Eternal meditation

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I recently had an amazing, educational and spiritually enlightening experience. A friend and I stayed at Koyasan (Mount Koya), a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 1 ½ h train journey south of Osaka.

Koya is an old Buddhist town founded by a monk called Kobo Daichi some 1,200 years ago and even though there used to be many more temples, due to some monks’ happy-go-lucky attitude with candles, today there are 117 temples in Koyasan’s 4 km x 2 km area.

When we got to Koyasan we were hungry to see as many temples as possible. But instead of visiting all 117 temples, we managed maybe about 15 after which we, surprisingly perhaps, felt desensitised to all the picturesque buildings, smell of incense, aesthetic temple rock gardens, lovely little ponds and their carps and ever so friendly monks smiling at everybody.

 

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So, we decided to go back to our lodgings and meditate with the monks.

We stayed in a pilgrim’s lodgings (Shukubo), which is a temple that has rooms for people making a holy trip to this extremely important spiritual place in Japan.

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Our room

 

My friend and I are not Buddhists, in fact, neither one of us are religious, but after having spent a weekend in Koyasan, we agreed that if we were religious, Buddhism, its positive attitude and concrete real life application would be the one we’d be most likely to go for. Apparently, one way to be a good Buddhist is to start by cleaning your home! Due to your ‘soul’ being connected to the ambient world, a clean and tidy home equals a clean and tidy soul. I love this kind of practical stuff, which doesn’t really strike me as religion but more like common sense. Related to this, our temple lodgings were spotless!

The food at the temple was vegetarian and sooo good – even fried tofu that usually tastes like a wet woolly mitten was to die for! After dinner, two young monks came to clear away the food trays and replaced them with our beds. I asked them whether or not they cook the food themselves. They said that they have a chef who does all the cooking (the monks just make beds and do other household chores, and presumably meditate, pray and engage in other Buddhist routines). I’m guessing the chef used to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I’m not kidding. I’m still drooling over that tofu.

 

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After dinner we went on a night tour led a monk to one of the most sacred places in Japan, Okunoin.

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Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery consisting of 200,000 tombs, the most important of which is that of Kobo Daichi’s (the monk who is the father of Koyasan). Well actually it is not his ‘tomb’. You see, in the 9th century, at the age of 63 years, Kobo Daichi entered a room underneath one of the temples for eternal meditation. Supposedly, for the past 1200 years he’s been there but only the reigning head monks of the temple, when bringing him his daily meals, have seen him in his deep state of meditation. One British tourist asked the question that might be on some of your lips: Is he still alive? By the monk’s ever so diplomatic answer, I assume that was not the first time someone asked that question. He said: Some people believe that he is still alive, but most people assume that he lives in this temple in spirit.

The cemetery surrounding Kobo Daichi meditation temple was breath-taking. In the dark it looked magical but also a little spooky. It didn’t help that the monk told us that a well half-way through the cemetery was believed to indicate whether you were to die soon. Apparently, if you couldn’t see your own reflection in the water of the well it meant that you would die within three years. We decided to wait until the morning to have a look – we really didn’t want to risk it at night with hardly any light. The monk added that a flight of steps next to the well were also an indicator of your longevity. He said that if you slipped or fell over on the steps then you would die within three years. Maybe this was just a way for the monk to get a group of Westerners (who hardly resembled graceful gazelles) to pay attention and not break their necks on the slippery steps (and maybe sue the temple!). After all, before we got to the cemetery and its slippery steps one lady in our group had already ended up on her all fours. Luckily nobody fell over on the fall-over-and-your-a-goner-in-three-years-steps, and as far I am aware, the lady didn’t sue the temple for the earlier tumble either.

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The steps at night

 

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The steps at day

 

We slept on the tatami floor on a relatively thin futon. I didn’t sleep very well. Not because of the thin futon or nightmares about Okunoin and life-ending wells but, due to the walls in old Japanese buildings being essentially paper, I could hear a guy three rooms down the corridor snore and the couple in the room next to us breath. But I didn’t mind too much really – a bad night’s sleep is a small price to pay for experiencing Koyasan!

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At 6am our alarms woke us up to go and take part in our temple’s morning service and fire ritual (gomakito), which they hold routinely every day, rather than as a gimmick for the tourists. The purpose of them is to pray for our ancestors and to cleanse negative energies and thoughts. These ceremonies were very interesting and to me a little bit moving, partly because of what I wrote on my soegomagi – a piece of wood that the monks burn in the morning fire ritual for a contribution of 300JPY (€2.50). What I wrote was a wish that there would be a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Maybe it was the incense, the powerful beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of a mantra by the monks and the thought of my Type 1 diabetic daughter that made me feel so emotional. In any case it was lovely (and I am looking forward to the cure for Type 1 soon).

