I wondered if going from Tokyo to Kyoto would be like going from Hanoi to Hoi An: from a working city that pays visitors no special attention to a place, with all the historical trimmings, that exists mainly for tourists. We’ve found that Kyoto has its own mellow, busy vibe, like every day is a Saturday chock-full of activities. Foreigners do stick out more, congregating as we do around a few famous sites; Ben and I keep seeing the same faces – the tall, flushed woman from Nijō Castle posing for a photo in the Arashiyama bamboo grove, the young man in grey tracksuit bottoms we passed filming his climb to the monkey park and then later, lining up for crepes near the Nishiki market. But Kyoto doesn’t have the naff, noxious feeling of tourist traps the world over, from The Rocks in Sydney to Boca in Buenos Aires – of a culture boxed up for the tour buses – because it’s not primarily for foreigners, but for the Japanese themselves. It’s the difference between a story you craft for outsiders and a story you tell yourself. Everywhere you go, there are people – couples, groups of friends, and families – in traditional clothes bought at the department stores or hired for the day. Laughing groups of girls in kimonos and clogs pose for selfies in front of red torii gates; a little boy struggles to sheathe his toy samurai sword while his mother twirls a parasol. The Japanese approach to other cultures – as a series of styles to sample – seems to extend to their own.

This can sometimes feel strange, because most of the attractions here and in nearby Nara are religious sites, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Very few of them have a peaceful or spiritual feeling; instead they’re crowded, riotous places. The Yasaka shrine, a place of worship for the Gion entertainment district, sits at the top of Shijō-dōri, one of its main streets. Its orange gate marks the place where the city’s flat river basin butts up against the encircling mountains. The stairs to the shrine are lined with a gay series of food vendors, serving the visitors in their fancy dress. The barrels of sake, an offering you see at most shrines, here take on an orgiastic appearance, like kegs for an impending party. Likewise, the Tōdai-ji temple in Nara, which houses the famous 16m Buddha, had a busy, festive feeling. At the final step into the temple, when the Buddha looms into view, people’s cameras went up in unison, like an infantry unit given the order to charge. There were groups of Japanese schoolchildren, filling out worksheets; guides with little flags, leading tours in many different languages. There’s a hole in one of the temple pillars, exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostril; people crawled through on their bellies because doing so is supposed to guarantee enlightenment. I bought a fortune from one of the vendors inside the temple doors: she gave me a large box to shake, I drew out a number and she gave me the corresponding piece of paper. (“It is strongly recommended that you take a travel now.”) All this felt, for someone from a Christian background, more like fun than religion, and I wondered how these places fit into locals’ spiritual practice.

A couple of women at the Chion-in temple in Kyoto seemed to feel the same way. They stood before one of the smaller temples, lighting incense, while on the bridge in front of them a French girl struck poses and smiled the condescending smile of someone who sees other cultures as cute set dressing. The women looked at her with anger and impatience. Westerners behave poorly at the religious sites here: smirking while they perform the ceremonial washing outside shrines, leering in with cameras while people try to pray, posing with fingers held up in a V in front of a bodhisattva. (They behave poorly in general, blundering into shops and restaurants without learning to say so much as hello in Japanese.) It would be hard to meditate, or even concentrate, in those crowded spaces.

It can be hard to gauge the context of each place, which to approach as a carnival and which with more reverence. In some ways the rowdiness of the shrines and temples here is a pleasant contrast to the Christian churches at home, those dim, whispery spaces which so often seem built to exclude the daily world. Spirituality appears to be something you can approach in a spirit of fun, like the schoolboys who ran laughing up the shrine steps at Kamakura and then stopped in a line at the altar to clap and pray. The holy deer that have the run of Nara are many things at once: sacred animals associated with the Kasuga-taisha shrine; mascots for the town, their image – rendered doubly cute with round cheeks and hooves waving in greeting – plastered on the buses and for sale in the shops; pets for people to feed and pat and be photographed with; and a small revenge by nature on this urbanised country, an irruption of chaos into the world created by humans. Perhaps, in the same way that both Shinto and Buddhist traditions are honoured here – shrines neighbours to temples – Japanese culture is able to acknowledge multiple truths at the same time. The fact that a religious site has become a sight does not undermine its spiritual significance; it’s another function, another layer of meaning. Japan continues to confound my categories. The happy throng of people in these places imbues them with a welcome breath of life.