New Year rush hour of the gods

The hurly-burly of religions in Kamakura is a microcosm of that of Japan as a whole
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The Independent Culture
In the medieval city Kamakura, Japan's two great religions meet. Peter Popham joins the holiday traffic jam as pilgrims converge on its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples Christmas in Japan passes like a strange lie: for weeks the department stores havebeen full of ding-dong merrilies and red-nosed Rudolphs, but come the 25th nothing happens, everyone goes off to work as usual (though not this year, because it fell on a Sunday), no presents are given, no turkeys stuffed. Japan has only a tiny minorityof Christians, and the non-Christmas brings this home. The magic of the season has to wait another week.

To experience Japan's New Year at its best, the canny visitor gets out of Tokyo. Go down into the basement of Tokyo station and take one of the blue and cream Yokosuka line trains out of the city due south for an hour, to the ancient town of Kamakura. Its eminently defensible position - steep, forested hills on three sides, sea on the fourth - led to its becoming a military and administrative capital for the country in the Middle Ages. It's a town which retains much of the look and mood of its medieval past, and it is thus perfect for experiencing the year's most frenetic rush-hour of the gods.

By the time it nears Kamakura the train will probably be crammed to the gunwales; so will the one before and the one after, right the way through the night. People pour into Kamakura like water pouring into a bath. All motor traffic has been stopped for the holiday: the road that dominates the town, which leads from the sea to the shrine of Hachiman, god of war, by midnight is a heaving mass of people, and all the bars and noodle stands and coffee shops that border it do brilliant business all through the night. One New Year's Eve, the branch of McDonald's here had the biggest-ever 24-hour sales of any McDonald's in the world. Slowly and with infinite patience and good humour, the monstrous crowd - hundreds of thousands - inches towards the shrine's inner sanctum. They have come here to crave good luck in the year to come; they seek to ensure it by hurling money into the alms box, praying, then buying a votive arrow to take home, promising a clear flight through the months ahead.

Good-humoured (many actually drunk) though the crowd is, the sheer density, as often in Japan, is too much. To escape it, we can take one of the narrow lanes out of the middle of the town and into the hills: there to experience, at one of the many Buddhist temples, the other, radically different religious observance of the holiday, where the pilgrims do not look forward hopefully to the year ahead but back in contrition.

The Japanese have see-sawed between Shinto and Buddhism through much of their history; now that the nation has become almost entirely secularised, and few people apparently believe anything much, the two have attained equilibrium.

Shinto means simply "the way of the gods": not a religion with a set of beliefs, but the catch-all name for the cults of the myriad animistic spirits revered by the people of these islands since ancient times: spirits of mountains, trees, peculiar-shapedrocks, waterfalls; spirits of victorious generals and great statesmen, spirits of foxes and embodiments of phenomena such as war; mighty but vague godheads such as Ameterasu-omikami, goddess of the Sun and the mythical creator of Japan. All these are powers, some greater and more awful than others, but all deserving respect; so people draw near to the shrine of such kami ("gods", though the word evokes the wrong image) and seek to be blessed so that they can pass exams, grow rich, have success in marri age, avoid or recover from sickness.

It is a very matter-of-fact religion - barely more than a web of superstitions - but possessed of an intensely particular atmosphere: the matt vermilion of the tori entrance arches, the priests and priestesses in ballooning pastel-coloured silk trousers and lacquered hats, waving wands of holy paper over supplicants while ancient instruments creak and boom behind reed blinds within the sanctuary.

The preoccupation of Shinto is with purification: it is the religion of bright daylight, of cleanliness and newness, and recoils from age and dirt and mortality. The most important Shinto shrine of all, at a place called Ise, halfway down the east coast towards Osaka, is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, so that it may never become soiled or old. Shinto, perhaps uniquely among the world's religions, has nothing to say about death: it shrinks from it.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is all to do with coming to terms with death and transcending it (or learning in a flash of enlightenment that death is not real). So while it is hard to imagine an accommodation between two such contrasting religions, in modern times they have attained a certain symbiosis. Japanese people today are happy to bow to both: going to Shinto for baptisms and weddings, calling in the Buddhist priest for funerals ; going to the Shinto shrine at New Year to call down money and healt h and good exam results, but also trudging off into the hills to the Buddhist temple to make a nod in the direction of penitence.

Most of Kamakura's Buddhist temples are up in the hills around the town - away from the quotidian business of the shops and bars and the biggest Shinto shrine. They are up where the air is fresh and the paulownia trees are high and spread a deep, gloomy shade, and in summer the cry of the uguisu, the Japanese cuckoo, echoes liquidly through the silence.

In the chill of the winter night, a far smaller and more sombre crowd than that in the town below gathers in the grounds of the two dozen Buddhist temples in Kamakura's hills. The huge bell of each temple stands apart from the main building, under its own upswinging tiled roof. A queue of people shuffles towards each bell, everyone taking his or her turn to drag back the great wooden beam suspended by ropes, which functions as a hammer, and swinging it as hard as possible at the bell. The deep note boom s out across the hills, temple calling sonorously to temple in atonement for human sinfulness.

