A Travellerspoint blog

February 2011

Mii Dera

The winter seems to have been hard, but short, this year. February has bought some really nice spring like days with weather as nice as March or April, which means I've come out of hibernation a bit earlier this year and have had a couple of nice trips already.

I travelled to see several of the major temples in places like Kyoto and Nara, but for some reason I've never been to the biggest one in Shiga Ken (where I live). Mii Dera is one of the four biggest temple sites in Japan, I simply never got around checking it out, but with a free Sunday in hand Haru and I decided to rectify that and I have to say I'm glad we did. I turned out to one of the more interesting temple visits we've made.

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At first glance there isn't much to set it aside from any of the other big temples; there's an impressive wooden Sanmon (main gate), and a wide range of halls and shrines set in gardens around the site. All told there are more than forty buildings spread over a wide area.

I guess going in winter made a significant difference though; there was something quite Zen like about seeing a Buddhist temple surrounded by bare black trees and without the usual crowds you get at the major sites.

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The main reason for finally coming here was that I'd recently found out that Mii Dera was connected with a rather interesting old Japanese myth. The story of a monk who used to live here, called Raigo, who was transformed into a rat like demon called Tesso (The Iron Rat). I was hoping that there might be something here to elaborate on the story.

I immediately spotted a rather promising rat-like demon painted on one shrine, which housed a rather fine collection of bronze Buddhist figures, but there was nothing to say for certain it was anything to do with Tesso.

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Across the courtyard a statue caught my eye, a serene figure holding a baby. Under it, sheltering in little houses, were small wooden figures. Most temples sell unique little offerings to use when praying for something specific at a certain shrine, but I'd never seen any like these before.

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I'd heard of fertility shrines (and we're actually planning to visit a pair of male and female shrines in March) where women will sometimes make offerings of their post-menstruation underwear and pray to conceive. Given the baby motif I thought this might be something similar, but Haru explained that it was actually a place to pray for the forgiveness and happiness of lost children - mothers' of miscarried, still born and aborted babies made those offering and hopefully made their peace as well. It was a strangely sombre, but touching, thing to have visualised so clearly.

Still looking for traces of Tesso's tale (or tail) we went into the main shrine behind the statue, which had some incredible rotting (and quite possibly ancient) piece of art on its walls - maybe it was because of the statue outside and all it said of passing and mortality, but part of me really felt that this was how art was meant to be treated - perhaps the 'Sunflowers' and 'Mona Lisa' would be better off hung here and allowed to fade and pass. Klimt's kissers have been in that same clinch for so long, wouldn't it be better to let them finally grow old and die together?

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All these thoughts and reflections were fine, but I was still no closer to finding what I came for - so I decided to ask. Luckily I hit on a monk who, despite being surprised that I knew about the legend, was more than happy to tell the story of how Raigo was turned by starvation and rage into the ravenous demon Tesso.

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The story itself is quite long, but if you want to know the details click here. The short version is that Raigo used his new demon form to take revenge on the monks of Enriyaku-ji, a rival temple in Kyoto, who he blamed for frustrating his plans to build a monastery of his own. Along with his army of rats he ravaged the libraries and cellars of his enemies destroying many precious texts.

When the story was over, the monk pointed us in the direction of the only building in the temple where Raigo is remembered (which you can see below to the right of our story teller).

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It's a small unassuming building with nothing, but a bland wooden sign telling the basics of the story. It was a shame, but Haru was quite impressed with the story we got from the monk. She'd never heard of Raigo or Tesso before, and as always when I know about something Japanese that she doesn't she doubted I was right - but bless her, she always trusts me and comes along for the ride to check out whatever it is I'm currently chasing up!

Despite having found what we came for there was still a lot to see here and a couple more stories to uncover. The bell (top right, above) that Haru is looking at was also part of the rivalry between Mii-Dera and Enriyaku-ji. During one of the many battles between the two sects, a huge warrior monk, called Benkei, from Enriyaku-Ji stole the bell carrying it away on his back in an incredible feat of strength and endurance.

