Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Memories of Japan: The Great Buddha, the Divorce Temple and Yabusame Horseback Archery

Japanese maple (momiji) in Kamakura
Photo by Masanori Kurachi
Today is Tuesday, January 7, 2014.

When I divorced, I moved from Osaka to Tokyo all by myself, and that is a story in itself, but my first extended trip all by myself was from Tokyo to Kamakura, a very historic city, and one that I came to love.  I had a really neat guidebook called Exploring Kamakura: A Guide for the Curious Traveler, by Michael Cooper, which I studied as if for a university-level examination.  The result was that I knew exactly where I was going to stay, where I was going to go in Kamakura, how I was going to get there, and what I was going to see before I even left home.  I still have that guidebook, and the accompanying map, which I marked and numbered for the trip, which means I can go back and remember a lot of details about each place I visited.  By train, it's only an hour away from Tokyo. 

Two cats at a temple.  Photo by Hideo
My first hurdle was phoning ahead to a ryōkan (family-owned inn) to make a reservation for a week.  I wrote out what I wanted to say and rehearsed it carefully before making the call, which went very smoothly.  What I found out later was that my Japanese wasn't too bad on the phone, and my pronunciation was nearly perfect, but my accent was all over the place, meaning that a Japanese couldn't quite pin down where in Japan I was "from" because I used both Kantō and Kansai pronunciations indiscriminately.  Fortunately for me, Japanese is the type of language that has a lot of set phrases to use in social situations, which means you only have to memorize certain expressions and use them appropriately in order to sound natural.  In any event, the look on people's faces once they saw me in person after speaking to me on the phone was priceless. 

More stray cats
I first traveled to Kamakura when the autumn leaves were at their peak, and even though the photographs have faded with the years, I still remember the stunning red maple leaves, as well as the bright oranges and yellows that I saw.  Kamakura is known for its stray cats, cared for by the community, and I remember one photo I took of a cat sunning itself on top of a private garden wall that – when I got it back, turned out to be two cats.  The other one was napping on the roof of the house!  Unfortunately, I can't seem to find that particular photo. 

All the hiking paths seemed to look just like this.  Not too
steep, but enough tree roots sticking up that you had to
watch where you were going.
I hiked for miles from temple to shrine to temple, following some amazing hiking trails in the hills around the city.  As it is on all hiking trails the world over, the people I met all smiled and nodded as we passed each other.  On the third day, I was walking along the trail and realized that I was humming to myself, a good sign, because when I arrived in Kamakura, I wasn't in a very good mood.  One of those "I need a vacation" moods.  

Older building at  Tōkei-ji
Kamakura is a city of approximately 170,000 people nestled into the mountains just off Sagami Bay. (The population has grown by 10,000 since I lived in Japan!)  During the rule of the shōguns from 1185 to 1333, it was the military and administrative center of Japan.  The warlords chose this place for its inaccessibility; it is a natural fortress.  In times past, the city could only be entered on land by means of a number of narrow passes, the most prominent of which were called the "Seven Entrances of Kamakura."  The town is surrounded by Mt. Rokkokuken, Mt. Ōhira, Mt. Jubu, Mt. Tendai, and Mt. Kinubari.

Inside Tōkei-ji.  Photo by Just Jack  Not all
temples allow visitor all the way inside.
There are supposedly at least 65 Buddhist temples in the city, and 19 Shintō shrines.  Since the military class in Japan embraced Zen Buddhism, Kamakura is known for its Zen temples, in particular. 

My favorite place in Kamakura was Tōkei-ji, nicknamed the Divorce Temple.  Keep in mind that I had just finalized my own divorce less than a year before I visited this place and I was taking my first vacation after having worked like a dog to build up my savings after moving to Tokyo by myself.  The temple itself isn't much to look at by American standards, but it was the quiet, peaceful atmosphere that attracted me there.  

Temple building at Tōkei-ji
The story is that in Japan, as in many other countries, it was difficult for women to obtain a divorce.  Men could divorce their wives by drawing up and handing her a writ called mikudarihan, or "three-and-a-half lines," then send her back to her parents.  If a woman wanted a divorce, she would come to Tōkei-ji and reside in the Buddhist convent there for at least three years (later reduced to two), and she would be considered divorced.  Meanwhile, she received asylum from her husband.  If she was being chased by an irate husband late at night and found the temple gates closed, all she had to do was throw one of her geta (wooden clogs) over the gate and she would be given asylum.  

Cemetary behind Tōkei-ji.  Photo by Ilya Genkin.  In the center you see a "five-ringed tower" grave  marker called gorintō on top of a base platform.  The cube at the bottom stands for earth.  The sphere on top of that stands for water.  The pyramid shape above that stands for fire.  The cup-shaped  thing stands for wind, and the round piece with a peak in the middle at the top stands for the void/space/the ether.

