I began my trip to Japan – it seems like a long time ago! – with a visit to pay my respects to one of the first Emperors – Nintoku-tenno-ryu – the legendary Emperor of the 5th century, when Shinto was supreme and the shrines of Ise Jingu and Izumo Taisha already in their prime. But this was around about the time that Buddhism first arrived in Japan, and in Kyoto already I had seen shrines and temples side by side, exhibiting the famed co-existence, and even syncretism, of the two religions in this country. So it seemed appropriate, on the last day, to visit the greatest Buddhist temple in Japan: Todai-Ji, in Nara, where in a great hall there resides the largest statue of the Buddha I have ever seen – at 49ft 2in high a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world – known to the Japanese as simply Daibutsu.
Right next to it, however, amongst all the deer (Shinto messengers of the gods) roaming the great Nara Park, lies the Kosagu-Taisha Shrine, perhaps the third, alongside Ise Jingu and Izumo Taisha, of the greatest Shinto Shrines in Japan. Here, at the very last, I cleansed at the fountain, and worshipped in the proper way at the gate of the shrine, and thanked Japan for all that it has given me over the past two weeks.
Nara Park – particularly on a Sunday – however, is a bit like the Tower of London: thronged with tourists from all over the world, but also with worshippers from all over Japan, and, in truth, I am, at the last, getting a bit ‘shrined-out,’ if I am allowed such an expression. Having taken in these two great sights, therefore, I decided to forego the rest of the shrines and temples around the Park, and get the bus back to Nara Station, the train back to Osaka, and the subway back to Shin-Osaka, for a final meal at the Marriott, and an early night for an early start heading for the airport.
It has been a truly amazing trip, taking in some of the most awe-inspiring sacred places I have ever had the privilege to visit, and pay my respects to. Both Shinto and Buddhism are living and thriving religions, side-by-side, in Japan, (alongside capitalism, which thrives right next to both!) and the co-existence, mutual respect, humility and harmony of these faiths – and of the Japanese people – and the meticulous care of the truly beautiful buildings and gardens where these religions thrive, have really impressed me. The news from the UK, and from the US, during my stay here, has been so depressing, in comparison. It is no wonder to me that Japan is now one of only 10 countries in the whole world that is fully at peace, and not engaged in some external or internal war. Long may it remain so.
One thing I will not forget is the hospitality and friendliness of the Japanese people, and their amazing food! It is difficult to pick out one ‘best’ meal during the last two weeks: the first dinner at Iseshinsen was memorable for the sheer number of wonderful dishes; the sashimi dinner at Iberaki unforgettable for freshness, flavour, and of course the sashimi whale; the sushi dinner at the Imperial Hotel (as well as being one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever eaten) was similarly memorable for the freshness of the fish – and the delight and expertise with which the master chef prepared each sushi morsel for me before my eyes; finally, of course, the multi-course oyster extravaganza at Yamaichi on Miyajima was an eye-opening wonder of culinary delight. I suspect the Japanese restaurants at home in the UK won’t quite meat my expectations after such delights, but I’m sure I’ll be trying them out!
Miyajima Island! What a magical place. A World Heritage site, and rightfully so. Not just because the island is a nature reserve of so many wonderful trees – many in their finest Autumn colours right now – and apparently amazing in April when the cherry trees blossom – and not just because of the incredible ‘floating’ Itsukushima Shrine in the bay overlooking the mainland, with its Grand Torii you can walk out to touch at low tide.
But because here, all over the island, there are literally dozens of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples, marking the sanctity of this beautiful place. There is also – importantly – the towering Mount Misen overlooking it all, with its own collection of Shrines and Temples around the top. I chose the Daishoin Route, which begins round the bay the other side of the Itsukushima Shrine from the ferry landing, beside the majestic Daishoin Temple.
The Daishoin Route up Mt Misen is 2.5km in all, and takes roughly 90minutes to climb to the top. There are 2000 steps. It is not for the faint hearted. At 53, with a bit of ‘wine-belly’ (as I call it) and none-too-healthy a back at the best of times, had I not by this point felt I had fully recovered from the cold I came down with in the rain at Ise Jingu, and fully adjusted to the Japanese time zone, I would not have dreamt of attempting this climb. As it was, around a third of the way up, I had to steel myself, believe in my steadfastness, tighten my belt and, pacing myself with frequent little stops to sip the bottle of water I had brought with me, press on up the mountain, sure of the sense of reward and self-esteem I would enjoy at the top – and of the sense of failure I would feel were I to give up! I only met a small handful of people coming down this path, and was passed by only three young people on their way up.
Eventually getting into a good stride, nursing my right knee a little but not pushing it too hard, I finally reached the little crossroads shy of the top where various routes lead off to a range of shrines, and to the very top. It was sooner than I’d feared, and I was very glad! Here, the Naio Gate presents you with two very fierce demons who will certainly scare away anything untoward! Passing this Gate one feels safely within the confines of the summit. Here, to the left, is a steep flight of steps up to a shrine I believe was the Dainichido.
This, according to the Miyajima website is “The prestigious guardian temple for Itsukushima Shrine. All the priests in the island gather here to pray for the prosperity of the nation for 7 days of New Year since the Meiji Era.” Quietly taking off my boots, delighting in the silence and solitude at this quiet shrine, I stepped up to the doors, slid them open, and closed them behind me, to kneel on the little cushion at the temple. A little sign made clear one could take a candle and a stick of incense for a few yen, which I placed in the box, before lighting the incense and placing it in the sand in the bowl before me. Hot, exhausted, sweaty, but truly satisfied with having made it to the top, I channeled my pride into a prayer for my nearest and dearest, completing it with picking up the baton and rolling it around the metal bowl beside me to make the signature singing sound, and gently banging the drum to my left: hopefully the gods were awakened enough to hear my prayer. Stepping back out of the shrine to put my boots back on, I was struck by how delightful an experience this was – a truly Japanese moment, too.
The very summit of the Mount was only five minutes or so climb further up, and the views from there absolutely breathtaking. The tourists however – including the obligatory party of 30 or so schoolchildren – were everywhere, and pretty noisy. I felt quite the special one, however, having climbed up the path, albeit, as I sat on the benches in the observation tower to catch my breath and take a little rest, I determined to take the cable car back down the mountain!
The ‘Ropeway’, as they call it on the signposts, begins 1km walk away from the summit of Mt Misen, atop a lower sister peak across a saddle of land between them. It descends in two stages – a larger car which can take 20 or more, followed by smaller pagodas that can take only 6 or 8. Again the views however are stunning, and it was a lovely ride down in the pagoda, sat watching the sky, and the gathering clouds. I definitely chose the right time to climb the mountain – there is rain coming!
At the foot of the mountain again, at last, I took time to wander through Itsukushima shrine among the tourists, cleansed at the entrance and paid my respects in the proper way at the shrine’s doors, and followed the crowds through the ‘floating’ corridors raised on their piers above the waters of the bay. A truly stunning old building. There are a few Westerners here – mostly Americans – but 90% of the crowds are Japanese, here because of the beauty and sanctity of the place, and to shop amongst the many trinket shops and food outlets along the street from the shrine to the ferry port. Exhausted, however, and ‘on my last legs’ I finally retraced my steps back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon. Onsen at 4pm. Kaiseki at 7pm. My last night of touring. Back to Osaka tomorrow, for a quieter weekend in the Marriott, and flying home, finally, on Monday.
