The best way to enjoy a visit to a temple or a shrine in my opinion is to go for the details. Just like older western Churches, temples and shrines in Japan (and indeed in the rest of Asia as well) are absolutely loaded with details all of which carries tons of symbolism and meaning. Most Japanese can’t actually “read” these details either (it is not a lost skill, as these details have long been the domain of specialists and professionals). I have always thought it interesting in Japanese that there is one word for “leg” that covers everything from the hipjoint to the big toe, but there is also a very specific name for each part of the spire on top of a pagoda, with incredible detail. Every time I visit a temple in Japan I learn something new about the symbolism or naming of the different parts of it. Sometimes I take a lot of photos of details to remember them, like with this temple that I visited in Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture, the Senjuin (千手院). This temple is on the slopes of a hill neatly placed to overlook the city and the castle that makes the city famous. The temple belongs to the oldest and largest of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. I was too late in the season to experience the famous weeping cherry blossom tree (shidare sakura) which is over 200 years old. The temple itself is very old but it was moved here in the 19th century after a large fire burned down the original buildings in 1678. If you visit Matsue City and have a bit of free time and the weather is good I recommend visiting this temple if nothing else than for the news.
A few of the interesting details on this temple was the elaborate (even more than usual) bright vermilion ceramic roof finials, complete with the famous kamon (heraldic sign) Gosannokiri which is extremely similar to the official heraldic sign of the prime minister and can be found in all Japanese passports for example (to be honest there are 129 official kamon based on this simple design and it could be anyone of them). I also enjoyed seeing the printed prayer slips pasted on one of the walls which I have never seen in Tokyo (I am sure there must be some). Another one I liked was the little votive painting of the Senjukannon, the buddhist patron saint of people born in the year of the rat and often prayed to by people with poor eyes.
Tokyo is full of history and interesting stories if you just know where to look and aren’t too distracted by the food, the fun and the shopping! I have passed these two statues at the famous Sensoji Temple in Japan’s number one tourist site, Asakusa, maybe over a thousand times but I only recently learned about the history of them.
In the first half of the 17th century when Edo was the trading and crafts center of Japan and the home of the ruling Shogun (Warlord) a struggling trader in rice took in a small boy from modern day Gunma prefecture and did his best to teach him about trade and commerce. Eventually the boy returned to his home town and started a very successful trading business. His old master though was not so lucky and died impoverished and destitute. The former apprentice, Takase Zembe, heard of the tragedy and ordered two huge statues of the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi. They were donated in 1678 to the memory of the rice merchant and his son. Both the statues miraculously survived the US fire bombings of 1945 and they are still in their original positions to the right of the second Nio gate.
But the story doesn’t end there, because almost 300 years later one of Zembe’s direct descendants, Takase Jiro who was the Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1996 developed a cultural exchange and partnership between the Sensoji Temple and the famous Isurumuniya Vihara temple in Anuradhapura, the capital of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As the Senso-ji’s pagoda was rebuilt in 1973, the temple in Sri Lanka dispatched its senior abbot to the dedication ceremony, bringing with him a granule of the physical remains of the Buddha, a massively important relic, to dedicate to the Japanese temple.
The granule remains in the pagoda to this day and I hope both it and the two statues representing the gratitude of a devoted apprentice to his former master will remain for many thousands of years to come.
I passed the statues a little while ago, and found them occupied by two birds who posed perfectly for the camera.
One of the greatest tourist attractions in Japan is the Nara Daibutsu, a huge buddha statue housed in the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Apart from the big statue itself there are plenty of smaller statues scattered around the main hall of the temple. The atmosphere is fantastic, air thick with incense smoke, prayers bells and the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Well, at least if you go off season and on a weekday. Weekends and high season tends to get quite crowded especially recently with the absolute boom in overseas tourism.
There is statuary of all kinds of materials, millennium old wood carvings, bronzes and clay to name a few materials. If you have the opportunity to visit, spare a few minutes for the “other” art treasures of the Todaiji!
One of the most heartwarming traditions in Japan that I know of is the official Nakizumo (泣き相撲) – the crying baby competition. It takes place both in temples and in shrines, and I visited the biggest ceremony in Tokyo at Asakusa’s Sensoji temple. The ceremony was overseen by buddhist monks and a real life sumo referee. 120 babies were divided into two teams, the East and the West and three sumo wrestlers took turns taking the babies into the ring. In Tokyo the competition is very simple: each match is 60 seconds long and the baby that cries that hardest is declared the winner (in other areas of Japan the rules vary quite a lot). The sumo wrestlers are supposed to be big and scary for the babies and the judge and referees do their best by crying “nake nake nake” (泣け 泣け 泣け cry cry cry!) to the kids as the match begins. More often than not, neither of the kids starts crying in the 60 seconds of them match though, and the referees would have to don masks and funny faces to scare the babies. This usually didn’t work either and many of the 60 matches ended in draws.
The day was fantastic with lots of sun meaning that many babies had promptly fallen asleep by the time the matches started. The first little boy taken out into the ring slept all through it. The audience are encouraged to take part in cheering the kids but for most of the time we were too busy laughing to the hilarious kids and the funny referees and their running commentary on the matches. Many kids were too busy laughing or much more interested in the opponent babies to cry but the ones who eventually really started bawling were greeted with applause and cheers.
The ceremony in this temple is meant celebrate both the children and their parents as well as wishing them strength and good health.
Funnily enough the scariest looking sumo wrestler was the most popular with the kids, very few of the babies handed to him started crying and he was eventually disqualified for being to popular (by a joking referee). There are always a few people who are amazed at a ceremony like this, and for them I recommend reading a few thousand entries on this rather funny blog: “Reasons My Son Is Crying”. Warning, don’t click this link at work – you are not likely to get any more work done today if you do!