Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I've been blogging my best in the down time I've had to try and get the temples (are you tired of them yet?) and other adventures covered before I "run out of time" and then somehow never get around to writing them, which knowing me is a likely scenario.

Those in the know may be aware that I'm back to the US in mid-September, which if you're counting, is still like three weeks away, so I should therefore have plenty of time to 1, finish all 33 temples, 2, blog about them, and 3, see and spend time with all the friends I've yet to properly do farewell activities with.

And that would be true, but for the way this is all booked up. In a good way, and in important ways, of course.

I think I've been trying to blog the temples now because I think my perspective on them will be different on the 'other side' of the next excursion, is all. I mean, I did keep a little notebook of impressions from each temple visit, and the website where I got all my info will still be accessible (seriously, are you not tired of them yet?).. the only thing that could possibly change is my point of view.

There's just too many temples and other adventures to write about before tomorrow evening, though, so I doubt I'll make it, and we'll have to be content with whatever I manage either tomorrow morning amongst the other duties, or whatever I can come up with once I've finished my next adventure.

I guess also it's possible that the next adventure will take up a pretty significant chunk of attention.

Starting tomorrow evening, I'll be joining a Vipassana course for the first time. I almost don't know what to expect, except I've read JET accounts, and heard from and about those who have done it..

I first heard about the course from Yut while we were in Cambodia, having out wonderful sunset talk (which I refer to mentally as the 'sermon on the mount' .. yeah I know I'm out of hand) which led to our incredible nighttime bike ride (and my plowing straight into a mountain of gravel, woo!), and it was immediately a thing that sounded like it lay in the direction of my alley.

Since then, I looked it up online and realized that in order to have ten straight days of free time, I would have to wait til after my contract, or else once I was back in the US. I preferred to do it in Japan, though, because it just felt like a more.. Buddhist place, I guess, than say, south Georgia. I wanted to try this for the first time in the setting of the place I was preparing to leave. Later, it will maybe be fitting to do it in the place I am going back to.

So what I'm trying to say is, I'm going to go tomorrow to a meditation center in Kyoto (when I say Kyoto, it sounds like a fancy Japanese temple in the old capital.. but what I mean is Kyoto prefecture, an area just over the border with north Hyogo, and probably in a mountainous countryside inaka hideaway just as remote as any inaka I've been to), where I'll hand in my cell phone and books and notebooks (what?! No note-taking?! How will I manage?) and try sitting still and listening inward and not speaking to anyone for ten full days.

When it's over, I'll tell you all about it, or as much as I can, because I get the feeling that it's something you can't explain so well as do (not that I think the doing is easy, mind you).

Once that's over I will head directly to Tohoku to commence a short volunteer project with Habitat for Humanity. This might be a terrible idea just after mediation, or might be really perfect; I've yet to figure it out and probably won't know til I'm there. After spending a few days in Miyagi and then Akita (Akita not disaster zone, just a friend visit), I'll head back to Shiso just in time for my final weekend.

So in many real ways, heading into meditation is the beginning of the end for me.

I still have a list of things I want to blog (performing arts in Kyoto, Daigo-ji and Sanjusangen-do [temples], the wervs visit to Kagoshima and Ibusuki, Nakayama-dera and Katsuo-ji, Soji-ji and Fujii-dera [temples], Wakayama and couchsurfing, Kokawa-dera and Kimiidera [temples again... no but really I bet you're sick of it]) but they will have to wait.

Because for all that I run around and want to do everything, for all that there's never a dull moment, I think it will be really good to slow down, really important to be quiet.

So when you can't get ahold of me for the next two weeks, now you know why.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Crossroads, Centerpoints, and Sixes: Temples 17 and 18

Friday morning, I essayed out to return to north Kyoto, drop off my stuff with and gather Miriam, and we headed for temple number 17, Rokuharamitsuji. ‘Roku’ means six, so that might serve you for the rest of this post.

 Roku-hara-mitsu-ji is named because it is built at an old crossroads where people too poor to afford proper burial were dumped. But the six of the name refers also to the idea that it’s a crossroads of six realms through which souls wander, that of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, titans, humans, and gods. It’s in the middle of a slightly more run-down sector of the city (compared to the bustling tourist centers easily spotted all over). The temple itself is bright, and on our visit was filled with lanterns (not lit, since it was late morning) and fairly bustling for a weekday morning.

Some of the most interesting things were in the museum, including the statue of Kuya, who is portrayed with a line of six tiny Buddhas marching out of his mouth to symbolize the chanting he was famous for.

