Quiet tea, talky tea

Butsuma--a space for the Buddha. Chanoma--a space where people drink tea, eat, chat.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Memory III

Police get on my case, and I visit Korea   

I think it is well known that foreigners in Japan need to carry official ID at all times.  I gave this policy my own interpretation.  I only carried it when I felt like it.  My ID was my passport—I had not yet gotten my ‘alien registration’ card, small enough to fit in my wallet.  Since my passport was too big to fit in my pocket, I often went without, especially if I was only going around my local neighborhood.

At that time, snail mail was still crucial.  I had no telephone in my room, and anyway, calls to the US were just too expensive.  So, I tried to write frequent letters to my family.  I located the nearest (walking distance—oh the conveniences of Tokyo!) post office.  After writing a letter, I set off for the post office fairly early in the day.  On my return trip, I passed a ‘koban,’ a tiny police box, also known as a field office.  Every neighborhood has one, and the police try to establish relationships with the residents.  If nothing else, the police will leave a card for you to fill out with your name and contacts in case of disasters, etc.  But that was yet to come.  On that day, as I passed the koban, an officer stepped out and asked for my ID.  I couldn’t speak much Japanese, and he couldn’t speak much English, but he got his point across.  I got my point across—my passport is in my room, just down that street.  Well, that was not good enough.  I was made to wait, and in a few minutes a patrol car pulled up.  The officer opened the door, gestured for me to get in!?!?  Was I being arrested? Where were they taking me?  We drove for five or ten minutes, and arrived at a major police station.  I was taken to a meeting room? Interrogation room?  A plain-clothes officer, actually a detective, came to interview me.  His English was not so great, but enough to conduct a pretty thorough interview.  He asked my name, place and date of birth, and nationality.  He also asked for full names of my parents and siblings, and their addresses.  This was a pretty excruciating process, mostly because the way foreign names are transliterated into Japanese is pretty clumsy.  But we persevered and eventually the interview was finished.  Oh, I forgot to mention, I was in Japan on a tourist visa, but I had found a teaching job and was working.  So, the police decide they want to come to my room.  The room was not in good shape, as I was not expecting visitors.  They saw my class notebooks on the shelf.  They asked if I was working, and I said yes.  It is not illegal to rent an apartment on a tourist visa, but it is illegal to work.  I told them that I hoped to apply for a work visa (which required a visit to an overseas Japanese embassy to apply, and then either wait several weeks there, or return to the overseas embassy later to pick up the visa).   So, that was the end of that.

The closest embassy, and cheapest plane ticket, was in South Korea.  I was eager to follow all the rules, so I wondered whether I would need a visa to enter South Korea.  Rather than try to talk on the phone, I decided to go to the SK embassy to ask in person.  I got there around noon, and the embassy was closed for lunch.  The neighborhood was residential (and rather ritzy) but there was a little coffee shop/eatery nearby.  It conveniently had a glass case beside the door with food models, as many places in Tokyo did and still do.  Makes ordering much easier for those who don’t speak Japanese!  I saw a bowl of rice with a few unrecognizable vegetables on top, with red sauce.  One thing I did recognize was bean sprouts, which I liked, so I dragged the server outside to point out my choice.  When the dish was served, a manager or owner person came over and said ‘This is bee beem bopp.’ I was later to know this dish by the Japanese pronunciation, which is more like be beem bah.  It was pretty much like the model, and the little dollop of red sauce was a bit spicy. 

It turned out a visa was not necessary, but I got one just to be sure.  My trip to Seoul was an eye-opener.   South Korea at that time was at a lower level of development compared to Japan.  So, it was interesting to visit a new country, but some things were a bit difficult.  I think the streets of every city or country have distinctive smells.  For example, in Tokyo, you often encounter the acrid smoky smell of oily fish being broiled.  And soy sauce, and incense, and, in the summer, mosquito coils.  In Seoul, I could not escape the smell of garlic.  And, a coal-like smell from yontan, a cylinder of pressed coal powder widely used as fuel for heating and cooking in those days.  I stayed in a yogwan, a traditional economy-class inn.  The rooms were floored with a kind of laquered paper or something, and yontan was burned below to heat the floors.  It was very effective as a heating system, but it was hard to get used to the smell.  Also, the only control of the heating was to ask the manager to use giant tongs to insert or pull out the burning coal cake.   In the next room at the inn were a couple of non-Koreans.  They were great for helping me cope with various things.  They mentioned that it was common for guests of the inn to order food to be delivered from nearby restaurants.  They offered to order something for me, so I asked for bee beem bopp.  When it came, it was surprising, or maybe a little shocking.  It was a much bigger deal than the rice bowl I had near the embassy in Tokyo.  The Tokyo version had just a small bite of kimchi, the famous delicacy made from veggies pickled in garlic and hot pepper.  The Seoul version had like five dishes of different varieties of very hot kimchi.  And the hot sauce was about ten times hotter.  So, the sauce and the kimchi overdose pushed me way beyond my safe zone for spicy food.  (Maybe I was a bit more sensitive to such things in those days.)

I don’t remember what else I ate in Seoul, except for one time when I went to the coffee shop at the big multi-star hotel.  I was happy to get western food and escape the garlic cloud for a while. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Memories II

Memories of Japan II

If you want to read these memories in chronological order, please scroll down to Memories of Japan I to start reading.