The only things that distracted me in the morning service and the fire ceremony was an approx. 10-year of daughter of the British lady who had asked about 1,200 year old Kobo Daichi’s vital signs at Okunoin temple. The daughter loudly farted during the morning ceremony and the family giggled for 5 minutes after which the daughter and their 8-year old son lay down on the floor, I presume expressing boredom and/or tiredness.

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Morning service

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Fire ritual

 

After breakfast (and some more tofu, Yay!) we went back to the Okunoin cemetery. Some of the oldest tombs have stood there in the middle of the forest, in the morning mist for 900 years. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.

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One of the oldest tombs in Okunoin

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In addition to the beautiful old tombs and a tranquil atmosphere, there were also some more modern tombs and even some slightly quirky ones, like a rocket, a teacup and a termite tomb.

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Apparently, anyone can have a tomb in Okunoin; you don’t even have to be a Buddhist. You just need to have a thick wallet to pay for the spot and to have a tomb made. But even though Okunoin was amazingly beautiful, I think I want to go into my eternal meditation back home, in England or Finland.

 

 

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Jizo (if you would like to know more about jizo, click here)

 

Why do statues wear bibs?

 

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A common sight at a temple in Japan is a multitude of statues. This is not that different from religious sanctuaries in Western countries, except that in Japan these statues usually wear bibs!

I’ve been asking my Japanese friends why this is. I mean, the statues look kind of cute but is there a reason for the bibs? And who puts them there?

But my Japanese friends don’t really know, and I don’t really blame them. After all, I’m a Finn but don’t know the ins and outs of all Finnish traditions either. For example, on the night before Easter Sunday, Finnish children leave woolly hats next to their beds. In the morning they will have found that an Easter rooster or Easter chick has visited and laid chocolate eggs in their hats. When Japanese people ask me what the significance of the Finnish rooster/chick is and what is its cultural references in comparison to, say, the English Easter tradition of an Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunt the answer is: I don’t know. To me (similarly to many Finnish/English people) these are just cultural traditions that we learn as children, but whose symbolism, meaning or historical reasons we do not question (or in fact, most kids may not even be interested in the cultural references of Easter roosters, chicks or bunnies, but the main point is that these characters are associated with magically appearing chocolate eggs).

Ok, back to the statues in Japan.

The only things that my Japanese friends have told me is that some statues, usually in the shape of a small person or the ones that have human faces, are called Ojizosama and often represent children who have died before their parents. It’s the parents or sometimes also other local people who put the bibs on the statues to protect the dead children in the afterlife. I don’t quite understand why, but for some reason, it seems, the bibs are considered a protective garment. Red is perceived as a particularly protective colour and hence, it is the most common colour of the bibs. However, other colours are also used (see photo above).

But it is not just statues in the shape of people, but all sorts of statuses that can be seen wearing bibs. Since these are not children, the question is: Why should these statues need the bibs? For instance, the Fushimi Inari Shire in Kyoto has statues of foxes, who are the messengers of the God of Agriculture and these foxes also wear bibs.

 

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Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

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Could this be because the Japanese believe that the statues, like all living and non-living things, have a spirit and the bibs are to keep them warm or are they just decorative items? I don’t know.

If you know anything more about the statues or bibs, I would love to learn more about them. They are beautiful, fascinating and something that seems to be a question mark not only to Westerners but also to many Japanese people.

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Addition to the original post, the 8th May 2016

A Finnish reader, who has lived in Japan for many years, speaks and reads Japanese and has detailed knowledge of Japanese culture and traditions, sent me a message explained the function and cultural significance of the bibs. She said:

‘So basically what this blog post is talking about are those tiny Buddhist statutes called ojizosama in Japanese. You see them dotted around e.g. temple grounds, road junctions and wooden shelters. Many foreigners unfamiliar with the story deem them a bit scary. The word for these is indeed that O-jizo-sama (o- and sama- being part of Japanese honorifics, so the noun for these are actually jizo) You see them most commonly carved out of stones, something you would perhaps disregard when travelling in Japan if it was not the red bibs or red baby hats they are commonly wearing. Jizo is a bosatsu, a Japanese term for deity or a sacred character in Buddhism. Much loved and cared for, if I recall correctly it is the saint for the weak (e.g. children, giving them strength) or travellers. It is not uncommon for deities in Japan to carry significance for many different groups. There are numerous legends associated with Jizo-sama’s, the one I have been told as a child living in Japan is that this particular deity, albeit having reached the highest level of Buddhist wisdom, has chosen not to enter nirvana but instead remain in this world to help those needing his assistance e.g. children who traditionally have been believed to be too weak to cross that Buddhist river required to enter nirvana. This sadly is e.g. unborn children or those dying in early childhood. It is believed that these children remain in limbo. If you look closer at ojizosama’s you will also see piles of pebbles formed into a tower next to them, this is often the parents building the pebble tower with a view to facilitate for their kids afterlife. Similarly, it is a common tradition to put bibs and hats on ojizosamas. Even robes sometimes. I do not think there are particular rules regarding what you can put on ojizosama to show your respect. It is also an act of accruing good karma for the afterlife for yourself, so it is common that local women have groups taking turns doing the dressing up. Oh and worry not, its actually a bold Buddhist monk it is depicting, not a dead child.’

