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STANDING UNDER WATERFALLS: FINALLY I DO A JAPAN STEREOTYPE.

A visit to Mount Ōmine, the headquarters of Shugendō

WELL, I'm sure everyone is utterly shocked at this, but let me tell you a secret.

I procrastinated again.

Yes, I dropped the ball during my last month and a half in Japan. In my defense, we were all VERY, VERY BUSY. Writing research papers and going to class and attending Buddhist services. And ... a bit of aimless street-wandering. But I can promise you one thing; I WASN'T sleeping. Don't worry; I now intend to finish out this blog, aided by my extremely detailed travel journal. Which nobody else on earth can read, by the way. Pharmacists aren't the only ones with their own impenetrable fonts.

In early October, we visited Mount Ōmine to supplement our study of Shugendō, a Shinto-Buddhist syncretic religion centering around mountain asceticism. Shugendō is sometimes called the oldest surviving religion of Japan, since Shinto was never much of a conscious religious movement till the late 19th century, and Buddhist statuary and ideas made their way to Japan before the actual Buddhist texts. Ōminesan (Mount Ōmine) is the "headquarters" of the religion, the place where it was founded, and it's actually more of a mountain range. Its Gongen (Shugendō's kami-like mountain deities) is named Zao Gongen; the Ōminesan temple was founded in pre-feudal Japan by En-no-Gyoji, a devotee of Zao Gongen.

We stayed at a traditional pilgrim's inn called Hanaya Tokubei, located in the mountain village of Tenkawamura. It. Was. DECADENT. Aimee-Sensei's childhood friend was the owner. Of course. Its ofuro (bath) had big glass doors that opened onto a garden with a small shrine; the water came from a natural hotspring, and the bath was overseen by a statue of a friendly demon. The entire building was gorgeous and smelled like only the most amazing kind of wood -- which made sense because everything was made of amazing wood that was smooth and shiny and it all looked a bit like a very Japanese ski lodge. It was by far the nicest place we stayed during the program. You know what? I hate adjectives like "stunning." They are lame and don't mean much of anything. But god damnit, WHAT ELSE AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY. WORDS don't mean much of anything.

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It was easy to see, especially after visiting Koyasan, that there was a great deal of Shingon Buddhist influence in the Shugendō sect. The most noticeable example was Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful Shingon deity -- there were more images of him in the Shugendō temples than of any Buddha.
The village was small, charming, and surrounded by mountains. The view from any given spot would blow your mind.

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After dropping our stuff at the ryokan, we were immediately taken to the Shugendō temple grounds for the waterfall purification ritual -- wearing giant wooden clogs ingeniously engineered to make one fall on one's face. There they gave us very thin white robes (I take note of this because it was already pretty cold out). The waterfall was behind a wooden partition, and the men and women had to perform the ritual separately.

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The boys went first and the screaming made it all sound PRETTY HORRIBLE. Now, I love cold water, but the keening coming from behind that partition made me eeeever-so-slightly anxious, especially during the part where Sam started hollering like twenty ninjas were stabbing him in the face without asking first. For some reason when it was the girls' turn, nobody seemed to particularly want to go first, so I went ahead and did it.

The waterfall ritual serves to purify the yamabushi (mountain ascetic) or Shugendō practitioner before he/she/they goes into the mountains. The idea is to enter the pool, bow to the stone statue of Fudo Myo-o carved into the rock wall, then back into the waterfall and stay under as long as you can while reciting screeching Fudo Myo-o's dharani: "Nomaku samanda bazaradan / Senda makaro shada / sowataya un tarata kanman."

The water wasn't actually as cold as I expected, once I got under there. The troublesome part was that it was hammering down on my head so hard I could only remember the first line of the dharani. So I just screamed that out over and over again, until somewhere past the point of brain freeze to all-over HEAD freeze, when the sounds I was making no longer sounded like words because I wasn't quite sure I even HAD a tongue anymore. Also my head felt like death. But specifically the kind of death where somebody accidentally sets a whale down on your head and it kills you.