Another part I really liked was what I thought of as the ‘water section,’ off to the right of the main hall. Photos were not allowed, but in this area there were statues (I specifically remember a Jizo with babies and a Benten, and also a guardian kind of deity) over which people would fling or pour water from ladles at the base of each as an offering, and maybe purification for the self, and also (I think at least in the case of the water babies) a sort of sending-along to speed them on their path to incarnation.

After I’d had my turn at watering them, we moved on; Miriam again had to go meet a student, so I went on to Rokkaku-do alone. As you may have surmised, there’s a six in this one too. Rokkaku-do means “six-sided-hall.” Six-sided styles of temples are apparently a very old type for Japanese Buddhism.

Rokkaku-do is in the center of Kyoto, surrounded by classy looking glass buildings (indeed, I will confess I had a drink at the adjacent Starbucks after visiting the temple), one of which is the Ikenobo building, as Rokkaku-do is the place where ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) was developed. The temple complex (like Rokuharamitsuji) was pretty compact compared especially to the mountainside temples which cover a lot of ground, but it was a very peaceful place. They also had the best incense lighting system I’ve seen (though it confused the heck out of me at first).

Incense holder

Ikebana HQ

Door to Starbucks
 One of my favorite things here was the presence of water. There were little flowing pools all around, one of which was inhabited by white swans, another surrounded by sixteen Arhats, which represent the idea that no matter which of the sixteen compass point directions you go in, there will always be one of them to bring you back (to the center? ..to enlightenment!).


One-word Jizo, meaning if you make a prayer in one word, he will be able to help you.

 Rokkaku-do is about the center because it has the Kyoto center ‘bellybutton’ stone, showing just how in the middle of Kyoto it is. To me it was about taking a second to get centered, even in the middle of a bustling city. On this day, Rokkaku-do was less crowded than Rokuharamitsuji, though I now think that might have been because of a festival going on in the Rokuharamitsuji area.

Bellybutton stone!
 After my chai tea in a plush chair looking out into the temple yard, I headed back to Miriam’s, my two temples of the day confirmed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hasedera (number eight) and the bonus temple

Having passed out early, I had no trouble getting up extra early the next morning. I dressed and slipped out about 6 to make my way up the steps. I went around the side entrance because I thought the blocked main gate still applied to me, and heard chanting coming from one of the buildings off to the left. I found my way to the main hall where I looked stupid until someone was kind enough to take me in hand and tell me where to go to get my ticket.

The street to Hasedera at six am.
It was a Thursday at 6:30, so I was the only guest at this morning event. Every monk that passed me bowed and said good morning in a way the reminded me of being at school, and how the kids are always told to give a really energetic greeting (in fact, one of the monks struck me as really young.. like maybe middle school age, and I thought, what the hell, why isn’t that kid in school?! until I remembered it is summer vacation right now ^_^). I couldn’t tell if the guy sitting just next to me explaining stuff was high ranking or just exempt from some of the niceties in order to take care of me, but he was never the first to say good morning. He handed me a book in which was written the text of the prayers and chanting, including in some parts these little notations for how the syllable was held and whether the note went upward or downward or squiggled.

This is the area where we were assembled. I was sitting in front of that thingy at far right, with my back to it.

He showed me where the leader would speak and where the assembled monks on the area where I was sitting (and theoretically I too) would respond or be chanting. He explained how the second part would be chanting along to a drum beat from within the temple. Then we had a little extra time so he told me about the temple building itself, how old the statue was (third temple in a row where the main image was just right there in front of you), and some other features of the place. I nodded a lot, said ‘hai,’ a lot, and was glad I already knew gassho-rei from kempo practice (that’s the kind of bow that isn’t so much a bow as a hand position).

My Japanese isn’t good enough to chant along, especially once that fast paced drum got going, but I did like listening to all the monks chanting together around me, and I followed along in the cool book he had given me (which was folded kind of accordion-style, so turning the pages was also an act of stretching and I could look at as few as two, as many as maybe six pages at a time! Useful when I lost my place). After this, we did a sort of morning salutation prayer (I think?) standing and facing the mountains in a few different directions visible from the main platform.

This is a photo of a sun-worn poster, but it shows what that part looked like.

Afterward, I walked down the main path with its 399 stairs, falling into step beside an older guy who talked with me pleasantly a little bit about where I lived and what I did before bidding me good morning and disappearing off a side path. I took the rest of the steps and returned to the ryokan for breakfast.