The Sakuradamon Gate, Imperial Palace Tokyo

Japan II

I began the gradual process of adjusting to life in a very foreign environment.  After a few months, a Japanese friend found an apartment just down the street that he thought would be much better for me.  It was!  It had two (small) room, tatami, and a tiny kitchen, and toilet (also squat type, but raised a bit).  Still going to the public bath, but I could do a lot more with the space.  I even had a tempura party there—actually tempura is pretty easy, just mix up some batter, dip anything you want in it, pop it into hot oil.  So easy, until it is time to clean up.  The whole tiny kitchen was covered with a fine layer of grease.  Oh well. 

I began to learn more about Tokyo.  My place was pretty well situated, about 20 or 30 minutes to the Imperial Palace.  My first English teaching job was at Marubeni, a major trading company.  The HQ building was across the moat from the palace.  The original plan of the city survives to some extent—the palace is at the center, with concentric ring roads as you go further out.  The pedestrian sidewalks around the palace have become a hot spot for runners—once around is about 5K.  So, the new hires at Marubeni had to do the run one Saturday; their time would be recorded in their personnel file.  So, I asked if I could join them.  That run was just so impressive—great and diverse views of the moat and castle walls.  There was an ancient wooden defensive gate, like 6 or 8 inches thick with heavy metal hardware and huge bosses.  It was propped open and the running path went through it.  The movie Shogun has just come out, and I felt like I had gone back in time going through that gate.  If you want more views, you can go inside the walls to see extensive gardens—no charge, you just get a tag when you enter, and return the tag when you exit so they can be sure no one is left inside at closing time.

By sheer luck, I had another great experience at the palace.  The emperor has had an official musical ensemble playing the ancient ‘gagaku’ court music on ancient instruments—a continuous musical tradition since the 10th century or so.  It turns out they give performances from time to time.  The tickets are free, but you have to know someone who is connected to get a ticket.  So, a connected person offered me a ticket!  So I hopped on the 20th century subway train, then walked through an 18th century gate, through antique gardens to the hall where I would hear music from the 10th century.  It was only slightly disappointing that the hall was modern. Very few structures within the palace walls survived bombing in WWII, so the music hall, the residential palace etc. are all fairly new.  The music sounds like outer space—maybe this was the origin of my interest in electronic space ambient music. 

Teaching the employees at Marubeni was interesting, but I began to feel that, as we sat in chairs around a table, wearing neckties and jackets, and speaking English, my experience was not as Japanese as I had hoped.  My friend said ‘I know a shamisen teacher! I will introduce you!’  So, he took me to meet Kineya Goshiroh, who was still a student at the prestigious Tokyo University of Music and Fine Arts, and still using his birth name, Minoda Shiroh.  I was still not speaking much Japanese at that point, but the notation of the shamisen music was in Arabic numerals, and I mostly just imitated my teacher.  It was through Minoda-sensei that I got involved in traditional music, related to the Kabuki theater.  Minoda-sensei took me to the kabuki theater, and we saw the play Kagotsurube.  The leading role was the famous Utaemon.  Later, Minoda-sensei introduced me to a classmate, Abe Hisae, who came from a family of hayashi drum musicians, who also played at Kabuki.  She would later be known as Mochizuki Tazae, and she was instrumental in allowing me to use a Mochizuki name, given by her father, Mochizuki Tazaemon X.  Once, when Tazaemon was playing at Kabuki, Tazae-sensei took me to the dressing room backstage, where I greeted Tazaemon.  Then my teacher showed me a door leading to a tunnel running under the theater.  It opened in the lobby.  We went into the theater to watch the show.  For free!  How does this work, I wondered.  My teacher told me to tell the usher I was a student of Tazaemon—studying by watching.  She also said standing was better, but if there were lots of empty seats it might be okay to sit.  That theater was torn down six or eight years ago, and a new one was built which is a pretty accurate copy of the old building.  However, I have only been to the new one once, and I did not confirm if the secret passageway was still there.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Memories of Japan I
 This bathhouse is now in an architectural museum, but it is similar to the one in my neighborhood.  The designers/carpenters usually build shrines and temples, in addition to public bathhouses.
 There is a mural to give bathers the feeling of being in nature, and Mt Fuji is the most common subject.
Coffered ceiling in the dressing area

I arrived in Japan in March 1978, starting what would be 36 years living there.  I landed at Haneda, the main international airport at that time.  The ‘new’ airport at Narita was not finished yet.  Haneda is on the edge of Tokyo Bay, which was pretty industrial in those days.  I rode the monorail into town; the views from the train were mostly lots of gray concrete warehouses and faint fluorescent street lighting.  I arrived at Moto-Hasunuma station in Itabashi-ku.  That neighborhood also seemed pretty gray, especially at night.  There were some small retail shops lining a narrow street, but they were all closed for the night.  My friend Kate guided me to the rooming house where my room had been arranged.  It was a small two-story frame building with about five tiny rooms on each floor, and a toilet at the end of the hall—yes, a Japanese-style floor-level squat toilet.  The room was not without its charms—it was floored with tatami, 4.5 mats in fact (about nine by nine feet).  Kate loaned me some bedding (I ended up sleeping on the floor the whole time I lived in Japan).  The room had a 0.5-mat space devoted to a square stone basin with a cold-water tap and a space for a single gas burner.  The ceiling was made of wood planks arranged on lath-like stringers.  There was a single bare bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling.  The door to the room was a sliding panel fitted with a hasp for a padlock.  An English woman and a French man were living across the hall.  Another room was rented by an American, and there was a very cheerful elderly lady living next door to me.  The elderly lady just happened to leave a cooking pot and a cutting board in the trash soon after I arrived, allowing me to furnish my kitchen on the cheap.

