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Oh yes, this blog was a thing I was doing. Hello, blog. I am back to write you. Let's pretend I wasn't ignoring your calls for six months?

Aww, you're so forgiving. That's why I love you.

So, SHIKOKU PILGRIMAGE. The big finish to our time together as a group before our two-week travel period. Never mind that none of us could stand each other anymore and wanted to be running free and alone through the streets of Tokyo laughing maniacally, offensively drinking bottles of water WHILE WALKING IN THE STREET, staring down the shocked Japanese citizens, daring anyone we met to tell us off (for the record, no Japanese people in Kyoto actually seemed to care if we drank or ate while walking, but our program director insisted that they secretly thought we were appalling heathens).

First, though, let's get seriously religious all up in this shit. Shikoku Pilgrimage, yeah. We can do this, right? We can be super holy and generate merit and things, yeah?

Let's find out.


Shikoku is an island in Japan, but it is also the name of a pilgrimage route of 88 temples located on the island. This route was first traveled by Kūkai, also known as Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Pilgrims respectfully refer to him as Odaishisama, and all pilgrims are treated with reverence not only for their ability to generate merit, but also because any one of them could be Odaishisama in disguise. Despite the fact that he's been walking this route since the 700s, Odaishisama never tires of making Shikoku Pilgrimage. A pilgrim's staff usually bears the legend "Going Together With Odaishisama," to signify that on pilgrimage, one never walks alone -- Kōbō Daishi is always there too, even if you can't see him. People make the pilgrimage for different reasons -- tourism, asceticism, to generate merit, to be healed of a sickness or problem, or sometimes even to atone for terrible deeds (I heard of two retired businessmen, friends who agreed that when they retired they would make the pilgrimage together to atone for the unscrupulous things they had done for their jobs). For those who visit all 88 temples (we visited only 15), it may take months. It can be done the traditional way (walking), or by car (seeing as we had limited time, we did both, but there was plenty of walking even for us). Pilgrims are doted upon by lay people, because showing them kindness and providing them with food, shelter, and other amenities means you get a share of the merit produced by their religious asceticism.

So. Pilgrimage. Apparently it involves people stuffing you with food all day. I guess all the walking plus being a major Field of Merit requires a constant influx of potential energy (read: homemade mochi).


We arrived in Matsuyama City, Shikoku Island at 9:30 the night of the 26th, and proceeded straight from the bus to THE CRAZIEST HOTEL ROOM EVER. Wait WHY. Aren't pilgrims, you know, supposed to be practicing a form of asceticism? Why is this room so big and splendid, with matcha-colored tatami and a STAGE? and wait what's behind the decadent curtain on the stage hang on that almost looks like...


...a karaoke machine. From the nineties. With cassettes.

We couldn't make it work. So we just ofuro'd (the baths were also decadent and splendid) and flopped straight into bed.


The next morning we left at 7:50 wearing our white pilgrim shirts (donated by Aimee-Sensei's former-famous-baseball-star friend), 10,000-yen straw hats, wa-gesa (symbolic priestly mantles), juzu (prayer beads), and carrying jingly walking staffs (okay, so I don't know the technical term for the jingly walking staffs).


I had expected that we were going to be walking at times with other pilgrims, but what actually ended up happening was that we had a permanent, photo-taking, tittering entourage of Japanese people we had never met and were not introduced to. As we later discovered, they were our sponsors (friends of Aimee-Sensei's who had helped pay for our trip, our food, and our religious paraphernalia). This would have been nice to know at the outset, but instead I spent the whole first day wondering why the paparazzi were after us and could we get a restraining order before they shoved us into an unmarked white van and introduced us to our new home in their basement. As we were later informed, however, our fan club included several former professional baseball players and a retired bank president. I gathered that this is what wealthy retired people do in Japan: pay for American students to go on pilgrimage. Laugh at their terrible Japanese. Take selfies with Americans in pilgrim outfits. Collect merit. Repeat.

Honestly, we must have been hilarious. I want to be a retired Japanese bank president. It's the only way you can buy entertainment like that. Really though, I'm not actually that cynical; they were REALLY nice people. But they were getting way too much of a kick out of our pilgrimy shenanigans, and by "kick" I do not mean "spiritual fulfillment."


The temples were all disgustingly gorgeous, as I had come to expect out of all things manufactured in pre-occupation Japan. The first one was 1400 years old, one of the very first Buddhist temples in Japan. It was so old that when it was built, JAPANESE BUDDHIST MONKS DIDN'T EXIST YET. So the first abbot was Chinese. The architecture was truly unique -- a blend of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian. The current abbot performed a special ceremony for us to mark the start of our pilgrimage. He chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) like a pro, or possibly like Superman -- all by himself, apparently without drawing a breath, while keeping time on a gigantic drum whose vibration shook our ribs. It reminded me of taiko drumming.

We visited one more temple on the mainland, then took an incredibly weird-looking but very efficient boat to Shima Island, where we visited three more temples and trekked around the island, stopping to chant the Hannya Shingyo to every single Jizo statue we saw along the way (and believe me, there were many).