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Legend has it that once the bell was housed in Enriyaku-ji it began to toll a protest, and every chime sounded like an appeal to return home - “eeno eeno”, which means “I want to go back” in the Kansai dialect. Eventually, unable to take the constant noise, Benkei threw the bell back down the mountain to Mii-Dera. It still bears the cracks and scars of this adventure to this day.

The temple also has a Kannon-do (a hall dedicated to Kannon, The Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion). This is the 14th Kannon-do on a pilgrimage route through the Kansai region that takes in 33 Kannon-do in total, as such it is closed except on rare days when the pilgrims pass through - by pure chance this happened to be one of those days.

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This shrine, to put it into a bit of British history context, was built 6 years after the battle of Hastings - which makes it, well - pretty old! Surprisingly (or maybe not if you saw 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' and learnt the lesson there about religious objects not being all sparkly and bright) the rare icon of Kannon isn't the golden figure on the right, but the smaller black figure on the right. OK it was a rare and religiously significant object, but to be honest I was far more impressed with the peacocks and peahens in a pen behind the shrine.

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I have no idea why they are there.

By now we'd worked our way down to the Hondo (main building) and slipped off our shoes to go take a look around. A corridor running around the perimeter of the building housed another fine collection of Buddhist icons. I was happily surprised to find none of the usual 'No photography' signs and took my time, snapping several pictures as we went around. When we came out the other end of the corridor, we realised we'd entered from the wrong end and gone backwards - at the entrance was a big 'No photography' sign. Oh well, too late, another advantage of visiting a place like this in February when it's all empty.

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Actually the lack of people really did make a nice atmosphere, and perhaps my favourite photo of the day is this candid one of Haru looking reflective and quite small as she stands, on the wooden walks of the massive Hondo.

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What she's actually looking over to is the building housing the sacred spring on the right. Three of Japan's emperors were given their first ritual bath here, and Buddhist masters have used the waters here in a rite where they symbolically pass, or pour, their knowledge onto their students.

Here pure water gurgles up from deep underground in a very vocal way. Another Mii-Dera legend says that it's actually a dragon sleeping deep below that you can hear. A carving of the dragon hangs above the spring which is considered to be the work of Jingoro Hidari, a sculptor thought to have created many of Japan's most famous Edo period deity carvings.

In the past the dragon is reputed to have flown from the spring each night and wrecked havoc on the area, until Jingoro Hidari himself tamed the beast by driving iron spikes into its eyes. Since then the dragon hasn't caused any trouble and is now seen as a protector of the temple.

To add another twist to that story, although attributed with a considerable body of work and being linked with many stories (like the dragon taming episode) there isn't any historical proof that Jingoro Hidari actually existed - his whole life could just be another story to add to the already rich collection of tales linked to Mii-Dera.

Yes, Mii-Dera may look like the other temples at first glance - but dig a little deeper and there's a lot of really interesting folk law rooted here.

Posted by DKJM74 00:30 Comments (0)

A Japanese Western Wedding

Not mine... yet!

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From those pictures and the title you might be excused for thinking that Haru and I decided to get married, but this was actually her brother, Astushi, who was getting married to his fiancee, Hiromi.

The western element wasn't me, but their choice of wedding style. Unlike my friend Naomi (who had a traditional shinto wedding) Astushi and Hiromi decided to have a western style wedding.

On the surface this might seem just like a typical western wedding - the church location, the wedding suit and dress, even the minister presiding over the ceremony.

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However, there are some big differences. Firstly, this isn't a real church, it's a Japanese 'western style' wedding chapel. These places are built just to recreate the 'fantasy' of a western white wedding. Likewise, the chances of the minister being officially ordained are very slim, in reality he's probably no more a minister than I am. I actually read an article about foriegners in Japan taking wedding chapel work for extra cash and thought about looking into it for myself.

This is more Las Vagas than St. Paul's, and while that might seem a little strange to me this inauthenticity is probably lost on the Japanese clients. The imporant thing is that the couple are happy - and Astushi and Hiromi certainly seemed very happy.

One big adventage of this style of wedding is that the wedding venue and the reception venue are in the same building - just seperated by a flight of stairs (or an elevator if you're feeling lazy).

