Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slouching toward Shikoku


...we awake at 5:30 and walk toward Oku-no-in as temple bells begin to peal. The cemetery looks almost two dimensional in the fog. Three monks are chanting at the Gōkyo, slower and deeper and even more Tibetan than at the service yesterday. We go around to back to Taishi's tomb and meditate awhile. Then a quick prayer asking for protection as we're about to trace his footsteps across Shikoku. On the walk back, sunlight begins to spot some of the mossy stones, animating them.

We have breakfast, pack, then get a bus for the cable car down. We are standing in front, the car submitting to gravity, moving down the steep pitch as if an automobile in idle. The driver has little to do but brake and inch us into the station.

On the next train, we lurch through the mountains toward the River Ki. We are once again back in the wild land of the gods, and I can see how this formidable range kept out invaders. Back on the plains, today's invaders are the other passengers. I hate that we have to pass north of the Ki and out of the land of the dead, then return all the way back to Osaka. I'm not ready for city yet. The bodies hem in much too close, and I can't quite concentrate on my book, having been too relaxed by all the space I got these three weeks on the road and in the mountains.

Then on the ferry. I spend most of the crossing filling in my journal, but feeling the need for perspective, I go out on deck. If I go from dry land to dry land without a glimpse of water, I'll never be sure I actually left Honshu. It is windy, the waves high, large freighters rolling as they pass through our wake. Tall shafts of white reach up Awaji's rocky southern sides. I cross to port and look past the bow at the shoreline of Shikoku which we'll walk for the next few weeks or so. I go back inside to pee, my stream drawing a crescent moon as the boat breaks the swells.

On the turntable: Fleetwood Mac, "Roadhouse Chalk Farm"
On the nighttable: Frederick Barthelme, "The Brothers"

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"

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

To the High Wild Mountains

We get on a train before seven and spend the morning revisiting the songlines we'd made over the past two weeks. It was like watching a slide show at high speed. We have the "View Car" to ourselves. For some reason, no one else chooses to sit in this wide open, spacious car with glass running from floor to ceiling. It's a long journey, one that won't get us to Koya until early afternoon. The final approach on a cable car inches us up a slope at nearly 45 degrees.

We spend the afternoon walking the temples on this quiet mountain. We follow a saffron monk with billowy sleeves to Nyonindō, where until 100 years ago women would have had to finish their ascent of this sacred mountain. It stands just outside the town's gate, so seems a good place to begin our rambling. Inside the temple hall is a statue of En-no-Gyoja, with fierce glowing eyes that bring life to the darkness. In front of neighboring Benten is an ihai for the comfort women of WWII. The main priest here answers all our questions, his effeminate nature perfect for his position. Like the Hijira of India, or the transgender shaman of many cultures, I wonder if this role is chosen by the community.

We make another stop next door at Naninji, with its picture of Namikiri Fudo, cutting through tempestuous seas so that dharma-laden Kukai could return home safely from his studies in China. A well behaved dog sleeps on the 'front porch.' I toss pebbles to a kitten, which chases them around spasmodically as they bounce. Behind the hall is a circular pool ringed by at least a dozen Jizo. It looks remarkably like a rotemburo. A small mausoleum to the Tokugawa is just over the wall, like a mini Toshogu, yet unlike the busy bigger shrine, this one stands quietly among the trees. The trees on Koya deserve special mention, huge and majestic and old. Japanese forests are at their most beautiful when left alone. One of the smaller groves hides a small temple that looks to be one of the oldest in town, and the Thai script over the main gate hints at international connections.

Beyond it, the Kongobuji too is nearly hidden, the forest thick around this simply massive structure. There are huge buckets on the roof, with long ladders extending toward them. We take our time wandering the rooms and long corridors, many lit with oil lamps from centuries ago. We take tea in a large hall, which contains a painting of the character of "Shin," stylized to look like a mustacheo'd figure with a doughnut. A nun walks past the hall and down the corridor. Walking behind her, I note how she has retained her femininity despite the shaved head and baggy robes. We follow past the rock garden, two dragons swirling together amidst white sand. Most impressive is the kitchen, everything familiar but built to an awesome scale. The blackened beams have seen thousands of meals, as have the clay rice cookers that can serve 200.

We move down the town's single street, past shops whose architecture goes back over a century. Some of them have lofts that now serve as cafes. It's refreshing, the lack of chain shops, flashy neon signs, or powerlines. The clouds are moving in and cooling the day, so we duck into the modern International Cafe run by a guy who speaks English and French. The cappucino I order from him gives me an intense rush, my body not having had strong caffeine for weeks. I had a similar equilibrium problem as I went cold turkey earlier in the walk, listing strongly left for three or four steps. It is a wonderful day, one where we don't have to get anywhere, and can let the hours fall away quietly, slowly...

On the turntable: Ricki Lee Jones, "Balm in Gilead"
On the nighttable: Edward Abbey, "Resist Much, Obey Little"