Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three Seasons in Kyoto, Japan

When to Kyoto's fanes convene
Subjects of every king and queen,
A thousand egos will deflate
And judge their cities second-rate.

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, has so much cultural and architectural depth, it’s almost like a world unto itself. A small city, but packed with temples and shrines, it remains the architectural capital, if not the imperial capital. I visited the city in the spring, autumn and winter, and each season unlocks hidden treasures that are obscured during the rest of the year. There is an anonymous quote that I think suitably describes the city: "He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all." Kyoto is a city of hundreds of temples, some ever packed with tourists, others habitually abandoned, but they all merit a lingering visit and thoughtful consideration.

The first temple I visited in Kyoto was Sanjusangen-do. This sprawling Buddhist building, also known as The Hall of the Lotus King, holds 1,001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with mercy. Photos are not allowed, so I will endeavor to paint a picture in word instead. The building is separated into two parts – a walkway for visitors and several raises tiers on which waits the army of Kannons. Each of the statues stands a bit shorter than a flesh-and-blood person, but the serenity conveyed by their expressions seems almost superhuman. Decked out in gold leaf and graced by a golden halo that wouldn’t look out of place above depiction of a saint in an Orthodox church, the figures look down on visitors through darkened eyes, narrowed to slits as though to suggest their minds are only partially focused on our world. Of their 42 arms (representing 1,000 arms), two palms meet together and another two are cupped with palms upward. The rest, 19 on either side, hold a variety of tools with which to pry away pain from the world and bring joy to the people. On their crowns resides the Buddha on a lotus leaf, also haloed. Slight variances in terms of height and visage betray a mortal touch, but their uniformity in design assures you that these were no average artisans. In front of the crowd of Kannons stand the twenty eight guardian gods, Hindu in origin. Imposing warriors wreathed in flames and trampling upon their enemies, they present a striking contrast to the field of serenity incarnate behind them. Their diversity stands in juxtaposition to the homogenous and emotionless Kannons as well - some are eccentric in their demeanor, others are almost mundane in comparison, some have animal features, others have animals (real or otherwise), some have instruments and one even has three heads. All of these fell and charismatic Hindu deities are given such emotive faces that they seem almost cartoonish, yet never unconvincing or unimposing. In the center of the gathering towers a giant seated Kannon, similar to his smaller cousins in form if not in scale. Behind him is an intricate panel filled with more deities, in front of him bells that look like gothic spider webs in their level of intricacy. He sits unperturbed in a sea of composure. Before leaving I visited the resident calligrapher and got a vermillion stamp and a hand-written entry in my goshuin stamp book, which is like a lucky temple passport just for Japan. The bent old man seemed another statue as he meticulously prepared for the task. He dipped his brush in the ink several times before visually examining it and making sure that it had a sufficient quantity of ink on it. One of the reasons I like goshuin stamp collecting is that you can see the unique style of each of the calligraphers - some of them prefer big fat strokes, others use a daintier hand, some of them rush through it and others like to take their time. The books themselves are considered sacred, and any temple can refuse you a stamp if they feel you’ve abused the spirit of the book in some way, such as by writing or drawing in it.

Another one of my perennial favorites in Kyoto is Kennin-ji Temple, which houses the oldest Zen Buddhist garden complex in Japan. The depictions of ferocious demons that stand guard at the entrance try ever to rankle the tranquility exuded by the central rock garden, but they do so in vain. By far the best sight available here is the imposing dual-dragon mural on the ceiling of a large ancillary building.

When I visited Kyoto again in the autumn, I found Otagu Nanbutsu-ji Temple stashed away in the mountains. Visitors to this hidden gem are greeted by the sight of hundreds of waist-high smiling, frowning, laughing, scowling, sleeping and even boxing Rakan and protective Kannon statues. The archaic atmosphere of the place and the statues, dressed in moss and lichen, that inhabit it, obfuscate the fact that most of the figures were carved in the 80’s for the reconstruction of the temple. At the center of the temple is a building with sacred imagery, but the whole expanse of the grounds seemed to form a primal structure of sorts with rust-colored maple leaves extending into a roof to enclose the sacred space. 

Kyoto has many sites more famous than the aforementioned, but many of them are overrated and overcrowded with tourists. The exception to this rule is Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, dedicated to the god Inari, associated with the growing of rice, and famed for its many red torii gates. What I didn't realize when I first visited was just how many torii gates there were. Thousands of 10-foot-tall torii snake their way up the mountain adjacent to the temple. I walked through countless red arches on my way to the summit and back. The experience is, among all of Kyoto's treasures, the most unique to Japan and the most culturally meaningful, in my opinion. And when you managed to wrest yourself away from the hordes of tourists, the torii-nested forest path offers a refuge from the bustle of modernity. Stationed along the path are several smaller shrines, the largest examples of which boast not just one lone altar, but dozens, often cast about in a strikingly haphazard style. Each altar is guarded by two or more foxes, the protectors of rice, and smaller torii, left behind by worshippers with wishes written upon them, are hung on and around the altars. The sheer number of altars and offerings in these torii graveyards betrays years of pilgrimages. The protocol for visiting a shrine involves first passing through the main torii gate, which marks the barrier of the sacred space. One should bow before passing through the torii, and one should avoid walking directly down the center of the main path, as this is reserved for the gods. Most larger shrines then have an area for ablutions of the hands and mouth using simple wooden or metal ladles. The main altar contains an offertory box, for which 5 yen is the standard donation, and a bell, affixed to which is a long ribbon or braided rope. Pulling the rope and ringing the bell calls the attention of the god of the shrine, and you pray to this god by bowing deeply twice and making a wish. You then finish with two claps and one more deep bow.

