Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Back On the Pilgrim Trail: Temples Ishiyamadera and Miidera

Lately back on the ‘pilgrim trail,’ I’ve been going to temples largely in pairs. The first pair was the two situated near the bottom of Lake Biwa, numbers 13 and 14 (in my head, I think of them as Matchmaker temple and Everything-OK temple). My weekend plans changed, so instead of going to Tokyo on Saturday, I went to Kyoto, and spent Sunday (August 5th) exploring these temples.

Ishiyamadera, temple 13, is built on and around some wollastonite rock formations, and is fairly famous for being the location where Murasaki Shukibu began the Tale of Genji. Before we set out, I read that the Nyoirin Kannon (or wish-granting Kannon) at this temple was seen as a ‘marriage Kannon,’ to which people prayed for finding a partner, and also to be released from addictions. Those somehow fit together, I don't know why.

With this is mind, I explored the temple with my friend Miriam. I crawled through the little cave that is said to bring good luck, if you traverse it, and marveled at the various water features which are all fed by an underground river/spring that flows beneath the whole complex (I think). The area is supposed to be at its best, of course, in spring with cherry blossoms or in fall with the autumn leaves; in summer a lot of these places are just hot and green. I liked the rocks, which looked like they were caught in time while flowing, and there are some really nice views of the edge of the lake.

I thought of it as “Matchmaker temple” in my head, and having never read the Tale of Genji, probably should have been more moved to be in the very place its author began her great work. Honestly, I was more interested in the rocks, the water, the trees and shade.

From there, we triangle-traveled to Miidera, the next pilgrim stop at number 14. Miidera’s mark on the map is a large bell, and the temple is famous for more than one of the deep bells that often characterize Japanese Buddhist temples.

Miidera had an even more pleasant view of the lake, and by that time of the afternoon, the sky had turned into pure sweetness. On the train over, I read the legend associated with Miidera.

Benkei's bell
Not the one about the stolen bell (in which Benkei stole the Miidera bell during a raid [warrior monks back then, go figure], and as he carried it away toward Mt. Hiei it began to toll mournfully as if it wished to go home. It wouldn’t stop, so Benkei brought it back to Miidera where it belonged), but one about the great serpent of Lake Biwa. In that story, a man stops some kids from tormenting a snake, then stops at an inn where he sees a beautiful attendant, hangs around for a few weeks and falls in love with her, they get married, etc. When they get ready tohave a kid, she is like “don’t go into this room until I come out, or say it’s okay,” so he agrees, but after a while the silence is really scaring him, so he peeks in and sees the newborn baby being cuddled by a big snake. She of course is his wife/the great serpent spirit and since he broke contract, she now has to go back in the lake, but she leaves a note saying the baby is holding a jewel that keeps it from being unhappy, so the baby doesn’t ever really cry. Then the emperor hears about this jewel, demands it, has it seized, and the baby starts crying. The serpent had said if the baby ever gets cranky, just bring it to this spot near the lake and it’ll be okay, so when the guy does this, the serpent reappears and explains that the jewel was actually one of her eyes, and while she’s at it, she doesn’t really mind giving up the other one if it will make the kid happy. So she produces a second jewel and is therefore blind, but she says, in the evening go to Miidera and ring the bell, and I’ll hear it and know everything is okay.

So I really liked the idea of the Great Serpent of Lake Biwa swimming around down there, blind, but whenever pilgrims ring the bell (said to be the best-sounding bell in Japan), she is reassured that everything is a-OK.

Since it was a gorgeous day, and the temple complex looked pretty big from the map, I somehow managed to let go of my usual “must see all important monuments on site” mentality and just wander happily through the grounds, which helped contribute to my image of Miidera as the “Everything OK” temple. Miriam had to go meet someone, so I did half of the wandering with her, and half alone.

On the walk up to the temple, we followed the canal, which is pretty cool in its own right, an historical example of some engineering, I think the first use of dynamite in Japan (don’t quote me on that). We entered from the left side, the Kannon-do (or Kannon Hall), because the entire temple complex is not necessarily centered there. In fact, the hall was moved back in the 1400s to accommodate women pilgrims who wanted to worship there, but who were not allowed into the main temple precincts (!) at that time.

There was a small bell next to the Kannon-do that we rang, although I’m not sure it’s the famous Miidera bell. There was also a small hall that had 100 pilgrimage sites symbolically held in it (the Saigoku 33, which is the one I’m doing, a different 33 more in the outer Tokyo area, and a set of 34 that is a different pilgrimage. This was a delight, especially as there was nowhere at Ishiyamadera open for me to burn the special incense I’d brought along (I bought it last year in Kyoto, it smells awesome, and I still have a lot left), and I wanted to set something on fire.

The Kannon-do area was especially pretty, with a moon-viewing pavilion and friendly feel. The path away under the dappling shade of the maple trees was also exceptionally nice that afternoon.

I eventually found the spring that is the meaning of the temple name (三井寺means three-wells-temple, apparently three different royal folks bathed in the sacred spring!), which still makes gurgling noises as the water bubbles up around the rocks. Also walked through the treasure hall/museum type thing in the main area, where I was most struck by a statue of a firey looking guy whose glinting eyes were just catching the late afternoon light through the slats in the building, so his eyes looked like they were full of fire.

I found my way back to the train (with a brief stop at a rabbit shrine, and a little jaunt toward the edge of the lake), and made my way back to Kyoto, prepared to head to Tokyo the next morning!

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