Monday, 31 December 2007

New Year celebrations

The three-day New Year holiday (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is a very special time in Japan, a time of solemn prayers and joyous greetings. While New Year's Day is a holiday in many parts of the world, the occastion has a unique significance to the Japanese, who take the opportunity to begin anew many aspects of their lives. New Year is regarded in Japan as an auspicious occasion, when people clean their houses especially, resolve debts and finish business from the old year, make special foods (long soba noodles symbolising longevity, omoochi rice cakes, seasonal bento boxes), give special gifts (envelopes of money), visit a local shrine and renew wishes/vows for the coming year, engage in particular entertainments (such as kite-flying) and at the transition from 2007-2008 temple bells toll 108 times to purge the 108 (Buddhist) earthly desires ready to start afresh. Homes and entrance gates are decorated with ornaments made of pine, bamboo and plum trees.

On New Year's Eve, I went to the Kakizakai's where we had Sensei's hand-made soba, crumbed skewers an sake while watching the NHK famous red and white song contest battle between the sexes in which women and men annually compete to prove the most outrageous in a range of enka and J-pop and every music genre in between. Interspersed with weather reports of widespread snowfalls, such as 60cm in the west of Japan and Kyuushu and comic slapstick skits and game shows requiring that special sense of humour, while we nestled under the heated table kutatsu which appears at floor level but your legs drop into a sunken area underneath, traditionally heated by coals and nowadays by electricity. At midnight, we listened to the tolling of the bell from the temple downtown, No.13(?). On New Year's Day, after an unusual and pleasant sleep in to one of the coldest mornings yet (-6 degrees predictions of snow but only frost received), I meandered down to Chichibu Shrine. Most people attend their local shrine in the first three days of the new year for the afore-mentioned wishes/prayers and general festive activties. These included queuing to make a wish at the shrine, made easier by stalls selling takoyaki, yakisoba, karaage chicken, chocolate coated bananas on sticks and diversions such as weight lifting stones. I was a little bewildered by the apparent anomalous collision of traditional and modern, pagan and spiritual at the shrine and the efficiency of accepting donations. Further, the little wooden talismans conveniently only last a year and the expired ones are ceremonially burned at the shrine so that everybody needs to buy new talismans for all the members of the family for 2008, year of the mouse/rat (from the Chinese calendar).

On Wednesday 2nd, in the spirit of the new year, I followed up my bike ride, rather icy, with soba at the log cabin restaurant and was comforted by sitting at the large charcoal pit emanating delicious warmth, accompanied by tasty genmaicha with roasted rice in it and tempura soba with dipping sauce under the watchful eye of the stuffed deer head on the wall.

On the 30th, my short excursion (I am consumed composing hermetically during the holiday season) was to Temple No.19 Ryuseki-ji. On my way, winding through the back streets of this off-the-track district, I came across and interesting frog shrine. Ryuseki-ji itself is remarkable, principally for its location on a large platform of rock in an otherwise urban site. Its name means Dragon Stone temple.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Temple No.32 Hōshō-ji + Christmas Party

I was looking for something adventurous and interesting to do on a potentially isolated Christmas Day in Chichibu so I had planned to take the time out to cycle to Temple No.32 Hōshō-ji, inspired by the fine views and nice photos on Ben's blog for 23/11/05 and 15/10/06. Ben stated that it was 15km. I wasn't sure if he meant total or both directions. This would, in normal conditions, take less than an hour but I had already scouted the magnitude of some of the hilly part (totalling approximately 6km serious steep climbing), I estimated it could take 90 minutes each way, which turned out to be accurate for the forward journey. It was only 60 minutes return, despite the more strenuous hill, because I enjoyed its reciprocal downhill a bit more quickly, no need to watch out for an intersection and it was so freezing on the hands (even with thermal gloves) that I was already dreaming about the hot shower. I still don't know by which route Ben went but my calibrated computer (matches GPS) gave me 21km total, almost exactly equidistant in both directions; kms 7-9 and 12-15 were continuous uphill. It was worth every gram of sweat, part of my shakuhachi shugyo ("ascetic discipline" or "determined training that fosters enlightenment") because the views on the summit were deep and splendid, but first let me run through methodically some of the other charms.

