A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about shinto


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 brief interlude with the New Religion of Tenrikyō

I don't know if I've ever been as tempted to impulse-join a religion as I was the week or so we studied Tenrikyō. And in answer to your question, no. It was only PARTIALLY because their food is the best.

Every morning for that week we attended a morning service at a nearby Tenrikyō church -- a simple service, about half an hour long, and totally fascinating, too. A priest, plus either three or four others, conducted the ceremony on a small stage at the head of a large Japanese-style tatami room. Each of them plays an instrument, and instead of chanting, they sing. Their songs sound like traditional Japanese folk music, and they make a glorious change when you've been listening to sutra-chanting nonstop for two months. The singers sit in seza position on small cushions, backs to the audience -- directing their songs and music toward three Shinto-style altars, all pale plain wood and mirrors, on the stage. Every day there were different offerings on the platforms -- one day a cabbage, another a bagged loaf of grocery-store bread. One altar is dedicated to their main object of worship, the Kami (deity) Tenri-ō no Mikoto (called "Prince Tenri" or "God the Parent" in English). Another enshrines Nakayama Miki, the peasant woman who founded Tenrikyō two hundred years ago (like I said -- a "new" religion . . . by Japanese standards). The third altar is for the veneration of ancestors. Tenrikyō is very, very big on gratefulness to one's ancestors. As the officiants sing and play, the other worshipers perform "hand dances" (just what it sounds like -- imagine if doing the Macarina was a religious practice) which mirror the meaning of the song. I quite like doing those.

All the people at that church (it feels weird to call it a "church" but that's the closest English approximation) were really, truly, genuinely good-hearted people. And I don't mean in an "our religion says we have to be nice to you, so we are grinning and bearing it and the muscles in our faces are super starting to hurt" way, like you get at some churches back home. No, these people were fucking magnificent. (Well, the abbot's son was a way hyperactive and liked to run around shining flashlights in people's eyes and hide under the table to grab your feet, but STILL. He was SO CUTE). OH AND LOOK I HAVE A PICTURE OF HIM.


Tenrikyō teaches that we are all brothers and sisters, and our goal should be to "create the Joyous Life" for ourselves and others. I could tell right away that this ideal wasn't just preached -- it was practiced. You won't find many people this good-natured, friendly, and joyful. On Friday night, the Kaichō (Tenrikyō abbot) invited our sangha to dinner at his house. It was a RIDICULOUS feast. They made Korean barbeque at the table, handed around beer (I noticed there was always lots of beer about this place). Immediately after dinner, without further ado or warning, the Kaichō lugged in a huge box full of instruments, which he passed out to us. Then he demanded we sing something.

So we played our instruments. We sang some Beatles songs (the default-favorite "American" music of Japanese people everywhere); we made things up on the spot; Ben beatboxed; Sam did a dance routine. We sang songs with made-up beats and wordless sounds. The Kaichō danced. We all smiled and laughed till our faces hurt, cheesy as that may sound.

It was a beautiful time. Some people really do know how to live. But before you think Tenrikyō is all about frivolous fun, let me tell you something else: this religion saved atheist Aimee-Sensei's life when she was twenty with an emergency operation at one of the many hospitals they build and run. The Kaichō and his wife have a daughter with Down's syndrome; their belief is that they were meant to have her because they have the means to take care of her like some families don't. Tenrikyō places great emphasis on healing -- on bringing life, health, and kindness to everyone.

The day before this dinner, we had gone to Tenri City (located near Nara), considered by some to be the "home" of the Tenrikyō religion. In any case, it is home to their headquarters, a massive sprawling temple complex bigger even than any Buddhist establishment I had ever seen. Their main worship hall was enormous; hundreds of tatami mats square. There were covered walkways leading from building to building in a massive square, smelling of lovely fresh wood and sparkling clean. There's a good reason for that, actually. When practitioners travel to this temple, many of them participate in the practice of cleaning the dust from the halls -- symbolic of clearing the dust away from one's own heart. A large box of clean rags was located at either end of the hall complex for the purpose.


In the main worship hall, we witnessed a Tenrikyō priest performing the sazuke -- a healing ceremony in which the hands of the priest on the practitioner's head become a vessel for the healing power of Tenri -- on an old man. We also saw, in the middle of the hall, a pillar marking the exact spot where Tenrikyō's cosmology teaches the first human beings were created.