Aimee-sensei claims I was under there for five minutes; I don't know if that's true, but all SHE cared about was that I was under longer than any of the boys, thus proving definitively what she was telling everybody all along: women are just BETTER than men. She pushed this point especially when we were talking to the Shugendō priest, who she trapped in a verbal corner and demanded for an explanation of why women are still not allowed to enter the holiest part of the mountain.

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Once the shrieks of encouragement died down, the first thing I heard from the rest of the girls was "*extended stare* ..... YOUR LIPS ARE BLUE." I did not believe that for a second until I looked in the mirror and HOLY SHIT IT WAS TRUE THEY WERE SUPER BLUE and then I started to shiver and then I went back to the inn and got in the ofuro and I was still shivering after ten minutes of sitting in 104-degrees-Fahrenheit water.

Probably I shouldn't do that very often in my life.

That night the group was actually encouraged to get the craziness out of its collective system because this was probably the most laid-back place we would ever stay, so there was accidentally far too much sake and plum wine in my life and I MAY have decided it was totally okay for me to sneak into the men's ofuro at midnight because at the time I was feeling like a righteous champion of the war against gender segregation but I DON'T REALLY WANT TO GO INTO THAT STORY because that was ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED. AT ALL EVER. So let's go with "I didn't actually do that."

Do you know what it's like to wake up in the morning with the only hangover you've ever had, realize that today it is your turn to assume the responsibilities of Program Assistant, and then attend a lavish formal Japanese breakfast that requires you to sit in seza position staring down a slab of raw salmon? Someone inadvertently took a picture of me doing exactly that. I look MISERABLE. No, I am not posting it. I'm posting these NICE ones instead. (Photo credit: Melanie Pawlyszyn).

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After breakfast, we went on a hike through the mountains that followed one of the yamabushi trails. I think Zao Gongen took pity on me and suppressed my gag reflex as I groggily tramped up his mountain, trying (and SUCCEEDING!) to appreciate the beautiful scenery without retching all over the shrubbery. The path was tough, full of roots and rocks and steep slopes, and the more I exerted myself the better I stated to feel. Funnily enough, the least sick I felt was on a 50-meter-high suspension bridge that swayed ponderously underneath us. The whole village was visible from there, and the range of sacred mountains surrounded us on all sides.

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Side-tracking for just a second, I wanted to show this picture of the yamabushi's traditional outfit. Strangely enough, pretty much every part of this flamboyant thing has a practical purpose -- for example, there's an odd little black hat you strap to your forehead, but which also doubles as a drinking cup. There is also a pelt that hangs down from the back of the belt so the yamabushi can sit down comfortably anywhere. Yamabushi are AWESOME, you guys. I wanna be one.

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Shugendō practitioners have a practice where two yamabushi hold another off of a certain cliff, face-first over the edge. The one being dangled over that lethal drop makes a promise to Zao Gongen to improve him/her/their self in some way. If they don't swear convincingly enough to hold to their vow, they are pushed further over the edge. They are only pulled up again when their promises ring true. Sadly, Americans have a reputation for suing everybody for everything, so we weren't allowed to do this ritual. But I made a promise to Zao Gongen anyway, and talked to the kami continually as we walked. By the time our hike was over, I felt teeth-baringly, maniacally alive.

One of these cliffs is the one they hang each other off of!
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No. Effing. Regrets.

Posted by Niadra 17:53 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto mount hiking japan mountain buddhism bridge waterfall hike ryokan shinto shugendo ascetic omine asceticism ominesan syncretic tenkawamura Comments (2)

VISITING SHRINES AND FLIPPING A SHIT; PLUS ESOTERIC SECRETS

Or "Naia Doing What She Does Best"

Um so. Apparently for a while there I forgot I had to write blog posts, and was happily trundling across mountains and shit not remembering that my task does not end with writing in my journal. Damn. Now I have to write about a LOT of THINGS.

