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Glimpses of Japan

JAPAN | Monday, 11 November 2019 | Views [86]

Golden Temple, Kinkakuji

Golden Temple, Kinkakuji

Ok. Now I am really confused. Both American and European plugs work, they drive on the British side, the trains go at lightning speed and there is a 16 hour time differential from here to my U.S. family and students. Welcome to cosmopolitan Tokyo, where the entire world seems to be encased in the miles of high rises that jut into the sky. I arrived in Tokyo from LAX in the afternoon and by the time I had checked into the hotel it was dark outside. The November sun disappears early here, but that just means the lights come on and the mega-city stays alive with movement, sights and sounds.  My first venture into the city was to explore the Asakusa Temple complex.  This is one of Japan’s leading Kannon shrines and is in the center of one of the former Geisha districts. The interior of the shrine hall was closed by the time I got there, but the area was teeming with people, souvenir vendors, wishing tablet stalls and fortune-tellers. The five-tiered pagoda was lit up with a subtle yellow hue, providing an interesting contrast to the Tokyo Sky Tower with its blinking ribbon colored neon lights across the river. The main gate is bright red and fairly huge with the four ferocious guardians on all sides separating the mundane commercial world from the sacred, which is also now fairly commercialized. (Although the vendors within the temple area are supposedly helping the faithful fulfill their prayers through the purchase of votive figures, incense, and wishing tablets, i.e. small wooden tablets that one writes one’s wishes on and then hangs on a tree or rack that is set up in front of a shrine for that purpose.)  The garden in the complex is immaculately cared for with Buddha figures lining some of the paths.  There is also a rock garden memorial area for famous poets.  While this site is far from the peace of the Buddha with all the people milling around, it is a haven of green and water in the midst of all the glass and concrete of the surrounding high rises.  The Asakusa section of the city houses not only the temple complex, but a number of streets that are reminiscent of the Tokyo’s pre-Industrial past.  These are now mostly lined with shops on the ground floor with residences above. Many of the shops sell tools for calligraphy and painting and there are more brushes on display than I have ever seen elsewhere. In between the calligraphy shops are the sweets dealers; Matcha is the primary ingredient in the cookies, candies, ice cream, sandwiches etc. for sale. Green food is prominently on display.

 The next morning I made my way over to the National Museum, which is in the middle of a large park. The Museum has a number of different buildings and it takes a good half day to see the entire collection.  The main Japanese section is in a building that has a typical sloped tiled roof, the Asian section is in a rectangular modern looking building and the Special Collection is in a British Christopher Wren imitation. The three radically different architectural styles amazingly seem to complement each other rather than distract the eye.  Photography is luckily allowed and there are some amazing pieces from the Jomon Period, ca. 3,000-2,000 BCE as well as numerous Buddhist sculptures and paintings from much later periods. I especially like the two examples in the photo gallery. Both are from the Jomon Period, the first from 3,000-2,000 BCE & the second from ca. 1,000-400 BCE.  The first reminds me of the creature from the Black Lagoon movie. Clearly the Japanese talent for design started early on in their history.

 The next day I took a day trip to Mt. Fuji with Sunrise Tours, & I cannot recommend them. Please do not take one of their day trips from Tokyo.  We spent probably 9 hours on the bus for perhaps one and a half hours out of it & half that time was spent in the restaurant for lunch. The bus driver and guide decided on their own to stop at various souvenir shops on the way which, given the holiday traffic, messed up the entire schedule. On the way the guide did point out the new tracks and tunnels the government is building for a 600km super super fast train that is supposed to link Osaka and Tokyo in an hour as of 2025.  It is supposed to sort of float on top of the tracks rather than actually touching them. I didn’t quite understand the technological explanation, but I did hear what she said about the potential speed, which seems as fantastic as Elon Musk’s LA tunnel initiative. Back to reality on the slow bus tour, we did manage to get on a very short 15 minute boat ride on Lake Motosu from where we could sort of see the sacred peak that wanted to hide in the clouds. We then drove up to the fifth station, the last one can go to in the bus/car and the last one can get to at all as of Nov. 1st. Hiking to the summit is only permitted for a couple of months in the summer and above the paved road all the paths are closed as of the first of November due to potential avalanche or rock slide danger. Even as early as the 3rd, the mountain was sugar-coated from recent snowfall.  As the bus climbed it took us in and out of the clouds until we arrived at the last stop, which was totally socked in. Just as we were supposed to get back on the bus to return to Tokyo the cloud luckily moved and the mountain in all her glory came into view. It was a spectacular sight. Mt. Fuji is definitely worth visiting – just not with Sunrise Tours!

