Saturday, July 1, 2017

Temples + Shrines

Halfway up Mount Fuji in Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture there lives a demon, or tengu. He is infrequently seen but is often depicted either as a monstrous bird or a long-nosed, red-faced goblin. His exact purpose is unknown (over time, the meaning of the tengu has shifted from harbingers of war to protective but still dangerous spirits) but most today view him as a protector of the many climbers who ascend to Mount Fuji's summit each year.

Your best chance of spotting this helpful goblin is where he lives, at the Komitake Shrine at Mount Fuji's Fifth Station on the north side of that mighty old volcano. Mount Fuji is divided into ten stations, from the first at the base of the mountain to the tenth at the very top. The four fifth stations (generally speaking one at each of the cardinal directions) are generally used as departure points for climbers when the trails are open in the summer months. It would therefore make sense that a demon to protect climbers would live at the starting point of the ascent, right?

As best I can tell, nobody much lives at the fifth stations other than the tengu. The Yamanashi Fifth Station on the north face is a collection of parking lots, horse stables, souvenir shops, food stalls and vending machines and the staff required to maintain this sort of infrastructure can't be more than 10 or 20 folks. Yet there's a Shinto shrine there, a timber framed building with a pitched roof and golden decorations on the ends of the timber beams used to frame it. I guess it's there for the residents and vendors and tourists and would-be Edmund Hillarys to visit. Welcome to Japan.

While I am no mountain climber (at least not this year), one thing I had to do on my first trip in Japan was set foot on Mount Fuji. And the fifth station on the north side, which is open year round provided the roads are passable, seemed like as good a place as any to satisfy that urge. And sure enough, I found myself at the Komitake Shrine while there, not looking for a demon necessarily, but making sure I understood my luck for this trip by buying a fortune (I got a lucky one) and picking up a Japanese zodiac-themed lucky charm for my less fortunate traveling companion. 

Gilded phoenix decorations on the doors of Hanazono Shrine in Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood.
The Komitake Shrine was the first of 12 or 13 or so Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples that we visited in our week and a half in Japan. If that seems like a lot, it is. And it isn't. So much of the understanding of that country's history and peoples are tied up in religion, or more accurately spirituality. It seems almost impossible to me to visit Japan without spending time at the many many temples and shrines that exist seemingly everywhere.

When I use terms like "everywhere" and "many many" I really mean it. It seems impossible to walk very far in Japan without bumping into a temple or a shrine. Consider this: there are approximately 200 churches in Paris, a city of 2.2 million people; Kyoto has 1/3 fewer residents than Paris but by estimates I have read has about 1,400 more temples and shrines than Paris has churches. It seemed to me that there were a lot of churches when I visited Paris last year; trust me when I say Japan has a ton of temples and shrines.

We knew this before we left for our vacation about a month and a half ago and we deliberately tried to self-limit the amount of time we were going to spend checking out religious sites. After all, we wanted a well-rounded introduction to Japan. Our initial thoughts were centered on sumo, Hiroshima, food, maybe some video games and something to do with the history of the samurai. Visits to temples and shrines would fill in the gaps. If you had told me before I left we'd end up at 12 or 13 of these things, I might have said it was too much. It turned out to be just about right for 10 full days.

Kohfukuji Temple in Nara. The 50 meter high pagoda is Japan's second tallest.
Perhaps a stop for a little history and perspective is in order. First a little bit about the difference between a temple and a shrine. There are two predominant religions in Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism is the historically indigenous religion of Japan, having origins it is believed to about three centuries before the start of our Common Era (or BCE, if you prefer) but whose written history dates to about the 700s. Shintoism is centered around the worship of a number of different deities, or kami, representing specific aspects of life. Shinto houses of worship are referred to as shrines.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 600s and quickly became the adopted religion of the court. It originated somewhere between the fourth and sixth centuries BCE in what is now India based on the teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The religion is founded on a concept of a cycle of rebirth where the goal is to achieve enlightenment. Depending on the type of Buddhism being practiced, you are either seeking to achieve a state of Nirvana to break the cycle of rebirth or to become a Buddha and remain in the cycle to help others. Buddhist houses of worship are referred to as temples.

I am quite confident I've glossed over the subtleties and complications of both religions in the prior two paragraphs. I apologize for any unintended offense given.

Looking back down the hill through the vermillion torii at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
One of our strategies for making sure we spent an appropriate amount of time (read: not too much) at temples and shrines was to focus our visits to these sites on the ancient Japanese capitals of Nara and Heian-kyo (which today is Kyoto). We were so bought into this strategy that we intended to deliberately exclude all temples and shrines in Tokyo from our must-see list. That almost worked.

