Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 30, 2013

Asuka Historical Museum, Nara (museum reviews)

Fourteen hundred years ago, Asuka (now a quiet village) was the cultural and political center of Japan. Here for the first time a unified state was established, based on the introduction of the more advanced culture, technology and administrative systems of China and Korea. Buddhism was introduced as well and the first temples were built.

The landscape of Asuka is still dotted with the sites of palaces and temples, ancient tumulus graves, and quaint stone figures, - those last ones probably statues from the old palace gardens.

Osaka Museums
[Asuka Historical Museum]

You will find copies of those statues in the Asuka Historical Museum, both outside in the landscaped grounds and in the exhibition hall. The museum was established to display the rich archeological harvest of this area. As excavations continue, the museum collection is regularly bolstered by new discoveries, such as the ongoing excavation of the Kitora Tumulus.

The exhibition presents a historical overview, organized around the six themes of palaces, temples, tumuli graves, the Takamatsu Tumulus, stone figures and the Manyoshu poetry collection. The display consists of excavated items, models and panels with text and photos - for some visitors unfortunately only in Japanese.

Asuka Historical Museum, Nara Pref.
[Asuka Historical Museum]

The most impressive exhibit is the restored gallery of the lost Yamadadera Temple in the second exhibition hall. Here the excavated parts of the original lattice windows have been used, which predate Horyuji, the oldest existing wooden building in Japan, by fifty years. You will also find samples of the votive objects buried under the central pillar of the pagoda of Asukadera, as well as clay plaques with Buddhist figures in relief.

The most famous gravemound in Asuka is the Takamatsu Tumulus, which was excavated in 1972. The museum displays objects found in the grave chamber, such as a beautiful mirror with a pattern of vines and sea horses. And to come back to the stones, finally, besides all the copies, the museum houses the original “Sumeru stone,” an artifact in the shape of a mythical mountain, which originally formed part of a fountain.
Tel: 0744- 54-3561
601 Okuyama, Asuka-mura, Takaichi-gun, Nara-ken 634-0102
Hours: 9:00 - 16:30; CL Mon (next day if NH), NY
Access: From Kashihara-Jingumae St on the Kintetsu line take a bus bound for Okadera and get off at Asuka Daibutsu-mae; then 10 min on foot; from Sakurai St on the Kintetsu and JR lines take a bus bound for Okadera and get off at Asuka Shiryokan. A taxi from Kashihara-Jingumae St is also convenient. 
Combine a visit to this museum with a walking or cycling tour through Asuka.Website

In the Takamatsu-zuka Wall-paintings Hall, also in the Asuka area, you will find a complete replica of the famous tomb paintings (0744-54-3340; 9:00-17:00; CL NY: 15 min walk from Asuka St on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line).

July 27, 2013

The Legend of Octopus Buddha (Tako Yakushi Temple, central Kyoto)

In Kyoto, you find small temples in the most unexpected nooks and crannies. A very interesting one is Tako Yakushi (officially called Eifukuji), sitting right in the middle of youth paradise Shinkyogoku, in the center of the city.

[Tako Yakushi Temple in Shinkyogoku street - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

The temple originally stood in Nijo Muromachi and was founded in 1181. The engi, retold in the temple's pamphlet, informs believers about the miraculous origins of the temple. Here it is in my free translation:
In the Muromachi ward of Kyoto lived a rich man who shaved his head and sought his refuge in the Yakushi Buddha of Enryakuji on Mt Hiei. Year after year, he made monthly pilgrimages to this Buddha. But as the years went by, he became old and weak, and one day, he spoke in front of the Yakushi Buddha:

"I am getting too old to continue my practice of monthly pilgrimages. Please let me have your image to place in my home, Lord Yakushi!"

After uttering this wish, the devout believer descended from Mt Hiei. That night, the Yakushi Buddha appeared to him in a dream and spoke: "In a certain place, a stone Yakushi statue carved by St Dengyo [i.e. Saigyo, the founder of Enryakuji and Tendai Buddhism] himself has been buried. You can take that home."

Full of joy, the next day the wealthy man climbed the mountain and when he dug in the indicated spot he indeed found a holy image hewn from stone that emitted a wondrous light.

He took this image home and built a hall of six by four bays for it. This temple was called Eifukuji, or Temple of Eternal Bliss, and it greatly flourished and yound and old, men and women, flocked in great numbers to the temple to pay their respects.

In the Kencho period of Emperor Gofukakusa (1249-56) there lived a monk called Zenko in this temple. It happened at one time that his mother fell ill. Although he took good care of her, she did not recover and spoke from her bed to Zenko: "If only I could eat some octopus (tako), I like that so much from since I was young, that my illness might get better!"

Zenko was not allowed to buy octopus, a living being, for a meal because he was a Buddhist monk and therefore he was greatly distressed. Still, the thought of his sick mother was stronger than his awe for the precepts, so he took a wooden box in his arms and went to the market to find an octopus.

When he walked back, some people became suspicious that he, a monk, had bought a living creature for food and they followed him all the way to the gate of his temple, pressing him to show what was in the box. Zenko could not refuse and prayed with all his heart to the Lord Buddha: "I have only bought this octopus to help my mother recover from her illness. Lord Yakushi, please help me out of this difficulty!"

