TAKARAZUKA, Japan -- With its bullet trains, electronic toilets that warm, clean and dry, and hyper-efficient delivery systems that bring online orders to the doorstep within hours, it's easy to forget that Japan is also a nation of ancient spirits -- unless, that is, you've witnessed the annual pilgrimage to the fire god shrine, nestled on a wooded mountain just north of Osaka, Japan.
About 3.5 million people visit the Kiyoshikojin Seicho-ji complex annually, more than 700,000 of them during the peak pilgrimage season from New Year's to early February alone, says Koken Sakamoto, chief priest of the ancient Buddhist temple that also hosts the popular Kiyoshikojin shrine and other Shinto holy places there, pushing aside his flowing purple robes and glittering orange sash to finger his rosary beads.
Founded in 896 by Emperor Uda, the Seicho-ji temple is the seat of Japan's most prominent shrine to Kojin, god of the hearth. Also known as the fire or kitchen god, Kojin is still widely revered in the Osaka area as well as much of rural Japan. Ironically, the complex burnt down several times over the years, and most of the current shrine structures date only to the Edo period.
The complex also includes shrines to the Shinto gods of water, eyes, oxen and commerce, along with shrines to a handful of other ancient spirits essential to daily life, along with a Buddhist temple.
Although Buddhism and Shinto, a religion as old as Japan itself, were officially separated by the government in the 19th century, this temple is one of the few remaining holy places where they remain entwined.
Koken, head priest charged with both Buddhist and Shinto worship there, also oversees a museum of art on the grounds. Founded by his grandfather, who believed art appreciation was a crucial part of godliness, the museum includes over a thousand paintings by Japanese painter Tessai Tomikawa.
"Everyone in Japan is working so hard and trying to do their best, but they always reach a point where they want more. They come to ask the gods to help them achieve their goals," Koken explained over cups of green tea and delicate bean paste desserts. "I am a mediator to help people reach those powerful ancient gods through prayer."
Every year, after the department store Santas have gone home, Christmas parties are but a memory and the new year has been ushered in by Buddhist monks ringing bells across the nation on New Year's Eve, millions of Japanese across the country visit Shinto shrines to offer their first prayers of the year and make wishes. They pack up tote bags and backpacks with good luck charms and small wooden household shrines to flock to holy places like Kiyoshikojin to honour the millions of Shinto gods that remain an essential part of the Japanese psyche.
At Kiyoshikojin, the old household shrines and charms are collected to be burned in a holy bonfire in February, and new shrines and charms are purchased for protection and blessings during the year ahead.
During the winter months, buses and trains arrive daily, packed with families, couples on dates, old and young alike headed for a day of festivities, food, prayer and shopping at Kiyoshikojin.
After a crowded 15-minute walk from the Kiyoshikojin train station, it's the wafting smells of Japanese street foods that are the first signs that the pilgrimage has begun. Stands with barbecued squid, fried chicken, and the area's famous tako-yaki, or balls of grilled octopus, vie with hawkers of fried noodles, and tai-yaki, or bean-paste filled pancakes shaped like sea bream. Makeshift tables are crowded with revelers.
From there, a paved pathway up to the shrines and temple is lined with shops and makeshift stands selling delicacies ranging from Japanese hot pepper to chopsticks and plastic children's toys, from calendars and pickles to wooden sandals called geta.
"This is the busiest time of the year for us," said Hiroyuki Oura, who sells handmade geta clogs and zori sandals, a traditional type of flip-flop, at his shop along the pathway. He said that in the summer, many French tourists stop by his shop on the way to the temple, and that he had many orders from American customers for larger sized getas.
At the top of the hill, lines are long for the various shrines, where coins are tossed into offering boxes, enormous bells on giant colorful ropes are sounded, and prayers are made.
Near the fire god shrine, the largest there, stands a giant dish of incense. Worshippers fan the scented smoke from it into their faces and hair.
Elsewhere sits a bronze Buddhist statue that visitor after visitor touches for good luck.
The line is likewise long for the god of commerce, while fewer seem to seek out the Kanjin-shi shrine to the god of eyes, in the rear part of the complex, where people suffering from eye troubles are said to have been cured by washing their eyes from a nearby spring.
The Gogyushin-do enshrines the deity of protection of oxen, an important farm animal in ancient times.
At the water god shrine, known as Mizukake Kannon, worshippers splash wooden ladles of fountain water up toward a statue of the deity.
People make one wish to this god, which is believed to make this wish come true.
After the prayers have been made and new charms and wooden shrines purchased, shopping bags tucked away and street food enjoyed, the last of the crowded buses heads out of the parking lot at the base of the hill around sunset each day until early February.
In the many modern homes without a dedicated alcove for a Shinto shrine, the small wooden structures -- about a foot (a third of a meter) tall -- are often carefully placed atop the fridge, alongside candles, incense and sprigs of greenery, where the god of the hearth can help protect the household for another year.
Important ceremonies and enormous cherry trees also attract visitors to the complex during cherry blossom season in the spring, when Buddhist prayer services are held to remember those killed in wars or natural disasters. The shrine and temple complex, with its koi pond, Japanese maples and seasonal festivities, is open to visitors throughout the year.