I always take the photos sans soup.

After breakfast, I went back up to the temple to explore some more, seeing as how I had no further buses to catch. Hasedera is called the Flower Temple, and I could see where lots of things could be blooming at different times of the year. Naturally in August only the cicadas were in full bloom beneath the swelter of the sun. The mountain trees, though, gave a nice shade to my wanderings.

The whole place is beautiful, though, and has a calm, sweet feel. I like the way the main image of Kannon is holding Jizo’s staff (according to my sources, this is rare) symbolizing her ability to travel to any place at any time. (Click that link to see a photo)

While I was getting my stamp and seal, I was asked if I knew about the “ban-gai.” These are three temples listed in the back of the seal book, not counted amongst the 33, but which are still part of the pilgrimage for other reasons. That ‘gai’ is the same as the gai in gaijin, and it just means ‘outside’ .. so the ban-gai are the temples outside the ‘ban’ or order/numbering. I know almost nothing about the ban-gai even now, and knew utterly nothing then other than that there were some.

He explained that one of the ban-gai temples was located just down the road (and in fact, basically right next to my ryokan), so I shrugged and thought, I’ve been to two temples every time so far, why not keep that tradition going? I do feel a little weird about going to temples I have absolutely no information about. I always look to the Sacred Japan website in order to sort of ground my travels; it’s almost a ritual now. On the bus or train to a place, I peer into my smartphone and read (or in most cases review) what is said there about whatever temple I’m on my way to. It makes the whole experience a bit more meaningful.

After all this, I made the same mini trek to the train station, which was no more fun in reverse being as it was late morning and this time uphill. I returned to Nami-san’s house with the intention of going farther, but I never made it and ended up just hanging out with her and Hiroshi-san all evening and staying another night. It didn’t occur to me til then that I might not see them again for a while, and I just couldn’t get myself out the door with that in mind.

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!).

Tokyo: Tables and the Open Future

I wrote a bunch of posts while I was on the trains going hither and thither, and I still need to format and photo-ify most of them.
I was recently hesitant to post this one and I don't know why.

 Tokyo: Tables and the Open Future

Tokyo, like many things, is both hated and loved by me. I always used to say I like to visit and wouldn’t want to live there, but now I wonder if it’s not just the reverse of that. The thing I hate in Tokyo is the combined weight of lost-ly carrying a bunch of luggage in stations so incredibly full of people I don’t know how to maneuver. The truth is, stations would always be full of people, but if I were staying for a lengthier time, I might not have a suitcase under my arm at all times, and I might know exactly where I was going, which would mean I would spend a heck of a lot less time wandering sweaty and forlorn through a station that begins to resemble a clusterfuck the longer I spend there searching. This was in fact the case on Tuesday, but I get ahead of myself.

(Tuesday, just for the record, I visited the Mori museum in Roppongi Hills and had a wonderful time with a fellow PEPY JET friend and generally felt like one of the luckiest people in the world.)

What a pleasant spot on such a pleasant day

Mark shows how to interact with this map display.

The view from my lunch spot.

My lunch.
Monday, I had the delightful opportunity to stop in Yokohama and have lunch with Baye McNeil, author of Hi! My Name is Loco and I Am a Racist and of course, Loco in Yokohama. Alessandro and I had the chance to interview him for Impetuous Windmills. We waded through a Yohokama downpour to enjoy some seriously good ramen and seriously better conversation. I’m really pleased to have met this genuine and down-to-earth guy, and I hope to again some future day.

Talking with him made me think about writing in a more serious way again, and brought to the fore of my mind the story which I know I’ve mentioned and which everyone must think I have since abandoned, but I promise I have not, and in fact its development, to this point long and slow, has become something more like a boil after years and years (like, ten) of ridiculously slow cooking. For that story, ideas keep popping, and all the while I grow less and less satisfied with the level of the writing work previously done on it.

Anyway! Once I hit Tokyo and made my way up to the Orientation Info Fair, I was promptly installed as a PEPY representative. I met my fellow table-mate and we meshed well, as we were able to share different experiences from PEPY adventures. She having been on the ‘real bike ride’ (The PEPY Ride, across Cambodia), and me having been on a modified one-week adventure. I was also able to provide some photos from our Himeji rides, which I ended up thinking was and easier thing for new JETs to get into, idea wise. It’s difficult, the moment you land in Japan, to immediately start your planning to go on international trips! Much more accessible, I thought, is the idea of exploring your own prefecture by bike while donating to a good cause.