Thanks so much for the information! I’m glad to hear that the statues are not children, and that even though the statues are associated with sad events, such as a parent losing a child, they are kind and helpful entities who society sees as having an important role in the afterlife.

 

Addition to the original post, the 11th May 2016

Another reader left a message on my blog’s Facebook page and said:

‘A friend of mine, who had lived several years in Japan, told me, as I asked a similar question to yours, a different explanation: as contraceptives are not easily available, abortion is used more often than in western countries. She called the groups of those statues with the red caps the “altars of unborn children”. The acceptance of abortion seems to much higher – you find the groups of statues quite often in residential areas. Made me think about the position of females in Japan.’

The reader emphasised that she did not know how accurate her friend’s description of the statues was, but given that her friend had lived in Japan for many years, I feel that it is likely that there is at least some truth in what she said. (I also did a quick Internet search on abortion statistics, and yes, it sadly seems to be the case that abortions are very common in Japan relative to many Western countries.)

 

 

 

The beautiful side of Hiroshima

 

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The city centre of Hiroshima with its A-bomb memorials and museums is sad (click here to read my previous post on the topic), but there is more to Hiroshima than the city centre and sadness. Hiroshima in 2015 is not just a city with a destroyed landscape like you might imagine based on photos or video footage you’ve seen from 1945, instead, the coastline of Hiroshima is beautiful!

When we visited Hiroshima, we did not stay in a city centre hotel, but decided to stay in a hotel by the Inland Sea. The view from our room and from the restaurants in the hotel was amazing (see photos below), although as soon as we got to the hotel after spending the day in the museums and memorials of Hiroshima, our children were more interested in getting their laptop out and watching a film rather than admiring the view. I can’t really blame them. When my twin sister and I were young, our parents took us to many interesting places on holiday. Did we appreciate it? No. My most memorable holiday moment from childhood is a dead porpoise on the beach of our resort (or actually, to be honest, a delicious chicken basket in a fast food restaurant in Bulgaria), not the amphitheatres, museums and natural beauty.

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The only thing that exceeded the threshold of ‘entertainment’ and managed to tempt our children away from their film was a hawk, or some other bird of prey, just outside our windows.

 

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My husband and I could have just sat there for a month staring out of those windows (and we wouldn’t have even needed wine to keep us entertained, and that says a lot!).

The following morning, we took a boat from outside our hotel to nearby Miyajima Island (30mins on the boat).

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As soon as we stepped out of the pier at Miyajima, we were greeted by some deer. We experienced some slightly unpleasant deer in the historical town of Nara (in the Kansai region of Japan, 40 minutes from Osaka) last autumn, so the children were somewhat reserved with the deer pottering about in Miyajima. But this time no deer attempted to mount me, eat our ice creams, or steal (and eat) our travel documents from my handbag. Luckily, the majority of them where hiding from the sun in the shade (you might just about be able to make out the deer underneath the bridge in the photo below).

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You might just about see the deer underneath the bridge in the shade

The main attraction on Miyajima is the Itsukushima Shrine and its big gate, both of whose appearance changes between high and low tide. The high tide looks fantastic with the shrine in a sense floating in the water, but as you can see by looking at the photos below, our visit took place during the low tide. Talk about being in the right place at the wrong time.

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After having seen the shrine, we took a cable car to the top of Mount Misen from where you could see Hiroshima and the surrounding archipelago. The summer with its heat and humidity in Japan is a killer (literally). The cable car cabins didn’t have proper air conditioning, but the staff tried to get as much cool air into the cabin as they could at the start of the ride (see photo below).

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The air con system seemed quite 1970s (or modern day Russia) but I suppose so did the cable car.

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We noticed some visitors only took the first leg of the cable car, half way up the mountain, and looking rather green in the face, didn’t attempt to do the second leg to the top. We (foolishly perhaps) were not scared. But I am happy to tell you that we made it to the top (and back down) safe and sound.

The view from Mount Misen was great!

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We were admiring the view from Mount Misen for so long that we nearly missed our boat back to the hotel, which would have meant us missing the shuttle bus to the station, which in turn would have meant us missing our bullet train back to Osaka. But we made it after a sweaty jog down the mountain.

I want to emphasize that I do not work for the Hiroshima tourist board, nor do I get a share in the profits they’ll be making after this blog post, but if you ever have a chance, visit Hiroshima. It is educational, historically important, has beautiful scenery, friendly people and great food.

