Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sleeping with the Taishi


Tentokuji is a large temple that sprawls around its garden. We seem to be the only independent travelers here, so besides our own room, we get the adjoining room for our meals, plus we get the baths to ourselves. If it weren't for the morning chants, I'd feel we were in a nice ryokan. We are awakened by the sound of bells resonating across the hour preceding dawn. At 6:30, we kneel before the altar in the Hondo, listening to the priest and his son chant in low guttural tones. With the low light and the clang of cymbals, we could be in a Tibetan monastery somewhere deep in the Himalaya.

After a sparse breakfast, we move toward the Gorin, we that we have this too to ourselves. The silence is suddenly cut by leafblowers. As I've learned in Kyoto, this is apparently a new traditional practice with modern monks. I really miss the soft shush-shush of a bamboo broom moving over stone. The sunlight on the buildings is enough to impress; our photos naturally framed by more of those massive cedars. The world surrounding the dull wood is particularly green this morning. We enter the Daitō first, which I decide later is the most impressive. This open pagoda is the womb mandala, with the Sun Buddha at its center, flanked by four other Nyorai. All towering gold, they stare toward the south with calm impassive expressions that somehow change perspective with every footstep. All these in turn are flanked by large well-painted pillars of 16 Boddhisattvas, each distinct and lovely.

The Kondō is next. A common theme between the structures up on Kōya seems to be those towering ladders stretching up to the roofs, and the paper cutouts before the altars.
The figures here in the Kondō look more Indian than in the other halls, including one Shakyamuni who looks remarkably like Jesus. Back clockwise around to the front again, the incense sticks that we lit earlier send trails toward the high wooden beams.

We pass the morning walking to all the other old structures on the mountain. The odd grooves in the wood trick my eyes into seeing sanskrit characters. Approaching the Saitō, I am facing a sight familiar from the cover of the book I've been reading. Walking the veranda of the low squat Miedō next, I am serenaded suddenly by that Can-Can music from the French Follies. The sports festival from the adjoining high school is using it as their opening procession, a song better known as BGM for lowbrow sex shows. I love (and sometimes loathe) Japan for its lack of context. I usually counter this with my own sense of irony, which deepens as I stroll a 1200 year old building with this song filling the air around me.

Tourists begin to come now, in groups of twos and threes, all of them foreign. Most of the Japanese come on bus tours, though they're nowhere to be seen. The single Japanese travelers seem to be henro, tanned and thin, clutching their staffs. A smaller version of the latter is being tossed onto the flames over at Aizenmyo. A monk sits before the goma pit, alternating throwing more tablets on the flames, tapping the metal hibachi with his 'tongs,' and moving his mouth which intones syllables we can't hear.

We head west out of town, which, while not as lovely as the eastern section, has the same appealing ski town look of two-story structures, the view of the towering cedars unimpeded by power lines. Add the fact that this is all surrounded by 117 temples allows the beauty to expand exponentially. At the town's far end is a massive Daimon gate, opening onto an array of trails leading away from the peace the prevails up here on this plateau. By contrast, Kumano had been so rugged and untamed, the lair of gods both loving and wrathful. Kōya is pure Pure Land.
We walk down the street past a pair of ancient women who wave to me. Miki is in turn greeted by a foreign woman on a bike. We stop at the museum, modeled after Byōdo-in in Uji. Inside we find the rooms to be high and wide and oddly Victorian. There is plenty of statuary to admire, including one series done where each of the wooden figures has eyes that are alive, skin that begs for a caress. While I'm not often taken with written scrolls, here I'm most amazed by a sutra
done in microscopic woodcuts, and a Heart Sutra done in blue.

There's not much English, so I head outside to wait for Miki, reading while a persistent bee practices landings with my foot as a runway. Then it's lunchtime, a lovely moussaka back at International Cafe. The owner is in conversation with an older priest relaxing in his samue with a cuppa. Besides the foreign tourists, this place seems popular with the local monastic set. A young nun comes in, looking exhausted , but with a grin that is the smile of any young woman in her 20s with a piece of cake before her. A foreign monk also comes to the counter, probably the Swiss monk who I've heard has lived on Kōya for 8 years. We too get our chance to chat, and after mentioning our impending plan, are given an 'underground' list of lodging for the Shikoku pilgrimage. He tells us that he doesn't give it to just anyone, making me suddenly feel like a character in "The Beach." He then knocks 400 yen off our lunch. Our first settai.

We work our way toward Oku-no-in, finally. On the way, we pass through the Burmese temple that has a tie with the book/film, "Harp of Burma." We make another stop at Karukayadō, with its story of Karukaya Doshin and Ishidomaru, done in murals. Then we cross the first bridge.

It is an incredibly serene world here. the height of the cedars comforts, as does the softness of the moss. They too are the Diamond and the Womb. The proud and ancient figures of the Gorintō are the sentinels who grant us leave to pass. Jizo dot the forest as if in a game of hide and seek. The graves are like an all-star team of Japan's greatest historic figures; they who made the country great. Not just the number, but the variety of people represented here further emphasizes Kōya's greatness. This mountain has quickly become my favorite place in the country.

After passing a couple hours looking at graves, we finally come to the Mizumuke Jizo. Here we get our first nokyo stamp for the henro. Next we'll get a tōba for Ken. I can't remember the exact kanji for his kaimyō, but the woman at the window tries writing out my pronunciation on a scrap of paper first and I immediately recognize them. The next task is to choose before which of the figures to place it. Of the seven standing beside the small stream, I pick the smallest, the oddest shaped, one slightly ugly. It should be easy to find in the future. I apply water to the strip, the damp ink streaking downward somewhat. We then cross the final bridge.

To the right of the stream stand a series of moss covered mounds dedicated to the Emperors past. Before us is a large hall dark but for the hundreds of lanterns. Each goes for $25,000. Despite the price, they also line a tunnel like path one floor below, plus another two-level hall next door, built especially for the overflow. We move around to the rear of the hall where a tour group is wrapping up their chanting. They move on and we're alone with Kōbō Daishi. We pray, then sit and wait for dark. It is completely silent, no other tourists in sight. The silence continues into dusk, then a lone cry comes from the forest, a reminder that night is the animal world. The subsequent calls of birds and insects has a different quality than in the day. Satisfied that night has come, Miki and I turn back to begin our 2km return through the cemetery. The path is lit by soft overhead lights, but they're spaced about 100m apart, forcing you to walk in darkness cut only by the low light emitting from some of the toro. This helps to created some fantastic shadows. The huge gorintō silhouetted against the night, looking like one of Sendak's Wild Things. Faces of statues also come out of the dark, the trees now become beams holding up sky. One of the most magical moments of my life. On the path, we pass only a few others, all foreign. Miki remarks that most Japanese wouldn't do this, being far too busy with baths and dinner. Ours too awaits, as we hurry against the cold...

On the turntable: Beirut, "Gulag Orkestar"

1 comment:

wes said...

i'm finally catching up on all of your posts.

great work again. Easily one of the best descriptions of Koyasan out there.

Looking forward to reading all about the Shikoku pilgrimage now that I've finally absorbed all of the Kumano Kodo posts.