Since I had arrived late in the evening, exhausted from an international flight, I went right to bed.  The next day, I was ready for a shower.  But, no bath in our building!  So I asked the French guy across the hall to take me to the public bath (it didn’t open until 4:00 PM) and explain the etiquette and procedures, etc.  It was only slightly traumatic—the female manager seemed curious about me, and dropped into the men’s bath (pretending that she needed to check the water temperature) just as I was sitting on the edge of the hot tub (very hot, so escaping by immersion was not an option).  Well, once your modesty is totally gone, things are easier.  And there was a lot I loved about that public bath.  It had large boulders built into the tub, so you could lean against the hot rocks for a heat ‘treatment.’ 

The building was owned by Mrs. Otsuki, whose single-family house was next to our building.  At that time, telephone sharing was a thing.  Of course, I am talking land-based, that is all there was.  It was very expensive to have a phone installed—it required a huge deposit, actually a bond issued by the phone company.   For what, I don’t know.  Anyway, it was quite common for people to call the next-door neighbor, who would go next door and bring the person to their home to talk on the phone.  My boss called me several times at Mrs. Otsuki’s house, so I becam rather familiar with her living room.  For my outgoing calls, I walked to the bank branch on the corner, which had a pay phone outside.  Those phones were operated by 10-yen coins.   For ten yen, you just got 90 seconds, I think, but you could put up to ten coins in the slot, to make longer calls.  Any unused coins would go in the coin return.  One day, I realized I had left 20 or 30 yen in the phone.  When I went back to the bank later in the afternoon, the coins were still there!

As I tried to familiarize myself with the takeout foods available in the neighborhood, one of my first discoveries was kappa maki.  It was a dish offered by a tiny, takeout-only sushi shop.  I was not very interested in ‘fishy’ sushi at that point, so I got the kappa maki.   The kappa is a mythical being said to live around rivers, and they are thought to love cucumber, maybe because of the wateriness.  The rice is rolled around cucumber spears and flavored with sesame seeds, and wrapped in laver sea vegetable sheets. I discovered a tiny bakery where they sold egg salad sandwiches made with their own bread, as well as twisted fried donuts dipped in sugar.  I got my own eggs from the neighborhood chicken-and-egg shop.  Out on the main street where the subway station was, there was a chain bento shop the sold cheap box lunches, just a few dollars for the cheap ones with salmon and sea greens.   I began to recognize some of these shopkeepers, and the barber who cut my hair, as patrons of the public bath. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Memorable temples--Zenkoji in Nagano

This venerable old temple is dedicated to Amida Buddha.  The statue of Amida is said to be the oldest Buddhist image in Japan.  The story goes that two clans were feuding over the statue, which ended up dumped in a canal.  A man named Honda Yoshimitsu recovered the statue (one story claims the statue arose from the water and climbed on Yoshimitsu's back) and went on to found the temple.  The statue is actually a triptych with two attendant deities along with Amida.  However, this image is never on display--it is a hibutsu, a hidden Buddha.  For daily services, a copy is visible in the altar, and there is another higher-ranked image that is displayed for a special festival every seven years. 

The Nio-mon and the two guardian figures

The temple was founded in the Heian period, when Buddhism was first imported to Japan.  At that time, there were six major 'sects' of Buddhism that were named after particular sutras or teachings.  I use the word 'sects' advisedly, because many monks and scholars freely circulated to various temples depending on what they wanted to study, without much regard for the sect itself.  Nowadays, most of the Nara sects consist of only the original temple of each one.  As for Zenkoji, it seems to have been unaffiliated with any particular sect.  As the temple grew in size and popularity, it became necessary to have clerics manage the temple in a more organized way.  Now clerics of Tendai and Jodo share the ceremonial duties.  The chief priest of the Jodo temple, Dai Hon Gan, is always a woman, usually someone with a relationship to Japan's imperial family.  The temple of the chief Tendai priest is called Dai Kan Jin.  
The Dai Kan Jin, the temple of the Tendai chief priest

A weeping cherry tree in the garden of the Dai Hon Gan, the temple of the Jodo chief priestess

For overseas tourists, the location in Nagano city was a bit of a backwater, rather difficult to reach.  This changed when the Winter Olympics were held there.  Preparations included building a shinkansen bullet train line from Tokyo.  Now the faster trains reach Nagano city in about 90 minutes (from Tokyo).  

The temple Zenkoji is about 20 minutes on foot from Nagano station.  Buses are also available, but it is a pleasant walk when the weather is good.  There are many interesting shops, restaurants, cafes etc.  There are also a few smaller temples along the way, where you are free to step through the gate, enjoy the small garden, and put your hands together in front of the main hall (don't forget to drop a coin in the box).  Keep your eyes peeled--the small temples are easy to overlook.

