Thursday, August 24, 2017

Racing the Squalls

You can't step in the same river twice.  Heraclitus' best known quote applies as equally well to Japan as it does to Greece.  When I arrived in Japan in 1994 I wasted little time in traveling across the country as much as I could, assuming, as most of us do, that I'd only be here a year or two.  I saw a good deal that initial year, but having limited Japanese, and only a basic understanding of what I was looking at.  Recently, with over two decades of experience as my guide, I've begun to revisit some of those places.

You can't step in the same river twice.  Nor can you bicycle the same plain.  I must have visited Asuka sometime in 1995, and followed a recommended hike down from Okadera to a bicycle rental place to finish the rest of the sites in the saddle.  I remember little of that trip, but have stronger memories of subsequent visits, mainly road walks detailed on this blog over the last few years, though the highlight would surely be the almost primordial Kodo gig amongst ancient tombs (especially the part where I wandered off during the Odaiko solo and was mesmerized by the shadow of the drummer dancing upon the stones).  The bicycle-friendly maps I'd seen during my walks had tempted me back yet again, and it was time to revisit the sites themselves, to interact and learn from them, rather than simply stroll past.

The heat of August is always unpleasant, making even the act of brushing your teeth a sweaty affair.  But it seems the perfect time to lose the few kilograms I'd put on during two weeks in Alaska.  The weather has other ideas, and the thunderstorm that awakens me successfully keeps the sun at bay.  Yet the forecast looks promising so I jump a train south, wincing out the rain-soaked windows.

I depart Asuka in sunlight.  As a stream of schoolgirls walk heavily down the station steps, I wheel in the opposite direction, east.  Not far off is one of Asuka's highlights, the Takamatsuzuka tomb, a pine tree covered hillock as evinced by the name itself.  The sides have been cleared and turned into a pleasant park, criss-crossed with paths for the cyclist or pedestrian.  I cycle up and around the pines, as beneath me, an imperial lost to history lies surrounded by an array of elaborate wall murals.  The Azure Dragon, Black Tortoise, White Tiger, and Vermilion Bird find parallel to figures found in a similar tomb in Mongolia, depicted as traveling in an entourage of Sogdianian traders of the Central Asian Silk Road. These, as well as the adjacent Asuka Bijin beauties are National Treasures, and defy any attempt to remove them due to the fragility of the stone.  (As such they were on view to the public for a short time earlier this year.)

A bicycle underpass brings me to a small museum whose highlight is a large diorama of the entire plain.  More important on such a hot day is the air conditioning and cold tea.  Out front, vine-laden gourds get a similar cooling due to a misting system, under which I too take a turn.  Behind the museum is a small pond, completely covered with lotus plants, many blooming a brilliant purple, a suitable august color, if using the term in both its connotations.  Two old-timers sit beside the pond, their camera lenses as large as cannons.  I am tempted to ask what they are shooting, but another mist begins to fall from the sky above me.  

Through a small village and into a bamboo grove, I come to the paired stones known as Oni no Manaita (Demon's cutting board) and Oni no Secchin (Demon's toilet).  Japanese legends are rife with oni, and due to the time frame, I presume that they began with encounters with larger, hairier refugees from the Asian mainland, who hid themselves as brigands in the hills, descending to raid villages and carry off food, women, and livestock.  This pair of stones is supposedly where their victims were carved up for dinner, and then subsequently disposed of through defecation.  

All this may have occurred during the time of Tenmu, the 7th Century emperor who had commissioned both the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the only "religious texts" associated with Shinto.  The gods seemed occupied with myself as well, if in the form of a heavier rain, causing me to find shelter briefly under the roof of a small gate to Tenmu's tomb.  The weather breaks out again a few minutes on, as I marvel at the Kameishi stone carved to look like a turtle.  Beside it is a shelter covered in corregated iron, which offered benches for visitors, as well as a series of shelves displaying local produce bagged and tagged at 100 yen.  It is easy to entrust the honor system, what with all the gods and ancestors about.  

After a brief rest, I pedal away with one wary eye on the western sky.  I follow a pleasant path meant specifically for bicyclists, with leads me through rice fields to Tachibana-dera, the supposed birth place of Shotoku-Taishi, and one of seven temples that he had commissioned.  The late 6th Century imperial regent was an early propagator of Buddhism,which had not long before been introduced from China as a way to civilize the wild tribes of the Japanese archipelago. The temple is named for a type of mandarin orange that comes from a tree transplanted from China, and is also well known for the Janus-like two-faced stone, carved to represent good and evil.  In the adjacent Ōjo-in hall, the visitor is encouraged to recline on the tatami mats and admire the 260 flowers painted on the ceiling.

