Holy Kyoto

There are two very influential religions in the Japanese culture—Shinto andBuddhism. I learned in an anthropology course that these two religions are actually polar opposites. Like Yin and Yang, Shinto and Buddhism serve as a balance of one’s spirituality. One, concerned particularly with one’s secular obligations within their lifetime; while the other, concerned about the soul and how your behaviors may affect your afterlife. Being in Kyoto, I would inevitably be taking a crash course in both.

I was staying in Northern Higashiyama, an older part of the city that retained much of its traditional aesthetic quality:  houses of post and beam timber, roofs adorned with interlacing clay tiles, and every street a home for half-a-dozen Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.

On my bus ride in, I was blindsided by how seriously some of Kyoto’s citizen took their faith. An older woman stepped on the bus and sat next to me. She pointed between my feet at my pack. “Where are you from?” she said with her best English. Her name was Naomi.

We started conversing; I explained where I was from and what I was doing in Japan, she told me that she had sons in America and that I needed to see all of the shrines and temples. This seemed innocent enough, considering it was one of the main draws of Kyoto.

However, soon it became apparent that she was advocating her faith and not general tourism. She began gifting me little trinkets: magic Buddhist symbols, lucky charms, Shinto stickers, and a pocket sized Buddhist bible. I tried keeping up with her in the Japanese art of re-gifting. I offered her some of the postcards I’d brought from the states, and a mini teacup. She smiled and accepted them half-heartedly—more concerned about her Japanese spirituality sales-pitch.

“You must learn to read Japanese.” She spread the scroll-like bible in front of my face, “You must practice Buddhism to better your soul.”

I winced at the taunting words, “Stupid Gaijin!” I blinked a few times until the words turned back into illegible Japanese characters. I held it out in front of me and began folding its accordion like verses.

“Take this and go pray at all the temples… Pray for peace and happiness.” She smiled.

I nodded and gave a toothless-grin—wondering how I had been so lucky as to find the equivalent of a Buddhist Jehovah’s Witness within my first hour of being in Kyoto. I of course found out much later that her conviction was very irregular among the Japanese who practice their faith—both religions being rather passive in nature. Still, something about the encounter shook me up. I was an average American, struggling to find a faith that aligns with the needle of a little compass I call life. Something honestly appealed to me about a cooperative religion. Shinto and Buddhism. Both balancing the physical and ethereal soul; both regarding your worldly and spiritual affairs.

The next four days I was in Kyoto, I explored many of the shrines and temples. I even walked a trail called the Pilgrim’s Path that hit multiple must-sees along the eastern skirts of the city. And it was indeed a pilgrimage; the heat and humidity being so unforgiving that I would sweat through my clothes in two hours and suffer a miserable migraine from dehydration no matter how much water I drank.

Heian-jinju Torri

I saw many Shinto shrines—my favorite being less than a mile from where I was staying—Heinan-jingu. It’s easy to distinguish a shrine from a temple. First, the suffix –jinju almost always follows the name of a shrine. I’m taking an educated guess here, but perhaps, “jinju” translates to “shrine.” The second clue, a large shrine gate at the entrance called a torii. These are usually composed of two standing pillars, joined at the top by two horizontal crossbeams, the upper of which is usually curved toward the sky. I could see the orange torii of Heinan-jinju from my Hotel bedroom window, standing probably 80-100 feet high.

I liked walking through the open stone gardens of Heinan-jinju. I watched many people pray at the haiden, pulling thick ropes to sound a thundering gong. They bowed in a funny pattern of two quick head dips and hand claps.

Still it was nice to observe their practices. One day, I sat through a whole Buddhist morning ritual at Chion-in temple. It was a giant complex that housed a large population of monks. Their wooden temple dwarfed the crowds beneath it.

Chion-in Temple

I took my shoes off before ascending the stairs to the temple. I noticed that shoes always came off before stepping on any wooden structure of shrines or temples. The inside of Chion-in was incredible. There were ornate statues, wooden pillars laced in elegant filigree, and in the center, a great golden Buddha.

The monks’ hymns and rhythmic drumming was intoxicating. Their focus and unison was haunting and is still vivid in my mind to this day. The patterns were hard to grasp but distinct, each verse seeming to build off of the previous like a spiritual game of memory. It was times like these that I wished I fully grasped this foreign language. To have understood what they were chanting, or to have been able to read what was posted around all the temples and shrines would have been an invaluable addition to my experience in Kyoto.

The Old City

One of the half-day hikes took me to many of the most impressive shrines and temples in Kyoto. The path brought me through the tight cobble-stone streets of Southern Higashiyama. Kiyomizu-dera temple was my favorite. Its towering pagoda stretched skyward from the top of Chawan-zaka (teapot lane). After passing countless souvenir shops and wagashi stands, I was standing at the base of the wooden spire, admiring the cities chestnut-colored rooftops from my privileged hillside position.

Here is where I had my most spiritual experience of the whole trip, on par with my sweat lodge experience at the Navajo reservation earlier this year. To the left of the main temple, there is an abyssal cavern known as Tainai-meguri. Much like the physical arrangement of a sweat, I was symbolically descending into a womb, this one being of a female bodhisattva.

After removing my shoes, I walked down a set of wooden stairs into the void. It was cold at the bottom, and the walls and floor turned to uneven stone. My eyes were open, but I was surely blind; only my leading hand and courage guided me. The path curved and turned many times, disorienting me—one time so sharply I thought I had found my way into a box.

I had never been claustrophobic in my life, but being stripped of most of my senses and not knowing what direction would lead me through this blackened maze started to suffocate my calm. I pushed forward. The walls were funneling me toward a chokepoint. My reaching hand found the coarse twine of the guiding-rope, my other, carefully assessing how close the other wall was getting to me. I had to turn sideways to fit through.

Just when confusion was about to get a firm grip on me, I saw it—a beam of light in a breezy chamber. It bounced off the surface of a perfectly polished stone, at the top of which had a Buddhist symbol carved into it. Everything else around me was non-existence, not able to see much more than an inch from the surface of the smooth stone. I placed my hand under the light just to assure myself that I was still of this earth. Touching the large stone, I noticed it could spin. I started turning the large rock. A perfect sphere—the symbol for universality and the encompassment of all things, or a unity.

Half-way across the world and I had again found myself in a womb just as unperceptive and dauntingly confused as an unborn child, drawn to life by a single ray of light that seemed so foreign to me and everything I knew down here. This was birth. This was life—a confusing universe governed by unperceivable and unpredictable laws, explored with a curious mind and unyielding faith in a light or enlightenment that was somewhere out there or within us.

My hand slid from the cool surface of the stone. I continued through the maze and stepped back into the bright humid day. I could perceive much more, but became uncomfortably aware of how much in the dark I still really was in regards to the mysteries of our universe and immortally of our souls.

Oh Look a Geisha!

originally posted in The Battz Travelz

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