Nijo Castle is the one site in the city that I’d expected to disappoint, considering that it’s more of a palace than a real castle. The inside of the massive palace, however, forced me to revise my opinions about the structure. Inside the complex, large ornate halls greet visitors with solemn grandiosity, much as the shogun who once used them greeted his vassals. The walls are decorated with idyllic scenes of trees, cloud-shrouded mountain tops, peacocks and other birds in simple, but powerful, designs. The negative space of the walls is entirely coated in gold leaf. The ornate presentations, which included elaborate wood carvings and even decorated brass plaques to cover the nail heads, never approached gaudiness. Indeed, they fit so well together that you are left without any doubt that you are walking not just through an historical treasure, but an aesthetic masterpiece. To complement the sight, each step on the old scarred floorboards produces the soft and musical song of a nightingale. The original intention was to preclude the possibility of an assassin sneaking up on the shogun, but the more modern effect is a soothing soundtrack to compliment your visit. Combined, all of these features engender a very old and authentic atmosphere that leaves your step dawdling and your eyes unable to peel away from your surroundings. The shogun's bedchambers are of a simpler design sans gold leaf, and this makes them feel less imposing and more peaceful, as is appropriate. The gardens outside the palace are no less impressive, not so much because of what they contained but because of what they don’t contain and the atmosphere they generate.

One of the most memorable experiences I had in Kyoto was on New Year’s Eve at Chion-in, where resides an enormous bronze bell weighing 74 tons. To mark the New Year, the bell is rung 108 times by a team of seventeen monks wielding a huge battering ram in a ceremony called joya no kane. The first 107 strikes are timed just before midnight, and they represent the 107 worldly desires. The final toll of the bell ushers in the New Year and absolves the spectators of last year’s troubles and concerns. I had the opportunity to ring a smaller bell myself at the nearby Choraku-ji Temple, where I waited in line and claimed toll number 103. Another unique New Year’s tradition takes place at Yasaka Shrine, where locals purchase a segment of rope and light the end in a sacred brazier, where thin slats of wood with wishes written upon them are burned. The goal then is to carry the ember home without letting it go out, a feat often achieved by whirling the rope in your hand. If successful, you can use the flame to light the fire for your first meal of the New Year. After midnight, the next most important moment of the New Year is the sunrise, which is traditionally greeted from a mountaintop or beach.

Nearby Kyoto is another old capital, Nara, famous now for the tame deer that wander the temple district. What makes the deer famous is that if you bow to them, they will bow in response. A delight for tourists young and old, the animals are likely viewed as pests by the locals for their being spoiled by hordes of tourists wont to purchase treats to feed to them by hand.

The most impressive landmark in Nara is Todai-ji Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world. The sun hadn't yet emerged from behind the clouds when I arrived, but this temple's most treasured sight is inside, not outside. The 15-meter-tall bronze Buddha just within the entryway is the largest such statue in Japan. I was also lucky enough to see (and hear) a Buddhist morning prayer ceremony at the foot of the Buddha. The same ceremony that can be seen in every Buddhist temple begins with a slow monotonous chant, during which time one monk usually hits together two sticks in order to keep the beat. The chant slowly increases in speed until a loud droning hum fills the chamber. The monks typically face the altar of the temple as intermediaries for the devotees behind them, who, in turn, never join in on the chant, but sit in silence, cradling their prayer beads, as burning incense churns up swimming clouds of smoke that clash with the blackened beams above. Behind the massive Buddha was a hole in wooden column, which is supposed to be the size of one of the Buddha's nostrils. Supposedly you will be granted enlightenment in the next life if you can squeeze through it. I managed to do so, but it was more entertaining to stand around watching other tourists make the attempt, and more often than not need to be dragged bodily from the narrow hollow.

Sichi-Go-San (lit. Seven-Five-Three) is a traditional rite of passage for girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five. Children are dressed in kimonos for the ceremony, and for many it's their first dip into the wealth of rituals and observations that is Japanese culture. I was lucky enough to observe a ceremony at Tamukryama Hachiman-gu Shrine, where children were blessed by the local priest and presented with a long stick candy representing longevity.

May 31, 2015
November 8, 2015
December 31, 2015

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