Sri Lanka, September 2017 2/2

Mihintale

Piper and Drummers with offerings at Mihintale

I planned to come to Mihintale to be here for the New Moon (at 11am GMT 20/09/17). I did not know whether there would be any ceremony to witness. Poya – The Full Moon – is a national holiday each month. I was very pleased to see a few people with a horn player and two drummers like at the Galadari conference (only no dancers this time). They brought a golden covered tray with small pots of food offerings to each of the special places at the top of this mountain. I followed them to take pictures at each place where they made their offering and to clasp my hands in prayer and meditate celebrating the New Moon. At the last, they beckoned me forward: I touched the lid as I had seen others do, but again he beckoned, saying ‘take it’. I had noticed them taking turns to carry it. So I took the tray, reverently, and I carried the tray up to the altar of the central stupa (the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka), placing it on the altar and, as I had seen them do at the bigger stupa above, lifted the lid to make the offering. We all stood back to clasp our hands in prayer, as the horn player and drummers played. Then they beckoned me to take it up again, and carry it through to the private area past the guards. As we walked, one asked me, “Are you Buddhist?”  I hesitated, and said merely, “I try.” They liked this.

Stupa marking the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka

I followed the guard up into the office where I put down the tray, and fresh food offerings were placed in the pots. Then they beckoned me one last time to carry the tray again through to the relic house, and place it at the high altar. This was a very beautiful inner sanctum, with elephant tusks, rich cloths, and a seated Buddha with an altar in front with flowers, and room for the tray. Such a privilege and honour, to stand with the monk, the musicians, the followers, hands clasped, mind still, at the very moment of New Moon, at the crest of Mihintale. Thanking the monk for the honour, he said “Buddha bless you,” and I went back to the public area, beaming.  Easily the highlight of my trip!

Wilpattu

Vedda Cave Carvings

The Wilpattu National Park is famous for its leopards. Eco Team Big Game Safaris offer a night in a large square tent inside the park, with candlelit fireside dinner, and a jeep safari to see the animals. A 16month drought ended with rains a few days before my arrival, so there were plenty of insects (!) but this wasn’t so much of a problem. The inner tent has a double bed with a mosquito net! What I found difficult was the heat. Since arriving in Sri Lanka I have been in air-conditioned hotels. This was my first experience of a true Sri Lankan night. I had no appetite at dinner, and barely touched my food, drank less than half my can of beer. In the day, it had been 34′. Thankfully i had descended from Mihintale before it reached 30′, but my visit to the Vedda Cave Carvings was a river of sweat. At Wilpattu, at night, it did not fall below 28′. I sat in front of the fan in the settee area of my tent, sweating, for a while, then retreated from the moths and flies to the inner tent, inside the mosquito net, the second fan playing gently against the net as I tried to sleep.

Luxury Tent at Wilpattu

Awaking at 5.15am, as instructed, I was at the meeting tent at 5.30am for my jeep. Some other guests, (Dutch, German, Australian, French, two Chinese girls) all got into the jeeps they had had the previous evening. Asking about mine, the staff there seemed unaware that I had booked a safari. Perhaps slightly shorter tempered than usual, (I had barely slept, just hoping the night would be over soon) I showed them the email, proving my booking. They got onto the phone with their manager, who assured me my driver was now on his way. The staff there said it was his mistake. He arrived a minute or two later blaming the driver for miscommunication. All-in-all not a great start: this was easily the most expensive outing of my trip, and wasn’t turning out too well thus far.

Location screenshot at Wilpattu

At the park, we were joined by a very friendly and knowledgeable Park Guide, and made off into the National Park. I saw Spotted deer, the National Bird – Jungle fowl; a Stork billiard kingfisher and various Kites and Eagles, Monitor lizards, and Jackals. Of the dozen or so jeeps out on safari this morning, however, only one was lucky enough to see a leopard, for a few seconds, and no-one saw any bears. I, however, along with my guide, was fortunate enough to witness – for about three seconds (too short a time to get to my camera) – a Tusker! Of all the elephants I have seen here in Sri Lanka this was the only one with tusks – and big 3-4ft long tusks they were too. My guide said this was very rare indeed. He was clearly excited. I also saw Wild buffalo, Grey headed fish eagle, and Green bee eater birds. I’m no David Attenborough so offer no wildlife photos from here. See what I managed to snap on Flickr.

Mannah

The salt flats of Mannah Island

Leaving Wilpattu late morning, meeting up with my driver Rohana again, we made for the last excursion of my trip – Mannah. This part of Northern Sri Lanka is mostly Tamil. Tamils are more Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, and less Buddhist, than the rest of the country. The Buddhas here seem mostly to do with the large police and army presence, underscoring the victory of the majority over the ethnic minority separatists only a few years ago.

Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple

Along the way were two more temples – the great Catholic Church complex at Maddhu, and the Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple. The former, to be honest, I found rather dull, but (from the crucifix and Jesus-pendant in the car) I guess my driver is from the Christian community here, and he was clearly interested to visit this place. As I told him, I have been to Jerusalem and to the Vatican – ‘so you see plenty churches,’ yes. The Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple, on the other hand, is something I have never experienced before, but, in a different way, was also rather disappointing.

Me shirtless at Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple

The Temple was ‘under renovation’, with no access inside; all the statues from inside were arranged in a great shed outside the Temple, but there was no access inside the shed either. What was strangest, in the 33′ heat, was that to enter the complex at all, one had to not only remove one’s hat and shoes – which I am used to now from the Buddhist temples – but one must also remove one’s shirt!

Mannah itself is an island promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, petering out into a series of islands that then at last become a new promontory jutting out from southern India. This is known as Adam’s bridge, and the beach where this begins was my final visit of the day.

Location Screenshot at Talaimannah
Me at the tip of Mannah Island – the beginning of Adam’s Bridge

Tomorrow begins the long journey back south, for a last night, at Negombo, before the flight home, with just a couple more temples along the way.

Manavari and Chilaw

The Shivalingam at Minavare, called the Ramalingam

To break up the long journey, a little research revealed a fascinating Shiva Temple at Manavari, just short of Chilaw, where we could stop for lunch. This little known temple in fact houses one of only two Ramalingams in the world (the other in India), so called because the Shivalingam venerated inside this temple was made, according to the chronicles, by Lord Rama himself. Here, the Hindu priest sat on the steps of his temple, speaking with two or three devotees, and welcomed me with a warm smile, beckoning me in to visit, and to take photographs. Reverently, I entered, and soon discovered at the back of the temple the inner sanctum where the Ramalingam was kept, draped in a cloth. Returning to the steps, I smiled and said, “Ramalingam” and the priest nodded smiling, enthusiastically explaining that this lingam was 10000 years old!

Ardhanarisvara at Minavare

I asked him if there was also an Ardhanarisvara statue here – perhaps I did not pronounce this properly, or it is known to him by another name. I explained by saying “Shiva, Pavarti” and miming the two together by clasping my hands and threading my fingers together, hoping this would convey the hermaphroditic union of the God and Goddess in one deity that is Ardhanarisvara. He nodded, explaining there was one on the left hand side of the temple. I looked, and found an old blackened statue there, but was not sure this was the one I sought.

Kali Kovil, Chilaw

Shortly further down the road, at Rohana’s suggestion, after lunching in Chilaw – a rather hot but very tasty Sri Lankan rice and curry – we also stopped at Chilaw’s Kali Kovil Temple. Here, I caught the eye of the Hijra (the third gender of the Indian subcontinent, often a specifically religious one, and clearly a much respected devotee here) who took it upon him/herself (perhaps after seeing me put notes into the donation box) to show me around, introducing me to each of four different statues, beckoning me to photograph each.

Kali at Chilaw Kali Kovil

Then s/he brought me forward to the altar, instructed me to bow, placed his/her hand upon my shoulder, and proceeded to chant a blessing for me -helpfully explained here and there in English- for good fortune on my travels. I was most grateful! What an honour, on this trip, to have received, without seeking it, the blessing of both a Buddhist Monk and a Hindu Hijra, at their Temples. I am blessed indeed! Just outside the Kali Temple, at a stall packed with Indian brass statues, I spotted a heavy brass Shivalingam, and with the aid of my driver, Rohana, paid not too handsome a price for it, to bring home as a keepsake of my Hindu blessing.

Negombo

Sunset from my room at the Heritance, Negombo

At last, then, to the Heritance Negombo – a wonderful beach hotel just 20minutes taxi ride from Colombo airport, for my final night, and a fantastic sunset view from my bedroom.

 

 

The New Moon, rising above the Heritance Negombo, on my last night in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, September 2017 1/2

I was fortunate enough, in September 2017, to attend an academic event in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Dancers at the Galadari Conference centre

As in the past, I took some annual leave whilst in the country, as soon as the work was over, to get outside the hotel and conference centre and actually see something of the country itself – especially of its rich history, many thousands of years old, and of its rich flora and fauna. It is not, however, a rich country, financially, and even after the shrinking of its value since the summer of 2016, the British pound still goes a long way here: there were many times I felt very privileged, and the tips I gave, though seemingly small to me, meant a lot to those who received them. You can haggle, but when the price is £3, why bother to argue it down to £2.50?

