The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji. I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.
As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan. Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.
I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.” That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.” I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.
But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.
Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.
1622! Here’s the gate:
As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season. This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season. The downside, of course: rain. The upside: hardly any tourists.
It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex. Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now. I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it? (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).
I was pleased to note I felt at peace.
I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas. I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online. The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings. Kind of an apprentice Buddha.
I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.
This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:
These are “care guardian deities of children.” They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children. To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image. Please refrain from touching.
I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.
Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.
This was happening just the way it was meant to. If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.
I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.
Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.
Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer? The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall? It didn’t matter.
I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.
I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.