So, today is a different, and in some senses more difficult day, overshadowed with a sense of foreboding the night before, and the morning when the journey begins. I am reminded of a visit I made, 10years ago, with similar foreboding, to another relic of the 2nd world war, in Poland. There, at Auschwitz, the relic of the sheer scale of man’s potential inhumanity to man was the since untouched, now crumbling remains of the machinery of mass slaughter used by the Nazis in their ‘final solution’. I recall the horror with which I learnt that this place had, at the height of its operation, extinguished the lives of 100,000 people in one day, and over a million in all. Here, in Japan, the relic I visit today is the famous, barely surviving dome, at Hiroshima, surrounded by the Memorial and Peace Park where the lives of the between 90 and 166,000 people who were snuffed out on (and in the few months after) 6.8.1945 are remembered. The distinctions between these two sites are of course crucial. The former was perhaps the worst excess of cruelty perpetrated by a conquering power bent on mastery over its neighbors. The latter was the overwhelming force with which two countries attacked by such conquering powers brought the conflict to an end.
It may also be pointed out that some commentators would assert that in the former case, the defeated conquering power has learnt its lessons well, owned and absorbed its past; and that in the latter case the defeated conquering power has by contrast yet to fully own its past. I’m not qualified to say, and both interpretations may in fact be merely stereotyping rather than insightful. ‘Culture’ is all too often too broad a brushstroke with which to describe a country’s people and its ways. What is most alarming, perhaps, today, is that the UK and US, the two powers who used the bomb on Japan, are today in the grip of just the kind of xenophobic, right wing populism that marked the rise of the Nazis. Thankfully the kind of militarism that gripped Japan following the Meiji restoration of 1868 and (on and off) up to the 1930s does not appear to be evident; the US, however, already has the most powerful and extensive military machine in world history, including a fleet in every ocean and troops stationed in numerous countries around the world, and spends some 54% of its Federal Discretionary spending on its military – roughly 40% of all arms spending in the world, as much as the nine next biggest national defence budgets combined.
That the use of this overwhelming force is soon to be at the discretion of a xenophobic, misogynistic, far right populist with zero experience of politics, government, and – most importantly – diplomacy, is a frightening prospect. A very sobering day, altogether.
Just to the south west of Hiroshima, is the delightful island of Miyajima, with the amazing Tsukushima Shrine in its bay. Here, at the end of the day, I was lucky enough to find tranquility and serenity once more.
What an extraordinary day at Izumo Taisha. This is probably the most important Shinto Shrine in the whole of Japan, if only because of the extraordinary festival which takes place here every year in the lunar month that broadly coincides with November. This month is known as the Month of No Gods. This is because all the Gods of Japan, kami from shrines large and small, in cities and in the countryside, from riversides and mountainsides, all leave their own shrines and come to gather for a festival at Izumo Taisha. The eight-day festival begins with a marvellous welcoming ceremony, which I had to miss because I was in Tokyo, but ends with a marvellous departure ceremony, which happened today, at 4pm. I felt so privileged and blessed to witness it. There was a French photographer here, accompanying a Japanese Tourism development officer, who had impeccable English, and whom I met at both the Museum and at the Shrine itself. I think I saw one American, too, briefly. Other than that everyone here was Japanese, and the ‘crowds’ were not thick, albeit that the place was clearly busy. This was a religious festival for the religious, although there was plenty of laughter and informality in between the more sober moments.
A bit like religion all over the world (Catholicism is markedly similar) it is also a bit of a racket, with every worshipper throwing coins into the offertory to accompany each prayer – a genuine offering for sure, but always monetary – and the ranks of official shops beside the shrines selling an incredible range of little tokens, with embroidery and other designs, each a special form of ‘good luck’ for a range of circumstances. You can buy a good luck charm for the health and safety of your family, or for good fortune when taking an exam. There are special booths where a monk will write in formal lettering a prayer for you that you can post on special racks, that are literally covered in such messages, for the kami to read later, one supposes.
But such commerciality – common to any religion – really did not subtract from the serenity and seriousness of the reverence which all visitors to each of the many shrines that make up the Taisha were clearly giving. I relished the opportunity to share in such reverence, repeating what I had learned at Ise. Here – I don’t know whether because it is Izumo Taisha, or because of the auspiciousness of this particular day – the worshippers clap four times, not twice, and I quickly picked this up and changed my own routine to fall into step. The leading deity here is Okuninushi-no-kami, the deity in control of the unseen world, and – most especially at this time – the deity of ‘en-musubi’, the connections that bind us together. At this special festival of the gods, each year, the meetings which take place are to determine what ‘en’ – which connections between people – will best fit the future year. Pilgrims to Izumo Taisha at this time, then, pray for their relationships to be noticed and to be granted favour by the gods in the coming year, pray for those who are most special to them, and pray for new connections that will advance them.
Also special to this place is the Magatama. The Magatama – of which many examples have been found by archaeologists from all periods of the known (and many) incarnations of this ancient shrine, as far back as c2000 years ago – represents the overlapping shapes of the sun and the moon. It is a symbol of the universe in one go, described in the English subtitles in the Museum as a ‘comma’ shape, rather than a teardrop. I’m not sure there is any relation to the Tao at all, and did not see this mentioned anywhere. Even where I saw two together, in reverse relation to each other, it was on a modern welcome mat at the door of one of the many crystal shops, and the two Magatama were not joined as with the Tao. Furthermore, unlike the white dot in the black teardrop of the Tao, (and vice versa), the hole in the Magatama seems not to represent the entrance of an opposite. The Magatama already incorporates both sun and moon. The hole in the Magatama is said, rather, to symbolize the blessed spiritual power provided for each one of us through the link with our ancestors, to whom we owe our life. The mystic deep green colour (midori) whether in full, or in streaks, signifies the constant movements and growth of life – the renewal of fresh shoots and sprouts, the leaves in spring, the evergreen trees in the wind. Moss Agate, with its pearly translucence and its green streaks, symbolises Power, and a Moss Agate Magatama, the Power of the Universe in movement and life.
At 4pm, the ceremony of the departure of the Gods took place. There were two classes of officials – I guess ‘monks’ and ‘priests’ – in two different sets of garb. The former policed the area, keeping the (obedient) tourists in their place. Those with the money and foresight had booked seats within the shrine. The rest of us had the benefit of being able to take pictures – from outside. The latter officiants wore the most exotic garb, and undertook the ceremony. Below are two short videos I took of the ceremony, one when the priests returned from a brief excursion with something special to bring to the ceremony; the other at the end when they departed. The best thing about it, from outside, was the drum and flute that seemed to accompany on the most important moments.
This was an extraordinary day – a stand-out highlight of my trip to Japan. I feel I have experienced something truly, authentically Japanese today, something very old and still continuing. A privilege indeed.
[Full tally of photographs from the day on Flickr]
Besides this being one of the friendliest and most enjoyable – as well as very intellectually stimulating – conferences I have ever been to, it’s also true to say that I have really taken to (what I have seen and experienced of) Japan. Our wonderful hosts were extremely attentive and ensured we were well-cared for! The food here, especially, is just incredible. I haven’t eaten anything here that I didn’t think was absolutely delicious. It is good, however, I would say, that I am both an adventurous and keen ‘foodie’, because there’s little doubt that the food is exotic by any European standard: much of the time one has no idea what one is eating. On our first evening, after a particularly long day of presentations and discussions (all very high quality content – I have learnt so much these past few days, as well as contributing to the debates) we were taken to a rather fine restaurant. Everyone takes off their shoes, being careful not to stand on the boards below the shoe racks in anything but one’s socks, and then you sit, effectively, on the floor, with the table at floor level, but with your legs and feet comfortably in the well dug beneath the table. On this first night we were treated to Nabe with exquisite tofu and tripe. This is a large bowl shared between several people, filled with finely sliced vegetables, chunks of tofu, and pieces of tripe, sat upon a heater. Once the water is bubbling, the heat is turned down, and with a ladle you help yourself to a small personal bowl of the mixture. This is accompanied by a range of other dishes, little delicacies such as tempura vegetables, sashimi (raw) slices of tuna, and the excellent Asahi Japanese beer, which is quite strong at 5% but smooth and delicious. There was also, of course, the hot sake, which comes in a small jug, and which you drink from tiny bowls. It was a very fine meal. On the second night, we were treated to a buffet at the conference venue, including a fine range of delicious dishes, and accompanied not just by French wine but by Japanese whiskey. It was my first time to try Japanese whiskey, and I must say I was impressed!
