Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Red Gates and Grey Turtles

What is so special about Kyoto?
The old capital is imbued with history and lore...
It still has many pre-war buildings as it was not heavilly bombed during the second world war...
People are encouraged and rewarded to wear the traditional kimono (the buses and the temples offer a reduced rate)...
It has a harmonious mix of old and new ...
It has gardens and temples….lots and lots of gardens and temples...

So I am going to ask again: are you ready?
Here it goes…

October 24, 2015

To visit the city we take advantage of the ICOCA card. Wiki says that the name comes from IC Operating Card and it is also a play in Kansai dialect on a standard Japanese question “Shall we go? Iko ka?”. There are several other forms of pay for the local train fare, but this one will help us in the end to get to the Osaka Airport. 

Our first stop for today is Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. To get there we walk uphill on the commercial street where the vendors are arranging the visually and smell-enticing, outside part of their store, by preparing the food.

The balls on the stick are stuck in hay around a grill and the seller turns them one by one, to be baked uniformly. The green ones have green tea. Before selling them he puts a sticky syrop. 

The shrine was founded when the god Inari was enshrined on Mountain Inari in February, 711 by the Hata clan, as the god of rice and sake. In time the role of agriculture diminished and so Inari was enrolled to ensure prosperity in business enterprises. This is the main shrine of all the Inari shrines all over Japan (more than 40,000). In 2011 the shrine had the 1300 anniversary and all the buildings were restored and we were there to see it, only we did not know what a special event it was. 

Behind the main shrine, along the path to the inner shrine are a large number of torī (pronounced toree, gates) called Senbon Torī (thousand gates - but there are more than 5000 winding through the hills). They  were donated by people praying for good fortune, and in a way they are  the physical manifestation of the hopes of ordinary people, with the strength of prayer reflected in the bright red color (they call it vermillion, but it is orange). In some place it is written that seeing so many red gates arrises the urge to pass through the vermilion tunnel, and emerge in a world where hopes and aspirations may come true. I don’t know about that, but there is no other way to walk. 
In the beginning there are huge ones....
...then they become human size.

There are many people, especially Chinese (it is a good year for them to travel to Japan, the yuan buys more yen), many tourists, but also pilgrims. On the side there are from time to time shrines and as everywhere else in Japan they stop, face the shrine, say their prayer, bow two times, throw some coins in the provided box, pull the bell, clap twice, bow again and move on. Between all there are a few people who are working: a man climbs the mountain with a metal frame backpack full of cans of soda. Others are replacing an old torī, being careful to balance the new one over its base. A little bit farther away a man paints black the sculpted name of the donor and the date on the torī’s pillars. After passing so many orange gates with their black writings this one seems naked. Some have a faded color, the luster gone, the base rotten, pillars split on the sides. Ioan notices that even the new gates have split pillars and we wonder if this just happens or is it human induced. 

Following the way we arrive at a conglomeration of small stone shrines, huddled in a tiny valley, each with their own red aproned Kenzoku. These are the invisible messengers of gods with an outward appearance of a fox. Sometimes they are holding in their mouth a key (to the granaries, to the riches), or a peach or a scroll. People call them Byakko-san (white/transparent fox) and worship it. Though the vast majority of their statues have a natural, detached pose, there is one who has a playful and practical one:

The dragon guards the purifying water from the bad spirits.

This one is serious, he already mangled a few, look at its bloody slaber...

Close to the top there is another shrine, in front of rock fingers. Here everything is surrounded by small torī, stacked one on top of the other, tied with string.

In that bamboo stick curtain there are prayers weaved through. 

  Across it, a tea shop that sells besides the experience of having tea on the tatami, with one cookie and the view, all religion-related things and other things too. Would you like a soda?

We arrive at the top of the mountain and through the haze we can see the city.

We have a snack  while enjoying the view and we go downward, it is a different feeling. Another small temple, guarded by dragons, a world taken from the stories.

Eventually we arrive where we started and we exit. The sun illuminates the Honden (the main building of the shrine) and we take a last picture of it with the gate that was donated by Toyotomi Hideoshi (the one that fought with Ieyasu Tokugawa and lost his life and everything else, including the Himeji Castle; read “Shogun” by James Clavel). 

While waiting for our train I look around. A group of women dressed in kimono talk animated. The barrier goes down, they stop quite close to it, face it quietly, the train passes, and while the barrier lifts they resume their talking and start crossing the tracks. For them its daily life, for me its the awe of witnessing it.

We go back home, Ioan has to work for his Calculus test for tomorrow. After lunch and a nap, the two of us take bus number 4, 31 stations, toward the Kamo Shrines. The term refers to two shrines, Kamigamo and Shimogamo (7th century and 6th century). Their role is to protect Kyoto from evil influences. 