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Last time I'd only attanded the ceremony, so this was my first Japanese wedding reception. What really struck me was how planned out everything was. There was actually an MC who presided over events informing everybody what was going to happen next, and what was happening was a quite tightly coordinated series of set-pieces.

First we watched a movie made by Astushi and Hiromi (a retelling of them getting ready for the wedding made in stop motion with soft toys 'acting' their parts) which was nice, then there were parents speeches, and best friends speeches, then the cutting of the cake, with their parents by their sides, and they had to feed each other the first spoonful of cake (Hiromi shoving a huge lump into Astushi's mouth), then the couple left the room and we were all given candles (with our names on) and they came back, but in different clothes, and we all had to light the candles and then we had to blow them out again and yes, I know this is all one incredibly long sentence just divided up with commas and hyphens, but that's what the reception felt like, one long flowing carefully orchestrated sequence designed to carry you from one thing to the next. More than once I had a slightly confused 'What's happening now?' feeling and I must have had a bemused expression a lot of the time, but it was all quite entertaining.

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Some of their friends did a dance routine they'd prepared, we ate a lot, we watched a couple more short movies (including one right at the end that was a movie of the wedding we'd just attended which the cameraman must have edited together while we were watching all the other stuff - Haru tells me this is quite normal here)!

Despite my confusion it was good fun and I got to hear a bit of family gossip from Haru (though I think my presence was probably the biggest bit of gossip as it was the first time most of Haru's extended family had heard that she had a fiancee and I'm not even Japanese). Then with a final round of speeches and the couple giving gifts to their parents it was all over - no dodgy wedding DJ and drunken dancing I'm very happy to report.

I also discovered the difference between kimonos worn by single women an married women - as demonstrated by Harua and her mother here - the single woman's kimono has long sleeves and a more decorative obi (the sash knotted at the back of the kimono) whereas the married woman's has short sleeves and and a less decorative obi.; there you go this blog is educational as well.

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One more round of photos outside the reception hall - so this is me with my future wife and in-laws.

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After that it was back up to the lobby where I could finally get a nice picture of me and Haru together before she had to return the rented kinomo to the chapel. While she changed I checked out the rather racy selection of books on the shelves, then it was time to go home - where I got to enjoy the super cuteness of Haru cooking with full wedding hair sill in place :-) (Which still looked pretty awesome even after I later spent 30 minutes helping her remove all the hair pins holding it in place).

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To be honest I'm still not sure what to make of this Japanese-Western wedding style, it seemed like a show that had to be constantly guided (by the MC) because it wasn't quite natural for anybody there; as evident in the way the 'minister' had to tell everyody, in advance, that they should repeat the work 'Amen' after him. I'm sure that everybody left thinking they'd had a wonderful authentic western wedding experience, but in many ways it was more of a window into the Japanese perception of the west than anything else. I was happy to be invited, Haru's family have really accepted me I feel, and I wish Astushi and Hiromi a happy and loving future together.

Posted by DKJM74 20:16 Comments (0)

Satoyama Saturdays

Usually I blog everything in chronological order, but today is a bit of an exception. First, I'm going to rewind back to mid-November then jump forward to January to write up a couple of Saturday outings with the Satoyama-no-kai (a local nature appreciation group I joined).

So, on November 13th I was out in Makino with Andrew enjoying a bit of a relaxing woodland walk with the group (and getting surprised because I didn't know there were any sheep in Makino).

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However, the main purpose of this meet was to run a nature quiz for local kids, which meant that as we walked we also had regular stops for questions about the surrounding flora and fauna. These questions were asked by the Satoyama group members, and as I'm an official member that means I had to ask a question as well ... in Japanese (about the shape of the seed inside a berry). Luckily my Japanese has improved a lot over the last few months so the kids understood me and were all very interested to look at the seed (which was spiral shaped actually).

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As a hike it was very easy going, but it was fun and a good chance to practice my Japanese conversation skills. Also as it turned out that the walk ended quite near an old abandoned factory I'd recently discovered and it was the perfect chance to go back and take a few more photos of that.