The third day was a transfer day, moving the conference from Tokyo to Osaka, and we all took the shinkansen together, checked in to our conference hotel at Shin-Osaka (overlooking, as it turned out, the Marriott where I had stayed a few days before) and were then taken for an excursion around Osaka, to visit the famed shopping district of Dotonbori. This is like London’s West End, only the streets are all as narrow as Soho, all dead straight in a grid, and the whole area at least three or four times the size. Leaving the subway we arrived at ground level outside Cartier and Louis Vitton, and walked past Zara and Tiffany to approach the beginning of the lanes. The streets are very long, the atmosphere buzzing, the crowds lively (but always polite – this is Japan!) and the whole ambience simply jolly – as if an infectious joie de vivre permeated the very air.
Leaving the clothing district and moving into the area more focussed upon restaurants and bars we were treated to the incredible vivacity with which the various food outlets encourage passers-by to come in and enjoy their food: huge, sometimes animated models of crabs, an octopus, even a bull! We stopped to eat some of the famous street food from the area – balls of octopus prepared in front of us on hot plates which you then have to eat in one go while it’s still hot, rolling it around in your mouth until the liquid centre is just cool enough to taste and to swallow. Exquisite! We went then back into the subway briefly to visit the Osaka Tower, and be treated to Japan’s exotic values when it comes to animal welfare: a trained monkey show. Setting aside our European/American values, we sat with the Japanese to enjoy the show. It was a good introduction to different values. At the restaurant we arrived at shortly after, we were then treated to an Osakan speciality: deliciously fresh cuts of fish and slices of vegetable dipped in batter and flash-fried, served on a stick. So many kinds of fish, with names I’d never heard before, which our host was unable to translate into English, but all so very delicious. Including, however, one I never thought I would ever eat: whale. Yes, we ate pieces of whale dipped in a delicious batter and fried, and served to us on a stick. And it was absolutely delicious – like the tenderest most succulent beef. We then returned to the centre of town, and were taken up to the bar of a posh hotel above Osaka Station, where we drank Japanese whiskey – I had the Hibiki, and it was very fine indeed! The following day, after the completion of the conference, we were taken to a restaurant in the Ibaraki district, where we were treated to sashimi – a series of dishes of the freshest, most delicious raw fish, along with edamame (green peas) and cabbage, and lots of Asahi Super Dry beer.
And yes, amongst the tuna and sole and other fish, was one small plate of Kujira sashimi: raw whale. I ate a slice. It was far and away the finest carpaccio I have ever tried – and thicker than you would get of beef. Absolutely delicious. It is apparently a rare thing, that only a very few restaurants are allowed to serve, and we felt very privileged. It was tantamount to a sacrament. As if this experience weren’t enough, however, we were also treated at this restaurant to fried oysters. Yes fried oysters! Even the Frenchmen amongst us, however, agreed that this was just delicious!
As if the hospitality of this country had not already impressed itself upon me enough, the day after the conference three of us were treated to a guided tour of Kyoto by one of the Japanese academics and his wife. The sky was covered in a thick carapace of cloud all day, and on occasions a light rain accompanied our travels, but we each had umbrellas, and it was never heavy. I had planned something like this – I especially wanted to visit the Matsunoo-Taisha shrine on this day – but I was very glad of the guide, as there was much I would have missed, and the distances between everything made navigating the transport system quite a challenge! But our guides knew to spend only 500Y on a one day bus-pass, and take us around the city on the buses, rather than the subway. We began in the East, at the serene Buddhist Temple of Shisen-Do. The colours of the leaves here were just so beautiful – a signature of Buddhist Temples here, alongside the famed grey gravel gardens. The Shinto Shrines, by contrast, celebrate evergreen trees, rather than those more seasonal. We are blessed to be here in Japan in November, because this is indeed the perfect season for the Buddhist Temples, when the leaves are at their most colourful. It is also one of the high points of the year in the Shinto calendar, when it is said there are no gods in Japan – because they have all gone to Izumo-Taisha, where I too am headed after Osaka and Kyoto. In one corner of the garden here, a tea-house that is normally closed instead today sat with its main door open to the air, revealing the painting on its inner wall of the full moon behind the waving grass. This day, of course, was the day of the so-called ‘supermoon’, when the Full Moon was to occur within only two hours of its perigee (nearest approach to Earth) and – in addition – be closer to the Earth (and seem larger) than it has for nearly 70 years. It was a privilege to see this Moon shrine at Shisen-Do.
After Shisen-Do we stopped for a Lamey lunch, a Kyoto speciality, which is a very thick broth with garlic and ramen and pork. We three Westerners insisted, in return for their hospitality, on paying for this lunch, and I fear our Japanese guides found this rather embarrassing. A classic clash of cultural expectations, I think, here, whereby for us it would seem too much to accept all this generous hospitality without taking the opportunity to make some small return – such as paying for lunch – but for our guides such an eventuality seemed almost to slight their generosity. Still – after some protestation, they accepted, and we did pay, and the embarrassment passed. From there we went to the very famous Buddhist Temple, Kinkakiuji Golden Temple – possibly one of the most beautiful sights in all of Japan. This was heavily populated with tourists, however, compared to Shisen-Do, and the crowds were moved along quite quickly, such that we were already leaving the precincts of the temple only some ten minutes after arriving. Delightful, nonetheless, to see such a fantastic sight, and – tall as I am, and especially here! – capture a photograph from over the heads of the crowd. Next we went to Ryoanji Temple, to pay a visit to the Philosopher’s Garden – perhaps the signature example of a grey gravel and stone garden.
Lastly, then, as the dusk on this amazing day out gathered, we took two buses back through the centre of the city and out towards the west to visit Matsunoo-Taisha, arriving, finally, at the shrine, moments after sunset. The shrine is quite high-up into the foothills of the mountains that surround Kyoto, and we could see the twinkling lights of the city below us. The shrine was still open, but deserted, and we entered, paid our proper respects in the Shinto way, and wandered around the courtyard drinking in the atmosphere. It was the highlight of the day – and not just for me. The shrine honoured the mountain, whose evergreen trees towered above it behind the wooden buildings. All the roofs of Shinto shrines are thatch, unlike the wooden poles of the Buddhist Temples, and the older ones gather moss as green as the evergreen trees.