 My brief time in Tokyo came to an end and it was on to Kyoto the next day.  The Japan Rail Pass, that one purchases online before entering the country, was worth the money. Once the purchase is made and the voucher is printed, the voucher is then brought to the JR exchange office at the Railway Station for the actual pass.  This enables the holder to get on any JR train for the period of time one has paid for. I had a seven day pass that let me go to Kyoto, Nara, Inari, and Osaka.  I could have gone with it to Ise as well, but that would have entailed going half way back to Tokyo, changing trains and then heading south, which would have taken at least twice as long as the Kintetsu direct train from Kyoto took. There are a few private trains that do not belong on the JR line ticket and it’s best to check out who goes where before assuming that the Japan Rail Pass will work. Nonetheless, I found that the JR Pass was worth it. I was also amused with the musical selections they had to announce the next stop, everything from ‘I Came from Alabama’ to ‘A Little Night Music.’

 Soon after arriving in Kyoto, the city of a thousand temples, (well, probably not that many) I headed to the famous Buddhist Sanjusandgendo Temple, which does house 1001 wood-carved Kannon (Avolokiteshavara) statues. The building was first built in 1164, but burnt down in the mid 13th century and was reconstructed in the same manner as the previous one in 1266.  The central seated Kannon figure has “11 small faces on his head and 20 pairs of arms.  This symbolizes 1,000 arms because each saves 25 worlds.” (Temple Brochure) The statue is just shy of 11ft tall. There are 500 standing Kannon sculptures on either side of the central image, 100 each in five tiered rows. As they were made by different artists at different times, they are not identical, which makes for a more vibrant environment than if they were all from the same mold. In addition to the Kannon statues there are 23 guardian deities.  What was surprising about some of these is that Indra, Garunda and Saraswati were included.  The Indian influence, including that from Hinduism, was apparently still strong in medieval Japanese Buddhism. The other aspect that struck me like a hammer over my head was that all of the Japanese Kannon figures were masculine, even those I later saw in other temples that held the Kuan Yin vase. The Chinese switch from masculine to feminine for the Bodhisattva of Compassion apparently didn’t happen in Japan. As in other Pure Land Buddhist temples, though, the Four Heavenly Kings were present in the corners, as well as the Thunder and Wind gods from Japanese mythology. The interior of the building is dark and the figures are worn, but there is a power to the setting. The compassion that Kannon embodies multiplied a thousand and one times continues to offer hope for the present and future.

