Yasunori Ueda may visit the Ise Grand Shrine every summer to pray to for his family and good health, but that doesn’t make him religious.
“Visiting a shrine to pray is different from being religious,” he says while walking along the gravel path that leads to the main shrine, the most sacred spot in all of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. “It has nothing to do with religion. Most Japanese, including me, don’t think about whether we’re religious or not.”
It’s a common refrain at Japan's more than 80,000 shrines and temples. Yet evidence of an instinctive spirituality that infuses daily life can be spotted across the country, from the small shrines tucked behind busy Tokyo streets to the sacred grounds that dot rural byways.
A survey published earlier this year by Gallup International and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research found that Japan is among the world's least religious countries. Sixty-two percent of respondents identified themselves as either not religious or atheist, placing the country behind only China and Hong Kong in Asia.
Yet religious beliefs and rituals have long been a part of everyday life in Japan; the sacred is often inseparable from the secular. And even though Japanese typically don’t call themselves religious, many still feel a certain spiritual itch, argues Ryosuke Okamoto, a sociologist of religion at Hokkaido University. He says that while the role of religion in daily life continues to diminish, more and more Japanese seem to be seeking some sort of spiritual experience by visiting sacred sites, both Buddhist and Shinto.
The hand-written plaques that flutter outside Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo devoted to the Emperor Meiji, hint at the reason why. On one morning in early August, they included prayers for a swift recovery from illness, a long-awaited job promotion, and tickets to see Arashi, a popular Japanese boy band. “I wish for all my wishes to come true,” read one.
The first wish Ikue Kumata made that morning was for her pregnant daughter. “She is due in December,” Ms. Kumata says with her husband, Tomeo, standing nearby. “Her having a safe delivery is our first priority.”
The Kumatas moved to Tokyo after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster forced them to abandon their home in Fukushima prefecture. Since then, they’ve been coming to Meiji almost every month. The tree-covered shrine instills in them a sense of stability and peace, they say, that is often hard to come by in their day-to-day lives.
The pull of religious tradition for people like the Kumatas was on full display here in August. It lured city dwellers home to rural areas in celebration of the Buddhist festival of Bon, when family members gather around the communal graves of their loved ones. It drew war widows to Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead in central Tokyo, on Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. And across the capital at Meiji Shrine, as the new school year drew nigh, students eager for good luck in the upcoming term fastened bits of paper inscribed with a fortune on metal racks.
That enduring appeal has contributed to a booming tourism industry. A largely domestic audience of about 3 million people flock to Meiji Shrine and Senso-ji temple in Tokyo during the first three days of the New Year, Japan's most significant holiday. A survey conducted in 2012 by Travel and Leisure found that both sites receive 30 million visitors annually, the most of any religious sites in the world – a number that includes many visitors interested simply in seeing the landmark structures.
The number of visitors at the iconic Ise Shrine (pronounced ee-say) spiked at 14 million in 2013, the year the shrine was deconstructed and rebuilt as part of an ancient ceremony that's repeated every 20 years.
And for the most intrepid among religious tourists, there is the 1,000-year-old Kumano Kodo, a lengthy pilgrimage route to Buddhist and Shinto sites across the Kii Peninsula.
Just sightseeing, or something more?
The balance between religious observance and simple sightseeing is unclear.
“The boundary between religion and tourism is blurring,” says Hiroshi Yamanaka, a religious studies professor at Tsukuba University. “Ordinary people don’t think that behavior is religious. To them it’s just customary.”
From a Western perspective – one that’s deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian beliefs of monotheism and personal faith – it can be hard to make sense of Japan’s blend of religious practices. Many Japanese say nonchalantly that they’re born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.
“Japanese don’t devote themselves to a specific god or religious doctrine, but they pick parts of established religions and make them their own,” Dr. Yamanaka says. “In the Western perspective religion is a faith, but in a Japanese context religion is very different.”
Tomoyasu Shimakawa, a deputy director at the Japan Tourism Agency, has been intrigued by an uptick in the number of young tourists at sacred sites. He says many visit ahead of pivotal moments in their lives – from college entrance exams to job interviews – to pray for good luck.
Satoru Otowa, a spokesman for the Grand Ise Shrine, has noticed a similar mentality among the growing number of young people he's spotted at the shrine. Two decades of stagnant economic growth have led many to feel adrift and uncertain about their futures, he says.
“Many young people are disillusioned with society,” Mr. Otowa says. “They are looking for spiritual healing.”
For Japanese, few places are better for getting in touch with one's spiritual side than Ise. Located in rural Mie prefecture, about 200 miles southwest of Tokyo, the shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Naiku, the main shrine building, is notable for its simplicity. It’s constructed of Japanese cypress with a thatched reed roof.
The surrounding forest of ancient pines and cedars make it an ideal place for prayer and quiet reflection, says Saori Fujimoto, who drove up from Osaka for a day in mid-August.
“It's a special place for me,” she says. “Every time I come here I’m able to calm my mind. I always leave wanting to come back.”
Michael Holtz reported from Japan as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.