Traditionally, the capital of Japan was based in the home of the emperor. That meant the location shifted around a lot. In 710, the capital was moved to Nara and was stabilized there for a while, and by that I mean just 84 years. When that happened, a number of older temples and shrines actually moved their buildings to Nara to be closer to the court and new temples and shrines were constructed at the direction of the emperor. Nara to this day has a bunch of temples, including what are known as the Seven Great Temples of Nara (we visited three).

Once the capital shifted to present-day Kyoto, new temples and shrines sprang up around that city. Kyoto managed to  maintain its capital of the country status a bit longer than Nara, about 990 years longer to be precise or until 1868. The 794 relocation of the capital didn't diminish Nara's importance as a spiritual center, but Kyoto grew to match Nara's stature. Given the history of this over 1,000 year span that the capital was in Nara and Kyoto, we figured these two cities were the place to concentrate on temples and shrines.

Keizu-no-Reikado Hall near the top of Mount Misen, Miyajima.
Now, we are not the only people who visit these sites. And I'm not just talking about other tourists wandering the land in search of these things. We found plenty of native Japanese walking alongside us in Kyoto and Nara and everywhere else we went. Indeed there are Buddhist pilgrimages which link together certain temples in a sequence. The Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage is a journey to 33 temples in the Kansai region of Japan; the 33 all depict an image of the goddess of mercy, Kannon. We stopped at two of these 33 in the Daigoji Temple in Kyoto and the Kofuhkoji Temple in Nara.

If 33 temples isn't enough for you, try the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a route on the island of the same name to 88 (!!!) temples associated with the monk Kukai. This pilgrimage was traditionally made on foot and is approximately 750 miles in length. If you are really motivated, you might be able to make it to all 88 in a month. Most people take two.

Some pilgrims on the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage record their visits in a prayer book. At each stop the staff at the temples mark each pilgrim's book with a red ink stamp and write in traditional calligraphy the name of the temple and the specific date of the image. We found these marks, called goshuin, to be offered at all the temples in addition to the Shinto shrines we visited. So in addition to the fortune and the lucky charm I picked up at Komitake, I also picked up a book (called a goshuin-cho) to start making my own pilgrim's record as I went.

These books fold out accordion style so you can see all the goshuin at one time. I filled 12 of my 22 empty pages on one side of the book which because it was purchased on Mount Fuji, is wrapped in an embroidered cover with Fujisan on one side and the tengu we didn't find at the Komitake Shrine on the other. Other temples and shrines we visited had similar site specific goshuin-cho which I think is pretty cool. It shows where you started your pilgrimage, especially since I am sure like most people, ours was totally haphazard and random.

Komitake Shrine, Mount Fuji. The starting point of our own unique pilgrimage around Japan.
My goshuin-cho showing goshuin from two sites plus the cover with the tengu from Komitake Shrine.
By American standards, all the temples and shrines we visited were old. It is difficult sometimes in a country where the 1600s passes for old to comprehend what old really means. Most of the temples and shrines we visited were founded between the sixth and ninth centuries with just one established as late as the 17th century. Most of these places have been witness to a little to a whole lot of history.

Each temple or shrine has a theme or a story to tell. Nara's Kasuga Shrine is about lanterns. And I mean a lot of lanterns. They are hanging from just about everywhere you can hang a lantern from. These things must look spectacular lit up at festival time. Visit the nearby Todaiji Temple and you find the world's largest bronze Buddha. It's enclosed within an enormous wooden structure that (just like many of these places) has burned down several times over the centuries they have existed. The Buddha kept sitting in the same spot; every time the structure burned down, they just built a new one to enclose the statue. 

Go see the giant buddha and the Kasuga Shrine in Nara. Make sure you don't miss the pitch black mirrored room filled seemingly with a million lit lanterns at Kasuga; it's pretty impressive.

Of all the temples or shrines we visited over a week and a half, I think the most spectacular was Kinkakuji in Kyoto, or what is sometimes referred to as the Golden Pavilion, which is shown in the top photograph of this post. Kinkakuji was built as a retirement home for the Shogun (or military dictator) Ashikaga Yoshimitisu, who transferred it to the Buddhist community via his will upon his death in 1408. The inside and outside of the building at the top two levels are coated with gold leaf and the whole structure is topped with a golden phoenix, just like the shogun left it. Although as you might have guessed from my remarks about Todaiji Temple, this place too has burned down a number of times, most recently in 1950 when it was set alight by one of the monks on purpose.