And before anyone asks apparently the most important question:

Do I prefer Osaka or Hiroshima okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake)?

I have to come clean and confess that we did not try Hiroshima Okonomiyaki while in Hiroshima. What I know is that, in Hiroshima, the ingredients of the pancake (noodles, cabbage, vegetables, pork, octopus, etc.) are in layers, while in the Osaka version they are all mixed. Thus, in my opinion, asking about one’s preference for Hiroshima or Osaka okonomiyaki is a bit like asking:

‘Which do you prefer, open top or regular sandwiches?’

As long as it is cooked ham and cucumber I don’t care.

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Sakura – Cherry Blossom

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Japan is famous for its cherry blossom or Sakura, which usually takes place at the end of March and early April. The forecast for this years’ best Sakura day (i.e. the full bloom) in Osaka was the 2nd April, this Thursday. My plan was that on Thursday I would take the children and go and have a picnic under a cherry tree at Osaka Castle. My husband being currently in England means that he will experience this year’s Sakura only by reading this blog post.

The plan changed today (Tuesday) when I saw the weather forecast. The forecast predicted heavy rain for tomorrow. Because the cherry blossom like rain as much as the swimmers in Amity Island like sharks, we had to change our plan. You see, if it rains tomorrow, the Sakura season is over even before it reaches the full bloom on the 2nd April as the raindrops wash the delicate petals to the ground.

Yes, Sakura is precious that way. It only blooms for about a week and the first rain puts a stop to it for another year. Some people think that such short-lived beauty is not worth it – that sakura it is a bit like stuffing your face with caviar, truffles and champagne for one week of the year and only having porridge and water the remaining 51 weeks of the year. I won’t tell you what to think but when you get to the photos of the sakura below, I hope you agree that porridge and water is not that bad 51 weeks a year if you get one week of sakura.

Anyway, in a state of panic I left work early today to visit Kouzu Gu Shrine, a temple close to our apartment. Along the way, I popped in at home to see if the children were there, so that I could take them with me, but they weren’t – our au pair had taken them elsewhere to see the sakura (presumably, also in a state of panic).

I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t take my children with me, but I can’t deny that when I left my apartment without the kids and headed towards the shrine on my own I felt like Nina Simone when she sings I’m Feeling Good. Not having the kids with me meant that I could enjoy the sakura without any incidents of nosebleeds, bumps on heads or anyone associated with me attempting to climb the cherry trees or whining (a) ‘Can we go home already? or (b) ‘Can we play big bad T-rexes?’ So yeah, I got over not having my kids there pretty quickly. If you have children (and even if you didn’t) you probably know what I am talking about – even if your intentions are good, doing an activity that doesn’t really interest children is usually as enjoyable as brushing your teeth with your dog’s toothbrush (it doesn’t kill you but you can’t say it was the best experience you’ve had).

When I got to the shrine, I was like 007 eyeballing a Bond girl’s bosom. It was beautiful! See photos above and below.

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The only thing that ruined the tranquility a bit for me was the fact that there were quite a few stalls outside the shrine area in which they sold toys, live little fish, and had old-fashioned fairground games. Presumably these were there for the benefit of the children whose parents had taken them along (and also for the benefit of the parents). There were also food stalls, which were catering for the people viewing the cherry blossom.

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Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is a popular sakura activity. Families, friends and work colleagues get together and make a beeline towards their favourite cherry blossom spot with picnic food and a little tipple – or actually not just a little tipple, more like a Niagara Falls of a tipple.

 

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I was there admiring the trees, and taking photos on my own, without any food or drink, when I hear ‘Herro!’ ‘Herro!’ A group of elderly drunken Japanese hanami goers sitting on the ground signal for me to join their party. And I joined them! Before you think I am crazy, I should perhaps say a couple of words of defence. First, I used to live in Brighton, where joining random people’s parties is nothing unheard of. Second, this happened around 6 o’clock in the evening, in daylight. Third, there were a couple of hundred people around us. So, I reckoned I would be safe and to be honest I was a little lonely there on my own.

I was offered beer, sushi, sausages, jellied meat, and other foods. The group was very friendly, and tried their hardest to speak English. I was friendly, tried their food, had a glass of the beer that they offered, and tried my hardest to speak Japanese. It was actually the first time ever for me to really try using Japanese (outside my Japanese classes, that is). And we had a nice (rudimentary) chat about work, Finland, Japan and of course the sakura. It somehow felt easier to talk to a group of giggling 60-year olds who had had way too much alcohol for one hanami session, than try to use Japanese at my work. I think for the benefit of my Japanese language skills, from hereafter I will have to seek the company of drunken groups of Japanese pensioners.

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In any case, I loved the sakura. I loved the group of Japanese cherry blossom viewers, and I loved going back home to my children after having had a couple of hours of my own sakura time.

 

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