First, though -- can you guess? -- we were fed lunch. Several very smiley old ladies had set up a picnic lunch outside with all sorts of local food, including rice with octopus tentacles in it and a really strange orange peel jelly. It was all really good, though. Well... maybe not the jelly, on second thought. But as Aimee-Sensei never stopped reminding us, it was our "obligation" to eat absolutely everything we were given. "No choice, we have to say 'thank you so much!'" She said this repeatedly and in a very dire tone, as if we were undergoing some terrible task for the sake of humankind, against our fervent wishes. We weren't. We were pretty okay swallowing our giant boxes of obligation. (Obligation tastes like mochi and tentacles!) Speaking of mochi, the old ladies kept handing us orange-flavored mochi patties that we rolled around globs of bean paste and devoured without mercy. I will never love another mochi as I loved that mochi.

If you're wondering why all the oranges (mikan), I guess I forgot to mention -- Shima Island was COVERED IN ORANGES. Almost literally. In Matsuyama in general, orange trees freakin' EVERYWHERE. And if ever there was an orange better than a Matsuyama orange, it was beaten to death then set on fire and kicked into the ocean by the Matsuyama oranges. And now they reign supreme. Forever. Also, you can buy a huge bag of them for 100 yen (about $1.50 at that time).


The last temple we visited on the island came as a shock to me because of its familiarity. I think I had actually seen a picture of it the previous semester in my religion class, The Power of Images. The steps leading up to this temple certainly were a powerful image: a long, steep set of stairs with a railing down the middle, into which was set a series of big, Tibetan-style prayer wheels. As you walked up, you could brush your hand along the railing and set them spinning, twirling the sutras inside and generating merit.


Now I come to a certain point in my story, the point where the hairline cracks in the delicate egg of my sanity were given a righteous smack with the spoon of the-time-Aimee-Sensei-decided-to-show-us-off-to-hundreds-of-old-people-without-telling-us-what-was-going-on.

It went like this:

We returned to mainland Matsuyama, got into a bus, and were driven to a large convention center. Aimee-Sensei told us in extremely vague terms that we were there to watch some kind of "traditional musical instruments performance by some old people."

That is not what happened.

We walked in, were given more food (soup with lots of lovely bits, no I do not know what they were), and Aimee-Sensei left us in the lobby for a while. We then had to finish our soup very quickly after Aimee-Sensei came rushing down the stairs fretting that "they are waiting for us!" (Apparently, there had been some kind of mix-up and they had been sitting and waiting for us patiently for THREE HOURS). We were then thrust headfirst and blinking into a large room.

I noticed several things in quick succession.

First, we were on a stage. Second, there were many chairs facing the stage. Third, these chairs were filled with several hundred Japanese people all over the age of sixty or seventy. Fourth, they were looking at us like we were supposed to be doing something.

Stage. We were on a stage dressed as pilgrims in front of hundreds of old people and they were NOT playing any instruments in fact it looked rather more like WE were the ones expected to play the instruments except there were no instruments. We all stared at each other for about thirty seconds. It is possibly worth noting at this point that there was not a single spark of panic in me. I was by now completely desensitized to not having a clue what was happening. It briefly entered my head that maybe we should try tap dancing. Then Aimee-Sensei grabbed a microphone. She made a long speech in very fast Japanese, eliciting lots of laughs from the audience. Then she had us introduce ourselves and invited the audience to ask us questions, each of which was answered by one of us. The answerer was defined as whoever Aimee-Sensei threw the microphone at. A white-haired gentleman stood up and asked me why I wanted to do Shikoku Pilgrimage. I told him "Watashi ga Odaishisama aitai" (I want to meet Kōbō Daishi). He seemed to find this answer entirely satisfactory. Then Aimee-Sensei said lots more words, the few of which I could understand gave me the impression she was making fun of how much we eat and how silly we are in general, and we were rushed out. It was one of the most WTF experiences of my life. Objectively, I know this. And I accepted it as readily as I'd accept one more giant piece of orange-flavored mochi when I was already sure I was about to founder and die of overeating.

I believe this incident beautifully sums up my entire experience in this Japan program with a single elegant phrase: "What the FUCK just happened to me and why am I okay with it?"

Then our sponsors took us to dinner at an Italian buffet full of desserts, and we ate EVEN MORE FOOD and marveled at the ability of obligation to expand one's stomach. Sam and I observed to each other that all our should-be ascetic practices seemed to end in being colossally spoiled and laughing our asses off with snarky Japanese people.


It was a crazy day, we were all exhausted, and there was much sleeping during our brief stints on the bus. Every time we sat down in a seat Sam fell asleep on me. We went to three temples in the morning. One was super gorgeous; the grounds were covered in trees and there were lots of Jizo statues nestled in their shade. I have realized that a disproportionate amount of my photos are of Jizo statues, and am forced to claim for myself the title of "Jizo Connoisseur Extraordinaire." You might think it un-Japanese of me to use so much French. You would be wrong. You would however be right in thinking it un-Japanese to be utterly devoid of humility. Touché, you.


In the afternoon, the bus took us to a mountainous area and we had a giant amazing soba lunch at a middle-of-nowhere restaurant with a view of mountains and fall leaves.