It seems about impossible not to take a gorgeous picture of the Golden Pavilion, which is impressive considering there will be tourists and adherents everywhere when you get there. But the Pavilion is off limits to visitors and is sited across a lake, which keeps people from being in front of the building when you fight your way to the front of the crowd to snap your souvenir pics as I did. It's quite a sight and definitely worth the train and bus ride out there.

The garden at Gangoji Temple in Nara.
If Kinkakuji took our breath away, a close second for most impressive was Miyajima's Itsukushima Shrine, home of the famous floating torii, or shrine gate, which is featured in most glamor shots advertising Japan as a tourist destination. My own picture of that iconic shot is at the bottom of this post.

Itsukushima, which is actually the name of the island commonly known as Miyajima, is either spectacularly located or can be a bit of a disappointment, depending upon when you visit. It is constructed at the back end of a beach that also holds the floating torii. Only the floating torii is only "floating" when the tide is in. Otherwise, it's just standing on the sand. Indeed, when the tide is truly all the way in, both the torii and the shrine itself are surrounded by the sea. Visit it then, please. Most hotels on the island will have schedules showing the tides for just that purpose. The picture I took of the floating torii was taken at 11:49 a.m. High tide was 2 minutes later. Hey, what can I say...I couldn't wait.

It is very likely that both Kinkakuji and Itsukushima will be packed full of tourists and gawkers unless you arrive really early, as will most of these places, in fact. But if you want to find something a little more serene, I'd suggest heading over to Kyoto's Daigoji Temple, which we found refreshingly unoccupied when we visited in the middle of the afternoon one day.

Daigoji is located towards the east end of Kyoto's Tozai subway line, a stop which seems to serve few people looking to sightsee in the city. Take a 30 minute or so walk to the east and you'll find Daigoji, which is a complex of buildings highlighted by spectacularly picturesque and peaceful gardens and five story pagoda built in the year 951, making it both Kyoto's oldest wooden structure and considering the fate of most wooden temples and shrines we visited, nothing short of a miraculous survivor. This was truly one of the most peaceful and contemplative sites we visited and most of it had to do with the general lack of other people there. It's a hike there and back, but there's a great convenience store with a couple of beer vending machines and some outside benches to sip one or two cold ones. Just don't sit in the great dane's spot. She gets confused when you do.

Nine of Kasuga Shrine's hundreds and hundreds of lanterns. Nara.
We made out pretty well by adding Kasuga and Itsukushima Shrines and Todaiji and Daigoji Temples to our list but the most rewarding of the sites we visited were the ones that required the most work to get to. These were Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto and Keizu-no-Reikado Hall near the top of Mount Misen on Miyajima Island. Both took a while to get to, both involved climbing up a really really to really really really big hill and both gave us a real sense of accomplishment as well as a great and totally natural stair master workout.

Before I got to Japan, I thought visiting the temples and shrines on our list would be much like visiting European churches. Maybe it takes an hour or so to get round the church and chapels and that probably includes enough time to climb the towers if there are any that are accessible. Some temples and shrines turned out to be just this way. Fushimi Inari didn't. It took four hours. It was completely worth it but just keep that in mind if you go.

If you've seen any images of Japan's shrines and it's not Itsukushima's floating gate, you've probably seen Fushimi Inari. Like most shrines, there is an enormous torii out in front of the place that marks the entrance to the shrine property. But Fushimi Inari has a torii hoarding problem; instead of one or two torii, this place has hundreds which form tunnels of orange gates (the Japanese call the color vermillion but I'm not buying it here) snaking up the mountainside from the entrance to the top of the shrine property.

Fushimi Inari is a shrine to Inari, the god of rice, and has traditionally been a merchant's shrine. Each of the orange torii you walk through on your way to the top was donated by a business, plain on the approach side and featuring kanji characters on the back side presumably listing the name of the donor. Get there at any time other than the crack of dawn and the place will be mobbed, with group after group waiting for the corridor to clear of pedestrians before snapping their souvenir images.

Here's a tip: keep going. Not everyone will. And eventually there will be more spots than you need to get some gorgeous pictures of the stacked torii. 

Here's another tip: be prepared to walk a lot. This is a long trek up a steep hill. You won't be walking up ramps here. You'll be stepping up staircase after staircase of stone steps. You'll hurt. You'll sweat. You'll pass many paired statues of foxes. You'll stop at more than one vending machine along the way. But once you are at the top, you'll feel like you've done something more than just walk around a shrine or temple for a few minutes. You'll feel like you've done something important. And you'll be right. Just budget a lot of time, that's all.