Starting a few blocks from the Zenkoji temple gate, vehicular traffic is excluded from the main worshippers' path.  Various sub-temples line the road at this point, with cherry trees and other plantings visible beyond the walls.  Many of these are temple lodgings, including the one where I stayed, Fuchi no Bo.  These are actually temples with a priest in residence.  Lodgings with '--Bo' in the name are Jodo temples, while the Tendai lodging temples have names ending in '--In.'  Dai Hon Gan, the Jodo chief temple, is near the Nio Mon gate, with the Jodo temple lodgings nearby.  The Tendai main temple is near the San Mon gate, with Tendai-affiliated lodgings in the nearby area.  Commenters indicate that there is not much difference in the level of hospitality or ambience between the Jodo and Tendai temples, but each temple has unique features as well.  
Fuchi no Bo, a lodging temple

Dinner at the lodging temple was vegetarian, but the breakfast tray, above, had a couple of fish

The path approaching the temple

The Nio Mon gate has impressively large Nio guardian figures that are based on those in the great gate of the temple Todaiji in Nara.  They are powerful Deva gods that protect the temple from negative forces.  According to legends, the Devas will reach out to collar any bad guys that try to go through the gate.  The gate is not so old, maybe around 150 years or so--the gate having been rebuilt several times after fires.  Further up the path is the larger San Mon mountain gate (most Japanese temples are considered to be mountains, regardless of the actual geography).  Usually you can visit the upper story of the gate, although you must pay a hefty ¥500 for the privilege.  You get a good view of the temple precincts and an altar with an impressive statuary group.  You can photograph the scenery through the windows, although there is bird netting in the way.  When the gate was refurbished several years ago, they cleaned out six tons of guano (=BIRD POOP!) so I think we must forgive the netting.  Photos of the statues and the interior are not allowed. 
The gold-lettered name plate on the San Mon gate pops out against a clear summer sky
The 'Zenkoji' name plate--the top letter looks like the face of a cow-

In front of the main hall is a large incense cauldron.  Offering a burning bundle of incense involves sticking your hand through a hole in the side, so be careful not to get burned.

The main hall is unusual in many ways.  First, the main entrance is through the gable end of the building.  A guide told me this might be related to residential architecture of the time, and the fact that the temple was originally in Yoshimitsu's home.  The altar in the center is dedicated to Yoshimitsu, and the altar of Amida is set back and off to the left. By the way, The 'zenko' of the temple name is the Sino-Japanese reading of Yoshimitsu.  It is rather dark in there, so I sat down in the center to pray.  When I stood up, a volunteer guide informed me that the altar of Amida was to the left.  I should also mention that in order to approach the main altar, you need to buy another ¥500 ticket.  This is also expensive but maybe more worthwhile than the Nio Mon gate ticket.  For one thing, you can go through the Kaidan path darkness experience.  And you can also use the same ticket two days in a row.  I visited the first day on my own, and then used the same ticket for the early morning service the next day.   The free-entry zone of the temple has a famous statue of Binzuru, who was a physician.  You are free to touch this statue, and rubbing the part of the statue corresponding to any physical problems you may have is said to bring improvement. There are other impressive statues in the hall, although the hibutsu main image is never visible.  Also, check out the large platform with an array of ceremonial drums and bells.

This bell fell off its hook during a 19th century earthquake, chipping a nearby pillar

Be sure to check the wooden pillars supporting the part of the roof extending over the stairway of the main hall.  The four pillars are slightly twisted in relation to their stone bases.  My volunteer guide told me no one really knows the reason for this.  One theory is that it is earthquake-resistance technology.  In fact, the temple survived an earthquake estimated to be a 7 or 8 on the Japanese scale, the same scale as an earthquake that destroyed much of Kobe in the 1980s.  This earthquake was in the late 1800s.  In those days, people would often spend the night in the main hall, but no one in the temple was killed.  If you to to the far left side of the verandah (left as you face the altar) you will find a fairly large bell hanging from a hook.  The bell fell from its hook in the earthquake, leaving a mark in the pillar nearby.  It must have made quite a noise. 
Other notable buildings include a revolving sutra library--nowadays it is not turned much, but there are symbolic wheels you can turn as a substitute.  Further behind is a concrete Treasure Tower which has a memorial exhibition about a visit by the Dalai Lama (including a powder mandala that was preserved with glue instead of being scattered), a place for sutra copying, and an exhibit on curation of old statues.  The ticket for the main hall can also be used here, I think.  On the other side of the main hall is a garden area with lots of cherry trees, a bell tower, six large Jizo statues and other sights.

Check-in time was 3:00, and the procedure is done in the room.  The manager came and sat down to explain about the bath (in the basement), meals and the morning service.  The bath was communal, but limited to about six bathers in terms of size.  The meals were served in the room on large trays with everything arranged on beautiful crockery.  

