Saturday, January 03, 2009

'Round Midnight

We pass through the main gate of Shinnyodo near 11:30. The pagoda looms out of the dark, offset by the thin, darker tree twigs in front and grey-ish green sky behind, like some 30's German Expressionistic chiaroscuro. We find our place at the top of the steps of the temple's massive iron bell. We are standing below the log that is used to strike it. A few minutes later some monks come up, do a few chants, and grab hold of the rope attached to the log. They hit it on three, the arc of the swings going further and further past my head. The first peal of the bell hits me mid chest. It is hardly a peal. For a minute or more, the sound vibrates out of the dark, low and violent. The beams of wood holding the bell and the striker creak and groan above my head. I choose the wrong moment to remember that this structure is traditionally built, without nails. This is all repeated, again and again, as other monks take their turn. It is long before we too hold the rope, pull it back, and again, and again, building up the momentum. There is a strange machismo at work, not wanting the tone to be any softer than those of the people who came before. That's OK. This work of the ego will be washed away as the wood hits iron, along with 107 more of last year's well-earned sins.

We walk over to the statue of the crying Amida, which looks more upset in this low light. Then go stand by the fire, drinking some kind of tea, and trying to make out the faces of friends in the flickering dark. We find a few, and count down the new year. I feel post modern as I stare at the face of my cell phone. My count is a second behind everybody else's, my cell provider having already thoughtfully added a second to the old year. Miki and I kiss, then wander through the cemetery to Kurodana, our footfalls accompanied by the sound of bells ringing out all along the Higashiyama hills.

We awake early and bike over to Yoshida in order to catch the year's first sunrise. There is a small moon viewing deck behind a teahouse, facing east toward Daimonji. Luckily, there is no one else here, and we quietly sip our tea in the cold. The sky begins to lighten, revealing many familiar landmarks, including JesusChris coming out of the forest still dark. Unlike us, he's yet to go home. We wait on the sun's appearance. It's a cloudy morning. Giving up, the three of us wander amidst the old haunted stones of Takenaka Inarisha. Many of these stones have holes near the base, where the gods can freely come and go. Among them, we find a stone ox, an omen of good things.

JesusChris eventually heads toward his bed, but Miki and I move over to Nanzenji. Inside we find a couple dozen monks chanting, the depth of their voices filling the hall all the way up to the wide-eyed dragon painted on the ceiling. A priest of incredible years is bowing, his acolyte beside him, spinning a tray in his hands. The monks all then sit and begin to yell in wild loud voices, flicking their accordion-like sutra books back and forth in the way that a Vegas dealer shuffles cards. Some of these guys do it so quickly and adroitly that it looks like they have a waterfall between their hands.

We bike over to Nyaku-oji Shrine. A three-legged crow near the entrance hints at a connection with my beloved Kumano region down south. A few older timers are just getting the fire going. With every bow to the shrine, I get a touch of warmth on my bottom. We warm the top half with some sake and move along.

Partway down the Path of Philosophy the suns finally pops over the ridge, so we stop and pray again. Then on to KitaShirakawa Tenjingu, our local. Atop the high steps we find the wacky resident priest, his white robes matching the color of his long hair and wizard's beard. As he cleans up, he tells us he'd been awake most of the night. Hands joined together once again, hoping for some good tidings in this, our final year in Kyoto...

On the turntable: Portishead, "Three"

On the reel table: "Mon Oncle Antoine" (Jutra, 1971)

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