Tag Archives: Japanese Shrines

Stupa-fied

Okunoin, as you might imagine from the fact that it has 200,000 graves, is vast.  There are two main paths that traverse its length, and I walked up one of them.  It’s mostly level, so one is able to take in the jumble of headstones, jizos, toriis, statues, and stupas, which in Okunoin are composed of large hewn stones representing the five elements.

You can see stupas in the background of this shot of Kobo Daishi.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of Kobo D statues.  I liked this one where he’s got what looks like a bowl on his head.

I stopped at a small wooden structure that contained, according to a sign, “a stone that is heavy or light” depending on whether the person trying to lift it is evil or good.  I stuck my hand in the opening and tried to lift it; it was heavy.

After 20 minutes I arrived at the lantern hall. It contains many … lanterns, 10,000 as a matter of fact.  Someone must have kept a log as they were donated over the centuries.  One in particular was called out in my brochure: “In 1016, a woman sold her hair to buy a lantern to pray for the rest of her parents.”  Why that one lantern, I wondered?  Surely over the course of millennia there must be other stories to rival the selling of hair.

The hall was closed so I walked around to see what, if anything, was beyond it.  And here was the very modest mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Meals are served to him twice a day and from what I read that’s a tourist sight kind of like the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.

I lighted a candle in memory of my aunt.  If Kobo Daishi could still be alive but in a trance state, praying for the liberation of all beings, maybe my aunt could still be “alive” too, praying for the discovery of a new Tater Tot hotdish recipe.

Suddenly sadness welled up and I started sobbing.  Where had that come from?

Well, I told myself: if you can’t cry in a cemetery with 200,000 dead people, where can you?

I heard a shuffling noise nearby and turned to see a young monk sitting on a bench in the gloaming.  I hadn’t noticed him, and I don’t like anyone seeing me cry.  I walked on.

At the midpoint of the path there was a sign that said it was good luck to walk the path clockwise.  Interesting.  I recalled walking around a lake in Minnesota with a Native American friend once, who had insisted on walking clockwise.  “It’s good medicine,” she had told me.

I had walked counterclockwise.  Which way should I walk back?  I got all confused, plus my stuffed emotions were still simmering.  There was a row of exquisite statues dedicated to the dead, one more fantastic than the next.  The drill was, you threw an offering (of course) into the water at their feet and said a prayer for your loved one.  What I really wanted was to take photos of these statues—they were the most beautiful in Okunoin, in my estimation.

But first I thought I’d step into the bathroom and that’s when I dropped my phone in the toilet and … no more photos.

Was it bad juju?  Was I being punished for not walking clockwise, or for being a smarty pants about all this mystical stuff?  No.  My cell fell in the loo because I was wearing a jacket for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t used to it and I wasn’t paying attention, and the cell slipped out of the pocket.

I have practiced meditation from time to time in order to be more focused and able to stay in the moment.  Maybe it was time to get back to it.

That night I knelt at the kotatsu, which is what I have learned is the name of the blanket-covered heated table, and researched what to do when your cell phone gets wet.  Here’s a photo of one from an online store.

I received numerous suggestions from friends to dry my phone in rice. Hmmm … now where could I find rice?

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.