At a small but expensive pottery store nearby, the retired baseball star found out each and every one of our zodiac signs and proceeded to buy us all expensive porcelain keychains with our zodiac animals on them. He made the clerk go into the back to find more rams because almost everybody was a ram. We did not know what to do with our faces. They were very much the color red. Then we walked a long, steep path up the mountain to Iwayoji Temple, the 44th on the pilgrimage route. The way was steep and slippery, and kept changing at every turn -- sometimes it was a narrow set of slick steps hemmed in by trees; sometimes a broadish open road flanked by little stands selling food and tea and souvenirs. Before the last flight of steps up to the temple, there was an incredible lineup up stone Jizos, arranged like packed bleachers at a massive sports game. I've never seen so many in one place before.


Up the last flight of steps to a temple literally built into the mountainside. Towering above the building was a sheer rock face dotted with natural caves that altogether resembled a gigantic face -- that of Fudo Myo-o, the wrathful Shingon deity to whom the temple was devoted. Tiny, motley, and weather-worn statues of Fudo Myo-o made of wood and stone were scattered around the grounds, propped up on ledges and decaying on the ground. One of the volunteers came around and handed us all tiny flashlights, then led us into a dark cave in the rock. Inside, worshipers chanted the Hannya Shingyo to hundreds more statues and dolls of the deity by candlelight.


This temple was unquestionably my favorite. The sense of awe was palpable, especially inside the cave. We also met another English-speaking pilgrim there, an Austrian man who was making the pilgrimage by himself. That settled it for me: I'm coming back someday, and making the whole pilgrimage on foot.

Oh and also we found a crab on our way down. MOUNTAIN CRAB? Why not.

Afterward, we were taken to a place that apparently functioned as an all-in-one ofuro, vegetable market, and venue for private parties (what?). Our sponsors had set up (surprise surprise) an amazing banquet with sashimi and strange Japanese/American picnic-type food (corn dog things and french fries and various tempura items were much in evidence on the same platters).



Oh yes they did.

And the retired baseball star sang a soppy old Japanese love song to Aimee-Sensei, who became enraged and beat on his leg (the only part she could reach without getting up) because the song was apparently about a dead woman. Then she shoved Ben and Jake up to the machine multiple times, insisting they sing The Beatles (the only "American" music that every Japanese person will always force you to sing). Then I looked in the karaoke book and discovered they had an actually quite decent selection of English songs, including The Killers, so I forced Addie and Jake to come up with me and sing "When You Were Young." We were a hit.


On the last day, we only went to three temples, the last of which was overwhelmingly incredible. It's where most pilgrims start and/or end their journey, and I can see why. It's the most un-Japanese temple I've ever seen in Japan. The minute we stepped onto its grounds I felt like I had been sneakily teleported to a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage site in India. The place was huge, smokey, market-like, and covered in colorful prayer flags and paintings of Kukai or wrathful deities.


We were crammed into a small, dark hallway jammed with variously-sized wooden statues and paintings of buddhas and deities. We were handed sets of plastic juzu (prayer beads). This was to be part of our pilgrimage closing ceremony, but as usual, nothing was explained to us before it just HAPPENED to us (which was an interesting addition to the experience). And we were taken two by two behind some shoji screens, which blocked the others from seeing the ceremony. I could hear chanting as we stood in the semidarkness, packed in close with strangers, staring at the statues, some of which were beautiful and some grotesque (read: equally beautiful, but more interesting). The hallway was also jam-packed with fake flowers, tucked into every available receptacle and into the hands of statues. It took me a while to notice they were fake, actually, and the only reason I did notice was because I realized the smell of that many flowers in such a small space should have been overpowering.

Then all at once I was called up to a small, cluttered altar, had a really strange crown-like paper hat put on my head, told to kneel, and to repeat some mantras (one of which I recognized as Fudo Myo-o's, the same mantra I had screamed over and over again under the waterfall at Mount Omine). They gave me a vajra to hold to my heart, which was attached by a long string to the Buddha statue on the altar. They told me it represented the Buddha mind and to reflect on all the things I had done over the past few days to hurt people or make them uncomfortable. And that's just what I did. They dipped a long stick in a vessel of water (later explained by Aimee-Sensei to be "Buddha's pure water"?) and dripped it onto my head. They they tossed us out to wander around the temple grounds on our own for a while. It wasn't until I stepped out into the sunlight that I finally felt the cold water trickle through my hair to roll down my face like a tear.

Outside I used my little mucking-about time to buy an e-ma (letter to the kami) and dedicate it to my parents. It was mostly them I had been thinking about. How much I owed them.


That night Aimee-Sensei took us to (apparently) the most famous ramen shop in Japan for dinner. Interestingly enough, the most famous ramen shop in Japan does not have a name. She also informed us that the mayor of Matsuyama had bought us all expensive Daruma folk dolls. I don't THINK we ever met him, unless he was secretly part of our giggling entourage. What the fuck, Japanese people. I do not know how to handle your magnanimity. I'm surprised I made it out of the country without being killed under a rolling avalanche of food and presents.

I need a bumper sticker that says "Pilgrims have more fun."

Posted by Niadra 19:49 Archived in Japan Tagged mountains trees food leaves japan temple religion india fall island buddha sacred buddhist ancient tibet pilgrimage foliage journey crab prayer pilgrims shinto spiritual oranges deities shikoku sponsor matsuyama deity bodhisattva e-ma shingon esoteric fudo myo-o kobo daishi shima mikan merit mochi wrathful kukai founder Comments (0)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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!