The ambience of the place was ancient, serene, and exotic, and somehow, in the dusk, just for us. Until, that is, the Headman of the Shrine’s staff appeared, and spoke with our Japanese guide. I found myself being pictured together with him – a young man, I thought, for such high office, but then perhaps the Shinto shrines in Japan are still busy with devotees. I spoke the word I had learnt, which was the name of one of the gods to which this shrine is dedicated – Tsukuyoni – the Moon God. It was because of this, on this day of the extra special ‘supermoon’, that I had wanted to visit Matsunoo-Taisha. He nodded, and spoke again with our Japanese guide. As we left the shrine, the Headman closed the gates behind us – we had arrived just in time! Our guide now told us, informed by the Headman, that there was another, small, special shrine, that was dedicated to Tsukuyoni alone, just five minutes along the lane. We all walked along this lane, feeling privileged with this special information: although they had visited Matsunoo-Taisha themselves, before, our Japanese guides had never heard of this extra shrine. Arriving there, we saw that it was indeed just for the Moon God, and entered quietly. Again empty except for us, this small shrine was somehow as spacious and serene as the main shrine, for all that it was so much smaller. I made especial prayer to the Moon God, greeting him from the Moon Goddess of Britain, and paying honour and respect to him on this, his most auspicious and special of nights. It was a truly delightful experience. Turning from the shrine, at last, our little party began to walk down the lane, with the main Torii of the Tsukuyuni shrine behind and above us. It was then, at this moment, surely the only moment in the entire day, that the clouds suddenly parted, just in one small part of the sky, and the giant, bright, full disc of the Moon shone down upon us and the shrine behind us, for an exquisite few moments, before the cloud cover crashed back across its face and hid it once more from view. Moments later, one could not tell where in the sky the Moon was at all. All of us were absolutely enthralled, feeling utterly blessed by this moment – a vision of this perigee of perigees itself.
There was only one way to follow such a divine experience – with a night at the Imperial Hotel, Osaka, including sushi individually prepared in front of me by the Master Sushi chef, followed by a (Plymouth) Gin Martini and a Montecristo No.4 in the Old Imperial Bar!
I understand, now, I think, sitting on this commuter train from Ise to Nagoya, after the (sacred) white and (clean) black stones of Ise Jungu, and the fastidiousness of cleansing before entering a shrine, and before every meal, why the Japanese wear such dark black suits. It is because black is clean, and clean is reassuring and good for business, and respectful.
The journey from Ise to Nagoya on the local train passed swiftly, and I then caught the Shinkansen again, this time to the vast megalopolis that is Tokyo.
From Tokyo main station, two subway trains to my hotel, at Iidabashi, to drop off my bags, then four to Kawasakidaishi. Standing waiting for the third of these, I took a look at Facebook – 4G on the subway is perfect here in Tokyo – and learned that Trump will be President. It should’ve been Bernie Sanders. Asian markets are crashing. After Brexit it seems like the world is tanking. It will be France next and the EU will collapse. The Paris agreement will be dumped and we’ll hit 2’C or worse by 2030 and the flooding will start taking out the major coastal cities: London will go under, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s all so sad. So much hatred, ignorance, fear, and gullibility. It seems, at moments, like this, that all we can do is do our best to save ourselves and our loved ones now: that the chance to save the world is lost. But I guess we shouldn’t lose hope. He’s only got four years, and a system with checks and balances that will hopefully hamper the worst of his whims. I think it was Churchill who said you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – once they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities.
So on my last day of holiday before conference, I went to pay my respects to a very special little shrine in the south of the vast city, at Kawasaki.
Kanayama Shrine, in the precincts of the Wakamiya-Hachimangu Shrine, was all I could have hoped for. It brought a great smile to my face and feeling of deep contentment to have made it here. (Readers of my blog will know of my interest in these ancient forms of worship.)
All I can find on the web about this place is “Legend has it that when Shinto goddess Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to a fire god, she suffered great injuries on the lower half of her body. It’s said that Kanayamahiko-no-Kami and Kanayamahime-no-Kami, two gods enshrined at the Kanayama Shrine, healed Izanami’s injuries.
According to some sources, Kanayamahiko and Kanayamahime were both originally gods of mining and blacksmiths. But because of this myth involving Izanami, those seeking help with venereal diseases, fertility, safe childbirth, and matrimonial happiness began to pray to the two gods as well”.
It is quite reminiscent of the stories around Shiva, both ascetic and erotic, both healing and virile. A very special place where I could put into practice all I had learnt at Ise Jingu. Well worth the visit.
Then three trains for Shinjuku, via Shinagawa, to go to work for a couple of hours, helping recruit international students for Salford, and finally back – via only one further train, to Iidabashi, and my hotel, for dinner and sleep before the conference in the morning!
On the final leg, the jetlag has me more like a zombie than a tourist, dizzy when I stop and try to buy train tickets from the machines. One thing that must be said about Tokyo – indeed about my whole experience of trains in Japan – is that the bewildering number of train companies, different lines, and different ticket offices, has me almost completely baffled. When you can’t buy a ticket at one office for a different train is actually clearer than when you buy a ticket for a specified destination from one machine that then doesn’t work at the gate, and you have to get a refund and buy a ticket from a different machine, that actually costs more, but at least works. Capitalism in action, I suppose, though if they worked together better and you could buy a pass that would get you from place to place it would all be so much easier. But no, to get from one place to another you need often two or more different companies, and therefore two or more different tickets, from two or more different ticket offices/ticket machines. It’s quite mad!
Saturday night’s dinner in the hotel was lovely, if rather expensive. Sunday I spent the whole day creating the presentation I am to give in Tokyo on Friday. The paper was written over the summer, and sent to my host in early October to be translated into Japanese, but the presentation – which has to be 30minutes long – needed a day’s work and I simply hadn’t had time in the past month to get round to it. By the end of the afternoon, though, I was happy. An afternoon nap was unavoidable, and the thought of venturing out into the city thereafter far too daunting, so I settled for another expensive dinner in the hotel.
Monday 7th Nov
Awake at 3 AM I eventually got up showered and went down to the lobby to pay my bill and was first to sit down for breakfast at 6:30 AM. The Marriot do a very good breakfast. This meant I also had the joy of joining the rush hour commute on my two train journey from Shin-Osaka via Tennoji to Mozu. This is a densely packed, sprawling, intense city. The Osaka prefecture, including all the various districts, tops 8 million; I am finding it a little claustrophobic.
At Mozu, in Sakai district, however, lies the open space and tranquil beauty of Emperor Nintoku’s mausoleum : probably the largest burial mound in the world, with its cluster of thirteen smaller surrogate mounds, in the great Daisen park surrounding it. From Mozu station I walked anti-clockwise the whole way around the enormous main kofun – keyhole shaped and surrounded by moats – arriving at last, nearly back where I started, at the only real entrance to the site, the Worship Gate.
But this place is not for tourists. Indeed there isn’t even all that much in the way of signage, and what there is is muted and respectful; there’s certainly no Interpretation Centre, just a tiny information office with leaflets. The Japanese, it seems, are not so willing to commercialise their ancient dead as some other cultures. The place is meticulously cared for by an army of gardeners, but for its own sake, not for our eyes.
At the entrance, I carefully lifted the bamboo ladle in my right hand, poured water over the back and front of my left, transferred the ladle and likewise washed my right hand, transferred again and poured a little water into the palm of my left hand, replacing the ladle cup-down where I had found it, to rinse my mouth with the cool water in the palm of my left hand, while the quiet trickling into the little pool before me seemed for a moment to be the only sound. Shaking the drops from my hands, I then bowed twice towards the great mausoleum, and gently clapped my hands twice. Proper respect shown, I stood back, took some photos, and wandered off into the park behind me towards the Richu-tenno-ryu – the 2nd largest kofun here, largest of the surrogates of the Nintoku-tenno-ryu kofun.
In a little rest area, there were some sleepy cats among the benches, in the park, and i sat quietly with one to type up this little account of my visit.
So, from Nintoku-tenno-ryu kofun I took four trains: back via Tennoji to Shin-Osaka, to buy another Bento box, and to the Marriott to get my bags, and then onto the Shinkansen – the famed bullet train (which really does travel faster than any train I’ve ever been on) to Nagoya, and onto a more local train from there down to Ise. It was wonderful to see countryside. Although most of the flat alluvial land has buildings, or a patchwork of fields and buildings, the hills are steep sided and covered in trees, rising like dark green sharp-topped ridges out of the plain. At times the train snaked between them and the landscape almost felt wild….
