Japanese culture is often reduced to tangible products that are widely consumed all over the world: anime, ramen, sushi. Since coming to Japan, I have found it immensely rewarding to consider the unique characteristics and traditions of the local communities around me that had been inaccessible to me from abroad. These are traditions that have developed over the course of centuries and are preserved by informational plaques that commemorate the of importance historical locations and people.
This means that I am constantly challenged to be attentive to my surroundings in Nagoya and what they can reveal about the past and present of Japan. Daily walks take me through shrine remnants and historical landmarks; when I look carefully, I notice artifacts of days gone by peeking out at me from the shadows of boxy department stores and the bustle of city life. On a recent trip to a local park, I was challenged to make sense of vocabulary on a nondescript plaque; by making the effort to understand what was written on there, I was able a glimpse into the historical significance of a local park and its connection to an adjacent Buddhist temple. This experience allowed me to better understand how these religiously-affiliated structures exist today in tangent with secular life.
Shimochaya Kouen, or Shimochaya Park, is located next to Hogan-ji Nagoya Bestuin, a temple of the Jodo-Shinshi sect of Japanese Buddhism. It was only at the end of my trip to Shimochaya that I was learned about the park’s religious meaning and history. From the entry point, the temple next to the park is obscured from view by rows of trees and by the people walking leisurely up and down the hilly paths. While waiting for my host brother to catch insects in a tiny lake in the center of the park, I came across a placard written entirely in Japanese about the park. I took a picture of the placard and did not think about it again until recently when I decided to look up the words and see if I could decipher its meaning.
According to this notice, the park was the site of the temple’s garden and was considered an important location in the years following the Edo Period (1603-1868). I was first surprised by the park’s age; I had not expected it to have such a long history. As I walk through it now, I am able to better appreciate the park for its symmetry and layout as I contemplate the significance it must have had to those in the past and what it has come to mean for those in the present. To the salarymen taking their break from work, this small park may represent a place of renewal and relaxation. For the children looking for insects, this may represent unlimited adventure.
Historically speaking, humanity’s relationship to nature is central to understanding Japanese spirituality both in Japan’s folk religion, Shinto, and Buddhism. Even now, Shimochaya Koen and the dozens of parks that are nestled in the midst of city life demonstrate the continuity of this value. As I spend more time in Japan, I am hoping to get a better sense of what religion means to everyday people and how culture has absorbed certain elements of religion and taken them to be secular and universal facets of Japanese identity. Some of the more obvious examples are the widespread practice of visiting shrines during the New Year or ancestor worship. Beyond these, I am curious about the festivals local to Nagoya and their significance to people today.