Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Meet the New Gods. Same as the Old Gods. (TSH XI)


I can't remember when I was down in Nara last. Probably two springs back, when I'd watched my mom and Maggie get pulled around by a young rickshaw driver. Today was a very warm July day, with the majority of the deer lounging listlessly in the shade. This time of year, their coats are shabby and their heads untrimmed, and as always, a few were panhandling the tourists for food. The museum had a special exhibit of the treasures of Horyuji, a few of which will never be seen by the public again. Very Japanese idea that, the value of something being based on how few people have actually seen it. What I did see, in spades, were the tops of many, many heads. As usual, it was too crowded to really see the exhibits, and the elbows of old women seem to get sharper every year. (Hadn't I once sworn never to see an exhibition in Japan ever again?) So I went through my usual pattern of being annoyed for about a half hour, until the sheer annoyance of it turned upside down and became comical. Most amusing was how, when a place opened in front of a display, a handful of people would make a quick move to fill it, reminding me of the movement of hungry carp jostling for food. Mostly, I found the whole experience disappointing by the fact that there were so few sculptures on display. The best stuff was in the permanent exhibit, housed over in the beautiful Meiji-era wing. Plus lots of space in which to gaze and dream. Fascinating how the statues began to transform through the centuries, losing their distinct Indian flavor to become more Chinese, then eventually become what we are used to seeing in temples throughout this country.

Miki and I grabbed some food, rudely eating on the train as a subtle form of revenge on the pointy-elbowed brigades seated around us. The end of the line was Tenri, where we planned to start one part of the Yama-no-be trail, the most ancient of Japan's numerous old roads.

Tenri is a small city which rose around the growth of the Tenri sect. (Think Salt Lake City.) The train station was at the open mouth of a long shopping arcade, which seemed to thrive despite similar arcades across the nation dying with a spectacular sucking sound as money is pulled out of the countryside toward the capital. Here were shops selling vegetables, selling robes, selling toys, selling Buddhist paraphernalia. Millions of pilgrims passing through have brought the money back from the capital again. At the opposite end of the long arcade is the main headquarters of the Tenri-kyo. The complex is surrounded on all sides by massive dormitories with pitched, Chinese-style roofs, making me think of housing projects crossed with the hotel in the film "Spirited Away." A massive temple serves as the heart-center of this space, space being the key word here since unlike most other Buddhist temples, there was no alter bearing candles or images, merely a large pit open all four sides. It was if four temples had been fused together, with an entrance at each cardinal direction, facing toward the dormitories beyond. At first I cynically thought that this religion has no center, but Joseph Campbell later informed me that within it is a post that marks the spot from which mankind evolved.

Miki and I entered and knelt awhile, enjoying the cool air and soft tatami. In the short time we were there, dozens of followers came in from each of the four doors, knelt before the open space before them, and did these perfect half bows. Then they'd start in on a chant, their hands tracing out a series of mudras in time to the rhythm. It was beautiful to watch, especially the kids tracing out smaller forms with their tiny fingers. Beside the families, there were also a few young couples, dressed as if this were part of the day's date. Many of the followers wore uniforms similar to judo practice tops, all black, and wrapped with that thick belt coveted by martial artists worldwide. One young guy sitting in front had a powerful and mesmerizing voice. I could've stayed here all afternoon, had we not had a 16km hike before us. I honestly felt really moved by what I saw, at the sheer faith that the followers displayed. I sometimes wish I had a strong unwavering faith in something, but for now I'll have to trust in my cynicism.

We stepped outside, past the shoehorn wallahs armed with the tools of their trade. In front of me, I was surprised to see two foreigners stop their bikes, do a perfunctory bow, then ride off again. Were these two members of this religion, or merely a couple of JET teachers working locally and made to do this as part of their living here? Puzzled, I moved on.

The rest of the day, we wandered in the shadows of the mountains, without actually entering them. At Isonokami Shrine, we watched the sacred long-tailed chickens, flitting from branch to branch like kids on a jungle gym. The trail took us past quiet ponds shaded by lily pads, between ancient burial mounds, and along waterways which fed the many fields and rice paddies. It was like walking through the Kojiki, but for the stones inscribed with passages from Basho who walked here a couple millenia later. These served as a reminder that time plods ever on, and is constantly being marked by bright minds attempting to make sense of our brief place in it. The day was growing hotter, so we took refuge in the shade of a house in one of the many villages we were to pass through. Someone had laid out some complimentary tea and sold veggies on the honor system. The reading material on a shelf nearby was very, very nationalistic, somewhat contradicting the open approach to strangers. Later in the afternoon, a squall broke overhead, but we sat happily on the steps of a small temple, enjoying the rhythms the rain played on the surface of a pond. An hour later, the rain caught us again, the two of us running to the shelter of somebodies makeshift barn. Further on we climbed up to a small shrine atop a tomb. Littered about were the bodies of about a half-dozen freshly killed crows. Well spooked, we quickly moved on. We entered the forest then and the shrines and temples began to take on a thicker concentration. This slowed our pace significantly, and we arrived eventually at Sakurai Station well past dark. Riding the train north, we sat tired but happy, out footfalls having taken us along one of the nicest hikes in the Kansai...


On the turntable: Bob Marley, "African Herbsman"
On the nighttable: Malcolm Gladwell, "Blink"
On the reel table: "Fort Apache (Ford, 1948)

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