To participate in the morning service, everyone assembled at 5:40 AM.  I figured the service would start at 600, but this was not quite accurate.  The manager appeared with a typical flag used by Japanese tour guides.  He led us a few doors up the path to the Dai Hon Gan and explained a bit of the local lore.  There is always a large red ceremonial umbrella that is visible when the priestess is there.  When she walks to the main hall for the morning ceremony, an attendant holds the umbrella over her.  There is also a man wearing formal kimono and hakama that walks ahead of her, a kind of bodyguard.  We waited at the San Mon gate.  When the Tendai priest emerged from his temple, also under a large red umbrella, two gongs on the bell came from the temple, signaling his approach.  It turns out that the Tendai priest sets out for the main hall a bit later each day in the spring and summer and a bit later each day in the fall and winter.   We were encouraged to join the locals in the custom of 'O Juzu chodai.'  This is a blessing from the priest, who touches you on the head with the tassels of his rosary.  To request this, you must kneel (one knee is okay) with hands together.  Our guide was surprised that he touched us with the beads rather than the tassels as he walked by.  Then we walked into the main hall for the Tendai part of the ceremony.  We were able to offer incense (in the form of chips) during the ceremony.  It opened with a long hymn sung by a group of about eight monks.  This lasted 20 minutes or so, and finally the doors of the altar were opened with great ceremony.  It was difficult to see very much, as the altar was in a deep recess.  The monks chanted a long sutra, perhaps the Amida sutra.  Then, the chief priest faced the congregation as we followed him in reciting 'Namu Amida Bu' (praise to Amida Buddha) ten times.  The ceremony also included recitation of the Jigage section of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra.  Our guide said we could sit informally on the tatami for most of the service but we should sit properly, in 'seiza,' for the nembutsu repetition.  Eventually, the altar doors were closed and a curtain lowered.  Then we filed to one side for the Kaidan darkness experience.  Basically, it involves walking through a pitch-dark underground tunnel that goes under the main altar.  The location of the altar is marked with a lock or door handle that you can rattle to express your desire to enter the Pure Land of Amida.  This is also the closest that ordinary people can get to the altar, although you can't see a thing.  Then you experience a symbolic rebirth by climbing up to the world of light.  

During our Kaidan tour, the priestess of Dai Hon Gan had made her way to the main hall, under her red umbrella, signaled with three strikes of the bell as she approached.  This ceremony was a bit shorter, and included a super fast run-though of the Heart Sutra.  We again did the ten recitations of the nembutsu.  As the priestess left the main hall, we again knelt for the 'O Juzu chodai' blessing.   Some of the lodging temples had more ceremonies in the morning, but Fuchi no Bo did not, so we were done for the day.  
Nagano is famous for soba (buckwheat) noodles--available at many shops near the temple
The temple stamp from the main hall

A stamp reading 'Fudo Son' from the  Dai Kan Jin
 n the shops along the main path, there are lots of rosaries, incense, sutra books and the like, as well as non-religious souvenirs including seven-spice pepper, cakes and so on.  For me, a good temple souvenir is the temple stamp.  I think many of the temples in the precincts offer them.  I got one of Fudo Myo-o at Dai Kan Jin and one in the main hall.  I didn't see any signs for them at Fuchi no Bo, but I think the priest there would do one if you requested it--it might lead to a bit of a chat with the priest, depending on how busy he is.

For a visitor with a strong interest in Buddhism, Zenkoji is worth the trip.  For a temple lodging experience, Zenkoji is right up there with Koyasan.  You could actually do a day trip to Zenkoji from Tokyo, although given the expense of the train ticket, an overnight stay would be more satisfying.  (Click on photos to see larger images)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Memorable temples--Sensoji in Asakusa, Tokyo

Almost every tourist in Tokyo has visited Sensoji--it is definitely among the top sights to see.  It is less well-known that the temple is the oldest one in Tokyo, founded in 645, according to Wikipedia.  The story: two brothers fishing in the river netted a small statue of Kannon (Kuan Yin or Avalokitesvara).  The village headman put the statue on display, which attracted many worshippers.  The temple was founded to house this statue.  To the right of the main hall, there is a shrine dedicated to the two brothers and the village headman.  Every other year, this shrine is the focus of a major festival, the Sanja festival.  Sanja refers to the three deified villagers enshrined there.  It is a prime example of the alliance between (so-called 'Shinto') shrines and (Buddhist) temples.  Anyway, back to the temple of Kannon.  The temple was visited by the famous monk Jikaku, who made a copy of the statue.  Some members of the Tokugawa family of shoguns patronized the temple; some of them (or some other patron) may be responsible for the famous Kaminari Mon gate.  This gate is a bit unusual, because it has representations of the gods of wind and thunder.  This may be for protection against storms and flooding, and is possibly related to another watery deity, the Dragon King, one of the supporters of Kannon. The subway station exits are near this gate--the view of the gate, a scenic willow tree and the long line of shops makes an immediate impression. 

Kaminarimon gate, featuring a large paper lantern and the God of Thunder (l) and God of Wind (r)

Many visitors do not make it past the long street of souvenir shops leading up to the temple.  For some, the commercialism is a bit shocking.  However, pilgrims everywhere, and especially in Japan, are eager to have a cup of tea, buy religious souvenirs, and buy a box of sweets to take home to Grandma.  It is true that there are probably three or four shops selling toys or junky souvenirs or sweets for every shop that sells incense and rosaries.  Regardless, please press on toward the main hall of the temple.  You will pass through the Hozomon gate (meaning gate in the form of a storehouse).  This gate also has guardian figures on either side.  Hanging on the wall facing the main hall is a huge pair of straw sandals.  I am not sure how this started, but offerings of sandals in various sizes are common in temples.  One explanation is that they are available in case the Buddha decides to go for a walk, but maybe we don't need to be that literal.  Passing through the gate, the impressive sweep of the main hall's roof dominates your view.  To the left is the five-story pagoda.  Old prints show the pagoda on the right side--I asked a volunteer guide why it was moved.  He said no one knows why, but here is my theory: on the left side of the temple grounds is another temple, Denzuin.  There is a beautiful Japanese stroll garden in the Denzuin compound.  In its present location, the pagoda contributes to the 'borrowed landscape' effect of the garden.  (Denzuin and the garden are generally not open to the public, but the garden is open on special occasions--check with a tourist info office.) 