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)


A 5-Day Retreat at Hokyo-ji, a Soto Zen Monastery

Yes, I realize this is an obscenely long post, but DEAL WITH IT.

Brian and Eimi-sensei built up the tension for Hokyo-ji so much that, by the time we arrived, I was ready to call us badasses for making it through the first day. Much to my confusion, however, I did not feel like dying of mortification in the slightest -- despite the fact that training at Zen monasteries feels very much like how I imagine military boot camp. Hey Dad, you think you were a badass swimming through a pool full of sharks? Well, I did a few hundred prostrations the other day and sat in seza position every time there was a table in front of me. Beat THAT. I bet I've venerated more ancestors than you have and I've definitely eaten more takuan pickles. YEAH. BE proud.

So basically, we were lead to believe that the food was going to be made out of arsenic and pond scum and we'd never ever figure out the eating routine or how to use the oryoki (Soto eating utensils/bowls set) anyway and starve and we'd be beaten bloody if we so much as swallowed in the meditation hall. Well, good news: it was NOT that bad. It was not bad in any way, shape, or form.


We took the train on the morning of the 12th to a town called Ono in Fukui prefecture. On the way we passed Lake Biwa and many Princess Mononoke-worthy mountains. In fact, I knew the universe would not forgive me if I didn't listen to Princess Mononoke music while I gaped at them. So I did.


Three monks met us at the station, promptly ushered us into a couple of SUVs, and proceeded to drive us up a narrow mountainside road. The entrance to Hokyo-ji was flanked by Jizo (bodhisattva responsible for children and travellers) statues and a small Shinto shrine dedicated to the Kami of the mountain -- the reason for this is that every time a Buddhist temple is built, it is acknowledged that the land already belongs to a Kami, so a shrine is a way of gaining/confirming the Kami's approval of the temple.


Hokyo-ji's grounds are GORGEOUS. Okay? Gorgeous. No, you still don't understand. YOU. HAVE. NEVER. SEEN. This level of gorgeosity. Towering trees; hundreds of cracked little stone boxes of Jizos and other bodhisattvas and Buddhas scattered liberally around the place; everything that should be covered in moss IS. And the inside was no exception, although I almost hesitate to call it "inside" -- the architecture of the temple makes it almost unnecessary to distinguish between inside/outside. During the day all the doors and windows (of which there are more than walls) are open, so that there's a constant breeze wandering through the place and dragonflies are always flitting in and out without a second thought. I couldn't help but roll my eyes every time I walked through the hallway leading to the zendo (meditation hall) because of the view out its giant windows. I'm like, "Dude. No view is that good. PLEASE." And when I saw the view of the fog-shrouded mountains from the front courtyard? "PSH. THAT is a BACKDROP." You know you've reached critical Gorgeosity Processing Capacity when everything is so pretty you refuse to accept that it hasn't been Photoshopped. I swear I spent 50% of my time in between activities at Hokyo-ji hanging out a window or sitting on a step staring intently at the view and TRYING TO FORCE MYSELF TO ACCEPT that it existed on the same plane of existence as me.

Japan_Month_1_504.jpgJapan_Month_1_505.jpgJapan_Month_1_565.jpgJapan_Month_1_554.jpgJapan_Month_1_552.jpg(Top left is the building where the kitchen and eating rooms are located, as well as a shrine for Idaten, the kitchen god. Top right is the Zendo where the monks meditate).

The monks were all very welcoming and helpful, and not frowny and yelly like the Rinzai ones. There were eight of them, not including the Abbot, Docho Roshi. The first day we learned such things as how to wash our feet, how to brush our teeth, how to wash our face, and how to eat food substances out of vessels with utensils. All things we figured we already knew how to do. HA. HA. HA. That is all I have to say about that.

Gaze upon my bowls, ye clumsy, and despair.

The women had two surprises: we had been told by Brian and Eimi that we were going to have to meditate outside of the zendo, because women were not allowed in the room where the monks traditionally slept as well as meditated (although they don't sleep there now); we were also told that we would be sleeping somewhere at Hokyo-ji. But on arriving we were told that we would be sleeping at a lay retreat center a little down the road -- a huge building where we had all the feral geckos and cold showers to ourselves, plus a beautiful view of the stars. But! We were also allowed, despite our gender -- as far as I know, for the first time in Hokyo-ji's history -- to meditate in the zendo with the monks and the male students. That was pretty exciting, to put it mildly. As Docho Roshi later told us, he had left the matter to a vote among the monks, and the majority voted to let us in the zendo. Score one for AWESOME MONKS.