[P.S. One thing I have noticed since my arrival – an astonishing number of people wear face masks. In a carriage of about 40, on the local train, I counted 7 : 6 women of all ages, one man in his 40s. I have seen many more men – of all ages – with them, elsewhere. I’m not really sure what to think of this; it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.]
In Ise, right outside the station and pretty easy to find, is the Ise Shinsen : a hotel with a difference! Everything is included in the price of the room. Guests are encouraged to wear one of the range of Japanese robes (yakuta) provided in racks in the lobby – all individually wrapped in plastic fresh from the laundry. Each room has a very spacious balcony with high slatted bamboo walls, sporting a private outdoor onsen: the hot tub for which Japan is rightly famed, accessed not just from the sliding glass doors of one’s room but through the two-door shower room where the little seat and bowl of the traditional onsen washing area enable one to prepare oneself appropriately for the hot-tub experience.
After onsen, at the set time one has agreed at the desk, one descends to the restaurant for a full kaiseki: the multi-course Japanese dinner that is an essential part of experiencing Japanese culture. Mine was at 8pm, given that I had only arrived in Ise at gone 5pm, and I confess I was a little late. Sitting on the sofa in my room after onsen, I dozed off. But at 8.06pm the phone in the room went off and it was reception reminding me my dinner was ready! Clearly timing is very important for many of the dishes. To say that every mouthful was both exotic and exquisite is only half the story. As something of a foodie who rather loves a good dinner, I have to say it was one of the finest dinners I have ever had. The only thing that would have improved it would have been company: fine dining alone is never quite such fun as with one’s loved ones.
Managing to sit for only about 10mins on the sofa in my room, digesting, I got to bed at 10pm feeling very happy to be out of the city, in a small town clustered around its famous ancient shrines, immersed in traditional Japanese culture.
Tuesday 8th November.
Today – awaking as late as 6.30am – was my day at the Ise Jingu – the Shrines of Ise. There are some 125 in total, none exactly called the Ise Shrine/Jingu, but all, collectively known as the Ise Jingu. The outer shrine is called Geku, the inner shrine, some few kilometres (a 430Y bus ride) away, is called Naiku. I had managed to arrange a volunteer guide, who met me at the Ise Tourist Office, who took me round both Geku and (on the bus to, and around) Naiku and explained, in his halting but clear English, where we were, how to behave, what to do, and what it was all about.
In contrast to the warm sunshine that greeted my long walk around Nintoku’s Tomb and the Daisen park yesterday, today’s weather in Ise was wet. Very wet. By the end of the day, my Berghaus jacket was almost wet through, and my walking trousers likewise. But, as my cheerful guide explained, on fine days one can barely walk through the crowds at Ise Jingu, and today we were blessed with thin crowds, and only the briefest of waits at each shrine. Better still, the great stones lining the steps up to the Main Shrine at Naiku only show their dark green lustre when wet. So, all in all, a rainy day for Ise is not so bad after all. The Geku shrines all have odd numbers of round trunks on top, and the pointed roofs have horizontal ends. The Naiku shrines all have even numbers of round trunks on the top, and their pointed roofs have vertical ends. Black and white stones mark out the precincts, and, my guide tells me, he thinks some of the dualism of Chinese religion infected Shinto many centuries ago – Taoism, as I said, and he agreed.
Shinto is the old religion of Japan. It is, if one were to classify it, an ‘animist’ religion. Stones, trees, mountains, Emperors, are regarded as inhabited by kami – spirits of objects and of places. The kami are, if you like, the consciousness of inanimate matter: in some senses the topic of some of the papers at the conference I am speaking at here in Tokyo. The kami themselves are familiar to anyone who has played Pokemon Go – the Pokemon are modelled on them, as is the very concept that such virtual creatures might appear (in the camera viewport of one’s smartphone) in special locations. Like ancient European dryads in trees, dwarves in the earth, faeries among the meadows. But the Japanese – and Shinto itself in many respects – are very much in favour of co-existence. So Buddhism is popular here, too, and mixtures between the two; more recently, capitalism has become very popular in Japan, of course, alongside Shinto and Buddhism, so the syncretism between Shinto and capitalism observable in Pokemon is no surprise. The world could learn a thing or two from the Japanese.
Preparation for a visit to a Shinto shrine involves washing: it is important not to take dirt into sacred space. There is a pool of water within a wall about two feet high, with a rack of bamboo ladles face down upon the rack, and a moat-like channel at one’s feet around the pool. The ritual is fivefold: picking up the ladle from the rack with one’s right hand, you scoop up some clear water and then, over the channel at one’s feet (1) pour it over the left hand (2) transfer the ladle to the left and pour it over the right hand (3) transfer back to the right and pour some into the cupped palm of the left, (4) take a sip from one’s palm but let the water drop down into the channel around the pool “never drink the water!” and then (5) hold the ladle upright so the rest of the water runs down to clean the handle of the ladle, so it is clean when you replace it, cup-down, on the rack. I had read about this, and managed to do it (more or less) at Nintoku yesterday, but was glad of the fresh instruction from my guide.
The Torii, or classic gate through which one then enters a Shinto Shrine, was, of old, made of simple, unpainted wood. Nowadays one sees many painted Torii, some that are even made of concrete! At Ise they remain classic, unpainted wood. They are the markers of the boundary between ordinary and sacred space. At Geku, today, I felt it. Great shrines such as this one have two such Torii, as if the area between them were some kind of purgatory, a place of transit: indeed there is a building here, between the outer and inner Torii, where the priests undertake their cleansing. Taking off one’s hat and bowing lightly before crossing the boundary, one acknowledges the transit between the worlds.
Inside I felt the strength of the past fourteen hundred years of continous worship in this place. It was a privilege and an honour, made all the stronger for the clear reverence felt by my guide for these shrines and their sanctuary, and the clarity of his descriptions and instructions. We visited five of the many shrines at Geku, and four at Naiku. Approaching the shrine, one first makes an offering – usually a 10yen piece, placed in the offertory (although the main shrines, because they are visited by the Emperor himself, have only a cloth, and no offertory as such). Then one bows deeply, twice. Then one claps one’s hands twice, the right hand slightly lower than the left, so that the fingertips of the righthand clap against the second pads down of the left hand: this makes the proper sound. Then one puts one’s hands together (neither lower than the other) to utter a silent inner prayer. After the prayer one lets one’s hands fall to one’s sides, and gives a final low bow.
Each shrine is inhabited by a kami. Each kami has two aspects – a calm and benevolent one, and an aggressive one. So there are often two shrines to the same kami, but each to a different aspect. To some kami (especially the main shrine at Geku) it is appropriate only to make a silent prayer for the good of others: world peace, feeding the poor, and such. To some kami, a private prayer, for oneself, or for loved ones, is more appropriate.
The shrines themselves are wooden, and thatched. Every 20 years – in Geku according to reliable records since 690 CE – the shrines are rebuilt, exactly the same as before. This refreshes buildings made of very short-lived material (the thatch especially) and keeps the skills needed to undertake such work continually in practice, from generation to generation. The buildings are thought to be modelled on the form of the original rice stores, from about 2000 years ago when rice began to be grown in Japan. So each shrine has two courtyards: one where the wooden shrines are and people pray; and a second immediately next to it that is empty. The empty space has the same central area covered in white (sacred) stones, surrounded by an area covered in black (clean) stones, but no buildings. Once the twenty years is up, a new set of buildings will be built, in the empty sanctuary, and when they are complete in elaborate ceremonies the stone or wooden home of the kami will be transferred across to its new buildings, and dressed in new apparel, with new furnishings, etc. Briefly, there will be two shrines, one next to the other. At Geku this will next happen in 2033, and my guide recommends I return then, (albeit that I’ll be 70 years old!) to see this. Then the old shrines are dismantled. The main pillars of the Main Shrines are then used to make Torii at both Geku and Naiku, and the old Torii go off to make Torii at other shrines around the country. When those Torii are retired their 60 year life as shrine wood comes to an end and they are sliced up into little tablets: good luck charms, one of which my Guide gave me to take home with me: very precious. At this point I remembered I had been advised to bring my guide a gift from home, and produced the small photo frame from the Lowry Gallery in Salford as my present to him from home. He was as delighted as I was with my tablet of sacred wood that had stood once, for twenty years, as the main pillar of Geku Main Shrine at Ise.