 From the leading Buddhist site in Kyoto, the next day I headed to Ise in the south to the main Amaretasu pilgrimage site. Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun and the heavens; she is also the ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family and the main Shinto goddess. Ise Jingu has two major shrine areas, Geku, which is near the Kintetsu Rail Station and Naiku in addition to 123 minor shrines in the area. Geku is said to be the home of Toyouke Omikami and Tsuchi no Miya whereas Naiku is said to be the home of Aramatsuri-no-Miya, the fierce spirit of Amaterasu, and Kazahi-no-mi-no-Miya, who is said to have saved Japan from the Mongol invaders by blowing  ‘kamikaze’/divine wind so that the invaders couldn’t land.  Shinto shrines do not have images as the spirit of the deity/kami does not have form. The shrines are home to the kami, but people do not see them.  They may see a mirror, sword or jewel which are also part of the imperial regalia as they were given to the first emperor by Amaterasu, who is everywhere in Ise. Shinto sites have Torii, mostly wooden entrance gates that are much simpler than the heavier more colorful Buddhist entrance ways. The idea behind both is to remind the visitor that one is leaving the mundane world and entering sacred space. Both also show a respect for the natural world and try to construct spaces that harmonize with the greater environment. The two main Ise shrine complexes are in wooded areas with streams flowing through them. They are havens for wildlife. In contrast to Buddhist sites, the shrines themselves are not open, as there is basically nothing to see. One is to feel the kami’s presence, not see them. Photography of even the exterior of the main shrines was not permitted, only that of the minor structures. There is a particular protocol for showing reverence and respect to the kami, which is both similar in format and different in procedure from other religions I have encountered. According to Sokyo Ono in Shinto: The Kami Way there are four elements to worship rites: Purification, Offering, Prayers and Sacred Feasts. I witnessed the first three. Purification happens at designated water wells near the entrance to the shrines. There is a special cup that is used to get water from the spout to wash hands and rinse ones mouth by drinking a mouthful of the water, being careful not to actually touch the cup/ladle with one’s lips. The second and third steps are at the actual shrine and entail first bowing twice, then clapping with fully outstretched arms twice, giving an offering (mostly coins into the offering box in front of the closed door to the shrine), praying, and bowing again.  There is also often a bell in front of the shrine that one rings to alert the kami of the person’s presence. This last is similar to many Buddhist and Hindu rituals. According to Kato Kenji in his Shinto Shrines guidebook, there are many kinds of kami, some are almost human-like and ancestors become can become kami, ancestor worship is part of the Shinto tradition, while others inhabit rivers, mountains, plants and animals. Mt. Fuji is home to its own kami.  

Amaterasu left her home and retreated into a cave when she was upset with her brother who was causing all kinds of havoc. While she was hiding, there was no sun and the world was suffering. She was finally enticed out by the use of a mirror and dancing, both of which are sacred to her. The cave she hid in is not far from Ise Jingu, on the coast of Futami near Meotoiwa, the Wedded Rocks.  These are two rocks that jut out not far from the coast that are laced together with a thick rope. The Futami Okitama Shrine is nearby. A couple of the rocks next to the Wedded Rocks look like frogs or toads and images of the amphibians line the coastline boardwalk. The Sun Goddess’s sister is the Goddess of the Waters.

 The next day in Kyoto was spent visiting a few of the most famous temples and shrines. The first was Kiyomizu Dera Temple, which was founded around 778 CE. Legend has it that a priest, Enchin, had a vision in which Kannon told him to

"look for a crystal clear source of water in the Higashiyama Mountains. After a long search, he came to a waterfall in the deep and misty forest of Mt. Otowa.  There suddenly appeared a Buddhist ascetic called Gyoei who was living in the mountains as an incarnation of Kannon Bodhisaattva.  Following the ascetic’s instructions, Enchin cared a statue of Kannon out of a log and enshrined it in a small thatched hut. This was the beginning of Kiyomizudera.

At the same time, the warrior Tamuramaro Sakanoue was hunting in the mountains, for his wife was pregnant and deer blood was considered to ease the delivery.  Reaching the waterfall, he met Enchin.  Tamuramaro listened to the preiest’s teachings and eventually became aware of his own cruelty that made him kill living creatures.  Shaken by the power of Enchin’s words about the Bodhisattva’s mercy, Tamuramaro left the moutais. He and his wife ecame devout worshippers of Kannong and established an admirable Buddhist sanctuary by the waterfall. Returning fro a military campaign that had been successful due to the support of Kannon Bodhisattva, Tamuramaro together with Enchin carved two ore statues, Jizo Bodhisattva dn Bishamonten, and enshrined the on opposite sides of Kannon." (Kiyomizudera Temple Guide 1)

