Sacred Japan

Mar 14, 2016  By Albert Knapp MD & Ruth Oratz MD


In preparation for a 3-week long photographic tour of Japan, we immersed ourselves in haiku and the Tale of Genji, studied political history, embraced the aesthetic of Japanese garden design, and ate a lot of sushi. Albert packed his two Leica S (typ 006) bodies with the usual  array of lenses (24mm, 100mm, 120mm, 180mm and the 30mm-90mm) and Ruth brought her trusty Leica X Vario along with a borrowed Leica Q. Nonetheless, we were not at all ready for the inscrutable complexity of Japanese culture and life. Our trip took us to the temples and shrines of Japan and beyond.

Japan is an island nation, insular, isolated, incredible. What is “sacred”, holy, secret, shrines and Buddhist temples, walk through the cities and get lost in a reverie of gardens, we begin to understand. Shintoism and Buddhism are the two main belief systems in Japanese culture.

Shinto, the older, is less an organized religion, than an ancient faith in holy deities which descend to and are embodied in all natural phenomena – trees, stones, mountains, rivers. The over 81,000 Shinto shrines erected anywhere, are personal and private, or large communal gathering places. They are marked by the distinctive “torii” gate, two vertical posts joined by a horizontal cross-beam at the top, often painted red. Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century, with its complicated cosmology and organized ritual. Among the many Buddhist sects, Zen is perhaps most closely associated with Japan.

Zen Buddhism teaches that the path to enlightenment is found in oneself, in the profound realization that we are each one of us edified souls. Over centuries Shintoism and Buddhism have commingled in the minds and hearts of the Japanese people.

The Senso-ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo’s most splendid and spectacular, first built in the 7th century has been damaged by fire, earthquakes and war but lovingly repaired each time. In the midst of its grandeur we are most impressed by the intensity of the worshipers, by the importance they bestow on burning incense, inhaling and bathing in aromatic smoke, respectfully bowing in a quiet corner before a nearly hidden Buddha.


Pilgrims, Senso-ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo. Leica S006, 30mm-90mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/500 sec

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