Monday, August 20, 2012

Temples number Six and Seven: Okadera and Tsubosakadera

I returned to Kyoto on Tuesday evening, arriving at Nami’s at just the time I had planned to on the first calendar (that is, the one that had me in Tokyo from Saturday until Tuesday early morning), and so things resumed as planned from there.

I love visiting Nami’s household, but it can be sort of like a time warp. Time slips away at a faster pace than other places, and before we knew it, we had chatted later into the night than one would necessarily want, having spent the whole weekend traveling and preparing to get up at 6 the next morning.

Yeah, 6 am. It turns out (and I wouldn’t have known this without their help) that it takes a very careful schedule to make the buses and trains necessary to get to both Okadera (7) and Tsubosaka-dera (6) in the same day, although they are relatively close together on the map. I was due to take the same train in the morning as Hiroshi-san was taking to work, so we ate breakfast like a sort of cobbled-together family… the married couple and their adopted foreigner little sister, and then he and I hustled to the train station. I thought we must look funny together, he in his working clothes like any other Japanese working guy, me with my pack and walking shoes like any other tourist… neither is a particularly rare sight in Kyoto-Nara area, but to walk and talk and sit together on the train is something else. Nami-san waved to us from the balcony of their apartment as it flashed by, and we were off.

My first destination was Okadera, one of the oldest temples on the route snugged up in the mountains of Asuka, which is the most ancient first capital of Japan (and you thought it was Nara..! Well, I did anyway). Asuka, it turns out, is an area full of ancient things, archaeological stuff. Other than that, it’s as countryside as countryside can be, which is why the public bus runs only a handful of times a day on such narrow roads and was so sparsely filled.

Attempt to capture the field of lotus blooms... fail.
Okadera was perhaps the first temple I was earnestly able to make it to in the morning. The feel of the place as I walked up (sweaty as ever, despite the morning hour, having gotten a little lost already thanks to some construction work) was relatively empty; I paid my entrance fee as though I had managed to catch a tourist spot unpopulated for the first time in Japan.

The main hall from above on the mountainside.
What set in my mind first was the mountain-garden feel of the pathways I followed through the woods there, and the insects.

Okadera is famous for protection against disasters, and I saw part of what I think was a ceremony or prayer for a woman at one of the vulnerable ages. There is a list of the vulnerable ages for women and men on the bell tower; I’ve seen these lists before, and Okadera is pretty big for trying to make sure those bad years go well. I was pretty sure I heard the priest say “thirty-three” during his chanting, so I sat still and listened for a bit because I find the chanting and bell ringing that goes on pretty soothing.

View of Asuka from near the pagoda.
Okadera is also perhaps the first temple where I was able to see the main image of Kannon. At many of these temples, the image is not seen except every 33 years or so (some places, not at all, ever), but at Okadera, she is in full view all the time. The statue is a large clay image, the largest clay statue in Japan, and it has a really earthy look and energy about it. It has been restored often, but has essentially survived since the 700s, which is what gives it the reputation for protection against disaster.

I took my time exploring around a bit, eventually coming to the Okunoin further up the hill. That’s the inner sanctuary, which is often tucked away somewhere further up the mountain. This one was a little cave which went back into the earth rather farther than I expected from looking at the front of it. There’s a small statue inside of the Buddha of the future, and an older couple who was praying in there ahead of me (I waited til they finished because there was actually not enough room for more than two people side by side in front of it, plus I always feel awkward when those I regard to be the ‘legit Buddhists on legit business’ are doing their thing and I’m just wandering around spectating) gave me a piece of tarp to sit on because the cave was damp and puddle-y. After sitting inside a little while, I stood up and noted how the cave at that point was just barely tall enough to accommodate my height, though I couldn’t walk upright through the cave. Then I noticed just just above my head a pair of the biggest effing camelback crickets I have ever seen, and I crouched right the hell back down, packed up my piece of tarp, and with one more bow, hurried back out into the light.

Entrance to the cave...
So, yep, bugs and mountain-garden foresty earthiness. It was a beautiful place and I’m glad I got to go in the morning when it was so quiet and peaceful.

I next caught another bus to a tiny train station (Asuka), from which I was to proceed by train to another train station (Tsubosaka-yama) and wait for a more different bus, which would not come until 1:15, although I had to get on the first of these buses at 11:06. This meant I would have time for lunch in the train station area, and here is where I made a Saiou’s Horse kind of mistake.

Asuka station was flanked by your usual handful of little restaurant places, none of which looked particularly good, so I decided to eat in the area of the second station. Getting off the train in that area, I looked around, noted it to be a touristy-looking street ahead of me, and decided to wander til I found something, since I had nearly two hours to kill. The sign above the road said that the town was one of “sightseeing and medicine,” which I thought odd, but shrugged off and began to walk with my little parasol overhead. I wandered in a sort of loop for twenty minutes or more, finding that every single likely looking place I came upon was not a restaurant, but instead a hair salon, dentist, or other treatment facility, and half were closed. There had been one well-marked restaurant just by the station, but the sign on the door said “closed today.” Ah the perils of traveling on quiet weekday afternoons.

Oh why are you closed...?
I returned to the station along a sweaty, perilous highway with a tiny sidewalk and asked the station guy about food. He pointed to the tiny closed place and I protested its closedness. He shrugged sadly saying, that was it. I sat down on a bench to reconsider. This was crazy. Not eating was unacceptable; I would have to find a combini or something.

