November 13, 2012

Bells in the forest

I had a religious experience today.

Well, I don't really believe in god, and I think religion generally does more harm than good... and there were no epiphanies or great truths revealed... so maybe it was just a great day in a beautiful place rather than a religious experience.

I had a great day in a very beautiful place:

A two hour train ride from Kurumi's house brought me to to Mount Koya, which among other things, is the location of Okunoin Temple (#37). As the train cut through the countryside and in and out of forests, passing quaint houses and towns as we rose higher in elevation I knew I was in for a magnificent day:

When I arrived at the station, there were still a few hundred feet left to climb before reaching the town. Luckily there was a cable car that took me and a few other Americans (honeymooners, I would later discover) to the base of World Heritage site.

My goal was to go back to Okunoin Temple, as I had remembered coming here during my first trip to Japan. When I approached the graveyard, which acts as an entrance to the temple, I realized this was my first time. I guess there is more than one temple surrounded by a forest in Japan. Go figure!

Entrance to the forest.
I always though Disney just destroyed the Rocket to the Moon, but I guess it was simply moved.
As I walked through the graveyard, which
wound deeper into the forest, I noticed a few weird things:
Here lies one Sassy Broad!
We don't often think of places of final resting to be great advertising spots, but the Japanese sure do:
I believe they make printers
Do you think he died in a car accident?
The Kanji translates to "You'll be dead soon, enjoy a Starbucks in the meantime"
Actually, I think the sad truth is that these people were so dedicated and defined by their jobs that, even in the afterlife, they wanted to show their commitment to work.

The other odd thing I noticed, and have been noticing throughout my travels, has been the different rain gear fitted to all the Buddhas and statues.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou-san

It is very hard to capture two things in these photos:

1. The height of the trees and the scope of this area. The graveyard was scattered throughout the forest, which was home to the temple. The trees rose high above the roofs of the temples and blocked out the sunlight. I took a few photos, which I hope will give some perspective as to how grand the landscape was, but one must enter the forest to fully realize its reach:
Miles of paved paths were intersected my even longer unpaved paths
Sunlight could only creep into the cool forest.

2. The smell. I wish Smell-o-vision had survived the 50's as it would have been a perfect way to share the combination of dewy forest and temple incense. In all Buddhist temples there are many places to burn incense. There is usually a great metal spheres that contain hundreds of burning sticks placed at the entrance of the temple as well as smaller pits of sand surrounding the perimeter of the buildings, which offer guests a chance to burn their own incense. The smoke crept into the forest, letting me know I was quickly approaching. 

The first building, as is customary in Buddhist teachings, is the gift shop.
Splish splash I was taking a bath
I was not permitted to take photographs inside the temple, where hundreds of lanterns glowed from the ceiling, but I was able to find this image on Google:

So let me paint the picture: You're walking through a forest, dwarfed under the great trees that rise overhead and humbled by the hundreds of graves which call to memory those passed. All around you, bells ring and whistle. You're following cobblestone paths, but really relying on your nose, which is picking up the sweet scent of burning incense in the distance. The scent grows stronger and soon a great temple appears, tucked into the shadows, calling you to enter. As you walk up the stairs, you can see into the great hall where hundreds of lanterns, identical in shape and size, hang from the ceiling. The room is glowing. And there is a monk, dressed in golden threads. Is he praying? No. What is he doing? And what is that sound? You walk through the large doors and into the glow of the room to discover the monk is... vacuuming? Yep, that's a Dyson.

I don't want to say this completely killed the moment, but even the brilliant British engineering of a Dyson cannot fully do away with that awful sucking sound. I suppose temples get dirty though, and if all guests are forbidden from entering the sacred areas of the temple, than that would leave only the monks to clean.

But here's the thing: if they can vacuum, and thus disturb the great aura of the building, why then can't I take photos?

I decided I would take a photo of the other building, which seemed to be a lantern holding pen.
I left the temple and ventured deeper into the forest. It was there that I discovered that the ringing bells I had been hearing were attached to the walking sticks of old women:


I assumed it was sunset as the light began to fade in the forest and suddenly all the lanterns that stood along the sides of the path became lit:

When I exited though, I found the sun high in the sky. The forest was playing tricks on me, it was another world.

 I could not have picked a better time to visit Japan as all the leaves have begun to change colors. Not completely though, so I get the contrast. I have developed a four star rating system for places, with each star representing each one of the seasons. The Mount Koya region is a four star visit. It is clear to see from the following photos that fall is an amazing time to visit, as the colors are vibrant and the air has begun to get chilly. Winter, as I imagined, came with a blanket of white snow, and a few of the posters I saw confirmed that the white woods are gorgeous. Spring is cherry blossom season, which is a no brainer, and during the summer months, the high altitude of this area creates a nice barrier from the heat and humidity that plagues the rest of the country. I would like to visit during each season.

Even the fire hydrants were fall colors...right?

As you can tell from the following photos, the clouds moved in and the temperature and light quickly dropped:

I knew night was beginning to fall as the lights began to flicker on across town:

 I checked the train schedule and determined I had enough time to explore this uphill street which seemed to lead into the trees. About halfway up the light grew even dimmer and I began to wonder if I should turn back. Suddenly the darkness was  cut by a violent white streak of lightning. A few seconds passed and then the roar of the thunder followed. It rolled through the trees at such an intense level and for so long, that I halfway expected to look up the hill and see a flood rushing towards me. 5 seconds. 10 seconds. The thunder lasted for at least 12 seconds before dying away into absolute silence.
As if I needed another sign to turn back and find the bus, the silence was suddenly broken by the sound of raindrops on the tree tops. I had just enough time to whip out my umbrella and save both myself and my blue suede shoes from the pelting drops of water. And as if there was still a doubt in my mind that maybe I should keep going, accompanying the violent downpour of water were large pellets of hail.

Time to go back.

The rain and hail got so bad that I had to duck into a covered alleyway and wait until it either calmed down, or I decided my blue suede shoes were replaceable. But I knew they weren't so I decided to wait.

The hail ceased and the rain began to lessen, though the brilliant flashes of white, followed by the rolling thunder did not die away. I left my shelter and made my way down the hill, towards the bus stop. There was not a single sign of life on the walk. On my way up I had passed a number of shops and pedestrians, but they must have known the storm was coming and decided to close up shop and head home.

Aside from the electric lit lamps, I was the only sign of human presence walking down the road (okay, I guess a paved road is also a sign of humans). I was beginning to enjoy feeling alone when suddenly, out of nowhere, music as loud as the thunder began to play. Christmas music. I turned around but saw only the empty road. In front of me too was just street and trees. Where was this music coming from?

The tone was very ice-cream truck-like and as whatever was producing this music grew closer, I was able to recognize the tune: Oh the weather outside if frightful, but the fire is so delightful... The bells which carried the melody grew closer until I was finally illuminated by the high beams of a city tour bus. Just as quickly as it appeared, it passed, nearly drowning me in its spray.

I made it back to the bus stop and the the cable car and train. The windows of all were too foggy to see much outside, but I imagined the modest towns I had passed earlier in the day were now covered in a blanket of rain, reflecting the light of the train as I passed.

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