I’ve been back and forth from the PEPY website, especially before and after our winter break adventure, and I do want to mention that I respect what they’re doing out there a lot. Their whole teach a man to fish (or teach a village to educate itself) thing is something that I really get behind. More on this momentarily..
The table next to PEPY was the PeaceBoat table. I think I had looked over some PeaceBoat info before, I know I donated some money through them in March of 2011.. I did not really understand their voyages, though, or maybe I looked at them and thought the participation fee was pretty high for me and my life, or maybe IF I realized they were looking NOT for participants among JETs, but people to work on the boat as English teachers, I noted at that time that I did not have the time to spare, as the boat voyages are around three months in length.

But for a recently… retired? JET… you must understand that the moment I understood that I could apply to be an English teacher for mostly Japanese participants on a boat voyage around the world, the moment I looked at a map of the next planned voyage and understood that one could be part of that, doing what I already have the skills to do, and sail around the world with free time at various ports of call all over the world, I could have swooned, the prospect seemed so intoxicating (and to be honest, still kind of does).
(You’ll be pleased to know I was decidedly against applying for the voyage leaving in mid-December because I intend to spend the holidays at home this year, no matter how tempting the boat route map was for that voyage.)

It would be a little presumptuous of me to just assume that out of what must be a relatively large pool of applicants for a relatively small number of spots on a voyage I would be selected, but in this I am a little bit presumptuous. In the same way that I knew – see, I didn’t want to be a JET, I just knew I was one, or that it was a perfect fit.. that I could be good at this, that this could be good for me—in that same kind of way, I suddenly felt like being an English teacher on a PeaceBoat voyage was for me.

So I guess this is what I mean when I title this “The Open Future.” I don’t really know what I’m doing after JET, and even if I were to go on a voyage, from what I understand most teachers are limited to one voyage (in some special cases, they do take on repeaters), that wouldn’t be a ‘real job,’ that wouldn’t be ‘my future’ or the rest of my life, it would just be the next adventure, a three-month chance of a lifetime the way JET was a three-year one; it also wouldn’t have to be next, or now. It just seems like ‘now’ is when I ‘don’t have any plans,’ or at least not a job.

But that’s what I realized in the same moment, the open future. I had all but forgotten the ties I left behind, which I am sure it would take time to restart, but the jobs I did have, in Kansas, the beginning of a background in a few different things. I’m not worried about what to do when I get home because I believed I had options, even if I had forgotten what they were. I remember them now, Kaplan if I want to work in private education for GRE prep or maybe even ESL. I’ve been a substitute teacher and I know I would be better at it now than I was then (though I maintain that being a sub is hard, and I don’t know that I wanna… the fact remains that I probably could). And if, at the end of a year, I had gone from nothing at all to having started these things, I believe that given proper time, there are lots of options.

People tend to ask me in line with finishing JET, ‘where to next.’ I have always believed, even if they don’t quite, that the path forward lies for me back toward where I began it. Not absolutely necessarily in my hometown or even state, but I have always just assumed I would ‘end up’ in America sooner or later. Those who know me more recently, without having seen my roots, tend to think I’m an international, a wanderer in some ways, and maybe I am. But that isn’t what I want to be forever.

Still, I can’t deny that I still feel that, at least after I get the chance to be back for a while, to reconnect, to readjust, to move past this particular life I’ve had for the past few years and dust off the clean slate, there is an appeal, a draw in the world-wide-view, in believing there is more out there to do and be done than I can do or could have seen from within the previous parameters of vision I once had.

I talk about PEPY a lot, but I’ve hesitated to mention that I still feel drawn, as often as I do research on it, to go there and do that thing, not forever, of course (ideally, the real hope of PEPY and the folks there is to become phased out as unnecessary), but for a little while.

So what does that mean? Three months on a boat? A year in Cambodia? Will I be back in Japan for any length of time in the future? I shrug and say I don’t know, that I have ‘no plans.’ It’s not a lie; I don’t.  I can’t hope for any of those things until I’ve spent three months in America. Or maybe a year. Doing what? I feel a little silly sometimes, to say “I don’t know.” Only because I think maybe the listener will assume me careless, listless. But once, having to say that would have panicked me. Now, I’ve been me long enough to see that I am never idle for long. And so long as opportunities exist (as they quite obviously do), I hope that I will continue to be the me that at least seriously considers taking them on.

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!