Then we went to their cafeteria and had saba (mackerel -- my new faaaaavorite!) and rice. The cafeteria had infinite rice capacities. Are we seeing a trend here?

Our last day there happened to fall on a Tenrikyō celebration day, on which the sacred kagura dance is performed. Sam and I were both a bit late for the service because we had visited Jeff Shore, a Zen master who practices in Kyoto, to sit zazen and have dokusan (private instruction) with him. So that was intense, and wonderful, AND we made it for the last half of the Tenrikyō service. The dancing was beautiful, as was the music, and we saw several more people receive sazuke -- a young man with a broken leg, and an old lady.

Which makes sense, I guess, if you think about it.
They had to fill several rooms with tables (which was no big deal -- the Kaichō and his family live in this giant house, but there is plenty of room besides for any religious or social occasion they might come up with, or for extra people who might need to stay. Four to six people sat at each table, around a giant hotpot full of broth. We had noodles, vegetables, rice, chicken, mochi -- oh and, surprise, more beer. Nobody gets drunk at these things, though. It was kind of hilarious/disturbing/eh? to see these giant bottles of Asahi beer being toted around to the various tables by adorable four-year-olds who could barely get their arms around them.

There were tons of children there, running around misbehaving and generally being supercute. Japanese people really do not make much of an effort to discipline their children, past sowing the sneaky seeds of guilt toward the feelings every person and inanimate object they encounter. At the appropriate point in the child's life, these seeds will ERUPT into growth, transforming the naughty spoiled child into a painfully well-behaved, polite, hardworking person motivated by abject terror that they might hurt the feelings of a door if they slam it too hard. I do not THINK this method of parenting was ever used on me, but even so, oh god do I know how those people feel. Why does nobody care about the DOORS?! *weeps*

Two twenty-something girls named Nami and Mihi sat at a table with me, Aimee-sensei, Melanie, and Addie. They were incredibly friendly and talkative, and I actually managed to have legitimate (though limited) conversations with them in Japanese. At one point they asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I told them I didn't. They responded as if I told them my favorite hobby was Crusading and collecting foreskins. Specifically, they shrieked "EHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH???!" Nami didn't have a boyfriend either, but she was determined to get married. Soon. To . . . some man, presumably.
Different strokes, I guess.

Several of the churchgoers got up to address the room at large during the dinner. One tall thin man who acted as an officiant during the morning services spun a zabuton (sitting cushion) on his finger, treating it like it was a veritable magic act and yelling good-naturedly at people he didn't think were paying enough attention to him. The Kaichō's father got up and addressed us (the students), making a really touching speech about the importance of gratitude toward one's parents. Overall, I don't know if I've ever been in a room more full of joy and love for near-strangers. They almost cried when we left.

They are amazing people, and by extension, I TOTALLY approve of their religion. Stop looking at me like that. It is NOT because of the Korean barbeque. No, that is NOT a "become Tenrikyō" brochure you see on my desk. You are hallucinating. You loony. HEY look over there at Tenrikyō's garden. ------> large_More_Japan_472.jpg

Posted by Niadra 16:32 Archived in Japan Tagged religion new life origin years o musical service two shinto prince hundred peasant 200 healing miki tenrikyo tenri mikoto sazuke oyasama nakayama joyous 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)


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.*


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.


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)


Or, "why does everything about me make so much more sense in Japan"

The 26th was our first totally free day. Nevertheless, shameless try-hards that we all are (god I hate Broadwater slang), we got up at 7 AM having slept about 5 hours to go see another shrine! It was by far the best thing that had happened to me on this trip. I mentioned before that I had been kind of frustrated with my lack of ability to fully grasp and respond to everything I was seeing -- well, this was the first time I felt something close to the full impact of the situation.

Kamigamo-jinja is a huge Shinto shrine complex, starting with the obligatory huge torii gate and including spacious grassy grounds and buildings of various sizes. I didn't even get to see much of the main building because we wandered through a market that was happening on the grounds this particular day. Everything was handmade Japanese crafts, art, and food or drinks. It was pretty amazing, but also very familiar since arts and crafts fairs are a thing that happens all the time at home.


Two of the other girls and I, having walked through the bazaar, wandered up a narrow path leading up through small torii gates to a smaller, quiet shrine away from the main structures. There was no one else around, and it was right on the edge of a small cliff. Looking out from the cliff in one direction you could see the shrine grounds, and in the other direction was a crowded urban residential area. But still it felt totally silent in front of that shrine.


