Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It takes some time getting to Chikubujima. You first must take a train up to Biwa's narrow northern shoulder, eternally bullied by the brawny peaks of Hirasan above. A boat will then take you to the island. On approach it looks in decay, centuries of guano having stripped many of the trees and eroded the slopes. Just off the boat, a photographer snipes you paparazzi style, then later will try to bilk you of 1000 yen. A flight of very steep steps begin here, leading up to the main grounds. Our group of five detoured first to the shrine. Along the way, a couple of smaller shrines hug the islands ridges, one to the white snake god (which I now know is a manifestation of Benzaiten/Benten) and another to the black dragon god of rain. It is easy to imagine the latter, rolling slowly across the waters of the lake, to wreak fury on the islanders who'd chosen to live in the middle of one of the oldest lakes in the world. No one lives there now, except for a handful of priests. One of them sold religious trinkets in a small structure that seemed to defy gravity. For a couple hundred yen you could buy two small disks, write prayers on them, then fling them sidearm through the torii arch out on a rocky promontory below.

We wandered down a small path to find a cluster of buildings that offered the required view and place to sit. Lunchtime. Above us, cormorants played gargoyle in the bare trees. Now and again a hawk would cruise by, eyeing our food but acting cool about it. We followed the trail a bit more down to the water, where we found what had probably been an old boat launch. Compared to the busy port on the other side of the island, this was very low tech with a mere two pieces of rope. I wonder how many monks escaped at night, to row over to mainland bars and brothels.

We walked back through the shrine and up to the Buddhist buildings above. There used to be more of a fusion here, but now the two religions have been sent to their neutral corners. The buildings are amongst the most beautiful I've ever seen, with gorgeous curved roofs, faded wood, and detailed animal carvings. Hōgonji's main hall elicits respect as it climbs skyward above the trees. Among other things, there is a carving of En-no-Gyōja here (though under a different name), a long hall built from the wood of Hideyoshi's boat, and Kannon statues showing her in all her various manifestations, as if it were Oscar night. Plus the obligatory statue of Kobo Daishi standing proudly overlooking all.

I stop by the noykojo and get my last stamp of the Saikoku Kannon 33 Temple pilgrimage. I'm quiet for a while after this, and I'm not sure why. When I started this pilgrimage in June 2002, I did it for my former father-in-law, then diagnosed with stomach cancer. I'm not much of a prayer, but I wanted to dedicate the spirit of my efforts to him and his fight. Little did I know I'd lose my own son four months later, then my father-in-law three months to the day after that. I suppose my quiet today is due to their being with me as I closed this sacred circle.

As we make our way back down to the boats, dragonflies swirl above us, appropriate to an island where the spirits of the dead are reputed to live. The ride back is cooler, the humidity and clouds of the morning burned off, the sky rich and blue, the details of the surrounding peaks vivid. A short walk off the ferry in Omi Imazu we find a quiet stretch of beach and baptize ourselves in the waters of the lake. Later, back in Kyoto, we'll take sacrament in the form of pizza and beer...

(Michael's photo accompaniment to this piece can be found at his.)

On the turntable: Chet Baker, "Boppin'"

1 comment:

Mikey Lambe said...

Hey Ted,

Thanks for that link. You know I was thinking, with beer and pizza as a sacrament we really ought to start our own religion. But the beer would have to be Moretti and we should definitely shorten the service.