We have atoned for sin and prayed for luck, but there is no obligation to go to bed. Kamakura, once a fishing village, then suddenly elevated into the most important city in the land, is now a dormitory suburb of Yokohama and Tokyo. But the shrines and temples pull in tourist all the year round, and there are dozens of bars and restaurants to relieve them of their money. In the restaurants everyone orders soba, buckwheat noodles, because long noodles mean long life. And if you have the stamina, you lurch from coffee-shop to coffee-shop until near dawn, then climb into the hills to watch the first rising sun of the New Year - another enormously lucky thing to do.

The hurly-burly of religions in Kamakura is a microcosm of that of Japan as a whole: for a people so avowedly materialistic in their concerns, religion plays a surprisingly large part in their lives. Because none of the religions that have done well havebeen too rigorously bent on rooting out and exterminating the others, the religious texture of the national life is a palimpsest - each layer laid down centuries back remains intact.

So it is that the shrine of the god of war dominates Kamakura because the man who made the town his capital, the first Shogun (military dictator), Yoritomo, owed all his success to war; while the hills are studded with Zen temples because Zen Buddhism arrived in the same period, the 13th century, and this was where it secured the patronage of the ruling families. Kamakura is also home to Shinto shrines whose origins are so old as to be unknown. The most famous is Zeniarai-benten, the "money-w ashing shrine", cradled in a steep-sided hollow in the hills, where pilgrims wash their money in a stream, confidently believing that it will double in value.

But Kamakura is also the town which Japan's most intolerant religious leader made his base. His name was Nichiren, and he, too, lived in the 13th century. A rabble-rousing preacher, he targeted not the ruling class but the downtrodden peasantry. And whereas the other Buddhist sects, imported from China and Korea down the centuries, expressed benign tolerance towards both Shinto and other branches of Buddhism, this Japanese Luther had no time for any of them. He told his followers that if they recited th e holy texts of other sects they were throwing away their souls. "Jodo is the path to hell, Zen the teaching of devils, Shingon will ruin the country," he thundered. He lived in Kamakura for 20 years, but made so much trouble that he was twice banishedt o remote places.

Nichiren's remains the only sect of Buddhism to have been born not in continental Asia but Japan - a rather shameful fact, because his teaching was not only intolerant but notably xenophobic and jingoistic, as well. Kamakura has many Nichiren-sect temples, but like Nonconformist churches they are generally small and humble establishments compared to the loftier and more lavishly endowed Zen temples up in the hills.

Nichiren's brand of Buddhism has seen an extraordinary revival in modern times with the creation of a lay Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai, a direct descendant of the Nichiren sect. Hundreds of so-called "new religions" have sprung up in Japan during the past century, most related in some way either to Buddhism or to Shinto. But Soka Gakkai, which also has its own political party, is much the most successful, with millions of adherents, including quite a number (Tina Turner and other rock musicians being prominent) abroad.

Like all the religions that really thrive amid the secularity of modern Japan, there is a disturbing meagreness to Soka Gakkai in terms of true spirituality. Its founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, espoused the neo-Kantian teaching that the highest human values are the good, the beautiful and the true. But Makiguchi believed he could improve on this formulation: for "true" he substituted "profitable". Soka Gakkai has been doing a roaring trade ever since.

TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: Virgin Airways (0293 747747) flies London to Tokyo for £919 return travelling out on a weekday. STA Travel (071-937 9962) offers direct flights to Tokyo from £858 (£696 for under-26s), or via Amsterdam starting from £604.

ce TOUR OPERATORS: Creative Tours (071-495 1775) offers several different tours, including Discover Tokyo and Discover Kyoto, both of which can be used as a basis for a personal "pick and mix" itinerary. The prices of these tours start from less than £900. Creative Tours also provides return flights to Tokyo or Osaka for £889 plus £10 tax: stopovers to Fukuoka, Sapporo, Nagoya or Okinawa will cost £35 for each extra journey.

ce GETTING AROUND: A Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on the Japanese network. These passes come as 7-day, 14-day or 21-day in economy or business class, but can only be bought outside Japan at authorised travel agents, such as Ebury Travel (071-824 8909). Car hire by Hertz (081-679 1799) for a basic 3- door automatic will cost 39,000 Yen (about £250) per week plus 3 per cent tax, and 1,000 Yen (£6.50) for collision damage waiver. Hertz requires 7 days' advance booking. It also provides discounts if flights are booked on certain airlines.

ce STAYING THERE: Economical hotel coupons are sold by overseas offices of Kinetsu International (071-287 3960), Tokyu Travel (071-493 2173) and Nippon Travel Agency (071-437 2424) which can be used in more than 250 hotels. For the budget traveller, informa tion on the Welcome Inns of Japan can be obtained from the JNTO (see below).

ce FURTHER INFORMATION: The Japan National Tourist Organisation, 167 Regent Street, London W1R 7FD (071-734 9638) is extremely helpful and will provide information on travel to and in Japan, supply free brochures and leaflets, provide lists of tour operators and offer general assistance in booking a tour: it particularly caters for the budget traveller. Japan Travel Phone, a toll-free number that can be called in Japan, is an English-speaking travel helpline (from East Japan dial 008822 2800 and West Japan 008822 4800).

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