SEPTEMBER 19-28

The Monday we returned from Hokyo-ji we moved from our temple hostel, Hidatsumesho, to a secular inn near To-ji, a Shingon (esoteric Buddhist) temple where we attended morning services to compliment our Shingon studies. Here is our neighborhood:

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Here is what I thought of To-ji:

"The Shingon service is bizarre. The priests and laity are worshiping in the same place at the same time, but they are all just doing completely their own thing. The main priest sits the entire time with his back to the worshipers, his long flowing sleeves hiding the secret mudras only Shingon priests can learn and perform. Meanwhile, the laity chants sutras and dharanis. Even this, though, they do at their own pace -- some chant slowly, some at a breakneck speed; some just have loud conversations with each other in the middle of the service. They're almost all old people. At one point in the service , one of the priests brings out a small red back that supposedly contains Buddha relics of some kind, and people line up on their knees in front of the railing, a lot like communion in a Christian service. The priest touches the bag to their heads and their open palms while chanting something I don't recognize. After the service, everybody goes around the side of the building for tea and gossip. Basically I'm like, 'Okay, I guess I'm back home in Virginia now.'"

The second day we went to To-ji, I moved to the railing to be touched with the relic bag. The bottom of the bag was stiff, so I couldn't feel the shape of what was inside. It smelled earthy, like patchouli. After, I felt a lot more ... something. Clearer, maybe? More aware of my surroundings? Whatever the feeling was, it was unusual for 6:30 AM.

To-ji, incidentally, has a flea market every two weeks. But this is no ordinary flea market, my friend. No, it is simply THE MOST AMAZING FLEA MARKET I'VE EVER SEEN (and I've seen a few). It covered the entire grounds of To-ji and spilled outside its gates onto the sidewalk. They had EVERYTHING there. Food, handcrafted things, clothes, antiques, jewelry, books, art, phallic objects ... everything. I panicked. And I am not at liberty to divulge most of what I bought, as it was the majority of my gifts for people.

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Saturday I decided I was tired of planning and meeting and rushing around. Ben and Jake and I started to wander about Kyoto aimlessly, but then decided to visit Fushimi Inari shrine -- the one with the endless tunnels made of orangey-red torii gates. It turned out to be a short, cheap bus ride away.

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The place is so vast that over the course of six hours I did not even get to see the whole grounds. There were too many white people in the main shrine area so we ran away down some stairs and discovered a deserted graveyard straight out of a ghost story or possibly Spirited Away, the path to which was littered with half-buried, broken fox statues and offertory vessels.

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Then we discovered dirt paths to nowhere. They took us up a hill, by a lake, past a bamboo grove ... and then back to the main Shrine path.

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Ben left and Jake and I hiked up a bajillion stairs at the suggestion of an old Japanese man who stopped to bow at every altar along the way, whenever he wasn't accosting energetic couples to tell them to climb "yukkuri!" (slowly). At the top we found the promised "nice view," and it was glorious. So we sat there for a long time and I drew the cityscape.

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In other news, Melanie and I disgraced ourselves by reflexively bowing to a young Japanese guy we had just had drinks with. It was really super fucking awkward and he was freaked out and we felt like doofuses and so on the way home we bought ourselves pastries at a Circle-K and defiantly ate them while walking to prove we were actually rebels.

SEPTEMBER 29-30

This entry begins: "I was sopping wet and full of wonder for such a large percentage of today that I had almost forgotten it was possible to live otherwise. Mount Koya was incredible."

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and dropped our stuff off at a temple complex where we stayed with a bunch of other lay pilgrims. Then we were whipped off on a dizzying high-speed tour of Koyasan by Brian, who had a terrible cold but insisted on talking a lot anyway. First we visited Kongobuji Temple, which was huge and full of beautiful art. As per usual, we were given something utterly stupid like an hour to explore a place that deserved at least one whole day. I was about to lose it at any given moment as I was dragged bodily past dozens of gorgeous shoji screens and paintings and rock gardens and barely given the chance to stop and stare. We had to get to a Dharma talk on time. FUCK THE DHARMA TALK I screamed inwardly, I DON'T SPEAK JAPANESE. ....Well, they did teach me how to order at McDonald's and ask for directions. *facepalm.*

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Then we visited the Great Stupa. Oh. My. Jizo bosatsu. It blew my mind. Inside were statues and painted pillars arranged to form a 3-dimensional mandala, at the center of which was a huge golden statue of Mahavairocana Buddha. I was effectively rendered speechless. I just sat in front of the altar staring. His eyes were terrifyingly alive -- the light made them shine like real eyeballs, and his facial expression was similarly terrifying -- in the most positive sense possible. He was so colossal, yet so calm -- exuding rolling waves of power that turned all my organs over inside me.

