Saturday, 31 March 2012

A Night in a Buddhist Monastery

One of the most interesting aspects of spending time in the sacred mountains of Koya is staying in one of the many Buddhist monasteries in the area. In fact there are actually over 100 monastic lodges, with a great many offering accommodation for visitors to the region. For Jules and I the opportunity of spending a night in this type of environment was certainly going to be an added bonus that we were both looking forward to with great anticipation. Buddhism continues to fascinate the both of us and the opportunity to take a glimpse into the life of the monks would provide us with yet another memorable Japanese experience.

Upon arrival, we were immediately struck by the beauty of the traditional architecture. As with most of the monasteries in the area, it was a classic Japanese design with a welcoming gateway leading to an internal courtyard. Inside, several wooden peaked roofed structures were linked by a series of undercover walkways, while the overall design nicely combined the use of grids and subtle decorative elements that are so typically Japanese. As we entered the building, its scale became increasingly evident; a fact that was further confirmed when we were provided with a room on the third floor. As expected this was simply laid out with traditional tatami mats and futons, but we couldn’t manage to escape the modern world entirely, with a somewhat out of place flat screen TV sitting uncharacteristically in the corner.

As we had been warned, both the evening and breakfast meals are served very early in the monastery (5.30pm and 7.30am). Sitting cross-legged on tiny pillows in an even larger tatami room, Jules and I looked warily at an interesting range of vegetarian offerings that had been proudly served on small trays that held a range of delicate little bowls. To be honest there wasn’t too much there that immediately took our fancy, but in the spirit of the experience we grabbed our chopsticks and began to sample them, even if we weren’t quite sure what we were actually eating.

By far the highlight of our experience in the monastery was having the privilege of attending morning prayers. After being woken by the droning gong of the morning bell at the crack of dawn (6.15am), we braved the chilly air and headed downstairs toward the temple. Removing our slippers we stepped into an ornate room with a large ceremonial alter and in doing so caught sight of two monks kneeling on the floor deep in contemplation. In front of each of them was a thick book, from which they proceeded to read through a long series of syncronised chants. Interspersed with the occasional gong or crash of symbols, the droning chants continued to become quite hypnotic. Eventually, guests were invited to pay their own homage to divine Buddha by adding a small contribution of incense to a burning tray near the alter. The sweet scent now filled the air, further adding to the atmosphere, as the chants continued to resonate throughout the temple. While it was difficult for us to decipher any particular meaning from the ceremony, it was clear that each gesture, sound and smell was very significant to their faith. As we respectfully watched the rituals of the ceremony, we felt that on that cold clear morning, we had been honored to be included in such a time honored tradition.

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Sacred Sites of Koyasan

While in search of the definitive traditional Japanese experience, friends had told us of a place only a few hours away from Osaka that attracts visitors from all over the world yet remains unspoilt by commercialism. The place is Mt. Koya (or ‘Koyasan’ as it is known locally) and is the most sacred of places for the followers of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Perched so high in the mountains that you need to catch a cable car to get there, the tiny town consists of over 100 unique temples that are justifiably listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. So, on a sunny day on the last day of winter, Jules and I joined the steady stream of pilgrims who were following the route around sacred temples and monuments dating back to 819 AD.

An indication of the depth of history associated with this place became obvious as we trekked the path toward Okunion Temple. Here, amongst towering cedars that are several hundred years old, is a sea of ancient monuments and tombstones of various shapes and sizes. In fact there are some 200,000 of them covering the landscape; some grand and imposing, others inconspicuously blending into the foliage. As Jules and I both noted, walking through here provided a very different atmosphere than any western style graveyard we had visited. Perhaps it was the randomness of the monuments or neutrality of the colours that allowed them to discreetly blend into the environment over time. In any case, the walk was particularly tranquil and certainly provided us with many photographic images along the way. Crossing Gobyonohashi Bridge, we caught sight of the Torodo Hall (the hall of lamps) and following a crowd of pilgrims, we venture around the back to Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum. There was quiet chanting and the smell of incense in the air. This is indeed a very sacred place, as Kobo Daishi (774–835) was the founder and grand master of the Shingon Buddhist sect and it is here that followers believe that he remains in a state of eternal meditation. At this point we both wished that we understood Buddhism a little better.