Visiting a shrine is not altogether dissimilar to visiting a Cathedral, in that there is a formal approach, a set of actions (kneeling, lighting a candle) that accompany a prayer, and, importantly, a part of the sacred building that is reserved, in Churches, for the Priests – at the High Altar – and in Shinto shrines like Ise, for the Emperor and his family. The difference here is that at the Ise Main Shrines the reserved area is most of the shrine. The public get to worship at the outer fence, tossing their coins upon the cloth. There are four fences, and if you are dressed in a very formal black suit or white dress (and, I think, pay the appropriate fee) you can be escorted by a priest in traditional costume beyond that fence to worship at the third fence. Beyond that is off limits.
My experience of Geku was, in some ways, more moving than that at Naiku. Perhaps Naiku felt less sacred because the rain was heavier and I was already very wet and starting to get very tired. But at Naiku we visited what I would probably say was the single highlight of the whole visit: the shrine of Takimatsuri-no-Kami – God of the Offerings to the Rapids, as I understand it, or ‘A kami that protects the Isuzugawa River is enshrined here,’ as the map tells it.
This is a very small place, a little fence around a very small precinct of black and then white pebbles. There is no wooden shrine at all: just one, single, small and roughly shaped standing stone, in the midst of the little white sacred pebbles, surrounded by the obligatory wooden fence beyond which one cannot step. According to my guide, it is believed that this is oldest – the original – shrine of Ise. It is as if long, long ago a wise Japanese sage told a story about the consciousness of all matter, and pointed to this stone as an example: “even this stone is conscious of itself, and of all other stones, in its stoneness;” from this, perhaps, grew the idea of kami – anthropomorphising the stone-consciousness yet still limiting it to a particular theme. Each kami has a theme, be it soil, water, or some other aspect of the world. This stone was so old, its theme was merely being the oldest, guarding the river where pilgrims used to wash, the original shrine of Ise, small, unassuming, mostly ignored by the pilgrims gathered around the great Main Shrine with its huge pillars and golden round trunks on the top. It meant a lot, and I was especially reverent worshipping in the prescribed manner at this shrine. Here, it seemed, for me, in my European way, filled with all my experiences of standing stones throughout Europe, was something I could really connect with: a kami in a standing stone.
Dripping wet, after getting some traditional rice cakes and a traditional good luck charm at the souvenir shops, (no ancient dead here, after all) and the bus back to my hotel, I was VERY glad of the onsen in my hotel room, and delighted in the soak at the end of this amazing day, before yet another, delicious, incredible, kaiseki dinner.
First impressions: Exhausted after my 11hr flight from Paris, (having risen at 4.30am to get there from Manchester), arriving in Japan at 9.30am (the following day) I was struck, from the air, at how mountainous the country is. Great flat alluvial plains covered in a patchwork of agricultural and urban sprawl reached out toward the coast, laced with winding rivers, and separated by huge black mountain clusters. The interior of the country seemed a quite forbidding mass of dark peaks. I was arriving from the north, having traversed northern China and the arctic circle, in a line from Paris that went North-North-East cutting through the Baltics toward northern Russia. Now coming south, the plane was crossing the Japanese mainland towards the southern bay on whose eastern shores lie the city of Osaka, and in whose waters the industrious Japanese have built the vast airport named for this south western region, Kansai.
But once the cheerful but tedious formalities of finger-printing, photographing, interviewing and passport checking that make entry to Japan similar to that of the US (if a little less daunting), and the queues for baggage, and then for the train station where I exchanged my voucher for my Japan Rail Pass (a must-have), were finally over, and I was on the 50minute train from the airport to the centre of Osaka, the mountains seemed very far away. Instead, an overwhelming sense of dense – intense – urban sprawl flashed by the windows of the train, with the mostly grey buildings slowly but surely getting taller, gradually, gradually beginning to seem a little less haphazard – but still as tightly packed – as the US-style grid of the city centre grew nearer, and the occasional wide street that shot off dead-straight into the distance flashed by. Eventually even the little houses were four or five stories, dwarfed by the towers and apartment blocks of Shin-Osaka.
After almost thirty minutes wandering increasingly desperately around this huge railway station, I eventually found the ‘North Exit’ – the only one for which there were no signposts, and not even an ‘Exit’ sign at the door, yards from which lay my hotel. At wits end, 1pm local but 4am UK time, I managed to check in, actually delighted at the friendly and attentive concern and helpfulness of the staff.
In September 2016, after the close of my international conference at Salford, Colin and I fled the city for a fortnight away in the Southern Hebrides. We began with three days on Bute, based at The Victoria Hotel in Rothesay, and then went on to the cluster of Southern Hebridean Islands: Jura, Islay, Colonsay and Oronsay. All the photos are as ever on Flickr.
Bute, nestled into a notch of the Cowal peninsular, is a delightful and surprising little island, with the Highland Boundary Fault running across it, giving wooded highlands to the north and lowland pastures to the south. Ettrick Bay opens at the western end of this fault and is home to the remnants of a fine ritual landscape.
We are currently in the Quarternary Ice Age of the Earth, which began 2.5 million years ago. Ice Ages include warm interglacial periods (like the one we’re in now) and colder glaciation periods, when the northern hemisphere in particular is covered in ice sheets. The last of these was from 110,000 to about 12,000 years ago, and itself included some minor fluctuations. The last peak of the last glacial period of the current Ice Age is known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and occurred about 22,000 years ago. After the last of the ice of the LGM finally melted in Scotland by around 9000BC, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began to take advantage of the flora and fauna that soon began to populate the newly unfrozen lands. Sea-level was consistently on the rise for a while, but the landmass, free of ice, was also enjoying a ‘rebound’ out of its magma foundations, so that the shoreline was at times both higher and lower than it is today during these millenia. As a result, the remains of Mesolithic camps, where people prepared flint tools (known as microliths), cast away the shells of seafood, and roasted hazlenuts, can be found on the ‘raised beaches’ inland from today’s seashore, and occasionally be exposed at very low tide out in the bays and estuaries that were once dry land.
The Neolithic, that agriculture/animal husbandry/settlement combination (with pottery added a little later) that began in the Middle East in c10,000BC, could be seen arriving from as early as 3900BC in timber buildings in Aberdeenshire, and with the incredible stone buildings of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, as early as 3500BC. In the islands, too, some traces of Neolithic settlements and funerary monuments are still found. But the Bronze Age in Scotland (c2100-750 BC) has left many of the most stunning of such early stone monuments – the Standing Stones and Stone Circles that pepper the Hebridean islands. The ‘Megalithic’ culture, as it is known, straddling the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age (when bronze tools first started to complement those which continued to be made of stone), stretched from the islands of the Mediterranean round the Spanish and Portuguese coasts all the way up and along the Atlantic seaboard – including all of the British Isles – as far as Denmark and the Baltic coast, with sites inland as far as the eastern Portuguese border with Spain, central France, and the plains of northern Germany.