When he opened the box, the eight-legged octopus had been transformed into a set of eight sutra scrolls and a light shone from them in all four directions.

The people who saw this all pressed their hands together in prayer and sang the praises of the Lord Yakushi, the Buddha of the Lapis Lazuli Paradise.

Strangely enough, the scriptures turned again into an octopus who then jumped into the pond in front of the temple where he changed into the form of the Yakushi Buddha. He emitted a green Lapis Lazuli light and when this struck the head of Zenko's mother her illness was immediately healed. She rose from her bed and in a loud voice sang the praises of the Lapis Lazuli Buddha, over and over again.

Thus the temple came to be known as Octopus Yakushi. From then on, when people visited and prayed for relief from illness, they immediately were healed; when women prayed for children, they were blessed with offspring; and all difficulties and problems were eliminated.

This reached the ears of His Majesty the Emperor and in 1441 the temple received an Imperial License. Since then prayers have been said here for bountiful harvests, the Emperor's long life, and the peace of the nation. When one prays ardently for divine protection, no wish is left unfulfilled: in the present world the seven ills are immediately dispelled and the seven blessings immediately granted.

July 25, 2013

Basho’s haiku on Horaizan: Wintry blasts (Basho, haiku)

Horaizan or Paradise Mountain lies here on earth, close to Hon-Nagashino on the Iida line out of Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture. It is an an old temple mountain of the shugendo cult. Although there is not much of the temples left, the mountain is steep, craggy and still immersed in a mystic atmosphere. An endless array of stone staircases leads to the top and, hopefully, some better insight.

Basho visited Horaizan in 1691, after his long trek to northern Japan and his subsequent stay in Shiga Prefecture to recuperate. As usual, he was accompanied by a group of local haiku enthusiasts, led by one Hakusetsu. At noon they reached the hamlet of Kadoya at the foot of the mountain, so that after lunch the climb started in earnest. Just under the Niomon Gate, Basho took a rest and observed the split rock face visible there between the giant cedars. The winter storm blowing strongly against the rocks seemed to make their corners even sharper. The haiku Basho composed about this scene, has been cut in stone on the very spot where it was written.

Horaizan, Aichi
[The path on Mt. Horai]

by wintry blasts
the rocks are sharpened
through the cedars

kogarashi ni | iwa fukitogaru | sugima kana

Due to the blasts of the north wind, it was a cold day. Basho was troubled by his usual illness, stomach ache, and was not able to climb all the way to the top. He may already have turned back after composing his haiku at the Niomon Gate. On top of that, it happened to be the day of the temple's festival and Basho found that all inns at the foot of the mountain were occupied. With difficulty, he managed to secure a small room in a dingy place. There was no proper bedding, and Basho felt cold and miserable. Hakusetsu ran up the mountain again to one of the subtemples to borrow a padded kimono for the haiku master to keep warm during the night. This inspired Basho to the second haiku of that day:
a padded kimono
received by prayer
sleeping on my journey

yogi hitotsu | inori-idashite | tabine kana

Haiku Stone: The haiku stones (an old one and a modern one) stand near the Niomon Gate, about 10 min. and 222 steps from the start of the staircase.
Access: 15 min. by bus from Hon-Nagashino Station on the Iida Line (Hon-Nagashino is a 50 min. ride from Toyohashi) and then a walk of about 1 hour over a 1,400 steps high staircase ascending through the forest. The bus station lies a few minutes from the station, in the direction of the main road.

July 24, 2013

Another way to use a Shinto gate (Kyoto Streets)

Torii gates are symbols of Shinto shrines and mark their sacred space from the mundane world. The basic structure consists of two pillars with a top rail and a little below that a second horizontal rail piercing both columns, providing stability to the structure.

The greatest orgy of torii gates can be seen on the mountain behind the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, where companies and individuals have donated thousands and thousands of vermilion torii gates that have been set so closely together that they form tunnels leading up to the mountain.

Vermilion tunnel
[Torii gates forming tunnels on he mountain behind Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

In the shops in the street in front of the Fushimi Shrine also minature models of those red torii gates are for sale. You can buy one together with two ceramic foxes (the messenger of the deity of the shrine) to decorate in your home, in the same way as you see them used in small shrines on the mountain.

Fushimi Inari, Kyoto
[Miniature torii gates on a shrine in Fushimi Inari, Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

But on this wall of a ryokan in central Kyoto I saw another way to use these small wooden copies of the sacred gate.

[Miniature torii gates affixed to the wall of a ryokan in central Kyoto - Photo Ad Blankestijn]

No, this is no decoration and it also does not signify that the persons living here are fervid parishioners of the Fushimi shrine!

The truth is more down to earth. The symbolic torii functions in the same way as the inuyarai lattice boards you see on traditional Kyoto houses, that is to say: to prevent passersby from soiling the wall, throwing away garbage and letting their dog use the spot as a toilet.

Even inebriated gentlemen seem to be so sensitive to this sacred symbol that they go and pass their water elsewhere.