The next day, the 13th, I only had time for a Cliffnotes version of a journal entry. I include the highlights here:

-Woke up at 3:30 AM, driven to temple complex by monk in SUV. Morning zazen rocked. Didn't budge an inch the whole time.
-Breakfast iffy. Monks very helpful but Buddha bowls and utensils and cloths entirely too complicated and rituals too random.
-Samu (work/cleaning) disappoints Brian because the monks have us pulling weeds instead of cleaning toilets. Brian asks if they will make us clean the toilets. Monk asks "....why??" We don't end up cleaning the toilets.
-More meditation for AN HOUR AND 20 MINUTES. Legs do not fare well.
-Sutra recitations for morning service and dozens of prostrations. Chanting much more fun with monks present.
-Snack and tea AMAZING BANANA CAKE AND GRAPES DONATION from parishioners
-More sutras, not enough room for prostrations and everybody gets too friendly
-Free time and I wander around the grounds gaping at the MOST BEAUTIFUL BEAUTY that looks like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke had a supermodel baby covered in moss and mountains and Jizo statues and tadpoles
-Monks make jokes. Language barrier does not prevent me realizing that these dudes are awesome.
-Dinner is least stressful meal because they have to pretend to the Buddha that they are not actually eating after noon
-More meditation that goes far too long and I have to meditate on pain and imagine my mind and my pain as bickering roommates inhabiting the dormitory of my body and that helps sort of but is a really weird image
-It bothers me that a group of people so obsessed with perfection of ritual would wash dishes with cold water and no soap and also no attention to detail.
-Back to our place and shower in the bathroom that sounds like an abattoir because of all the screeching resulting from showers that fluctuate wildly between arctic and searing
-Alex tries to save a gecko and it bites her. We name it Percival in retaliation.

This is what you see when wake up at a Zen retreat center at 3:30 AM. Only not blurry, because you are not a frustrating camera trying to operate in the dark.


I wrote this journal entry while sitting on the steps of the Buddha Hall looking out at a perfectly-preserved Edo-period peasant hut that for some reason Hokyo-ji has on its grounds, situated against the backdrop of the mountains, their peaks blurred by roiling clouds. You could almost pretend that the last 400 years never happened (if you're good at ignoring telephone poles).


During morning zazen, Docho Roshi unexpectedly broke the dark and silence in the zendo to tell us a story about how he came to be a Zen monk. I guess you could say it was a Dharma talk. He told us that when he was 19 or 20, his close uncle died, and he studied dozens of religions looking for answers. He couldn't understand through his grief how people could still want to talk to each other and laugh when death was so inexorable and interaction with others makes you lose your true self. He told us that silence and zazen were the best ways to know ourselves and stay connected.

After the usual sutras and breakfast, Alex, Jake, Addie and I were taken with two monks and Ray -- a former monk who spoke English and had come to stay at Hokyo-ji to facilitate our visit -- to do takuhatsu. Takuhatsu is the tradition of alms-collecting begun by the Buddha himself, which originally consisted of "begging" door-to-door for food, but which now consists of going from shop to shop and house to house in the town, chanting sutras and accepting money donations. However, they still wear the traditional Japanese takuhatsu garb -- black robes, a large straw hat, and wicked straw sandals that rub your feet raw and don't extend under your toes and suck up any water you walk over.

Japan_Month_1_580.jpgJapan_Month_1_583.jpgJapan_Month_1_581.jpg < This is the little shrine by the front entrance for Idaten, the kitchen deity. They chant him the Hannya Shingyo every morning. I guess he likes that.

After we had puzzled our way through tying on the sandals, we piled into two SUVs again and drove down the mountain to the town. Jake and I were alone in a car with a monk named Kosho who didn't speak a whole lot of English. He told us in Japanese we were going to chant the Hannya Shingo (Heart Sutra), and then it was like an awkward car sing-along where only one person knows the words. Every once in a while we would feebly interject "hannya haramita shingyo" or "gya tei gya tei hara so gya tei!" But essentially we had to leave the merit-generating up to the expert.

Then we all parked, split into groups, and went around from door to door. As we walked we would sort of chant loudly and wordlessly, presumably to alert people of our presence. It was 7:30 so a lot of the shops weren't open yet, but a lot of people were up and about (trust the Japanese to not lie in till 8 AM like SOME lazy people we all know). Stopping in front of a house, we would stop and chant a disaster-preventing Dharani (chant for which the original meaning of the words has been forgotten). Eventually, someone would come out of the house and give a donation, and we would hand them a leaflet from Hokyo-ji. If nobody came out of the house, the monk would pronounce a benediction anyway and we'd leave a leaflet in their mailbox and move on. People on the street were very curious about the gaijin doing takuhatsu. I was reasonably convinced that most of the people who approached us on the street to give money were really doing so to get a closer look at us. One lady leaned over to peer under my straw hat. We asked Ray if people ever get annoyed having monks chanting outside their doors. He said a lot of people do. I know I'D appreciate it, even if it was at 7:30 in the morning, but that's just me.

After takuhatsu the monks drove us to a little wooded area with pure stream water to drink and a little hut where Jakuen Zenji, the founder of Hokyo-ji (~800 years ago), apparently liked to visit. There we sat on stumps or the ground and had tea and snacks with the monks and Ray, who translated for us. Kosho (the Hannya Shingyo car-chant-along monk) was very talkative and did a hilarious impression of Ben when the monks woke him up that morning. Kosho asked us all our hobbies, and when we asked him what his were, he said "being one with myself." He then explained that whatever our hobbies were -- athletics, writing, art, etc. -- whenever we work to become skilled at something, we become distanced from our true self. This made a lot of sense in my mind. It made me think of how I present a different facet of my personality to cater to the people I'm with, and how in large groups I feel uncomfortably incapable of being my true self, even in the privacy of my own head -- although I don't I necessarily want to commit to the opposite practice of silence and distance. Still, I had the most incredible sense of respect for his words, because they were so obviously full of experiential wisdom. Watching this big, tall, fun-loving-uncle-type guy sitting on the ground, perfectly at ease in his monk's robes and our presence; his perfectly contented expression as he talked, set against this unreal backdrop of tall, straight trees, burning with late-morning sunlight -- it was profound to realize what an incredibly COMPLETE person he was. I mean, this was a guy who five minutes earlier had been singing to himself in a baritone "Tiny Kangaroo Dance!" (Apparently a song he used to sing when he was three), and doing flailing impressions of people in our group. Oh, and in the car, asking me what the English word for "yatta" was, so we ended up saying "yay" about everything until the car stopped. And in the clearing, we kept seeing these little frogs everywhere and every time one hopped up all the monks would point and advise us sternly, "don't eat!"

So anyway the moral of the story is that monks are the coolest, because they can be profound one second and hilarious the next and also they get to live at Hokyo-ji which makes them the winners in my book. Also, in the kitchen later when we were washing dishes, one of the monks asked us "Why your teacher talks SO LONG?!" I nearly died.

Kitchen, where non-self and non-soap are one and the same.
Dining hall, with oryoki stashed on a shelf above the table.

Evening zazen that night was great. I was in a lot of pain, but after our discussion with Kosho I decided to try and meditate on the self. At first I got some really weird mental images -- I was trying to trace my idea of myself over time when I suddenly saw me holding a five-year-old version of myself affectionately in my lap. Then, somewhere, a bell rang twice and I took her face in my hand and turned it both ways and realized that she was bruised and dead. That was unpleasant, but it improved from there.
The shooting pains in my legs got really bad. For some reason, though, meditation is more productive for me when I'm in pain. I continued to try and trace my self. Somewhere in the course of my meditation, I managed somehow to incorporate the pain I was feeling into my conception of myself, so it became a part of me -- pretty much the opposite of what I was trying to do yesterday by imagining my pain as a temporary inhabitant of my body, separate from myself, sure to go away soon. This time, though, I surrendered to the pain in my legs and hips and relaxed into it. The hurting didn't go away, but somehow I became comfortable WITHIN it, and when the bell was rung, I really didn't want to move.

When I came out of this meditation, I felt like I had been given some kind of necessary jolt. I became a slightly different person entirely, and I think that's stayed with me. I finally felt like I was really THERE at Hokyo-ji, and the mountains didn't seem too perfect to be anything but a backdrop anymore. The view out the windows was beautiful, but it was REAL and present to me. I felt genuinely peaceful and happy and glad to be where I was. Sure, my legs hurt all the time and I got a max of 5 hours of sleep a night, but I realized that Hokyo-ji is the first place I've ever managed to feel completely at home after only a day of being there. Who would have thought that that one place would be a ZEN TEMPLE where you have to bow to a bodhisattva before you can so much as enter the bathroom and some of the stairs you have to go up sideways for reasons unknown to me and every meal is like disassembling and rebuilding a rocketship and you aren't even allowed to walk with your arms hanging at your sides?


This day was one of the most amazing, by far. The night before, our whole sangha of 8 decided that, in order to get the most out of our experience as possible and get into the true spirit of Zen, we would spend the day not saying a word unless it was entirely necessary (e.g., "What time is the evening service tonight"). Being silent among other silent people really heightens all your senses and keeps you in the moment. And I began to really understand Soto Zen's founder Dogen's teaching that practice and Enlightenment are one and the same. The most boring daily task at Hokyo-ji, done in silence, feels like a profound spiritual experience.

On this particular day I came to appreciate Hokyo-ji even more than before. In silence I could experience the miracle of the place to the greatest extent yet. I not only noticed the beauty of the architecture and geography more keenly, but also the beauty of their community. The whole day I was just filled with an overwhelming sense of fondness for the monks: joking, laughing, serious, chanting, meditating, everything -- and the temple: creaking floorboards, lingering smell of incense, strenuous ritual, difficult-to-open doors, everything. Just as I feel sullied and horrible when I'm surrounded by hateful, negative people, in the presence of the people at Hokyo-ji I felt peaceful and purified. Despite the fact that we could never have mastered all the necessary decorum required from us over just five days, I never felt stressed out when I did something wrong and was corrected. The correction was done with all compassion and understanding. Also, prostrations and sutras just started to feel FUN (something Docho Roshi, the Abbot, had previously claimed about the Oryoki at breakfast).

This is the Buddha Hall, where the magic happens; and by magic I mean "a lot of fucking prostrations and sutras."

While group II went to do takuhatsu, we were taken to the Zazen Rock in the back of a tiny truck by a sarcastic 37-year-old monk named Shingen who was not what I would call a safe driver. He stopped on the side of a mountain road and we got out to walk the rest of the way up to the cliff where the rock was located. The four of us broke our vow of chatter-less-ness to talk to Shingen, because after all he was a badass and we only had one more day to enjoy him. Along the way he would stop and show us things, make jokes, teach us vocabulary, and ask about where we lived. He picked up an angry praying mantis and handed it to Alex. Then he made us eat a plant (still no idea what it was). He told us he decided to become a monk after travelling all around Asia and the States and finding no answers.