That's a big Buddha! At Nara's Todaiji Temple. 
The only experience that could have overshadowed our experience at Fushimi Inari was likely a similar climb with a better payoff. And by that I mean a hike (well at least partway) up Miyajima Island's Mount Misen to the Keizu-no-Reikado Hall or Lovers' Sanctuary and then beyond.

Miyajima Island is essentially a mountain poked out of the sea. The mountain is called Mount Misen and a good number of visitors to the island I assume end up at the top of the mountain at one time or another. You can climb to the top of the mountain from the seaside and according to some maps I saw around the island it will take you a couple of hours each way. Or you can do what we did and cheat, riding most of the way up on two cable cars (called ropeways on the island) and hoof it from there. I'd recommend going this way. I'm sure It's less spiritual. I'm also sure it's enough work by itself. And I don't for a minute believe the two hour estimate is correct.

The two goals in ascending Mount Misen as I see it are (1) to reach the Lovers' Sanctuary, which features an eternal flame lit by the monk Kukai (yes, the same Kukai of the 88 temple pilgrimage discussed earlier) and maintained alight for a cool 1,200 years and counting; and (2) to make it to the very top and take in the spectacular 360 degree view of the island and the Japanese mainland all the way to Hiroshima and beyond.

Get up early, get on the first ropeway car and get climbing. Step after step with stops periodically to admire the view and recuperate. The views are incredible. Take water because there are no vending machines (unlike everywhere else in Japan) and go step by step. It's worth it. It won't take as long as at Fushimi Inari but the scenery is more spectacular and I can't help thinking that the kind of work and suffering to get to these places is exactly what their founders had in mind when they built these things on top of enormous hills.

The picturesque Kanndo (yes, of the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage) at Daigoji in Kyoto.
If we hadn't climbed to the top of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and Mount Misen, our visits to temples and shrines would have been an essential part of our glimpse into the history and culture of Japan in the very short time we were there. I think we assembled a great list to visit and get souvenir goshuin. I've included one picture in this post from each place. But my experience walking all the way through the torii at Fushimi Inari and getting all the way to the top of Mount Misen put my own pilgrimage over the top into an ultimate experience. Each person it seems has to find their own way in Japan and I hope their temple and shrine visits will give them what I found.

Now, I mentioned earlier that we tried to exclude Tokyo from our temple and shrine list but honestly we couldn't quite help ourselves. About two blocks from our Shinjuku hotel early in the morning our first day we stumbled across the Hanazono Shrine. After we had bought our goshuin-cho on Mount Fuji, we returned a few days later to get a goshuin from what we at that point considered our home shrine in Tokyo.

When we were getting our books inscribed and stamped, we talked to the person (may have been a monk) expertly writing in our goshuin-cho. He was the only person doing this that we engaged in conversation. He asked where we were from and where we were headed to which we replied Washington, DC and ultimately Miyajima. He then mentioned that his goal in 2018 was to make his own pilgrimage of sorts to New Orleans to hear some Dixieland jazz. Sounds awesome to me. I told him to skip Bourbon Street and head to Frenchman Street. He told us Miyajima was worth the visit. I hope he follows my advice. I believed in his. We loved Miyajima. I hope he loves New Orleans.

Unwanted paper fortunes tied up at the Hanazono Shrine in Tokyo.
I'll close here with a few words about luck, something I think I've always had in abundance and for which I feel very blessed. 

I mentioned very early in this post that the fortune I received at the first shrine we visited was lucky. I stuck with that and didn't get another one. I mean why mess with success, right? Not all of us were so fortunate at that shrine and so in accordance with tradition, we knotted it to one of the strings at that site to leave the bad luck behind.

I also mentioned that to counteract that bad luck fortune, I picked up a lucky charm and gave it away in hopes that her luck would improve. Amazingly, it did. Despite receiving that downer of a fortune, the rest of our trip went very smoothly. We had incredible luck making connections on trains and finding luggage lockers at train stations and just generally making our way around Japan. However, in giving that charm away, I may have given away some of my own luck. The next morning I woke up to find my iPhone inoperable and it never recovered. I, however, did. Turns out I still had a little luck left in that my photos to that point in our trip all synched to the cloud and the next day I rebounded in full. Next time I buy someone a good luck charm, I'm going to make sure I get one for myself. I'm not tempting fate there again.

The floating torii at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.

No comments:

Post a Comment