The five-story pagoda and the Hozomon gate

Garden of Denzuin with the same pagoda seen in the distance

There is a huge incense burner in front of the main hall--it attracts lots of attention from sightseers, who like the story that patting the smoke on one's body will bring blessings, easing of pain, etc.  Just to the right of the incense burner is a small counter where you can buy a bundle of incense for 100 yen.  There are hibachis full of burning charcoal where you can ignite your bundle.  Carry it carefully to the incense burner to make your offering.

Clouds of incense smoke come from the cauldron. To the left is the ablution fountain.

Beside the incense counter, there is a place for o mikuji, a kind of fortune telling.  You put 100 yen in the slot, then pick up the cylindrical container and give it a shake.  Then, shake one stick out of the hole in the container.  That stick will have a number on it.  Open the drawer with the corresponding number and take the sheet of paper with your fortune printed on it (it has some English, as well as Japanese and classical Chinese).  You can take this home, or if you want some help from Kannon-sama, you can leave the paper tied on to a special rack for this purpose.    
The o mikuji container is filled with numbered sticks


Shake one stick out of the container, find the drawer with the corresponding number (and put the stick back in the container)
Next, on the other side of the incense counter (closer to the temple) you will find the ablution station, under the gaze of a large statue of the god Bishamon-ten.  This is the final preparation before entering the main hall.  You know the drill (if you have read my earlier posts on visiting temples): Dip out one scoop of water, swirl it a bit and pour it out below (this purifies the ladle).  Then, take another scoop of water--if possible, from the running water.  Rinse left hand/fingers, switch hands, rinse right hand/fingers, then bring a small handful of water to purify your mouth--don't drink directly from the ladle (although some people do) and you don't need to actually put the water in your mouth (although some people do).  Then, give the ladle a final rinse and you are good to go.

Bishamon-ten towers over dragons spouting water into the fountain
Go up the grand stairway of the main hall, or there is an elevator for universal access to your left as you face the building.  Many people line up in front of the large donation box in the center, but I feel this is not necessary, I just go right in on one side or the other.  The space is decorated elaborately--be sure to notice the dragon and heavenly maidens painted on the ceiling. The central altar is always closed.  It is covered with heavy decorated curtains that are changed from time to time (not sure why--seasonal, or related to the Buddhist calendar perhaps).  Usually there is a large Sanskrit letter, which represents the deity inside, Sho Kannon, or Holy Kuan Yin (one of the 33 forms of Kuan Yin).  There are usually elaborate offerings of flowers and sometimes saké, fruit, etc.  A few times a day, there are ceremonies featuring sutra chanting, where the priests enter to the sound of drums and bell.  There is a large offering box in front of the altar area, and this is where I drop my offering coins.  There is a bench around the offering box, which I think is for your hand luggage.  You should put your hands together to pray to Kannon, and it seems to be best if you are not burdened with shoulder bags or whatever.  Of course, this rule is not followed by everyone.  

A statue of Kannon is displayed in the main hall on special occasions
The statue of Sho Kannon is a hibutsu or hidden Buddha.  A member of the Asakusa volunteer guide association told me that the statue has never been seen by anyone in living memory.  According to this guide, the altar is opened only once a year, at midnight, with all the lights extinguished.  It is only opened for thirty seconds in complete darkness.  This is the strictest hidden Buddha that I know of.  Why are they hidden?  There are no stated reasons, as far as I know, but one possibility is that it makes people try harder to get close to or learn about the Buddha.  A copy of the statue was made by the famous priest Jikaku, but this is also never displayed.  On certain special occasions, another statue is put on display in front of the altar.  (Another example of a hibutsu is at the temple Gokokuji--it is visible at least one day a month-- I posted about this temple earlier.  Some other hibutsu are visible for a few days around Buddhist holidays.)

There are signs inside the main hall requesting no photography.  However, the signs are rather inconspicuous, and lots of tourists take pictures.  Once, when the statue was on display, I asked someone if it was okay to take pix.  The reply: if you don't use flash, *maybe* it's okay.  I suppose they don't want to chase down everyone who doesn't follow the rules--the atmosphere would be rather heavy.  But I hope that visitors will use their cameras discreetly, without flash or tripods, or noisy shutter sounds.  

The main hall is a ferro-concrete reproduction of the Edo-period original.  The sweep of the roof impresses everyone.

Behind the donation box, there is a mesh screen separating the altar area.  There is tatami on the floor there, where the priests conduct the ceremonies.  The entrance to this area is on the right hand side.  There is a rather brusque sign in English that says 'this area is for temple members only' or something like that.  This is not strictly true, but my guide friend told me that was posted because there were problems with tourists going into that area and causing trouble by touching things, making noise and so on.  So if you really want to go into the tatami area, you can, but you should maintain a respectful attitude, and speak to the person on duty there--maybe just a small bow and 'konnichi wa' ('hello').  For better effect, mention the word 'o mairi' or worship.  Leave your shoes neatly at the edge of the tatami area (notice how others are doing it), proceed quietly to the front of the altar and kneel.  There is an incense burner there with a coal smoldering under the ashes.  There is a container of incense chips.  You can take a pinch of incense and place it in the incense burner, with a bow (palms together) before and after.  There is a small offering box as well, and a donation is recommended--the incense has been purchased by the temple.  Other than that, as usual, the amount of the donation should be whatever you are comfortable with.  No one is checking.  