In its day, the sprawling grounds of Tachibana-dera would have abutted those of the adjacent Kawahara-dera, whose modest form stands amidst an open patch of land, the foundations stones of its ancient incarnation still visible amidst the grass. It is a pleasant surprise in a country known for its shoe-horn approach to development.  I express this very point to the wife of the resident priest, how unusual it is that the temple lands weren't broken up by the pro-Shinto Meiji-ists at the end of the feudal period, or by the occupation forces after the war.  She smiles in a way that shows that she too is pleased.  I had initiated our conversation by asking the meaning of the sign out front claiming that this temple was the first in Japan to do sutra-copying.  This practice began in the 12th century, when the temple was already five centuries old.  Parishioners lay clear paper over a sutra (usually the Heart Sutra), and trace the characters in order to gain merit.  With the recent influx in foreign tourists, the temple has begun to offer the service in English.  The wife asks me if I'd like to try but I beg off, not liking the look of the sky and still having ground to cover.  

It is a gentle rise to Ishibutai tomb, a wide open patch of grass at the center of which is a massive pile of stones, the largest megalithic site in Japan  The grassy tumulus has long disappeared, but perhaps the mountain itself was meant to take on that role. There is little to see inside, so it is better to step back and ponder how anyone could have moved stones of such size (the ceiling stone alone weighs 77 tons), or the reason why, though similar sites can be found the world over.  

Asuka village proper begins here.  Backtracking slightly, I enter a small lane that has maintained the look of the feudal period that came a century after the height of the Asuka civilization, a look that is unspeakably Japanese to the foreign eye.  Simplistic buildings of dark wood stand shoulder to shoulder, most converted to galleries or cafes.  My ears pull the focus from my eyes, captured by a recorded lecture piped from one of them. Inukai Manyo Memorial Hall is dedicated to Professor Inukai Takashi, who walked throughout the country to sites related to the 1400 year old Manyoshu, one of the world's earliest collection of poems.  He felt that visiting the sites would bring a deeper understanding of their meaning, visiting 250 of them over 50 years.  His exertions led to the Manyoshu's current popularity, and he even collected a number of the poems which he illustrated in the form of karuta cards, a game popular at New Year's. His daughter has continued this work of illustration, and I read through a series that she has translated into English.  She joins me as I eat a plate of hayashi rice in the museum's cafe, the enthusiasm about her father's work as colorful as the prints on the walls around us.

Manyoshu has a close association with Asuka, and not far off is a even larger museum dedicated to the work itself.  But with the weather holding, I prefer the poetry in motion of bicycling.  I do make a brief stop at the Sakafuneishi which stands on a hillock above.  This large 5.5 meter stone sits alone in a stretch of bamboo forest, and it is presumed that the mysterious, almost alien-like grooves and channels carved into its face were for some ancient means of oil or alcohol production, though to me it resembled perhaps a primitive operating table (Though I have been recently watching The Knick).  A further section, mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, was discovered in the year 2000, and can be seen below at the foot of the hill.  

From here it is a short ride to Asuka-dera.  A temple has stood on this site since 588, built under the guidance of Korean craftsmen, (who had a hand in much of the culture developed at the time, and whose name resonates in the bizarre pronunciation of the kanji for many villages in the area).  I step inside and begin to learn about the temple's history from a young monk who seems happy to talk with visitors.  We stand before the temple's Great Buddha, the oldest in Japan.  There is a steadfast dignity in the old Buddha's gaze, unwavering since the year 606, but the scarring in the copper strongly reflects the impermanence of form.  This impermanence is further exemplified in a small pagoda that sits out back beside the rice paddies, which commemorates the death of Soga no Iruka.  His execution, and his father's subsequent suicide, marked the demise of the Soga clan, immigrants from the mainland who founded Asuka-dera and were the Asuka era's most important family.  

While the pagoda still stands, most other temples from the period remain only as foundations.  I play connect the dots with the ruins, most impressive being Dainkandai-ji's multi-level stone stele, and the Yamada-dera site, portions of which have been converted into the impressive Asuka Historical Museum today housing many of the old Buddhist art and relics. 

Similarly, Asuka-dera's original structure was disassembled to be rebuilt in Nara as Gango-ji, supporting that temple's claim of being the first in Japan.  Buddhism itself is based on the idea of change, and change to the area came quickly.  Unbeknownst to Shotoku Taishi, the coming of Buddhism was the beginning of the end to the Asuka, as the world he knew evolved into a more refined society due to that belief system's code of morals and ethics, followed by the more political Risturyo Codes a half-century later.   This codification too was a Chinese import, Confucian at heart, and thus began the rush to catch up with the Continent and throw off Japan's subordinate status. The imperial court entrenched itself not far to the north at Nara, and just after the turn of the next century, the move was complete, and the country began to take on a shape familiar to modern eyes.   

On the turntable:  James Galway, "Over the Sea to Skye"
On the nighttable :  Deborah Dawkin, "Knut Hamsun, Dreamer and Dissenter"


Oliver said...

Hi there -

Thanks for a nice read. Good timing - just about to take my kids to the new park around Kitora Kofun in Asuka.

Edward J. Taylor said...

Hello Oliver,

I did a follow up walk yesterday and saw tht park. My daughter would really love it. Maybe the kids can get together some weekend and you and I could meet-up. Please mail me tedtaylor(at)hotmail.