rainy days in Toyko and Kyoto, sunny day in Nara

Posted on: Sat, 05/05/2012 - 09:30 By: Tom Swiss

Rain the past few days in both the Tokyo and Kansai areas, but good weather here on Saturday as I head out to Nara.

Wednesday was Kamakura, home of the famous Daibutsu. The outdoor one, as opposed to the Nara one, which is inside. The Kamakura one was inside a few centuries ago, then there was a tsunami that destroyed the temple hall and left this big bronze Buddha open to the sky.

But before the Daibutsu, Hase-dera and the Great Kannon. No, the Great Kannon is not a weapon wielded by some anime mech, it's a huge (30 foot high) wooden statue of Kannon, a.k.a. Kanzeon, a.k.a. Kwan Yin, a.k.a. Avalokitesvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. Worth visiting and taking a moment to contemplate. (I silently did a few repetitions of the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo, a chant to Kannon that is about the closest thing to a Buddhist prayer that I have memorized.)

The Great Kannon is Hase-dera's main attraction, and everybody loves Kannon; but two of my other favorite Japanese Buddhist deities also get their due at Hase-dera, Jizo and Benzaiten. Jizo is an earth spirit (the "Earth Store Bodhisattva"), and a guardian of children and travelers. I had a painting of him/her (like Kannon/Avalokitesvara, there was a gender change along the route from India to Japan) that I got at a Grateful Dead show for years, before I learned who he/she is. Benzaiten, or Benten, is the Japanese version of Sarasvati; when I lived in Osaka for a few months in 2007 my apartment was in Bentencho, "Benten Village", and as a patron deity of musicians and poets and scholars (according to the wik, "Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, speech, eloquence, music and by extension, knowledge"), how can I not love her? I left an ema at the Benzaiten shrine with a wish for "Health, Happiness, and Inspiration for Poets & Musicians Everywhere!".

I had planned to do part of the Daibutsu hiking course and make a visit to Zenneari Benten, the "money washing" shrine, but the rain made the path in a stream and was sapping my energy a bit. So I gave it a miss and found an Indian restaurant that my Lonely Planet guidebook recommended. (A smartphone with GPS makes finding place a hell of a lot easier than it used to be!)

Thursday the rain continued, so I didn't do much in Tokyo. Did hit a lovely garden, and a temple that holds the graves of the famous 47 Ronin. But that was about enough of Tokyo, at least on a soggy day, so I grabbed my stuff and caught the shinkansen (the correct sort this time) for Osaka. Almost felt like a homecoming -- I lived here for three months in 2007, longest I've been anywhere outside of Maryland.

Spent my first evening in Osaka eating, drinking, and being simultaneously merry and meloncholy until the early morning, got up late and took my hangover out to Arashiyama, a beautiful region on the outskirts of Kyoto. Crowded -- it's a very popular spot during Golden Week and other holidays. Visited Adashino Nembutsu-ji, a lovely small temple with a collection of thousands of old stone carvings. Apparently (if Lonely Planet has the story right), this was the place where the bones of paupers and those without families were laid to rest. A good place to visit on a drizzly day.

Also went to the garden at Tenryuji. This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, especially if you see it during the blossoming season as I was fortunate enough to do a few years ago. Though this was also sad for complicated personal reasons...there was someone I'd once thought might be with me when I retuned here. An idle dream, perhaps, but realizing that's probably never going to happen was something to process. But as they say here, shikata ga nai -- nothing can be done.

Got back to Osaka and saw my friend Eric Wiegmann's band Helium Five (one of his bands) play in Umeda last night. Since no one had a heart attck this time, it was much better than the last show I went to! :-/

Today, Nara, where my number one task was to visit Shinyakushi-ji, a temple of the Medicine Budh, to give thanks for the survivial and healing of the heart attack victim, our friend Ian Hesford. I visited this temple on my first trip to Japan nine and a half years ago, which was shortly before I started my shiatsu training. (Whoa. How'd that happen, timewise?) It was the sort of coincidental discovery that's left me with a gut feeling of connection to the place. I also visited a lovely small temple up the side of the mountain, Byakugo -- a stunning view looking out over Nara, and an active temple where people were coming to pray in a more ordinary way, I think. Refreshing after a week of big-name temples and shrines; I like to try to understand the regular practice of regular folks, not just the big fancy stuff. I also made a stop on the grounds of Kasuga Shrine, to find the small side shrine where five years ago I met a Shinto priest who was kind and patient enough to explain some basic concepts of the practice to me.

A lot of walking today! Tonight Eric is playing with one of his old bands at The Cellar, just a few blocks from my hotel, so I plan on catching that. Tomorrow, maybe, a quick trip back to Kyoto? Not sure. And Monday early, time to depart. But for right now, I feel a bit recharged in spirit. (Even if my feet are sore.)