The Secret World that Exists Within Japanese Temples
A Subtle World In A Country Of Conformity
Traveling Japan, it is easy to see that everything is well ordered. Even for a country that is so well known in terms of allowing nature and modern construction to co-exist, most of the natural experiences within Japan are curated, careful to avoid the look of decay, wild overgrowth, or chaos. In contrast, within the ground of temples and sacred areas, wildlife frolic, plant life grows unchecked, and the separation between nature and modern life is blurred. This is not to say that the most important areas of temples and shrines are not well kept, but that you can find a secret world where nature finds a way, even in a society that seeks to control it everywhere else.
One of the most interesting parts of this secret world is the traditional materials used in the construction of monuments, walkways, and buildings. Even though most of these areas are re-made on a somewhat regular basis, they are still made with raw materials, fit together via plans that have been passed down over the years. This means that given five or more years, even the newer areas of a temple are given back to nature. These natural materials promote the adherence of moss, allow for the growth of small plants among the cracks, and and retain moisture in ways that treated modern materials are unable to do.
This also means that the different seasons in Japan create completely different experiences within Temples. During the winter months, paths may be barely shoveled, old pine needles are left to cover the base of trees, and small animals may often be glimpsed while climbing to the top. In the world of temples, nature will always reign supreme.
This is both by design and happenstance. Temples are meant to blend with nature and their building blocks are meant to connect them to the land consequently, they often bring with them more than their builders originally bargained for everything from moss that grows near the back of temples to timbers the isolate their sounds and ensure they are always going to maintain their spiritual appeal can be given credit for creating an almost otherworldly feeling
Even the main areas of temples will often be covered in evidence of natural decay. This is particularly true in funerary areas, where all indications of modern life and human contact will be swept away at the end of the day, leaving behind only timeless materials that will look the same in 200 years as they do now.
Walking through these temples, especially at night, gives a sense of stepping back in time. You know that this temple has looked the exact same for hundreds of years. You could be walking in the steps of a Samurai, following the same path as a desperate courtesan, or touching the same ground as a newly debuted Geisha coming to give thanks to the Kami. You exist outside of modern life.
If you ever get a chance to go to Japan, try and go off the main trails, taking the back ones that lead to lesser used areas of shrines and temples. Doing so, especially at night, gives you a sense of being transported to the past, living among the spirits of those who have gone before and the spirits of Japan's natural world.
Don’t forget to look up a guide on how to properly worship, bring a few coins with you to donate, and respect any signs asking you not to take photos. If you respect the temples and shrines in Japan then they will give you that same respect back.