I had a chance to go on a field trip organized by the Chaplain's office on base to Kamakura, a place known for a large Buddha statue and some historic temples and shrines. We also got a lecture-on-the-go about some history, beliefs, and differences between Buddhism and Shintoism. Coming from a devout Christian instead of someone practicing Buddhism/Shintoism, there was one or two instances where I detected a little bit of editorializing, but for the most part it was a very informative trip and I'd probably do it again if someone else expressed interest.
Something I found interesting is that most Japanese people practice aspects of both Buddhism and Shintoism. (For everything that follows, someone please correct me if I'm getting this wrong.) As a gross oversimplification, Shintoism is a celebration of life and Buddhism is a celebration of death. In Shintoism, everything has a spirit and it does someone good to make nice with them, especially the important ones.* Buddhism is the pursuit of nirvana, the nothingness associated with no longer having any earthly desires.
People will often have Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals. Makes sense, really.
* The "important ones" doesn't mean worshiping a specific one or three or whatever, it's not like monotheism or even the ancient Greek pantheon. Everything down to the smallest pebble has a spirit, but some deserve more respect for whatever reason. In a lot of places there are rocks or trees with ropes tied around them - that means have (or are, maybe) kami, and to respect them and leave them be.
I can't help myself...we took the Special Bus.
First stop, the big Buddah. It has a long history attached (ask me if you want to hear it, it's a little long for this already lengthy post) including survival of a tsunami.
At the gate are two scary statues. They are kings, and good ones at that. They're ugly to scare away bad spirits.
I thought I might try to be a little artsy with my photography. Photograph things off center and whathaveyou.
From the back, the Buddah looks like he has a hunched back. This is intentional, so that if you are standing directly in front of the statue and looking up, the head is in perfect proportion.
For 20 yen, you can go inside. Pretty neat.
The chaplain specified that these sandals don't have an inherent meaning - a group of schoolchildren made them and donated them.
I think this is a lamp. Apparently there used to be a row of them leading from the outside straight up to the Buddah. That must have been pretty amazing to see at night, but don't think they're used anymore.
Observation: getting your group photo taken in front of the statue is The Thing To Do. On the right of this photo, you can see one about to take place. Then I panned 90 degrees to my left and took the next one.
Next destination was a Buddhist temple, if I remember correctly. I've forgotten the name, but it's quite well known. As with every temple and shrine, the landscaping is breathtaking.
One area in particular is bittersweet. When a person dies, their spirit goes on a long journey to reach paradise or heaven or whatever. For an adult, it's not a big deal. But for a child, it can be difficult. So when a child dies, the family purchases a little stone kami to act as a spirit guide for the young soul. Sometimes the family will bring little gifts or clothing in the winter to the kami, the idea being that if the statue is well taken care of, perhaps it will pay special attention to that family's child.
Random photo of buildings. There's a museum and two separate buildings with 20-foot-tall statues. Very cool looking, but there were signs around saying that photos aren't allowed, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
This is one of the incense stands. The incense is considered cleansing and healing, so people will wave the smoke over themselves before going near the more sacred ground.
Random food of the day: bean popsicle. Not as gross as it sounds, but I'd probably try a different flavor next time.
Near the snack booth is a patio overlooking a neighborhood and the ocean.
It still hasn't ceased to amaze me that there are so many plants next to so many little buildings crammed next to each other.
One little walkway led me past this statue
...and up to this one
which was guarded by warrior statues on four corners.
The seated statue and its protectors were right next to this, whatever this is.
More landscape photos, because it's all so pretty and well maintained.
This last one I took because it looks so odd - the photo isn't blurry, the flowers are really that fuzzy. I have no idea what they are.
Third stop, I think a Shinto shrine.
This is where you buy souvenirs, good luck tokens, and bird seed.
Why bird seed? To feed the pigeons!
We (myself, the two chaplain's assistants, and one other guy) spent a lot of time feeding the birds. They were really aggressive, standing on top of each other to stick their heads as far into the little wax paper bag as possible.
The cutest part was all the schoolkids. Middle schoolers, probably, and they were great. A lot of the girls would scream and run away from the pigeons and laughingly declined our offer of bird seed. A few got brave and took some, then screamed when a pigeon landed on them to eat out of their hand but didn't shoo it away. It was adorable.
Someone got a group photo of us four Americans with the fifteen or so kids in their school uniforms, I hope someday I get to see a copy.