Japan has a long history of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and are both recognized as the country's main religious practice. Everyone familiar with the symbols of Japan have seen the Jinja torii signifying the Shinto shrine, but recognizing the Buddhist temple is not so easy unless they are in possession of a famous Buddha statue, artifacts or the very rare relic.
When you are in Japan there are two distinguishing marks to look for:
神社 the kanji for Jinja
The Torii map symbol used to label Shinto shrines.
寺 the kanji for Temple
The more controversial symbol used on maps
The swastika used on maps to label Buddhist temples.
Why is this distinction important? Coming up on April 8th is the Hana-Matsuri (花祭り) or Flower Festival, one of the most monumental and longest cultural traditions in Buddhism dating all the way back to the year 606. This date also marks the Kambutsu'e (灌仏会 ）or the Buddha's birthday.
The celebration of Buddha's birthday varies in Asian countries due to different interpretations between the old Lunar calendar of the East to the adopted Gregorian calendar of the West. So why are those symbols important again? Because Japan settled on April 8th as it's day of celebration when they converted to the Gregorian calendar in the 1800's. So on this date you're going to want to make your way to the nearest Buddhist temple to witness and participate in the celebration proceedings.
Buddhist temples set up a little child Buddha sitting under a karamon or temple gate covered in assortment of beautiful and colorful flowers. The little Buddha sits in a plate of amacha, a sweet herbal tea that practitioners pour over the little Buddha with a spoon as if bathing him after his birth. Once you're finished you can have a cup of amacha for yourself, but don't worry it's brewed especially for you and not from the bathing pool.
While traveling in Japan checking out the cherry blossoms in the park make your way to some of these most notable temples around the country to celebrate the Buddha's birthday:
In Tokyo, the Sensoji Temple (2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032) in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temples.
In Kamakura at Koutoku-in (4 Chome-2-28 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture 248-0016), the site of one of Japan's daibutsu, great Buddha statues.
In Nagoya at Osu Kannon (460-0011 Aichi Prefecture, Nagoya, Naka Ward, Osu, 2 Chome−21−47), one of the most popular temples in the area built during the Kamakura period.
In Osaka make your way to Tennoji Shitennoji Temple (1-11-18 Shitennoji, Tennoji Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 543-0051), Japan's first and oldest official Buddhist temple.
In Nara at Toudai-ji (406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8211). site of one of the other daibutsu statues.
This beautiful ceremony is open to everyone so don't feel shy or intimidated to take part in the festivities if you're not a practitioner of Buddhism. It's very easy and fun to take part in this long standing ritual and a once in a lifetime experience you should go out of your way to take part in during your stay in Japan, that also comes with a free cup of amacha. Just remember what to look for when looking at your map.