The next day we joined yet more groups of pilgrims (recognisable by their all white outfits and traditional conical hats called a ‘sugegasa’) and headed down the road toward Garan, Koyasan’s central temple compound. Here, within a relatively small area, seven major temples were built during various centuries during the life of the sect. As the pilgrims systematically paid homage to each and every building with chants, prayers and monetary donations, we chose to quietly wander around the site with camera in hand. In the centre of the compound was Kondo Hall, an impressive ceremonial wooden temple, but the jewel in the crown was the Konpon Daito Pagoda. Standing some 45 metres tall, this bright orange wooden temple remains testament to the design and construction skills of traditional Japanese craftsmen. While being intricately detailed, it retains a certain level of traditional simplicity that continues to be admired by many visitors to this region.

As we stood there in admiration of this amazing collection of temples, five monks in ceremonial robes approached, intent upon paying homage to each of the shrines; a task that has been undertaken daily for many centuries. In fulfilling their regular duty they were also providing us with one of those memorable moments that can only be experienced when you make the effort to visit such a remote yet culturally significant location. Much like a scene from a bygone era, their simple ritual revealed an aspect of traditional Japan that is becoming increasingly harder to find and certainly one we have been searching for in our travels beyond the city.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Meeting Mr. Osumi

In these days of Middle Eastern uncertainty, as countries once again seriously contemplate the notion of nuclear warfare, it would be well worth leaders going to Hiroshima to remind themselves of the disastrous effects of the A-bomb. This week was my third visit to this historical Japanese city that became known world wide as a result of the events of August 6, 1945. The trip was once again a humbling experience that was no less poignant; as we respectfully viewed the various monuments and museum exhibits that document the circumstances and aftermath of the detonation. However, nothing brings you closer to the experience than hearing the words of those who directly experienced it and we were fortunate to meet with one of the dwindling number of survivors who are able to share their memories of this fateful day.

Mr. Katsuto Osumi is a stately gentleman whose dignified appearance and positive outlook belied the horrific experiences of his youth. He was seven years old when he witnessed first hand the blinding flash of white light from the A-bomb as he stood only two kilometers from its epicenter. Amazingly he suffered relatively few outward injuries, but years later his intense exposure to radiation would take its toll, as he would eventually contract three different forms of cancer over the ensuing years. He spoke vividly about of the unbelievable days immediately following the bombing as his family survived on grass and frogs in the nearby mountains, in constant fear of yet another attack. He remembered, as if it were yesterday, the steady flow of corpses drifting down the river, which were dragged onto the bank only to lay decaying until eventually being burnt on makeshift funeral fires that in turn created an all pervading stench that lasted for weeks. Eventually he would return to the city, only to witness the slow ongoing deaths of family and friends over the months and years ahead. In later years, as his own health issues emerged, he thought how strange it was that he would be treated using radiation, as this is what he had been told had actually caused his problems. He spoke of the discrimination that would emerge toward A-bomb victims and the embarrassment of revealing to potential marital partners that you had suffered radiation exposure, as sterility or the possibility of deformed births remained an ongoing social fear. Despite all this, Mr. Osumi continued to demonstrate throughout his life the resilience of the human spirit and his own ability to think positively through adversity. He worked for many years in a large Japanese corporation, becoming the oldest player in the company’s baseball team, before eventually leaving, whilst in his 50’s, to establish his own successful sales company. He holds no animosity about what happened to him and despite his ongoing health issues and treatment, genuinely expects to live well beyond 100 years. Yet, no matter how many years lay ahead, he remains firmly committed to relaying to others his own very personal experiences and to reminding us all about the horrors of nuclear warfare. His softly spoke words were testament to the destructive toll of such weapons and the long-term physical and psychological effects they can have upon individuals and a society as a whole.

While the city of Hiroshima has certainly emerged from the ashes, the sorrow it carries lies just below the surface, providing a sobering lesson for the current nuclear-armed countries to reflect upon.