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Published: November 14th 2006
Great cultures are normally associated with large geographic areas with which to assert their tradition - take the Chinese and Islamic/Arabian cultures as examples. However, Japan, restricted to a few small islands, has managed to maintain one of the world’s great national identities yet defy the ability to control large tracts of lands in order to maintain their heritage. Perhaps the rarefied air of old Japan would provide answers to this thoughtful question.
First destination was Kamakura; it was the capital of Japan from 1185-1333, and even famous enough to have an eponymous artistic movement. Here it became obvious that Japanese temples and shrines are not always a riot of colour or idols as found in many of their Asian counterparts, but instead possessed this sublime simplicity that uses nature’s glorious splendour - wood, water, rocks, trees, flowers - all utilised to understate the importance of a sacred place. I was thankful to enjoy the commentary of Norikyo (introduced to me through a mutual friend in Australia) who provided explanations of the sites and further educated me on Japanese culture. The day was spent traversing the many temples and shrines scattered throughout the region, linked for the most part by
meandering paths that weaved amongst thick trees and quaint villages, but with far too many spiders for my liking. We managed to witness a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, gaze at the beauty of the Kencho-ji, and stare at the imposing but solemn Daibutsu.
The most interesting site though was the Hase-dera. Within the complex of manicured gardens and gurgling brooks was a section that honoured Jizo, the patron saint of both travellers and the souls of departed children - certainly an unusual combination of roles. For obvious reasons, Jizo’s prominent task was that related to deceased children, and to this end, thousands of small statues were lined in the terraces encircling the shrine. Those who had a lost a child in infancy had clothed some idols in hats and scarves, in order to protect them from the cold and rain - such actions ensuring that their departed child would also be comfortable in the afterlife - most sobering. Thankfully, the mood lifted at the end of the day, when Noriko suggested a fitting culinary finale, by engorging ourselves with the fried noodle based modanyaki
meal at the Kiji restaurant in central Tokyo - an event
Having a Zen moment - Kasuga Taisha, Nara
Tomoka was able to take this photo - my favourite travel portrait of me - arigato, Tomoka!
that saw my gustatory senses reach a new level of ecstasy.
The next city on the historic tour of Japan was Kyoto - home to the Japanese imperial family from 794-1868 and host to an astonishing 17 World Heritage Sites - more than most countries have in total - let alone in just one city. Kyoto is the archetypal image of traditional Japan - kimono-clad women daintily shuffle along the paved streets, where the unadorned building facades have not changed for centuries; and innumerable temples lay in verdant estates, whose leaves blushed with the first crimson colours of autumn.
How fortunate I was to be hosted in Kyoto by Tomoka. I met her in Amritsar
, after she had just completed a solo journey of Pakistan; so obviously, here was a lady with an adventurous spirit. Tomoka ensured that my time in Kyoto would be the most authentic Japanese experience possible - including home cooked meals, visits to Sushi bars, and making V signs in instant photo booths. Tomoka's knowledge of every attraction, the transport system, and less tourist infested sights meant that, as an independent solo traveller, I was afforded the rare opportunity to let somebody else take
the lead in the organisation and execution of a day's sightseeing.
The photographs do far more justice to the beauty of Kyoto than my humble words, but hasten to say that Kyoto is a city so brimming with temples, that on finding yet another nestled amongst a modern shopping complex, I exclaimed "Look, another
temple!", to which Tomoka replied, "Yes, this is
Kyoto..." It made me realise what a daft statement I had made, somewhat akin to being surprised at sighting another kangaroo in outback Australia. It seemed that the more temples we visited, the more their beauty increased - places such as Kiyomizu-dera and Gingaku-ji were nestled serenely amongst the lush hilly landscapes, almost unobtrusive in the manner with which they melded with nature. The final site proved to be the most spectacular - the Sanjusangen-do. Built in 1266, it is an incredible wooden hall almost 120 metres in length that contains 1001 life-sized gold plated Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). This was a truly remarkable place - each of the statues were crafted with individual faces, and these long lines of mute sentinels have borne silent witness to pilgrims and visitors for centuries. The sight of
this breathtaking array of statues enthused me more than any other in Japan and it must rank as one of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.
The final destination was Nara, Japan’s first capital that held sway from 710-794 and the location of another eight World Heritage Sites. The most famous of these is the Daibutsu-den, where a massive 16 metre bronze Buddha resides within a very dim interior, which reflected the inclement weather of the day. Though impressive, this site does not hold the fondest memories for me - for that accolade was earned by the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. A miserable and rainy day did bring some benefits, not the least being that it deterred hordes of visitors for making the long trek through the parklands to the Shrine. Wandering through the extensive park populated by dozens of fearless deer, I espied the first of the stone lanterns or toro
famed in this area - solid, fuscous creations covered in a carpet of dull green moss. These toro
were built to welcome deities to the Shrine, and though they varied in height and size, the sight of hundreds of them lining the route to the auspicious Shrine provided a
The rain continued to patter the leaves and my umbrella as I trudged along the water soaked path and passed even more moss-covered toro
. Finally, the Shrine came into view, a large pale-vermillion coloured enclosure, and it was for the most part empty - only inhabited by a few attendants. Upon entering, I was presented with the sight of hundreds of heavy lanterns forged from different metals hanging in silent rows, most covered with a patina from years of existence. After ambling through the site, and in order to avoid the constant rain, Tomoka noticed an empty visitors room. Upon removing our shoes, we entered the airy, simple interior of translucent rice-paper covered walls, crossed the tatami
mats, and squatted on the modest cushions adjacent to an open tategu
that overlooked some lanterns and Shrine’s outer wall. The rain continued to fall, more heavily now, and the runoff flowed noisily along an aqueduct beneath the window.
The rhythmic sound of rushing water and the minimalism of the surrounds all caressed me into an inevitable Zen moment. A beautiful sense of calm and tranquility washed over me - I wished to remain here for days to read,
contemplate and retire from the world. This feeling of peace in this most traditional of places was so complete that I desired to be transported back into time before computers, automobiles and electricity - where life was simpler and quieter. It was in this epiphanic moment that I finally comprehended the incredible resilience of the Japanese culture - for it is instilled by the strength and stillness of silence.
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