On your way out of the main hall, you will notice another omikuji place, and a desk where sutra books, rosaries, amulets and sutra copying sets are available.  These people don't speak English, as far as I know, but everything is visible in a display, so you can point to what you want.  There are amulets for various purposes--easy childbirth, school entrance, success in business, family harmony, and general ones.  You can get representations of Kannon in a few forms.  The cheapest one is a printed image that seems to be blurred on purpose--maybe that is connected to the hibutsu thing.  There is a nice temple-branded incense.  There is also a free bimonthly magazine, but you must ask for it, so it is better to ask in Japanese.  

The Buddha of 1000 months

If you leave the main hall on the left-hand side, you will find a garden zone with several small temples, nice for a quiet stroll.  There is an ancient stone bridge over a koi pond.  One of the larger temple buildings in this area has several Buddhas that correspond to the Chinese zodiac animals.  For example, I was born in the year of the tiger, which corresponds to the Bodhisattva Kou Kuu Zou.  This is where you can get a temple stamp, or just make a donation of a coin, incense or a candle in front of 'your' Buddha.  There are esoteric Buddhist monuments and also a Buddha statue with an inscription that tells us one prayer to this Buddha is the equivalent of 1000 monthly visits to the temple. 

After your temple visit, you might want to enjoy some kind of refreshment--there are lots of Japanese tea/sweets shops, coffee shops and all kinds of restaurants in all price ranges.  You will find something delicious no matter what your budget is--that is one of the charms of Asakusa.

At New Year's, you can get a cup of sake sold on the street, fresh from the barrel!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fukagawa Fudo--memorable temples

The old main hall of the temple is still the main entrance

Fukagawa Fudodo is not an independent temple; it belongs to Naritasan Shinshoji, which is maybe 60 kilometers away, near Narita airport.  (By the way, if you have a long layover at Narita airport, a visit to Naritasan Shinshoji might be just the thing.)  The main deity of Shinshoji is Fudo Myo O, the unmoving brilliant king.  One time, the temple sent a statue of Fudo to Edo (now known as Tokyo), and it attracted lots of followers there as well.  Finally, in 1881, the Fudodo or Hall of Fudo was constructed in Fukagawa, Tokyo.  The hall burned twice--in the great earthquake of 1923 and again in WWII.  However, the statue was moved to safety.  The old main hall, rebuilt sometime after the war, is a very traditional hand-built temple with a tatami floor.  The goma fire ceremonies at the Fudodo attracted many worshippers.  The first time I visited this temple, there was a goma ceremony under way, with everyone sitting on the tatami floor.  I just peeked inside, I was too shy to go in.  However, just the sounds of the chanting and the large taiko drum were impressive, even from outside.  At that time, a new main hall was under construction.  It was finished a few years ago, adding much room and something like 'stadium seating' to the space where the goma ceremony is held.

The new main hall is the rectangular building to the left
  The original Fudo statue is enshrined in the new space, while the old main hall was preserved, with the addition of a new, large-scale statue of Fudo.  You can still admire the traditional carpentry of the old main hall--decades worth of smoke and soot have been removed, although the texture of the wood has been highlighted where the soot has penetrated.  The new giant statue is also impressive.  The new main hall is to the left of the old one.  From an architectural standpoint, the new main hall is merely a rectangular building, nothing temple-ish about the structure on the outside.  What is remarkable is that the exterior is covered with a kind of screen made of Sanskrit letters, or bonji.  The letters spell out the mantra of Fudo, although they look like some complicated design to the unenlightened viewer.
These Sanskrit letters spell the mantra of Fudo Myo O, which is chanted during the fire ceremony
Traditional carpentry was used on this mid-20th century rebuild of the old main hall
You are asked to remove footwear before entering, and to carry them with you in a plastic bag.  The interior is now carpeted (although the old main hall still has tatami).  The goma ceremonial space is rather lofty, with the famous statue of Fudo (which is not really very big) high up on the wall.  There are elaborate canopies of gold hanging decorations--these are among the traditional features of the otherwise very modernistic hall.  The new hall is kept rather dark and dramatic--this may be to recreate the atmosphere of old ceremonial halls, which tend to be black with smoke.  As you approach the new ceremonial space, you discover four or five spacious tiers of benches.  There is also a tatami area just in front of the altar area, which could be used by those who want to sit on the floor Japanese style.  Actually, those tatamis are black, contributing to the brooding darkness.  There are four or five ceremonies every day, so you don't have to worry too much about the timing.  You can inscribe special prayer sticks to be burned in the ceremony, although I never have.  The ceremony starts with a clangorous large bell, calling the congregants.  Then, a small handbell is rung as the chief priest and assistants enter in procession.  Some of the assistants are blowing shell trumpets as they walk.  Once the chief priest is seated in front of the altar, there are some preliminary prayers and dedications (these can also be requested by anyone).  Then, the four huge taiko drums are sounded for the start of the fire ceremony.  These drums actually cause the floor to vibrate.  The priest does all his esoteric moves as the fire is built up.  A lay assistant brings sacred tablets to be purified by passing them above the flames.  (These tablets are also available on request--they are not burned, so I suppose you take them home.)  The drums sound along with the rhythm of the sutra chanting.  At a certain point, the lay assistant invites the congregants to bring personal objects like handbags to be passed above the flames.  Remarkably, even with all the chanting and ritual, the ceremony ends after about 30 minutes, as the last embers die away on the altar.  If you stick around, you might see the monks come in with vacuum cleaners and brooms to prepare for the next ceremony.  
A Shinto shrine to Inari-sama is on the temple grounds