Cemetery at Tōkei-ji,  Photo by Just Jack.
The temple was founded in 1285.  No men were allowed inside until 1902; it was run entirely by Buddhist nuns until the last abbess died, and the administration of the temple was passed to an abbot. 

Behind the temple, there is a gorgeous cemetery set amid bamboo and cryptomeria trees.  The bamboo grove was amazing.  Before I went there, I was told to listen carefully, because you can actually hear the bamboo growing. It's true.  The bamboo makes little popping sounds.  (I think I explained before that bamboo is not really a tree; it's a very fast-growing grass.)  The graves are set into the natural surroundings in no discernible order, and the ground is carpeted in moss.  I wanted to stay here forever, and I remember thinking that if I stayed in Japan for the rest of my life, I wanted this to be my final resting place.
The bamboo grove behind Tōkei-ji.  Just magical.

Daibutsu at Kamakura. Photo
by Linda LeBoutillier
The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue is located at a temple so small that many foreigners don't even bother to learn its name: Kōto-in.  The present bronze statue was preceded by a wooden one that took ten years to make, but which was destroyed by fire.  The bronze statue was cast in the year 1252, and was at one time gilded.  The statue was originally kept inside a building, but storms in 1334 and 1369 demolished the building, which had to be rebuilt.  Finally, a tsunami washed the building (but not the statue!) away in 1498, and they decided to leave the statue out in the open.  The Japanese say it is "seated in the dew."  The base of the statue was destroyed by the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923 and was repaired two years later, but the statue itself was just fine.  In the 1960s the neck was strengthened and the statue was made earthquake-proof.  Considering its history, though, it's done pretty well for itself.

Daibutsu at Kamakura.  Photo
by Linda LeBoutillier
Including the base, the statue is nearly 44 feet high, which would be like a three- or four-story building.   I took several pictures of it, getting closer to the statue each time, and they pretty much turned out postcard-quality.  For some reason, these photographs have retained their color after nearly 30 years.  I sometimes wish I were as photogenic as this statue. 


Daibutsu at Kamakura.  Photo by
Linda LeBoutillier
Yaubsame archers at Hachiman Shrine
Photo by Linda LeBoutillier
My favorite Shintō shrine was Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, or "Hachiman Shrine," as the foreigners call it.  This is the biggest shrine in Kamakura, located at the end of the main drag in town whose other end is the beach on the shore of Sagami Bay.  The event that I enjoyed most at this shrine was one that I didn't get to see on my first visit.  I had to wait until a couple of years later, when it was held on a weekend, and plan ahead so as not to miss it.  This was the Yabusame Horseback Archery, a culminating event of the Grand Festival at Hachiman Shrine, held every year on September 14-16.  

Yabusame's saddle.  Photo by
Linda LeBoutillier
I remember that it was drizzling that day, and everybody in the crowd had an umbrella.  I don't remember whether I did or not, but I did take 400 speed film with me, which meant I got pretty good pictures, even in low light.  The archers all wore 13th century clothing, and I was impressed that they wore hats and "chaps" on their legs that looked like ones worn by American cowboys.  There is a procession of priests and archers on horseback, first, so visitors can get a good look at their period clothing.

Yabusame archer's arrows.  Photo by
Linda LeBoutillier
This event harks back to the days when samurai were essentially mounted archers in peacetime, who practiced their archery skills by hunting and target shooting, which evolved into a martial art.  Archers gallop down a 250-meter lane and try to hit three small wooden targets placed along the lane, about 3-4 meters back. Each target is a 55 centimeter-square board (roughly 21.5 inches square), placed so it looks like a diamond.  Twenty archers gallop along the path, one after another.  If a target it hit, it splinters with a confetti-like material and falls to the ground, so another target has to be put up.  Also, I noticed that there was a ritual for picking up spent arrows.  The placement of Yabusame targets is supposed to replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow to an oppoinent wearing full traditional samurai armor, which leaves a space just beneath the helmet visor so the person wearing the armor can see. Unfortunately, it is this space that is vulnerable to arrows.  

Yabusame archer hits the target.
Photo by Linda LeBoutillier
The archer who performs the best is given a white cloth, signifying divine favor.  To hit all three targets is admirable, but Yabusame isn't really about sport; it's all about ritual. It is done to please the gods who watch over Japan, as well as to entertain foreign heads of state and other dignitaries.  U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush saw demonstrations, as did Prince Charles of the U.K.   :-)

No comments: