31 January 2009

Japan pt. 2

In the morning, I was up bright and early. I crept out as quietly as I could, to avoid waking my dorm-mates in the hostel, who murmured in their beds as sunlight tracked up the wall with the movement of the dawn. I had a full day of religiousity in front of me, with a city full of temples to see.

The first stop was the closest. I have to admit that the prospect of travel around Japan on my own had made me a bit nervous, despite my success the previous day. I wanted to take it a bit easy, and went to the temples of Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji, fifteen minute walks each from my hostel. They would turn out to be quintessential Japanese temples, with smoothly curving roofs of delicate workmanship, ancient stone monuments, and serious-faced visitors. After entering the ornate gates of such temples, there is a fountain (often quite old and exquisite) at which you are supposed to cleanse yourself. Using the provided ladles, you gather water from the central pool, and splash it over your hands onto the earth, then take a single drink and spit it onto the ground. You approach the temple, removing your shoes at the foot of the steps, and ascend to the door (always a sliding paper traditional door). Within, there is a shrine of one sort or another, usually gilded.

Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji are the seat of Shin Buddhism in Japan. Their names, translated, mean "Eastern Temple of the Original Vow" and "Western Temple of the Original Vow." Of the two, Higashi Honganji was much more interesting, with the gorgeous Temple of the Amida Buddha. The Amida Buddha is the Buddha of the Pure Land, the version of the Buddha most revered by Honganji Buddhists. The amazing shrine within to the Amida Buddha is composed of some absurd amount of gold and jewels. I was in luck to find no one present within, so I was able to take pictures of the interior. This was a privilege I was seldom able to obtain, given the many worshippers at the temples. Despite my wish to preserve what I see on this trip in photos, I hesitate before taking such a liberty. There is the same hushed solemnity that hangs in the air in any sanctified area - a sense of harnessed awe.

Nearby Nishi Honganji, I went to Koshoji, a very small but very pretty temple right nearby. Then I caught a bus and started seeing the city proper.

Nijo Castle was on my itinerary (slapped together the previous evening), and I caught a bus straight there. This was the seat of the shogun in the city during the Tokugawa shogunate, and it remains intimidating today. Surrounded by a wide moat and immensely thick walls, it is entered through a gate that was atypically simple. Clearly its slabs of rock and timber were intended for functionality more than decoration.

The grounds within were another story, of course. Gardens surround the palace compound, which is brightly-painted and gilded. The gates and walls of the compound have carefully forged scrollwork in metal - and of course, security cameras. There had been particularly devastating acts of vandalism at some Japanese historical sites (I will speak more of them momentarily) and security was omnipresent in the form of helpful but persistant attendants, stout railings, and dozens of cameras.

There are several styles of Japanese gardens, but they are all based primarily upon the idea of affording beautiful views. As I was told by a very self-satisfied guide, Western gardens tend to be practical and laid out geometrically, while Japanese gardens are dedicated to beauty above all. I restrained myself from correcting her, it did chafe a bit; the two kinds of garden have rather different purposes, since I assure you that Nijo Castle produced precious few carrots.

Clean flat stones wended their way through the short grass of the gardens, picking a path through the ponds. At the few streams, simple stone bridges made the crossing, arching slightly over the water beneath that rippled with the motion of koi or catfish. It was a pleasant time of year to visit, for all that there were no blossoms; the tree branches creaked slightly with motion as a cool breeze caressed Nijo, and the air is so crisply clean that the cries of a crow had surpassingly sharp edges, notching the memory with its sound.

I left the castle with a quiet smile, and headed for my next stop, the shrine of Kinkakuji. I thought that I was almost becoming numb to beauty, and considered that maybe I should have stopped and taken a break instead. It was like doing some difficult and repetitive task, like scrubbing soot from the inside of a stove by hand. The muscles move and move and move, overworked until they start to lose feeling. What if, I wondered, my ability to appreciate beauty had become deadened?

Going to Kinkakuji was like the sparkling tingles that burst into those muscles, erupting back with feeling. As I stepped off of the long path to the temple and around the dense hedge that fenced in the area, the Golden Pavilion struck me dumb.

Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, is one of the most famous sights in Kyoto - in fact, it's one of the most famous places in Japan. And for good reason. Built on a mirror-smooth lake, and surrounded by trees, this three story temple's walls are completely covered in gold. In the light of the early afternoon, it was dazzling. A golden statue of a phoenix on top of the temple blazed with the sun, looking as if it were going to actually burst into flame at any moment.

It was very beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Your writing has more depth and feeling now. This journey has been good for you on many levels.

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