Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jingo's and Ji's in Nara and Kyoto

A trip to Japan would hardly seem complete without a few days spent in the country's cultural heartland. Kyoto and Nara, both former capitals, have between them something like 24 UNESCO world heritage sights and numerous else besides. Temples and shrines are coming out of your eye-balls so, just as we rationed the ones we saw and for the sake of diminishing returns, I will limit those I mention here.

Todai Ji (Nara)

Urban Nara gives way to intricately kept parkland. Alongside the mass of museums, pagoda, shrine, temple and trees are a herd of completely tame, hungry deer. They are seen as holy and as such left to their own devices, whether that be freaking the hell out of schoolgirls in search of biscuits  (see ANGRY deer warning sign) or occupying the most scenic spots for the hell of it. Naturally cautious animals ready to jump at the breaking of a twig, it is astonishing how utterly unconcerned these animals are. Like cows in India, it is clear who sits atop the tree.

Todai Ji is the park's prize asset. Last rebuild in 1709, the grand hall of the shrine (Daibatsu-den) is the largest wooden building in the world. It is immense. More than that, it is architecture of beauty, balance and refinement and conjures an atmosphere of peace. Rarely have I been so taken aback by the combined elegance and scale of a structure. Guarding the entrance to the shrine are giant guardians that look like they're going to jump out and eat alive anyone who takes their fancy. In wonderful condition considering their 13th century origin, they are a great introduction of what is to come. Cloisters surround an ornate garden which is split by the main pathway and towered over by the grand hall, itself topped with flourishing tile-work reaching to the heavens. Inside the hall are a number of other large wooden sculptures and, at its centre, a 16 meter high Buddha weighing in at quite a bit over 400 tonnes. We were overawed. How could we not be?

A real gem of a building that must rank with anything I've been lucky enough to see. If you get the chance, GO THERE!

Kiyomizudera (Kyoto)

Nestled on lower-to-middling slopes amongst the traditional cobbled streets of Southern Higashiyama, this place grabbed a part of us. A large gate welcomes you into a large temple complex. As you ascend further, you pass one Buddhist temple after another. All intricate woodwork and Buddha. The largest one cambers over the side of a lush lull in the hillside which pours out towards the city. The views are just phenomenal. The hilly green setting makes the city. We spend some time staring out and taking it all in.

Round the corner, down and up some stairs resides a charming little shrine. It has amazed me how Shinto (traditional Japanese ancestor worship) shrines reside in the middle of Buddhist temples. What is fascinating to the Western viewpoint is that, in general, the Japanese see no conflict between the two “religions” (oh OK, I know Buddhism may not technically be a religion, but it is a convenient term). For things of this world, people worship at Shinto shrines – marriage, fertility business etc. For things of the next and/or other worlds, Buddhist temples are the place –  including exclusivity over funerals. To me this element of people's spiritual life reflects very favourably against closed monotheistic beliefs in the west.

Then again, the Japanese do not exactly get full marks on the openness scale if you look back at their history – Christians beware etc. It is all a mixed bag I suppose. The privilege of being able to see such interesting places is that you can take what you choose. The good and bad in societies is particularly evident when you compare cultures and this comparison is all the more interesting in a country like Japan which is fundamentally so different while ever converging on Western society.

Back to the temple...or rather the small shrine. Covered in small charms for sale and sold and full of schoolgirls giggling on overdrive. This is a shrine of love and out front lie two stones roughly 10m from each other. As the tradition goes, if you set off from the first stone with your eyes shut and make it to the second stone without opening your eyes your love will be true. Those poor girls who missed the stone – doomed for eternity...

Our visit was topped off by another great vista from the highest temple and then, much to Christina's initial frustration due to time constraints, waiting in line with numerous more giggling school kids to drink of the holy spring. I was so caught up in the UV cleaned drinking pots that I forgot to make my wish.

We wondered out along some of the oldest streets in Japan. For stretches we had them all to ourselves. A look around a park complete with carp and a solitary heron, a bus, a shinkansen and we were away.
We had the big wedding to come!
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