the fountain. (I think it’s usually on the left side of the entrance… but maybe they have in other places).  Pick up the ladle.  Pour the water over your left hand. Make sure your hands are outside of the fountain, don’t put “dirty” water back into the pool. Then repeat with the other hand. Put the ladle away. (Just a quick note, on cold days, most people totally skip this part because… it’s cold. Know what I mean?)
4Go up the stairs to the main hall.
5If there is a hanging bell or gong thingy, ring it a few times to get the kami’s attention.
5Throw a coin into the offering box (10 yen is the norm, but you can do whatever).
6Bow 45° twice.
7Clap your hands twice.
8Bow deeply again once and when you come up, put your hands together, palm-to-palm and pray… or if you’re an atheist like me, stand there silently and pretend.
9You’re done!

Visiting a Temples

Much easier than a shrine – cuz it’s not Japanese. lol

0 – After entering the temple grounds, be respectful and quiet.
1If there is a large incense burner, go up to it and with cupped hands, pull some of the smoke on your body (in particular, the parts you think need a little “help”).  If there isn’t much smoke coming out of there, go buy some first from the temple girls and light it and put it in the burner before trying to hog all the smoke for yourself.
2Go up the stairs to view the temple treasures and sacred objects.
3Toss a coin or two into the offering box.
4 – There are no kami in Buddhism, so it would be stupid to bow at a bunch of stuff, however Japan is pretty much an atheistic country and a lot of people don’t actually know the difference between shrine etiquette and temple etiquette, so you WILL see people bowing and doing shrine stuff. Normal. But basically, the correct etiquette is to throw the coin and, without bowing, pray with your palms together, then leave.

As always, thanks for reading. Also, if there are any topics you’d like me to cover in the future, please let me know. I’m all ears.

More to come soon!

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