The fox is the tutelary animal of Inari-sama

There is still much to see here after the ceremony.  There is a 'corridor of prayer' that runs under the main altar, so you can feel the power of the Fudo image above you.  The passage is lined with prayer beads and maybe some 1000s of Fudo statues.  In the next building, also a new construction, there are many more altars and statues of Fudo and other deities.  If you go up to the fourth floor, you can admire a huge ceiling painting of Dai Nichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha.  Some of these areas are nearly empty much of the time, and it should be possible to find a quiet spot for a few minutes of meditation seated on the tatami.  Outside, there is a 'Shinto' shrine dedicated to Inari.  There is also a shrine to the dragon gods, spouting water, where you can float a written prayer in the water.  There is also a spot where you can have your car blessed for protection against accidents--this seems to be a specialty of certain Shingon temples.  There are pavilions where you can buy amulets and sutra books and other kinds of souvenirs.  There is a desk for temple stamp inscriptions, and a special altar to return amulets and such that are worn out.  The temple has one or two kinds of incense on sale, but there is also a Buddhist goods shop in front of the temple that has a reasonable selection of incense.  
Shrine of the Dragon God

Ringing the bell symbolizes realization of your wish
Fukagawa Fudo is located in the part of Tokyo called Shitamachi, or downtown, a flat area, partly land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay.  It was the center of middle-class culture in the old days--there is still a geisha district here.  So there are many traditional shops selling sweets, crackers and other snacks.  There is a large modern art museum, a museum of traditional culture, a famous samurai garden (Kiyosumi Koen) and other temples, so a visitor could easily spend half a day or more in this area. As special as these cultural attractions are, I am sure the locals are very appreciative of having the Fudoson in their neighborhood.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Memorable temples--Gokokuji

The temple Gokokuji
The Niomon (gate with two guardian figures)

I first visited Gokokuji (mountain name: Shinreizan) six or eight years ago.  I was just finding out about esoteric Buddhism (called mikkyo in Japanese) and I didn't know there was esoteric Buddhism in Japan.  But there was a Tibet festival at the temple, so I went for a look.  There was an outdoor goma, or fire ceremony, conducted by the leader of the visiting Tibetan group.  There was a sand mandala, which I saw being created.  For the occasion, the temple opened the main altar, which is normally kept closed.  The image inside the altar is an example of a hibutsu, an image that is not normally shown to the public.  Well, I thought it might be cool to see something that is not normally shown to the public, so I went into the main hall.  However, my memories of that visit are pretty vague--I think I was still influenced by my experiences in a very exclusivist Nichiren-based organization that discouraged visiting temples of other sects.  The image in the altar is Nyoirin Kannon, which I had never heard of at that time.  However, I remember that the statue was rather dynamic, with head tilted, seated with one knee up, a rather sensuous pose compared to most Buddha statues.   

The main hall, Kannon-do, dedicated to Nyoirin Kannon

This hall is nearly intact from the 17th century

I recently visited the temple again, finding out a lot more interesting information.  The temple was founded in 1681 and the main hall is pretty much as it was when originally constructed in 1697.  It was founded by Keshoin, who was the mother of the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.  Keshoin dedicated the temple to the memory of her deceased son.  The interior of the hall is richly decorated, although much of it is darkened by time as well as the smoke from incense and candles.  Nyoirin Kannon is a form of Kannon that embodies both motherly love and invincible power against negativity.  There are around 33 different forms of the Bodhisattva Kannon--the 1000-arm one is well-known, the 11-headed one is very common, but Nyoirin Kannon is a bit unusual, in my experience.  

Two views of the esoteric Treasure Tower

I took my temple stamp album into the main hall.  The monk in charge did the calligraphy while I looked around the main hall.  There are lots of very old statues, and there was also a modern-looking oil painting of Kannon riding on a dragon.  After giving me the temple stamp, the monk told me a few things about the temple's history.  There is a group of statues on either side of the main altar, which the monk explained, are all the forms of Kannon.  These statues were commissioned by Keshoin after the death of her son, when she signaled the end of her worldly life by cutting her hair.  Some of her hair was put inside each of the statues.  These were dedicated in the hope that her son would soon reach enlightenment.  Motherly love!

The gate of 'no aging'

A guardian figure

Other notable features of the temple include the treasure tower (29th c.) and a guest reception house that was moved from the famous temple Miidera in Shiga Prefecture. Also, there is a gate with the inscription 'Fu Ro' meaning 'no old age.'  The inscription is in the handwriting of the shogun Ietatsu.  The temple is easy to find; there is a subway station named Gokokuji, and the relevant exit brings you out right in front of the Nio Gate.  Also, the altar of Nyoirin Kannon is opened on the 18th of every month.  The altar is opened during the sutra recitation starting at 9:00 AM, open to the public.  A free brochure has information about the temple in English

A leaping 'shishi' on the base of a large lantern

This gate is in the style of a samurai estate rather than a temple

Guest house from the temple Miidera