The view from that mountain road was incredible, leading far down into a valley and up to high mountains swathed in churning clouds.


We took a narrow path through trees up to the Zazen Rock, where Hokyo-ji's founder apparently meditated regularly for 19 years. It was smaller than I expected, but the five of us could comfortably fit onto it and look down on the incredible view it afforded. In the valley below we could just make out the roof of the retreat center where the girls slept.


We asked Shingen questions about Zen and life and such, and he did impressions of Brian scolding Jake and Eimi-sensei talking on the phone and took pictures of us on the rock. I noticed at one point he had one of the Shinto protective amulets (omamori) I had noticed for sale in the Buddha Hall. I guess it's true what they say -- you really can't separate Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.

On the way back to Hokyo-ji Shingen stopped in front of the gates and conspiratorially told us we should hang out there for a while because midday sutras were at 11:00. Yes, we skived off the midday service with a monk. THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT.

After finishing our last full day at Hokyo-ji, I had SUCH FEELINGS. Namely, the feeling of I DON'T WANT TO LEAVE. I didn't want to part with such wonderful peace. It was the first time I've felt that kind of contentment -- the kind that isn't in danger of being taken away any second, because it isn't based on sense-pleasures. But what really puts the icing on the cake is that now that I've left, I don't want to go back. I miss it, but I'm okay with not going back. This may be the first time in my life that I've been able to feel love without attachment.

The next part of this story is fairly intensely personal, and not just for me, so I'm going to have to gloss a little. That evening, we had personal interviews with Docho Roshi where we were allowed to ask him a question. That was probably the most stressful part of our retreat, because there was so much specific, ritualistic etiquette for meeting with him that we were doomed from the beginning to forget something. It was also the first time we had talked to him face-to-face (although we weren't actually supposed to meet his eyes).
I'll be honest: I bumbled through the etiquette. I was incredibly tense. When I started speaking my voice shook. Halfway through his answer, I was sobbing. He seemed to be expecting that and had a box of tissues covered with a crocheted puppy-shaped cozy at the ready. I was mortified. I had a formal interview with a Zen master, told him something intensely personal, heard in return something intensely personal about him, was given advice, and CRIED MY FUCKING EYES OUT. Yes. That happened. My life is absurd.I cried to a Zen master about my life. And then he said "presento," and smacked me on the shoulder with the kyosaku. It was beautiful.

Later that night, there was a little "party" where we presented gifts to the monks and we all shared our reasons for being there (the monks as well as us students). The monks' stories were fascinating -- despite the fact that most Zen clerics in Japan today are the sons of priests, bound by family obligation to live the religious life, every one of these men was there by choice and not a single one for reasons other than the spiritual. One had been a policeman, one a school teacher, one a volleyball player, and one was sent to Hokyo-ji by his master to train because he kept falling asleep during zazen (TOO perfect). Then, unexpectedly, they gave us all a present: locally-made cloth folders inside which was written a certification that we had trained at Hokyo-ji, plus the same Shinto amulet I saw Shingen with earlier that day. It was the best thing they could have given us (aside from that smack with the Stick of Encouragement). I have rarely been that moved by people I'd only known for five days.

The next day we had breakfast and sutras and samu (work practice) as usual, but we had to leave by the late morning to catch our train. We had only half an hour to run around the place taking pictures, because it was forbidden to take any photos until that point (for which I'm grateful, or I would have gone mad being torn between my need to take pictures and my knowledge that that would have been an incredibly shallow and unfulfilling way to spend my time there). But god, it wasn't enough time. Here are some more photos of the interior and grounds I managed to take:


Then they rounded us up to take a group photo with the monks and Docho Roshi. Then they stood in front of the main gate and waved us off as several monks drove us off for the last time in their ridiculous SUVs. In front of the train station, we took extremely silly pictures with Kosho and Shingen.

Kosho explained the towel over his head and the weird facial expression thusly: "Bodhidharma!" (The first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, usually depicted as a terrifically grumpy Indian man).

Then we talked to them up till the last minute when our train came. Everyone felt so strange to be separated from them and from Hokyo-ji that our vow of silence sort of extended until we were far away on the train. At some point while I was sitting staring out the window I realized I was still holding my hands in my lap in hokkai join, the meditation mudra.

And I thought, oh. That's why I'm not sad. I'm taking Hokyo-ji with me, forever.
Last view of Hokyo-ji from the back of the car.

Posted by Niadra 20:38 Archived in Japan Tagged japan train monk monastery soto zen zazen zendo hokyo-ji hokyoji fukui biwa sodo cleric docho roshi Comments (0)


or, "WTF My Pillow is Full of Beans"

Here is a literal transcript of the entirety of my first journal entry after arriving at the temple hostel in Kyoto.

"23 August 2012

It ... I ... oh god. I was totally fine and feeling confident until we got to the hostel and they sent me to figure out the shower by myself.

And that is all I felt emotionally equipped to write.

Living across the street from this would probably inhibit your vocabulary for a while, too.


