I’ve always loved visiting churches, temples, shrines and other places where people worship. When you’re traveling, it can give you a glimpse into the place’s history or culture. You see what people hold dear, what they believe in, what customs and traditions they have upheld through the centuries.
In the Philippines, Catholicism is the predominant religion. Three centuries of being a Spanish colony can do that to a country. Based on historical accounts, the province of Cebu is where one of the rulers of the country first converted to Christianity together with his subjects. It’s also where the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño is located, believed to have been the oldest church in the country (until the original structure was destroyed in a fire in the 16th century) and its site is where the oldest Catholic image of the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus) was found from the 1521 Magellan expedition. That’s a lot of Catholic history. So when we went to Cebu, P and I visited the Basilica.
The atmosphere outside the church is just like any other large Catholic church in the country, bustling with activity outside and quiet and somber inside the church. A devotee praying on her knees was moving towards the altar. People were lighting candles. There was a room filled with statues of different saints and a few stood in front of them, whispering their prayers, dropping donations in boxes. All familiar rituals.
In Japan, visits to its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples revealed rituals I was curious to understand. With majority of Japanese subscribing to Buddhism and Shinto, temples and shrines are their places of worship.
Before a morning spent ogling and tasting the food in Nishiki Market, our guide took us to a small shrine nearby. She led us to the fountain near the entrance. Purification fountains are found in every shrine because you have to ‘purify’ yourself first before praying to the deity. You take one of the ladles, fill it with water from the fountain, pour some into your cupped hands, rinse your mouth then spit the water. You never take the ladle to your mouth.
Our guide then motioned me to go in front of the hall of worship. This is where you toss a coin into the donation box, summon the deity by pulling on the rope in front to ring the gong, pray, clap your hands twice, and bow. (At least that’s how I remembered it.)
And in the shrine I visited there was a vending machine dispensing of omikuji or written fortunes. Omikuji, folded or scrolled up, is traditionally chosen from a box. But in this shrine and in some of the other temples I visited, it was a vending machine bestowing the fortune. You can really find a vending machine for everything in Japan.
I received good fortune and when I asked our guide whether I should tie it to the wires lined with other pieces of omikuji, she explained that when the fortune is good, you keep it for luck and only when the prediction is bad, do you leave it.
In most temples I visited in Kyoto, visitors burn incense and fan smoke towards themselves, because the smoke is believed to have healing power.
Buddhism is widespread in Asia. I got to visit more Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Angkor, where one can see images of Buddha and distinct characteristics of Buddhist architecture. The stupa in the courtyards of Wat Pho are beautiful with its intricate and colorful porcelain mosaic. The Khmer temples of Angkor though are a mix of Buddhism and Hindu influences.
The Bayon within sprawling Angkor Thom is an example of a temple originally built as a Buddhist place of worship, but after the reign of Buddhist King Jayavarman VII who built it, it underwent several modifications especially when the Khmer empire reverted to Hinduism.