I set out as early as reasonable, given that the day's maximum was 7 degrees at that would peak somewhere around 2pm. Passing a local temple, I noticed fascinating bamboo decorations freshly erected in the garden. They looked like organ pipes to me and one contained a mandarin or orange and the colourful white and purple variegated ornamental cabbages were planted at the base of this intriguing construction. I crossed the familiar red bridge and its ensuing climb to the first traffic lights. This was my turn off to discovery of new territory and the commencement of the unabated pedal up the mountain pass to Ogano-machi in the next valley. I was amused by the bear-warning sign. Previous versions I have seen in Fuji area show a regular-looking kind of bear and by comparison the Chichibu bear had big shoulders and a stern appearance. Kakizakai Sensei told me later that they are not actually so gigantic like North American or Canadian bears but still respond unfavourably when people threaten a mother with cub. Regrettably, they are hibernating right now so I probably won't get to see one. Set back in another fold in the hills, one follows the country road amongst wood mills and farms out to the grand wooden two-storey gate that marks the entry to Temple No.32 Hōshō-ji. The temple is located in an area called Hannya. In popular terminology it refers to the demonic mask of a woman with horns and grinning ear to ear but in Buddhist parlance, it refers to the esoteric wisdom accompanying enlightenment. Hmmmmm ... which will it be? The gate and a stairway of mossy stones, dotted with statues, lanterns and coiffeured trees, leads to the main hall, that was silent and unattended except for the hyperactive racket of birdsongs. Theoretically, pilgrims can receive inscriptions at these points, but often they are still. Deep at the top of valley in the distance, one can see a boat-shaped monolithic rock from which Hōshō-ji receives its popular name of Iwafune Kannon, or Rock Boat Kannon. The bow of the rock can be glimpsed through the woods as you make your way up a muddy, mossy, leafy, at times obscure, pathway to caves used by ascetic monks meditating and practising rigorous discipline from mediaeval times and the bronze statue in a cave on the mountain-top. the top of the rock commands a panoramic view of the surrounding woods, countryside and villages and the Buddha statue seems to have prime position for surveying it. The principal Kannon of the temple is enshrined in the Kannon Hall built a small way up the path set into the cliff-face and backing on to a naturally formed (obviously formerly underwater some eons ago) cave into which many Jizo statues are lodged and the inner hall. The wooden building teetering on the hillside is surrounded by verandas with a deep green view through the straight trees and moss-verdant forest, with just the chattering of birds and small insects in an otherwise tranquil, light environment. Various images around the Kannon Hall refer to the idea of 'sailing in the boat of wisdom' as mentioned in a pilgrims' song associated with the temple. On my bushwalk up the mountain, at times clinging on to a chain thoughtfully suspended next to the footholds chopped out of the rock face to help you claw your way up to Buddha's privileged viewpoint, I met not a single sole, more than once reminded of, and cultivating my respect for, the inimitable Japanese character-trait of determination and perseverance. I sat in a cave with a row of Jizo statues eating my lunch of mandarins and a soy-marinated boiled egg, thinking about the huge atmosphere, isolation from people and intimacy with nature that Ben alludes to as the essential San'ya (Mountain Valley) experience. This is a reference to the traditional Japanese honkyoku piece for solo shakuhachi, whose spaciousness and contemplation encapsulates the feeling of a place "deep in the mountains" (as Kakizakai Sensei says) that must be like this. It's an enlightenment/inspiration connection for shakuhachi players, you might say. I could have stayed longer were the day warmer and might again return to practice in a hermit's cave: that rather appeals! This is a special place.

In the evening, I was very fortunate to be invited to Christmas dinner with the Kakizakais. Again, they made delicious morsels that we 'barbecued' at the table on a sizzling hot-plate, including giant ebi (prawns), shitake mushrooms, negi (shallots), ham and sake warmed the cheerful evening conversation. I sensed a twinge of disappointment from Megumi that we could not discover Temple No.32 together but we will go another day by car and she can show me many things I missed. Takahashi and Emi, son and daughter, both like practising their English so we had plenty of fun.

I pieced together this panorama shot showing the 360 degree view from standing next to Buddha in the cave on the mountain-top. Please look at my fickr photo to scroll around the full-sized compilation or click on this image to see a medium-sized view.