For details of these historic developments, Steven Mithen’s very accessible book “After the Ice” is an excellent read (which I took on this trip with me), guiding one through the fifteen thousand years from 20,000BC to 5,000BC, and then there are a host of fine texts on the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, too numerous to mention, though David Caldwell‘s books on the Hebrides are excellent, Francis Pryor’s “Britain BC” makes a good introduction, and there are many more on the Northern and Outer Hebrides!
Bute boasts a number of such monuments, including some ‘Cairns’ – the Neolithic communal grave sites, and ‘Cists’ (pronounced ‘kisseds‘) – the square single graves used in the Bronze Age, and many single standing stones, stone rows, and a couple of stone circles. These are often found in clusters known as ritual landscapes, where single stones and stone rows act as outliers to stone circles, giving lines of sight to clefts and peaks among distant mountains, often themselves the site of cairns and/or cists. Cists, too, are also often found added later to such landscapes, even in the middle of stone circles, sometimes with mounds built over them and kerbs built around them (as at Kilmartin). Later still, ‘Celtic’ Christianity arrived from Ireland in the 7th and 8th Century, most famously in the person of St Columba, who established a first priory on Oronsay, and then moved on to Iona where his Abbey became a capital of Celtic Christian activity for centuries, spawning numerous other Abbeys, Priories, Churches, and Saints. Both these Hebridean Christian traditions, and the Pictish peoples of mainland Scotland, repurposed many of the standing stones by carving them down into the exquisite Stone Crosses and Pictish Symbol Stones, many of which still survive across the islands and across mainland Scotland. The Iona School of artists, in the 8th century, created some of the very finest.
Ettrick Bay is one such ritual landscape, on Bute, and did not disappoint, except in one regard – when we tried to see the carved cross at East St Colmac Farm the farmer said he knew nothing of it, that there was a stone the other side of a paddock (to which he waved vaguely) but no carving on it that he was aware of. Nonetheless, the stone circle opposite the farm was really atmospheric, and clearly treasured by at least one contemporary pagan worshipper, who had deposited large quartz stones from the beach beside many of the standing stones of the circle. Two outlying single stones, moreover, besides the one later carved into a cross, gave the feel of quite a powerful landscape, and one could close one’s eyes, standing in the circle, and imagine lines of megalithic people, torches held aloft, processing across the rich pasture at the highpoints of the year.
Out in the bay, moreover, lay the tiny island of Inchmarnock: a private place not open to visitors, but home of a 2000BC cist burial of what has come to be known as the Queen of Inchmarnock, and her exquisite jet necklace. Jet – black petrified wood found only at Whitby in the British Isles, on the north-east coast of England – was clearly highly prized, as was the glassy pitchstone found only on Arran and Eigg. The fashion for black stone perhaps originated in the Middle East, some thousands of years before, and the rich deposits of obsidian in Anatolia, as good as flint for making blades, but shiny enough for jewellery too. More obsidian is to be found in the Mediterranean on the Greek Islands of Melos and Giali, the Sicilian islands of Lipari, Pantarola and Pantelleria, and at Monte Arci on Sardinia where I acquired some in 2011.
Besides Ettrick Bay, down in the south of the island there are also the strangely shaped remains of a further circle at Kingarth, with its outlying stone row of Largizean. These are quite atmospheric, but did not have quite the impact of those at Ettrick Bay.
Lastly, and perhaps one of the most interesting experiences on Bute, for me, was our visit to the ruins of the church of St Blane’s, on the southern tip of the island just beyond Kingarth. Originating from Iona – like most of the oldest Christian sites in this area – the ruins of a 12th century church on the site of a 7th century original were incredibly atmospheric: there was a really sacred feel to the place on our visit. We were alone, there are no shops, little in the way of interpretation beside a few well placed plaques, and the quiet and tranquility of a place of contemplation, meditation and peace. A delightful visit.
Jura is a fascinating place. The most conspicuous feature is the famous three Paps of Jura, the tall conical mountains visible from everywhere nearby, dominating the landscape of the whole Southern Hebrides. This mountainous area is to the south of the island, with lower lying moorland to the north. The two halves of the island are split by Tarbert Bay, which almost completely halves the island, save for a few kilometers of land. This valley was – for millenia – a highway for travellers between east and west, seeking to avoid the treacherous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas”) to the north of the island, still avoided to this day by the ferries and any other self-respecting seafarer.
As Gordon Wright relates in his “Jura’s Heritage” booklet, which you can buy on the ferry, the name Jura may derive from Gaelic ‘Iubhar’, meaning Yew, making it the “Island of Yew Trees” – perhaps referring to the Glen of Yew trees found near Inver, to the north of Tarbert on the East Coast, where Steven Mithen has excavated Mesolithic activity. It’s equally possible that the name is Norse, from ‘Dyr-ey’, meaning deer-island. Certainly deer are a-plenty nowadays, though there is a question over how many were here in the more distant past.
Wright tells us Edward Furlong’s reading of Homer’s account of the travels of Odysseus suggest a possibility that in the Greek Bronze Age, c1000BC, Odysseus (who made the Trojan Horse, but then took ten years to return home from Troy) may have journeyed to Ireland and the Scottish Isles on his travels. In Homer’s account he reaches “the cavern of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.” Wright continues, “Is the whirlpool of Charybdis the whirlpool of Corryvreckan? Adomnan – the biographer of St Columba – calls the Corryvreckan whirlpool ‘Charybdis brecani’. Later Odysseus comes to an island which he calls Thrinacia. Thrinacia means three pronged and Mr Furlong suggests it gets its name from the three Paps of Jura.”
Apart from another Iona-related chapel at Tarbert, much of the settlement activity, old and new, is in the south-east corner of the island, nearest to Islay. Here, the enormous Camas an Staca Standing Stone rises out of the peat twice the height of a man, surrounded by further rocks and outcrops which Canmore (Scotland’s inestimable archaeological database) includes two conflicting and rather confusing accounts of. The feel of the place – the lines of sight and the general atmosphere – gave me a strong feeling that Camas an Staca could be another Callanish under several thousand years of peat deposit, with the single stone still visible the monstrously high centrepiece of something far greater and more impressive. Who knows if an archaeologist may yet have time – and funding – to take a closer look. [Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis, one of the most impressive and largest stone circles and ritual landscapes in the whole of the British Isles, erected around 3000BC, was almost completely buried under 1.5m or so of peat for (at least) 1500 years, only first recorded in the early 17th century, and the peat finally all dug away to reveal it in all its glory in the mid-19th century.]
In Norman Newton’s tourist guide to Islay the last chapter tells of Jura and of a lovely Gaelic folklore tale from John Francis Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, concerning “the Old Woman or Witch of Jura” and her “magical powers. There was a Caileach (old woman) in Jura who had a magic ball of thread by means of which she could draw any person or thing towards her. MacPhie (or MacDuffie) of Colonsay was in her clutches, and was not allowed to leave Jura; on several occasions he tried to escape to his native Colonsay in his boat, but always the Caileach would spot him, throw the magic ball of thread into his boat, and so bring him back to shore. Eventually MacPhie found out that the magic of the Caileach’s thread could be broken, but only if it was cut by an equally magic hatchet; thus he pretended to be content with his bondage until he found the chance to steal the Caileach’s magic hatchet, and then he made his escape from Jura in a small boat. When the Caileach noticed his absence, she rushed as usual to the top of Beinn a Chaolis, [the tallest of the Paps] and … hurled the magic ball of thread into MacPhie’s boat, but he cut it with the Caileach’s magic hatchet and made his escape. She was distraught … [and] in despair she slid down the mountain to the sea shore, pleading with MacPhie to return. But he would not, and the marks left by the old woman’s heels as she slid down Beinn a Chaolis can still be seen. They are called Sgriob na Cailich – the slide of the old woman.” The best view is from the ferry from Port Askaig to Colonsay.
