Thoughts

among shrines and temples

I’ve uploaded the best pictures from my trip to Japan to Flickr. I don’t have many photos from my time in Yokohama, but there are loads from our trip to the outstanding Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. It’s the oldest Shinto shrine in Kyoto, and Martin and I didn’t know what we were getting into when we followed the rows of torii up the wooded mountain. It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and for once the humidity was bearable.

The long winding ascent up crooked steps brought us to plateaus of shrines, vending machines, and shops that lulled us into the belief that we’d reached the top – until a new set of torii beckoned us upwards again. The views over Kyoto were stunning, especially if you arrived, as we did, in time to watch the sun sink behind the surrounding mountains until the lights of the city brimmed the valley.

Inari‘s messengers are the Kitsune (foxes), and the stone statues appear in pairs beside most of the shrines. I could just have taken photographs of them because there was such a variety in expression and features. Two feral cats greeted us amid a cluster of shrines near the top, and one was a little braver than the other so I snapped photos of it seated on sun-warmed stone. The massive trees and bamboos swayed and whispered to us. I love how Shinto shrines incorporate nature.

We descended in twilight to the main temples, where the soft light of the lanterns illuminated the devotees who stopped by after work to drop in their coins, clang the bell, clap, and pray. Then it was back to the train station and we were submerged in the urban environment again. Teenaged boy and girls in school uniforms thronged the station, laughing, texting. I watched the mosquitoes investigate the station lights, glad they were distracted from me.

After Kyoto we travelled to Koyasan, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which deserves its spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We rode several trains and a cable car up into the cool forested mountains. The views and countryside were incredible. Koyasan is a village riddled with temples, shrines, torii, and pagodas. Well-tended statues wearing hats and bright clothing pepper the streets. Monks in black, blue, or saffron robes clatter down the streets on their wooden geta. Tourists browse through the souvenir shops. It is a town devoted to religion, and yet there is nothing oppressive about Koyasan. It is calm and sedate. Visitors stay in Buddhist monasteries, as we did.

We got up for 6am service, and inhaled incense as we listened to the guttural chanting of the monks, punctuated by the clash of cymbals, and the sonorous tone of the huge singing bowl. By 6.45am we were drinking miso soup, tucking into fried tofu, and eating sticky rice blessed by the monks. We returned every day at 5.30pm for the best meals of our vacation: the shojin-ryori vegetarian dishes – made without meat, fish, onion or garlic, and yet incredibly diverse, filling, and delicious. Three trays were set before us, and each contained individual delicacies in china dishes and lacquered bowls, some with covers so you lifted each one in anticipation of something marvellous. They smelled divine. Every one displayed care and attention to beauty. A tiny curling leaf decorated a cube of tofu. A sweet sticky soya sauce paste glistened over a section of eggplant, steamed so it dissolved on the tongue. A large red lacquer bowl contained rice for both of us. Each of us had a pot of steaming green tea. On our last night we ordered flasks of sake, hotto, and poured tiny cups for each other as we saluted the fine meal.

Each night I sat on a rickety wooden stool and showered, Japanese-style, in the steamy women’s bathroom, before I sank into the huge cedar bath full with water so hot I emerged red-faced afterwards.

Afterwards, Martin and I sat on cushions opposite each other before the low table in our room, and he prepared more green tea as I lounged in my cotton yukata and listened to the cicadas and frogs chirp and croak in the garden below our window. Koyasan is a town that runs on a monk’s schedule, so there’s not much to do after 8pm. We watched Japanese game shows and dramas on our tiny television and invented our own dialogue for the participants. The 6am start ensures you sag towards sleep early.

During the day we explored the town. There are a number of places to visit, which is why it’s advisable to spend at least two days in the village. The massive Daimon gate, which marks the beginning of Koyasan contains the huge guardians, Fūjin God of Wind and Raijin, God of Thunder. Both were elder Shinto Gods until Buddhism came to Japan, and now they are part of Buddha’s army. They appear fierce and threatening; important traits in protectors. It was a wise move to co-opt their talents.

A little hiking trail, marked by aged torii tempted us up a while until we obtained staggering views of the surrounding mountains. The temperamental weather and oppressive humidity kept us from going too far.

The Reihoken Museum contains treasures from the monasteries and temples, so you must take off your shoes before you enter the exhibition rooms – slippers are provided for everyone. Photos are prohibited. Inside are statues, elaborate scrolls, sacred texts, and paintings – we saw a series that demonstrated an afterlife for sinners that rivalled Hieronymus Bosch for their nasty inventiveness.

I was particularly struck by the poses of the statues – they are always captured as if in motion: sleeves flare, skirts billow, hands are upraised, and the faces are full of expression (except the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which are wise and beatific). I suspect this is the origin of the dramatic stances and crazy hair of manga and anime characters.