The site was teeming with people, including many in traditional Japanese dress.  Kimonos were for rent outside the shrine as well as in the local department stores. It seems that people, especially young couples, dress up in kimonos to visit sacred sites.  One of the unique sacred sites in the Kiyomizudera complex is the Zuigu Hall. The basement of this building is supposed to be the womb of Zuigu-Bosatsu (Zuigu Bodhisattva). In order to have one’s pure wishes granted, one climbs down the pitch dark steps following a line of metal beads on the left hand wall until one comes to a large circular stone.  Hands are placed on the stone while one asks for sincere wishes to be granted, once the stone moves (which is a pretty amazing feeling in the dark!), then the wishes have been received by Zuigu-Bosatsu. On exiting one purifies oneself so that one is quasi reborn from the womb of the motherly Bodhisattva; a donation of a Y 100 is also requested (about 1 US$).

From Kiyomizudera it doesn’t take long to walk to Kodai-ji Temple and Museum which includes a memorial shrine to the founders complete with wooden statues of them. The building that houses the memorial has a shrine with a special lacquer technique that uses gold designs.  This is said to represent the best of the Momoyama Period lacquer art, and this period was renowned for its lacquer work.  Next to the Kodai-Ji Temple and gardens is a modern building with an enormous 80ft. stone/concrete statue of a seated Kannon. The Ryozen-kannon was  constructed in commemoration of the Japanese who lost their lives in WWII “for the establishment of a peaceful Japan.” (Ryozen-kannon pamphlet)

After the temple visits I wanted to see the Imperial Palace, but it was closed, so I contented myself with walking through the very large garden in the center of the city.  On the way back to the subway I stumbled on the Go’o Shrine, which:

"enshrines Lord Wake no Kiyomaro, known as a heroic figure who, under the divine command of the Deity of Usa Hachiman Shrine, blocked the scheme of Yuge no Dokyo, an uncanny Buddhist priest, to usurp the imperial throne in 769 (the third year of Jingo Keiun era).  But Kiyomaro’s act incurred the evil Dokyo’s displeasure and he was exiled to Osumi no Kuni (the present Kagoshima Prefecture).  On his way to exile, he was ambushed by Dokyo’s men and wounded in the leg, but when he reached Buzen no Kuni (the present Oita Prefecture), there appeared almost 300 wild boars out of nowhere and escorted him as far as some 40 kilometers up to Usa Hachiman Shrine, where his wounded leg is said to have healed by a miracle. The stone figures of male and female boars in front of the main building of the shrine celebrate the boars that saved the Lord as divine guardians for him. They are deeply venerated as object of worship for fast recovery from illness and injuries related to legs, for safe journeys, and for life free of accidents and mishaps." (Plaque at site)

Clearly the Shintos and Buddhists didn’t always get along. The Shinto preference for animal figures in their shrines was also apparent; while this one had boars, others had frogs/toads, deer, dogs, lions, dragons and foxes as the leading guardian figures.

 The following day I took the JR train to Nara, which was my favorite of the Japanese cities I visited, probably because it is so much smaller and compact than the others and has numerous parks in the city and on the surrounding hillsides.  Nara, the first capital of unified Japan, is jam packed with Shinto and Buddhist shrines. There was no way to see all of the major ones in one day, so I just chose a couple and the National Museum. From the train station the bus goes near the entrance to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine in the famous Deer Park, where deer are all over the place begging for the deer wafers that numerous vendors throughout the area sell. Kasuga Tiasha was first started in the 8th century:

"when Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, powerful deity, was invited to the sacred Mt. Mikasa behind Kasugataisha after the establishment of nation’s first capital in Nara.  Then the shrine grounds were completed in 768 with the four halls for Tkemikazuchi-no-mikoto, powerful deity of warriors, Futsunushi-no-mikoto, who worked for nation-building; Amenokoyane-no-mikoto, deity of wisdom and ritual; and his wife Himegami, who was revered as the Sun Goddess." (site pamphlet)

The buildings are painted bright red and include a shrine dedicated to the god and goddess of commerce and happy marriage, which is an interesting coupling.