You will be pleased to know that I have since changed my attitude. I will never ever ever be happy in an American shower again. I will be lonely, bored, near-sighted and claustrophobic. I will be sick to my very heart with the knowledge of the egregious inferiority of American systems of bathing. The hostel bathing area is a room that can hold three to five people at once, and the other four girls in the program and I always bathe together. It has three detachable shower heads and a large tub that is kept covered and always filled with very hot water. The ceiling is arched and the whole room is beautifully tiled. There are little plastic stools to sit on and shallow plastic buckets so that after you shower, you can sit on the stools and pour hot water over yourself. Or you can just get in the tub. If my future house does not have a shower room like this, I will die unfulfilled.

The toilet situation is slightly less utopian. There are western-style toilets some places, and these toilets are like universal remotes. They have LOTS AND LOTS OF BUTTONS. They do everything, from heating your butt to squirting your butt with water to spraying air freshener to playing music so other people don't have to hear the horrifying sound of you peeing. And then they do lots of other things I haven't figured out yet. It is all very civilized and reminds me constantly that all of my ancestors still stank horribly when the Japanese did not.
However, there are no western-style toilets in the hostel where we stay (which is actually okay with me now that I've figured out the Japanese-style toilets). A picture is worth a thousand words, so again I wish I could figure out my damn photo situation. In any case, Japanese-style toilets require you to have somewhat muscular thighs, as they are kind of like urinals laid flat on the ground. Thank god for fencing muscles.

IMG_2893.jpg <This is the symbol for western-style toilets, for some inscrutable reason. I put it to you than Japanese graphic designers are really into absurdism.

We sleep on futons which we roll up and put away in a closet every morning, in a traditional Japanese room with sliding doors and tatami mats. The pillows are ... well ... full of beans. Which I kind of like. The tatami smells glorious. If I wanted I could just stop using perfume and roll around on the floor every morning before I go out. But I suspect that would be frowned upon.

Our first full day was interesting in that, for breakfast, we had a traditional Zen monastic breakfast of rice gruel (which I actually really LIKE, because it reminds me of grits), takuan (pickled radish), and umeboshi (dried pickled plum). We've been having this every morning for the last six days and I still like it. In the evening of the first day, however, we went to a restaurant that for several hundred years has served the Emperor and his family when he comes to Kyoto. Yeah. Way to achieve contrast. Needless to say, the food was glorious. And we are learning how to behave so well that when I come back, everyone will probably think I am mute, paranoid, a religious fanatic, and obsessive-compulsive. We are held to much stricter standards of behavior than the average young Japanese because we go to a lot of places that require special permission and meet a lot of religious officials.

For the first two days we woke up at six to attend Shin Pure Land services at the Higashi-Honganji temple (with which our temple hostel is affiliated). The place is giant, the wood is almost like old stone. At the sister temple, Nishi-Honganji, we walked on a nightingale floor (which is built to creak on purpose to warn of intruders -- Buddhist temples used to engage in frequent mini-wars with each other).

I don't actually have time to list all the things we've been doing -- our days are PACKED. We've visited old Kyoto, where we saw a maiko (geisha-in-training) on the street and walked down the alleys where samurai's mistresses and aspiring mistresses lived shut up in houses with tiny windows and hidden gardens. Old Kyoto is incredible, like a wooden maze, with wooded areas sitting right next to the city. I never noticed when we pass from a grassy, tree-filled area to an urban area or vice versa, because somehow the transition feels seamless. We visited an enormous Shinto shrine complex with hanging paper lanterns bigger than people, where you ring bells the size of your head to ask the Kami (animistic nature spirits, the deities of the Shinto tradition) for favors. We went to a huge covered market hundreds of years old where they sold everything from live squid to Louis Vuitton. We visited Kiyomizu-dera temple (dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon), which was too incredible to even try to describe. It was like a little city all by itself. There was a platform that samurai used to arrange duels on and the loser would jump off (but apparently if he made the jump safely his wishes would come true).


(I have to leave the computer lab in fifteen minutes, and I can see I'm not even going to get halfway through the entries I have in my journal so far. Oh well. I will write another post soon).

The funny thing in all this is, though ... the full impact of what I was seeing kept refusing to hit me. I waited and waited for that feeling of being in a completely different world. But there's been almost no shock at all. In Japan, I don't feel that weird sense I felt in France, the constant awareness that I'm walking on the soil of another country. It feels like as seamless a transition as the meshing of Kyoto's trees and buildings. But I think part of it is this -- all these things I'm seeing ... I, privately, personally have dreamed about them for so long that the act of seeing them felt like an experience that SHOULD have been private. But as I'm finally seeing them now, I'm sharing the experience with seven people who are as new to me as Japan itself. It's a really interesting dynamic, the choosing between when to get to know Kyoto and when to get to know the rest of my sangha. It requires constant mindfulness of where I'm concentrating my energies. But I'm getting better at it, and getting to know them, and trying to open my eyes to every inch and every second of Kyoto.


Next time: Zazen meditation at 5:30 AM, the Kama river, and a Shinto shrine market (plus a reflection on why the hell a culture that places so much emphasis on conformity needs twenty thousand different choices of wide-screen TV).



Posted by Niadra 20:15 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan temple old hostel arrival Comments (4)

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