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Then suddenly it was evening, and we were rushed to the gates of a gigantic cemetery (Okunoin), at the far end of which Kukai (also called Kobo Daishi), the founder of Shingon, has his mausoleum. He doesn't use it for being dead in, though. Oh, no. He's far too cool for that. He attained Buddhahood and entered into eternal meditation in 835, and has been sitting there being better than everybody else ever since. But seriously. This graveyard. I couldn't STAND how majestic and beautiful it was. It was Hokyoji's grounds times fifty -- massive, literally thousands of mossy crumbling graves, most hundreds or a thousand years old. Giant, weathered five-element stupas towered on both sides of the path, and little stone Jizos with their faces worn away huddled in the hollows of trees or stuck half-buried out of the dirt (every one, incidentally, no matter how worn or broken, had been adorned with a little red bib by a visitor). Everything was glazed with a thick coating of a vivid green moss which seemed to own the place.

Brian did not allow us to stop or take any pictures because we had to get to Kukai's mausoleum before it closed and I wanted to THROW HIM OFF MOUNT KOYA. The mausoleum was beautiful (though not as much as the rest of Okunoin), and we lit incense and candles and chanted him the Hannya Shingo (Heart Sutra). It's got to get old, you know? I bet Kukai wishes somebody would throw a performance of a Florence + the Machine song his way every once in a while. After that, we stopped by Aimee-sensei's ancestral grave (yes, of COURSE she comes from a famous ancient warrior clan who have a large and impressive grave plot on Mount Koya. Of COURSE she does) and chanted the Hannya Shingo there too, and donated the merit to her ancestors.

The temple where we stayed fed us entirely too well at every meal. I found it pretty suspicious, after Zen -- almost like we were on a movie set instead of a real temple. But then, we were staying as guests there, rather than trainees. In the morning we got up early (well -- not so early for us) to attend the Shingon service and goma ritual (a fire ritual where wishes are written on sticks of wood and then burned by a priest in a complicated ceremony). I sat in seza for over an hour. I INCAPACITATED myself. It took me five minutes to get enough feeling back in my legs to make a sake offering at the altar. I loved the service, though. The room was small, close, dark, and very smoky (the epitome of esoteric). There were a lot of monks there to chant, so the chanting was much better than at Toji -- it was mesmerizing.

After the service, we had free time. The shops were fairly homogenous and boring, so I took advantage of that time to return to Okunoin to make up for my wrathful deprivation of beauty the previous day. It was raining heavily; we had been told a typhoon was approaching. I took a raincoat but no umbrella. The Okunoin was even more beautiful than before in the rain. I touched everything I could, to ground myself in the moment and the place -- moss, puddles, the cracked faces of Jizos, the rivers running through the cracks in tree bark. I picked a clear spot in front of a fenced-in group of eleven great stone stupas, lay down on the soaking sponge-like moss, and let the rain soak every bit of me it hadn't found already. I just kept my eyes shut and lay there for a very long time, until I felt like the moss had grown over me, too. It struck me how perfectly beautiful and satisfying it would be to be dead in a place like that. I wish I could die there and never be moved.

I walked back so soaked that my clothes weighed me down. I couldn't even go into a store to buy lunch due to a (very Japanese) mortification over the possibility of dripping on their floor. So I bought some mochi and bottled coffee from a street vendor and went back to our temple to meet the group.

I had arrived at Koyasan in a state of isolation and crushing depression. I left feeling better than amazing. Koyasan is where I broke through to being able to FEEL Japan all around me, and I remembered that alone is essentially what I'm here for.

Posted by Niadra 20:59 Archived in Japan Tagged hiking cemetery buddhism woods buddha graveyard shrine bamboo shinto jinja inari kami bodhisattva shingon esoteric fushimi mikkyo Comments (0)

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