It was everything I needed to see and more. That finally got through to me. I really felt I had to make an offering, so I put some yen in the offertory box, rang the bell, and bowed to pray. My head was a mess. It was all white noise. I had no idea what I wanted to say to the Kami, except "Thank you for letting me find you here." I think it was all I really could have said. I stayed like that for a while, then sat down and just stared. There were three small shrines, one of which I recognized as being dedicated to Inari because of the fox statues (Inari was originally responsible for the rice harvest, but is now also seen as a Kami for business and commerce). I took a lot of pictures. I realized as I was sitting there something I hadn't even considered before. And that was that I think my main intention in coming to Japan was to touch the Kami.


Anyway, I've been trying to write this post forever, but every time I tried something happened and by now my blog is so far behind what is actually happening to me that I'd like to paraphrase a few things in order to write my next post about our Zen retreat.

In a nutshell, here are things that have been going on, as things are wont to do:

-We began practicing zazen meditation at our hostel a few days after starting the program. We get up at 5 AM and begin meditating together in the butsuma (Buddha Room) at 5:30 for about forty minutes, followed by sutra recitations.
It fucking hurts. That is most of the information I can give you about zazen because I am mostly preoccupied with disciplining myself not to move even though my left leg is so far asleep I am having phantom limb syndrome in a limb that is (supposedly) still attached to my body. Also, do you know how much spit your mouth decides to make when your brain knows you aren't supposed to swallow because it makes too loud of a noise in the meditation hall? The answer is seven. I'm sorry, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is my brain on Zen.
Also, I really enjoy chanting sutras, but I have to admit that we are all pretty bad at it. Maybe it's that we're not fluent in Japanese, maybe it's that we're not monks, maybe it's that our voices are simply not deep and sonorous enough, but it is kind of like a bunch of forgetful kindergarteners trying to say the pledge of allegiance.

-Kyoto-Yodobashi. It is an electronics mall. A mall full of electronics. Like eight floors of them. There are two whole floors just of flatscreen HD TVs. And I tell you something: even the shittiest ones are a hundred times better than any TV in the US ever, even though they are made by the same Japanese companies. I just thought I should inform you all that Japan purposely keeps us in the dark ages and laughs about it.

-I would like to speak in further praise of group bathing, following my experience of a traditional Japanese public bathhouse. It was nothing short of a perfect fusion of indulgence and hilarity. There was NO ONE in the whole place but us and a large number of old naked Japanese ladies who stared at us in unrestrained disbelief as we threw our clothes off and proceeded to be young English-speaking foreigners in THEIR bathhouse (supervised by Eimi-sensei, one of our program directors, but that hardly mattered to the old ladies). You could tell by the stares and the utter lack of any other gaijin that we were in the RIGHT KIND OF PLACE.
The baths were kind of a bigger and more decadent version of our hostel's bath. There were lots of little shower heads ranged around the walls and you sat on little stools in front of low mirrors and made sure you were DAMN WELL SPARKLING CLEAN before getting into one of six large baths -- three variously hot ones, one hot one with indigo-colored violet/chamomile-infused water, one ice-cold one (my favorite, no one else's), and one natural sulfur bath the color of milk.
The old ladies retaliated for our presence by terrorizing us at every opportunity. One came over and rapped me on the head really hard when I let my hair touch the water.
We felt SO GOOD when we got out of there. I felt like I had just been issued a new body. I do not think the timing of this was a coincidence, as the next day was when we left for our two-day Rinzai Zen retreat at Myoshinji. The difference between how we felt after these two activities is the funniest joke ever.

-I guess I really haven't said anything about what our classes are like, but the truth is they are far from the most interesting thing about this program and it really wouldn't entertain you to hear about them. They mostly exist to provide us with historical and social context for the things we experience, and also to teach us enough Japanese for us not to implode in delicate social situations. The classes I take/audit are Theory and Practice of Buddhism in Japan; Japanese Religions; Beginning Japanese; and Japanese Society and Cultural Traditions.

NEXT TIME: Getting hit with sticks and doing everything in fast-forward at a Rinzai monastery!

Posted by Niadra 20:37 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto meditation house spa bath japanese shrine public shinto zen jinja rinzai kamigamo zazen kami Comments (2)

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