The Road to Hell and Celebrating Death in Japan

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  • Heaven and Hell are common in any religion. Japan has many religions and the Japanese concept of hell is quite interesting. There are two major religions in Japan which are: Shinto and Buddhism.

    There are minor religions as well, such as the Ainu religion followed by the indigenous Ainu people of Japan. There are quite a few similarities among all these religions. Let’s get to know what each religion mentions regarding the concept of hell.

    Shinto
    Yomotsu Hirasaka (Entrance to the Underworld)

    hell-shinto

    Shinto is Japan’s native religion. There is no exact date when it has started, but it is seen as a set of beliefs that evolved over time into an organized fashion. One of the main sources of Shinto philosophy is a book called ‘Kojiki’. It consists of different mythological stories of various gods and goddesses. It is quite poetic in nature with many great legends and heroic sagas. Kojiki talks about an underworld called ‘Yomi no Kuni’. It is not that bad. There is no torture or fire involved. It is said that the god of the underworld gives life while the goddess takes away lives because of a spat between the two.

    If you want to see what a Shinto ‘hell shrine’ feels like, you should visit the ‘Yomotsu Hirasaka’ in the Shimane prefecture. You cannot really enter the boulders of the shrine as it is sealed and very few tourists go there. There is nothing special in it, but surprisingly this place looks so calm and gloomy that you would not want to stay long for sure. Shinto hell is much simpler and is a symbol or metaphor for life and death in general.

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    Buddhism
    Artistic depiction of Buddhist hell

    hell-buddhist

    Buddhist hell is far worse and it has all the torture, fire, and cries. It is called ‘Jigoku’ and is more dramatic than Shinto hell. Jigoku is similar to the Hindu hell called ‘Naraka’. There is an intermediate underworld called ‘Meido’ where they decide if one should go to heaven or hell. People who are unworthy to go to heaven will be sent to Jigoku where they get tortured but not for eternity like in Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam. One will be given three chances to get out of hell depending on how the relatives of the deceased behave in the real world and also based on your levels of karma.

    That is why, Japanese people conduct funerals in Buddhist style while the marriages are in Shinto style. According to Japanese Buddhism, it usually takes 32 years to pass all these trails and if one is still ineligible, he shall remain for a very long period. There are sixteen types of Jigoku hell depending on what type of sin one has committed. Buddhism came to Japan from India via China. Japanese Buddhism has its own style as there is an admixture of Chinese Taoism and original Buddhist philosophy.

    Noboribetsu Hell Festival

    hell-festival

    There are a few festivals such as ‘Noboribetsu Hell Festival (Jigoku Matsuri)’ where Japanese people actively celebrate death as they believe it’s the day when the doors of hell open every year. Noboribetsu is a place in Hokkaido which many people believe looks like an exact description of a Jigoku hell.

    After reading all this, it might confirm for you that Japan really is a historical land with many unique traditions, sites, and myths.

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