A walk through the woods, again with more deer, and then into town leads to the Todaiji Temple Complex. This rather large area has an excellent small museum with some beautiful Kannon and frightening guardian statues as well as the Hokke-do Temple, the oldest in Todaiji, dedicated to the Lotus Sutra and filled with impressive statues of Kannon, the Four Heavenly Kings and five fierce protective figures. All the wooden images are painted, although, the paint is somewhat worn. They are all powerful images of faith and it is amazing that they have held up as well as they have for almost 1300 years. One of the most impressive buildings is the central Buddha Hall where a huge statue of Vairocana is housed along with his companions Kokuuzo-bosatsu and Nyoirin-kannon. (fyi, bosatsu is another term for bodhisattva) They are guarded by Komokuten and Tamonten for the West representing wisdom and North representing fortune respectively. There is also a large pillar with a relatively small hole at the bottom. Legend has it that if one can make it through the hole then their sins are forgiven. My father tried to do this over 50 years ago and had to be push-pulled by his Japanese colleagues to get him to the other side.  Amazingly they managed, but I wasn’t about to try & the line was way too long with a couple of bus loads of school children waiting for their turn to purify themselves. Throughout the temple complexes in Nara and in Kyoto, I saw lots of children including little ones dressed in traditional kimonos being ushered into private rooms with their families.  I am assuming this was for the Shichi-Go-San Ceremony that blesses them for a long and prosperous life.

 Photography was naturally not allowed in the temples and shrines, nor was it in the Nara National Museum, which I found quite unfortunate as the Buddhist Sculpture Hall had a number of very interesting pieces, including a couple of Vairocana meditating with the wisdom mudra sculptures.  There was also a special collector’s exhibit with Buddhist ritual bronzes from China and the 71st annual Shoso-In Treasure Exhibit that showcases articles for early emperors’ treasuries. These were often decorative household products and there were so many people rows deep trying to see the artifacts that I wasn’t able to appropriately view them. (It was like the Louvre on a Saturday in the Mona Lisa room.) One thing I noticed about the crowds here, though, is that they are always polite.  At the bus stop everyone lines up in a cue and there is no cutting in. It is first come first serve without exception and everyone understands that this system is for the greater good.

 The last full day in Kyoto I spent on opposite ends of town. First I went to the Kinkaku-ji Temple, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion. This is a stunning building and garden site in the northern part of the city.  The temple was first constructed in the latter part of the 14th C; it burned down in 1950, but was rebuilt in the same manner in 1955. The gold plate of the upper two stories glistens in the sun and reflects in the waters of the neighboring pond. The building showcases three differing architectural styles: the lower floor is in the palace style, the second, that of the samurai and the third top floor follows a Zen design including the roof with shingles. The Pavilion with its Buddhist statues was not open so I headed down to the southern part of town to Fushimi Inari with its shrine and pilgrimage route. This site is famous for its 1,000 bright red torii. Whether or not there are a thousand, there are clearly a lot of them lining a winding path up to Mt. Inari with the Inner Sanctuary at the top.  The buildings with their closed doors to not disturb the resident kami were freshly painted red, but not nearly as colorful as the Buddhist temples.  On the other hand, the pilgrimage route through the tori is impressive and rather short. Throughout the site are rock shrines with inscriptions, much like mani stones in the Himalayas. These are sometimes placed on chairs as if they were the kami themselves in a council room. As with almost all Asian pilgrimages, there are food and souvenir stalls at the beginning of the walk as well as strategically placed throughout the journey up the mountain. Another aspect that I noticed is that even though there are relatively few trash cans, nobody throws anything on the ground. Throughout my, granted brief, trip to Japan I found everywhere was clean – or at least not littered. Another surprise was the easy familiarity between Shinto and Buddhist shrines. At Inari, clearly a major Shinto site, there are Buddha statues in the midst of the Shinto inscriptions, and there is a Taoist shrine with three teachers, next to both Shinto and Buddhist shrines.  Inari is a good site to visit.

 My trip to Japan came to an end; it was now on for a day in Seoul.



Tags: city visit, museums, sacred sites


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