By far the most significant event for us during our stay on Jura, was at Inverlussa. Knowing that microliths are still found from time to time amongst the pebbles of the Lussa river as it enters the bay, we went up the eastern shore road almost as far as it goes, to Lussa Bay, and pottered about on the beach there for an hour, looking through the pebbles for microliths. To my astonishment, however, although no microliths were to be seen, instead, in about an inch of water amongst the pebbles on the southern shore of the river only thirty or so yards from the sea I found what I have since (tongue-in-cheek) been calling, the Lussa Venus. It is a (horse’s? whale’s?) tooth, (or ivory,) carved in the semi-abstract, semi-lifelike form of a female, missing both head and feet, but with the arms folded formally across her abdomen supporting her breasts, and clear lines delineating legs and buttocks both front and back. It is a truly remarkable find. Teeth and ivory can survive in the ground or in the water, undamaged, for a very long time, David Caldwell told me, when I showed him my find at Finlaggan, on Islay, a week later, where he was directing a dig. Unlike the microliths I didn’t find, it is not Mesolithic – I sent a photo of it to Steven Mithen and he graciously replied straight away, uncertain what it was but confident it was not of his period – 20,000-5000 BC. David Caldwell recalled a recent discovery of carved teeth that proved to be 14th century. It could, of course, he said, equally well be something African or East Asian, brought back to Scotland during Empire days. It seems rather risque to be Victorian, at any rate, and would more likely have been porcelain in that period. I sent photos of it on to David Caldwell, at his request, for him to share with colleagues at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. No less than Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator of Early Prehistory, got back to us straight away with a pretty clear indication that it is not an ancient Scottish artefact. The likelihood, she thought, was that it was either carved by a local in the last few centuries, or brought back from elsewhere – though she suspects the “similarity with Cycladic figurines is purely coincidental (and not close, in any case.)” I’m not greatly surprised, but it is a lovely item nonetheless, and such an amazing find, amongst the pebbles, in that tranquil remote bay.
Our stay on Jura was crowned, finally, with a magnificent steak of Jura Venison washed down with very fine 2007 Pomerol, on our last night, and by a fabulous rainbow the following morning just as we got into the car to set off for the ferry back to Islay.
As David Caldwell’s books make clear, Islay is a place of great historical interest. Today, for the tourist, perhaps the greatest draws are the birds (the RSPB have a strong presence here [many thanks to Phil, RSPB warden at the Mull of Oa, for helping me change the wheel after my punctured tyre!]) and, of course, the eight distilleries, making some of Scotland’s finest whiskies, including no lesser names than Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. My personal favourite, however, was Bruichladdich’s Valinch, which has spent its full term of 12 years in Sherry casks. Very smooth!
The Rinns, that westernmost part of Islay that juts out into the Atlantic barely attached to the rest of the island, is in fact quite an oddity. The southern part is mostly Lewisian Gneiss, like Iona to the north, (and of course much of the Outer Hebrides), and during the last glacial maximum the ice sheet came only as far south and west in this part of the Hebrides as the main part of Islay: the Rinns were not covered in ice 22,000 years ago. This is significant because it means that Ice Age hunters may indeed have visited the Rinns, on their tours at the edges of the ice sheet, and left some of their ancient flint tools behind. It is perhaps all the more significant because the flint that is so prized by stone-age people for tool making is mostly ground down by ice sheets, and in this area of Scotland the only really good source of flint is the beaches of the Rinns. There are, therefore, no less than four mesolithic sites on the Rinns, where hunter-gatherers prepared such tools, before venturing back onto the tundra and the increasingly wooded landscape of Scotland after the ice finally melted. The area is also rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age remains too, such as the cup-marked stone at Kilchiaran, and including Islay’s only complete Stone Circle, at Cultoon.
Odder still, however, for reasons now unfathomable, Cultoon Stone Circle, which includes two upright and twelve horizontal great stones, from the evidence gathered in excavations in the 1970s, was clearly not finished. The twelve stones were never erected, and the site abandoned before completion.
Of the later, Celtic Christian era, the Rinns boasts two of Islay’s three carved stone crosses, at Kilnave and at Kilchoman. But perhaps the two finest historic sites to visit are the stone cross at Kildalton, and the islands in the loch at Finlaggan. The Kildalton Cross dates from the 8th century, and is almost certainly one carved by the Iona School of artists, and probably in the best condition – due to the kind of stone and its relatively sheltered position – of all the stone crosses of this era throughout Scotland and the North of England. On a fine day it is truly a wonder to behold, amongst the scattered gravestones of the cemetery of a ruined church in the south east of Islay.
In the north of the island, kept by the Finlaggan Trust with its own interpretation centre and a suitably easy wooden bridge across the reed-choked loch, is the “great” and the “council” islands within the loch at Finlaggan. The “council” island, a small island next to the “great” island, has been shown to have once been a crannog – a man-made island created with tree-posts and a lot of rubble in the Bronze Age. It is tiny, but supported a Bronze Age broch – a small defensive tower. The “great” island includes 8th-9th century graves: it was clearly occupied during Columba’s time, by one of his missionary monks, St Findlugan. But for the most part what remains on the island is 12th to 14th century, and represents the capital of the Kingdom of the Isles, where the King – and later Lord – of the Isles resided, and, after the manner of the Isle of Man Tingwall, held Council meetings with the nobles, thanes, lords, Bishop of the Isles, and Abbot of Iona. At its greatest extent the MacDonalds ruled not just all the isles but a good part of the mainland, too, ultimately threatening the King of Scotland in Edinburgh: reason enough, in the end, for its demise.
Colonsay and Oronsay
But if you are visiting the Southern Hebrides, it would be churlish not to include a day-trip to the small islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, visible from the coasts of Jura and Islay, out into the Atlantic. Colonsay boasts two or three villages, including a hotel and a shop at the ferry port of Scalasaig. Oronsay has just one farmhouse, built from the rubble of the fallen Oronsay Priory. Parking on the beach on the south coast of Colonsay, and waiting for lowtide, we walked out across the Strand between the two islands to visit the Priory. It is wise to know exactly what time the tide is at its lowest, and to stride out as soon as one can, in order to get the most time on Oronsay before needing to return! We inched our way across, seawater around our ankles, covering the mile or so of distance across the sand, until finally climbing up onto the beach of Oronsay for the mile and half walk round the low hill to the Atlantic facing side of the island where the Priory sits. Here there are more Iona School stone crosses, and a collection of medieval carved grave slabs including effigies and carved swords and celtic knotwork. It is a fine place, though the atmosphere is perhaps not as secluded as that at St Blane’s, amongst the bustle of the working farm that shares the site – and much of the stone building blocks.
We were unlucky on the one day of the week that Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries go to and fro between Port Askaig and Colonsay: it was the worst weather of our trip. We got quite cold trying to cross the Strand, and didn’t stay long at the Priory, heading back across the now almost completely dry Strand to the car just as the rain started to come lashing down.
The one other site we did manage to visit was Fingall’s Limpet Hammers, a stone row of just two standing stones, at the head of the valley of Loch Fad – in fact three lochs one after another all called Loch Fad – that cuts through part of the Island. Quite impressive stones, with a view down through the valley and out into the sea. But the rain by now was becoming very heavy, and we – like all the rest of the small group of tourists taking the same day trip – sheltered in Scalasaig’s little hotel bar, for a half-and-half: once upon a time half a gill of whisky and half a pint of ale, now just a sixth of a gill of whisky. It’s a popular combination in these isles, both warming and thirst quenching, sipping from each glass in turn.