A superb statue of Jinja-daishō, the wild protector of the faithful, captivated me. A scarf rippled around him like a nimbus. His hair streaked back in fiery rows, and his mouth gapped open in an awful grimace that was part-smile, part-leer, and showed off a spectacular range of teeth. A row of skulls lined his naked upper chest, a Buddha face emerged from his stomach, and elephant heads morphed from his knees. Snakes circled his forearms. You do not cross Jinja-daishō. I bought a bookmark with his image from the gift shop. He is propped upright on my filing cabinet, and scares off bad thoughts.

Konpon Daitō is a huge gaudy orange pagoda in the Garan district, and once again you must remove your footwear to enter. This is why it’s important to don good socks while out and about in Japan – leave your ratty frayed pairs for at home where no one can see them.

Konpon Daitō is the sacred centre of Shingon Buddhism in Koyasan, and the large golden statues and painted pillars inspire an atmosphere of reverence and quiet. People visited and slipped along the floor in their socks, whispering thoughtfully about the occupants. Monks visited to pay their respects. We emerged to put on our shoes, and stopped by a small lake (or huge pond) that had a small island in the middle. Of course it contained a shrine guarded by enormous trees. We accessed it by an arching red bridge. The waters underneath teemed with fish. At the sound of our feet on the planks the fish pushed their faces up to the surface and gulped at us. Martin dropped crumbs and the water churned as they thrashed about looking for scraps. The story goes that a female water dragon lived here, but was friendly to the monks who came to Koyasan. The echoes of older religion resound in newer forms.

Sometimes rain forced us ba

ck to the monastery. We sat in our room, the sliding windows open but the screen protecting us from the insects, and listened to the harmonious patter of drops on the pond below our window.

On a hot bright morning we decided to visit Okunoin, even though conventional wisdom suggested an evening visit. As we entered a phalanx of Buddhist monks – yellow-robed novices ushered along by their saffron-robed superiors – clattered past us for their daily observances up by the temple complex. A long paved path through a necropolis led us to the temples and mausoleums. Yes, a necropolis, in the fullest meaning of the word. This is a cemetery on a scale I’ve never witnessed before. It sprawled out around us, on different levels, shadowed by gigantic cedar trees. Statues, graves houses, and tomb markers elbowed each other for space. Stone lanterns abounded. A thick lush moss carpeted the older graves. The air buzzed with mosquitoes so we were Buddhist and stuck to the middle way along the path where they were less active. This is why an evening visit to Okunoin is problematic. It’s not the ghosts or the unsettled spirits that should worry you, but the clouds of blood-hungry insects. I would have taken more photographs of the cemetery but each time I stopped I became an easier target. Luckily my tactics kept me from becoming brunch.

Up in Okunoin stood a row of mizukake jizo guardian bronze statues, and in front of each of them a trough of water. People started at one point and splashed each of the statues in turn. As we crossed the bridge of the Tama River I noticed rows of wooden markers in the water. Then it was the impressive Hall of Lanterns. Inside hundreds of oil lanterns hung from the ceiling and in stacked rows like books in bookshelves. Each glow represented a departed person. A couple of these lanterns are said to have been continually lit for over 900 years. People milled about, monks chanted services in their special area, and behind the Hall people lit incense and candles at shrines.

We walked back through the sun-splashed graves and the mantras hummed in my mind.

There were other places yet to visit, such as the Tokugawa family tombs, which were beautifully designed and decorated, but inaccessible. Kongobuji Temple was a delight. Not because of its famous decorated sliding doors, although many of them were striking, but for its outstanding Banryutei rock garden, the largest in Japan. I fell in love with the ancient, veined rocks, standing among the white sand–imported from Kyoto–and raked into rows and circles. It’s meant to depict a pair of dragons surfaced from the clouds, poised to protect the temple. I could have stood there for hours and watched the rock shadows glide over the sand as the dragons huffed and snoozed.

Visitors to Koyasan should check out the International Caf? in the town, where the owners sell a delicious vegetarian lunch, and tasty cakes, along with great coffee. Martin enjoyed his dish so much that he inveigled the recipe from the chef. Best of all they both speak English, as well as some French, Italian and German. You can also buy pottery there crafted by local artisans.

It was with regret that I left Koyasan. After a week in Japan’s cities it was a pleasant change to spend time in its fantastic countryside, and to experience a little of the history and tradition of the country. I would go back there in a heartbeat. If you need to be endlessly occupied then it is not the place to go. But if you are comfortable with peace and silence, and need time to think, write, or create it is the perfect place to stay.

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