Monday, February 06, 2006

Worth a Hill of Beans

Early Friday, I hooked up with Anna and her friend Sheffield Dave, currently on two-week holiday. We headed south to Nara, arriving at Gankou-ji a bit early, so we spent a couple hours just hanging out on the grounds. Kancho had redone the garden here, and for nearly the whole time I was engrossed in staring at the jizos. Four evenly spaced rows of shark's teeth. The perfect morning light cast their shadows on the moss. The Hondo was home to multiple figures of Fudo-Myo-O. His form and incredible presence, backlit by fire, makes me long for a life of dedication and austerity. These thoughts resonated awhile in the vacuous silence of the temple. And I wouldn't have been the first to think them, here in the oldest extant temple in the country.

After a quick shojin ryori lunch, a group of monks in mustard robes began chanting. they eventually settling on the Heart Sutra, repeating it for close to 45 minutes, over and over like children. Ah--beginner's mind. Things moved quickly after that, with a yamabushi procession and Takeuchi demos. (Kancho later explained to me the Takeuchi-Shugendo connection. I was thrilled to see two of my paths converge.) To the continuous sound of chanting and blowing conches, the yamabushi fired arrows into the bundle of sasaki piled high in the courtyard. After lighting the branches, they threw prayer sticks into the flames. As the sasaki had burned off, the yamabushi pulled apart the flaming wooden frame, lining up the logs for us to walk across, symbollizing entry into the fires of Fudo. This, plus generous amounts of sake, helped warm us all. As the afternoon wore on, the sun slowly went into hiding, and the wind developed teeth.

Being Setsubun (try Google or Wikipedia), the bean throwing was next. The usual chant heard throughout Japan is, "Demons out, Good Fortune In." But at Gankou-ji, the demons are also welcome. Just inside the main gate, a small table had been set up to sell multi-sized ceramic demons, painted by the mentally handicapped. One of them stood just outside the gate, yelling at the streams of people coming for the Mamemaki bean toss. Having not yet seen the table, more than a few people looked confused at the guy's ambiguous cries of, "Big ones, 800 yen! Small ones 500!" On a raised platform in the courtyard was a large platform from where a handful of local celebrities would throw bags of beans to the crowd. They threw the bags in all directions, and it was a bit scary to jump up to catch them, knowing that children and the elderly were scrambling in the dirt around my feet for those bags that got through. One old timer scratched me behind the ear with a mistimed leap. Being tall, it didn't take long to snag three bags, plus a soft rubber ball. I'd made eye contact with one of the tossers, an attractive woman whose large hair and slightly fading beauty suggested newscaster. She'd literally guided the ball right into my raised hand. Satisfied at my loot, I backed away slowly, ducking and dodging flying bags and hands. It must've looked like I was Salaam-ing.

Back in the Kyo, I'd promised to meet E-Ma Eric at Hill of Tara. I left my house on bike, the blinding snow and confusing streets causing me to head due west, rather than the desired direction of southeast. I arrived 30 minutes late to find a slightly peeved friend. But, happily the wounds were superficial, easily tended with a couple pints of Kilkenny. Our conversation drifted to house buying, translation, and the trials of grad work in a foreign tongue. As we talked, three people began to play some trad Irish music incredibly well. It was only on the way out that I noticed they were Japanese.

I biked through the still-falling snow to Yoshida Shrine. Arriving at exactly 11, I was just in time to see the lighting of another sasaki bonfire, this one as large as a house. Fireman in gray Darth Vader suits kept things under control with their large phalluses. Literally minutes after the fire was lit, most of the locals cleared out, leaving a group of about a hundred foreigners to drink around the warmth. I spied quite a few familiar faces (at first hard to recognize in the flickering light), and made some new friends. I'd long looked forward to moving to the Kyo and enjoying the anonymity I've long ago lost in the small confines of the 'Nog. Yet quite a few people here had already heard of me. Shit. I guess I'd been warned...

Feeling that my season had been satisfactorily split (look up the kanji, willya?), I set off, and thirty minutes of cold uphill pedalling brought me home. Getting into bed, I thought back on the those twin pillars of Japanese festivals. Fire and booze. With the occasional beans...

On the turntable: Sacred System, "Nagual Site"

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