This is what I understand from the Japanese religions: in the very first centuries (after Christ) they believed that all things (from animals to weather phenomena to buildings, even spoken words) are animate and alive. At some point that animate and alive crystalized into Kami. Kami are of two minds: respect them and they can be loving and nurturing, or disregard them and they can cause disharmony and destruction. They also have to do their job in order to keep the people happy. Being invisible they can move freely and visit their places of worship, keeping the people on their toes. Kami, being part of nature, have positive and negative qualities, good and evil characteristics and are considered exemplary of what humanity should strive for. And that is why some of them are considered ancestors of entire clans, or an ancestor, manifesting the qualities and virtues of a Kami while alive, is enshrined as one after death. There is no Kami greater than other one, no holiest place, no dogma, but a collection of rituals and methods intended to regulate the relations between people and spirits. And that is the “Way of the Gods”, Shinto. 

Buddhism came in waves from Korea, from China, each time a different form, Zen, Pure Land, transforming itself once here. The two religions grew together until the Meiji Restoration (1860’s when the power was restored from the shogun to the emperor) when they were separated. That is also the time when the everything that was related with the Imperial House (read Shinto from religion point of view) became exalted. The second world war left the emperor defeated and humanized (until then he was viewed as god) and the imperially favored shrines lost visibility, including the Kamo Shrines. From then they had to reinvent themselves, they host community markets, old book fairs, a lecture series on religious and historical topics, always bringing people together for social and spiritual purposes. People from the community volunteer in the forest on Earth Day (April 22nd), and flock to the many festivals throughout the year.

We arrive at Shimogamo Shrine: white paper lamps and written flags on the road sides, rice bags and sake bottles before entrance, same prayers on wooden plaques or papers, same amulets like clinking balls in bags. What is special about the shinto shrines is that they rebuild the buildings every 21 years. 

We take in the metal lamps, the ordered line to bow before the main altar…And then the whole temple falls on the second place as our eyes are attracted by a special family event. It’s a wedding, a she in a white kimono and a he with black kimono and striped hakama (pants), are center stage. The rest of the family waits patiently for the crew to arrange every fold of her kimono to perfection. One elder is tired of the fuss and starts cracking jokes during picture times, breaking the stiff position that he was told to hold. Very politely he is brought back to the form.

We walk on the grounds and admire the precision and the patience of constructing from cedar shingles the many curves of a shrine roof. Then of the garden, a domesticated zone neighboring the 124,000 square meters of primeval forest.

A Kami tree with a rope and paper twists. 

Beautified trees with wooden skirts and in the background a prayer gate.

To get to the Kamigamo shrine we have to take another bus. This one is bigger, and younger by a century. In a way it makes sense: the ancestor of the Kamo clan (enshrined in Shimogamo)  descended on earth close to Mt. Mikage (east of Kyoto) and led the first emperor of Japan (Jimmu, 660 BC) to where his shrine is now. The god’s daughter, while attending her duties on the shrine grounds (purifying herself in the river) saw an arrow, who was actually another god. Saw. Liked. Married. Later she gave birth to Wakeikazuchi, the god of thunder, who is enshrined in the Kamigamo. And that is why it makes sense that the temple of the nephew is younger than the one of his grandfather. What impresses us here is the nature, obedient, water flowing over cemented rounded stones, under red arched bridges and trees stretching selected branches, yet still rebellious, crying red and yellow leaves.
Entrance to Kamigamo seen from the front...
...and from inside the temple.

We leave for home walking alongside the river.  There is a green zone hemming it in which people read, dance, one is playing the drums, walk or bike. The path is not always straight, sometimes it branches in wavy dirt paths, next to ducks and herons, under flying egrets and hawks. 

Though there are regular, sturdy bridges, we cross the river on a man made concrete stepping stone bridge. Children enjoy the afternoon with their families, jumping from a block to a grey concrete turtle, balancing on its back, then becoming adventurous, dipping toes and then whole legs, walking in the cold river. There is no splashing, no running, just quiet talks and happy laughs. One girl looses her balance and takes a bottom dip. Initially she laughs with her friends and gradually, as the cold and embarrassment envelops her, she quiets down, lowers her head and lip, and seeks comfort in her mother’s arms, stretched over the port bebe.

We are tired so we take the subway home, 
For every seat there is a handle for those who are standing. 

 stop for groceries, cook, eat 

These beauties were very tasty!

and spend a wonderful evening one next to each other.

And that is what happened on the first day in Kyoto .

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