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Recently exploring old buildings like these (haikyo as they're called in Japanese) has become quite a hobby of mine, so much so that I actually started a new blog to write reports about my haikyo trips and about some of my other interests that kind of compliment, but don't exactly fit in with this blog (the other main topic being Yoakai - beasties from Japanese folktales and legends).

The report about this factory can be found here

The next Satoyama group outing we attended was a couple of months later in January on the other side of the lake. By this time it was much colder and quite snowy, so I was glad that the main plan was to make campfires and cook on them. This meant that not only did I get to hack stuff up with an axe, and poke food skewered on bamboo into flames, but we also got to craft clay decorations and fire them in the hot ashes. I made an owl and a leaf (Happa).

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As for the food we got hot soup, fresh fire baked bread on a stick and roast edible acorns - which is something I never thought I'd eat. I seem to remember being told acorns are poisonous, but these were quite sweet.

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Just like last time, after leaving the Satoyama event we ended up checking out an old building that was falling apart - though this time it was a love hotel and it was in the middle of being demolished.

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From over the fields it looked like it was maybe under renovation, but the view from the other side told a different story.

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The front wall had been stripped away leaving the guest rooms gaping open, whilst some of the back rooms and offices were still totally intact.

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To see more of my haikyo photos and articles click here.

To find out more about Yokai and Japanese myths click here .

To see a Japanese-Western style wedding - wait, that's what I'll be blogging here next as I attended Haru's brother's wedding in Kyoto last week. See you then.

Posted by DKJM74 06:37 Comments (0)

Christmas and New Year

I think Haru is having an affair - I even secretly caught her on video dancing with another man!

Oh - well I guess I only have myself to blame for introducing them at Christmas.

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Well, I don't mind - I got two nice new books to read anyway.

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Kwidan by Hearn (which is a collection of Japanese folk stories which he beautifully translated in the early 1900s), and Ninja Attack (which gives you the facts about real ninjas, and details places connected with their lives - several of which are near where I live)! I got a few other nice presents as well (special thanks to Gavin for the great Batman DVDs), but generally it was a nice, quiet and domestic Christmas - I even managed to figure out the logistics and cook a pretty good English Christmas dinner this year.

For New Year we headed over to Hirakata and stayed with Haru's parents overnight. One thing that amazes me about New Year here is how quiet it is, after all the fireworks in Slovakia it is just so QUIET. Yes, they do celebrate at midnight, but for Japanese people it's New Year's day that's really important. It's traditional to eat specially prepared lunch boxes called O-sechi on New Year's day, almost everything in the box has some symbolic meaning connected with health, wealth or happiness; for example, bamboo shoots represent the path of success as bamboo grows straight and true.

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Knowing I'm not actually very keen on Japanese food Haru's mother kindly bought one O-sechi with Chinese dishes which I like more, which was very nice of her.

After lunch we hopped on the train, and climbed a big hill, to go to a local temple where everybody goes to see in the New Year (and enjoy the market stalls). One notable feature of this temple was the two huge bamboo poles attached to the main entrance and fletched to look like massive arrows embedded into the ground.

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We slowly moved up with the crowd until we finally reached the front where we could throw in our loose change, clap our hands and make a wish for the coming year.

All around people were buying lucky charms, or fortune papers (which we did too - actually getting the same one as well). The arrow was a popular charm to buy here and many people were queueing to get theirs blessed.

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The men kneeling at the front here were collecting the arrow charms from visitors and placing them in a stand - then two girls danced a short ritual dance which ended with them shaking a small tree of bells over the crowd and blessing them; I guess the blessed arrows were then returned to the owners, but I never actually noticed that happening.

By then it was already getting dark, we made our way back down the hill, checked out the market stalls and headed back home.

A couple of days later the, already cold, weather finally broke and it snowed - making cycling to school hell (too far to walk and no bus = no choice). The snow ploughs were out clearing the roads, but anywhere off the main paths was deep snow - but on the plus side this does mean I could have another go at snowboarding :-)

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That's all for today - despite basically hibernating and not doing much in the winter I am getting out a bit, so next time some winter fun with the satoyama group.

Posted by DKJM74 05:15 Comments (0)

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