It was then I remembered that I do have a smartphone and it is good for more than just email and mapping exactly where I am. It also has a ‘find restaurants in my area’ function, of course. I put it to the test. The first listing was for a place half a kilometer away, not so bad, and a ten minute walk according to the review written in Japanese. The place was just past where I’d come upon the perilous, sweaty highway, and I did not relish taking that walk only to find the place ALSO CLOSED, so I did the thing I always dread doing, prepared myself for Japanese and phoned the place. I was about to give up hope when an animated voice answered pretty late in the ringing cycle, confirmed that they were open, and that it was a ten minute walk from the station. I needed no more than that, and set off.

The place was across from a combini, and I briefly considered grabbing some quick food there instead, because now I was beginning to worry I wouldn’t be back at the station in time to catch the bus at 1:15 if I had heard right and the restaurant I was headed for would take some time in food preparation. But I thought I saw a bus stop sign just a little further ahead and felt sure it must be on the route I wanted, right? And if it all went to hell I’d just call a taxi and catch up with my schedule later.

I then stepped into the restaurant and had the best damn udon I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve been to Shikoku AND I don’t even like udon, but I was supremely glad I hadn’t given up and gone to Lawson’s. The lone guy running the place was apparently making the stuff from scratch, and it was a beautiful thing. If you are ever in the western end of I-think-I’m-lost Nara prefecture, I give it a thumbs up.

My food was ready in about perfect time for me to eat it, pay, and get to the bus stop which was in fact the bus I wanted, which took my up the winding paths to Tsubosaka-dera. Tsubosaka-dera was, once again, totally different from the other temples I had been to so far, especially in its palpable connection to India and Indian Buddhism. Without really solidifying in my head what that image is, I have formed an idea of what a Japanese Buddhist temple looks like, but Tsubosaka-dera does not look like that. The imagery was different, the atmosphere followed suit.

This temple is connected especially with sight and eyes, not only in the prayer sense, but also in the very real sense that there is a home for the blind on the premises. The connection to India is in their ongoing support of programs in India. This temple therefore felt like a museum in some ways (I mean, there was a wall, a relief carved wall with stories from Buddha’s life!), but also like a functioning thing, not a relic. 

This statue is related to a legend associated with the temple about a man healed of his blindness.
Maybe because it was a weekday afternoon and tucked far away up on this mountain, but there were hardly any other visitors that I could see. I walked around a little and made my way to the main hall, where I slipped in quietly and looked around. The main statue here is also visible to those in the hall at all times, this one because it is meant to be seen, in connection with its healing for sight issues. Just as I was about to head out and explore the grounds some more, a large group of older-ish Japanese folks had massed at the entrance, looked like they had come by big tour bus, and were being given a short lively speech by the guy I’d nodded to solemnly on my way in. I passed the merry crowd and walked again through an area that made me think someone was burning lavender incense until I realized I was surrounded by lavender plants being baked in the sun.

Made in India, actually, then shipped over and reassembled in Japan.
I checked out the great Kannon, and reclining Buddha, and inspected the building that is covered with tiles made to imitate the ancient tile found in the area, and tried some of the eye-healing tea. I knelt on the power stone, and asked for clearer sight, to which I swear I heard Kannon-sama chuckle and say, get lasik, you.

The last bus out was at 3pm, which I at the time thought a bit strict, but found to be perfectly timed for me that day. I bought a bottle of Tsubosaka spring water and beat it toward Hasedera. The final walk to my ryokan for the night was pretty sweaty, given that I was wearing a backpack and walking for over a kilometer even if it was through cute streets (the kind that lead the way to important temples or shrines that get a lot of visitors… these kinds of streets develop with gift shops and inns and restaurants to serve the travelers, even from really old times). It was just after the heat of the day and I was beat.

I took this before she brought the soup out even.
I was the only guest that night at Yoshinokan, so I had a little tatami room all to myself. I bathed, put on the provided yukata, and ate my fancy Japanese dinner while watching the Olympics with the proprietess. Then I took a little walk up to Hasedera’s steps and back along the small river. I thought maybe it was kind of neat to have walked up to temple number eight on August 8th, even if I wouldn’t really go in til the following day. Nami-san had set me up to stay the night basically at the temple doorstep so  I could attend the morning prayer service which is open to the public.

Once darkness had fallen, I retired to my room and happily conked out at about 8pm (perfect for a 5:45 wakeup, if you ask me!).


  1. Your photos are very nice! I visited Tsubosaka-dera and was looking for other photos on the net. Yours are good!

  2. Hi, which bus did you use to go to Tsubosaka-dera? I'm planning to go there this March, but have not been seeing the right guides about how to get there. Thank you.

    1. My information is pretty old. I know it was a narakotsu bus. Try these links and see if they help at all?

      Okay.. this might help:
      ◦近鉄壷阪山駅から壷阪寺行バス(約11分)「壷阪寺前」下車、徒歩 約3分/運賃 320円
      From the Kintetsu Tsubosakayama station, get on the bus bound for "Tsubosakadera".. ride for 11 minutes and get off at the Tsubosakadera-mae stop. It'll be 320 yen for the ride. I don't see a schedule, but I know they were a bit infrequent.

      Taxi from the train station might be easier.. I was just being super cheap.