After my week in the very nice, but corporate hotel/conference complex in Colombo (where a plush dinner is £15), I spent a couple of nights at Jungle Tide – the retirement villa Homestay of two old friends from the theatre world, where I received a warm and comfortable welcome.

Jungle Tide

Homestays are like Bed and Breakfast, but they’ll cook dinner for you too, and make you welcome in the lounge. This was just the antidote I needed to the working week in Colombo, perched in the mountains above Kandy, treated to the fireflies in the evening, monkeys squabbling in the trees. The large rat snake (so called because it eats rats) that I disturbed on the path in the morning – thick as my arm and probably as long as I am tall – gave me a fright, but all they eat is rats, so I wasn’t in any danger. At least it wasn’t a python – which of course can kill with a single bite!

Sad to say, it is still illegal in Sri Lanka to be gay. A legacy, no doubt, of colonial times. In this, as in many parts of the world, same-sex relationships in a variety of forms were commonplace before the arrival of the bigoted and discriminatory Christian Europeans. But here, perforce, I have had to retreat, quietly, back into the closet, for a couple of weeks, answering questions like “Are you married” with an affirmative that then describes my spouse with a female pronoun. Yes, “she” is well, but could not join me this time. Yes I will bring “her” next time. Sadly, with two sisters in their late sixties running Jungle Tide in the absence of my theatre friends, already used to this from Colombo, I stayed in this temporary holiday closet, not wanting to risk spoiling the enjoyment of the homestay with a challenge they might not welcome. Who knows, they may have been very accepting, but I did not want to run the risk. With the Sri Lankans, I am not prepared to take any such risk.

Kandy

Between my two nights’ stay at Jungle Tide I took a tuk-tuk ride down into Kandy itself. The tuk-tuk is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka: a sort-of three-wheeler moped taxi, mostly open air, not very fast, and driven largely by mad people!

Skull and cross-bone rivets are all the rage on tuk-tuks

Don’t even think about hiring a car and driving anywhere yourself in this country: the roads are insane. What you do is hire a car and driver – I got one from reputable company Mahaweli, arranged for me by my theatre friends at Jungle Tide, and driven by mid-late 20s man-of-the-world-in-the-making, Rohana. Mahaweli are a company whose owner-director is only 38, and all his employees between 25 and 35. Rohana answers the phone with “Hello, Sir” all the time, perhaps especially with his employers as much as with potential clients. (The phone rings all the time while we are driving, and there is no hesitation to answer and talk while at the wheel, here.) He is a very friendly, helpful, hospitable fellow who has tried really hard to make me welcome and to ensure I enjoyed my stay, and learnt about the country and enjoyed its hospitality. I would certainly recommend Mahaweli – and Rohana – to any tourist in Sri Lanka, including gay men such as myself, missing their husbands at home. I have no idea what his reaction might be to this knowledge, but didn’t want to risk the potential estrangement a bad reaction might bring. What a gay couple holidaying together here might do, I have no idea. But this country has so much to offer, that these personal questions are, when you are a solo traveller at least, relatively easy to set aside.

The greatest attraction at Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth – a reliquary temple for one of the teeth of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth
Sun and Moon Motifs on the outside of the inner shrine of the Temple of the Tooth

Whoever holds it holds the governance of the country. After some years in Anuradhapura – the ancient capital for many centuries – it came to Kandy, the last Sri Lankan kingdom to hold out against the European colonial powers, and, after some time in British hands, it is kept again in this fantastic temple by an artificial lake in the high mountain town of Kandy. The majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhist.

Journey north from Kandy

Aluvihare Cave Temple

At Aluvihare Rock Temple, in Matale, the moment when Buddhism was first written down in Sri Lanka, in the 2nd century BC is remembered both in a fantastic cave temple, and in a superb giant Buddha sculpture on the hillside.

Also present in Sri Lanka, however, are many Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (in that order) and a good deal of harmony between them all. (The ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, many centuries old, the latest chapter of which ended bloodily some years ago, is less religious than it is ethnic). There is plenty of syncretism between the prevailing, largely Theravada, but in parts Mahayana Buddhism, and the Hinduism that exists alongside it. The Nalanda Gedige Temple, for example, from a thousand years ago, shows two faces: one Buddhist, one Hindu, as an example of the harmony between the two traditions in Sri Lanka.

Buddhist facia at Nalanda Gedige
Hindu facia at Nalanda Gedige

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Islam arrived during the ascendancy of the Mughals in India, and Christianity – in the form of Catholicism – arrived with the Portuguese.

In Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka, therefore, it is not uncommon to see many aspects of Hindu culture absorbed into the local form of Buddhist practice. Krishna, Ganesha (known here as Pulyar), and Shiva are all present both in their own shrines and in the Buddhist temples. Here also, is the Hindu Goddess of Rain and Fertility, Sri Muthumariamman.

Sri Muthumariamman Hindu Temple
Five faced Ganesh at Sri Muthumariamman Temple
Shiva Lingam at Sri Muthumariamman Temple

 

Dambulla Cave Temples

Amongst the best Buddhist temples, of course, are the caves. At Dambulla, where one must climb high up to the top of a small mountain, up many stone steps, to reach them, are four natural and one man-made cave all exquisitely painted inside and filled with statues of the Buddha at various stages of his life-story. These are particularly impressive, and testimony to the devout following of Buddhist practice for many centuries – and still today – in this country.

Inside Dambulla Cave Temples
Inside Dambulla Cave Temples
Inside Dambulla Cave Temples
Outside Dambulla Cave Temples

Sigiriya

Traditional Village life in Sri Lanka

Traditional Sri Lanka village hut, where I had lunch

After leaving Jungle Tide, and visiting temples along the route north to Sigiriya, I was treated to an interesting experience of pre-colonial traditional village life in Sri Lanka, through a ride on a traditional bullock cart to a (man-made) lake, and a boat ride across to a lakeside village where locals prepared and served traditional Sri Lankan food – the traditional way. This was the idea of my Mahaweli driver and guide, Rohana, and it was amazing to see how it is all done, how simple, and how delicious it all turns out. Alongside the South American introductions (tomato, chilli) were the older, local foodstuffs: fenugreek, salt, mustard seeds, lime, turmeric, lentils, okra, onion, a local kind of pumpkin, fresh water tilapia fish, the ubiquitous curry leaves, and the incredible coconut which produces oil to cook with, the flesh to spice and eat as a salad, and the milk to make the rich sauces of the vegetable curries – along with the leaves to make the roof, the half-shell cups to drink from, and many more uses beside.

Traditional rice and curry lunch
Boat ride with Rohana
Boat ride with Rohana, my driver
Bullock cart ride
Bullock cart ride

Kaudulla National Park

My Mahaweli guide, Rohana, through friends of friends, asking for someone who knew about the animals and could please someone such as me, with lots of information, and who had a good, safe vehicle for the jungle, got a recommendation, got his number, and managed to book a fantastic guide for us for an Elephant Safari.

Me with 1959 Land Rover Defender
Me with 1959 Land Rover Defender

I confess I felt very proud of our 1959 vintage black Land Rover Defender, as we passed the touristy Mitsubishi jeeps (all 2-wheel drive and not very comfortable) on the dirt tracks. We were also taken into Kaudulla park, rather than Haburana, as the elephants move, each year, from the latter to the former, when the late September rains begin. This year, they have come early (nowhere escapes climate change) and so the elephants are on the move already – the males, or ‘bulls’ on their solo journeys – sometimes blocking the minor roads around the park – and the herds of females and their offspring in family groups.

Solo Bull Elephant on the roads outside Kaudulla National Park
Solo Bull Elephant at Kaudulla National Park
Solo Bull Elephant at Kaudulla National Park

We arrived by the lake shortly after several of these solo male elephants and three family groups had emerged from the jungle onto the grassy plains around the lake, and were amongst only three or four jeeps of tourists to witness these amazing animals up close.

Untitled

As we left, dozens more jeeps were arriving in the park, and I was very grateful to our guide for knowing not just where to be, but when, to witness these extraordinary creatures. On the way there, and on the way back, he also stopped frequently, with keen eyes, to point out the red-faced macaques in the trees by the road, black faced grey langurs, peacocks and peahens, and even a crested hawk eagle.

Black faced grey langurs at Kaudulla National Park
Crested hawk eagle at Kaudulla National Park
Peacock, peahen, and red-faced macaque at Kaudulla National Park

Rarest of all, on our way out, standing in the back of the land rover, I was first to spot a billiard kingfisher – and our guide was really impressed that we had had the opportunity to see one – and that I had spotted it!

Billiard Kingfisher at Kaudulla National Park

It was truly an incredible privilege to see all these fantastic animals, and an absolute delight to do so from what was clearly the best vehicle around, and probably the best guide!

Our guide with his landcover at Kaudulla National Park
Our guide with his landcover at Kaudulla National Park

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

Staying at the Zinc Sigiriya – once the ‘Resthouse’ and now fully renovated and newly marketed to the global market – I rose very early to climb the famous, UNESCO World Heritage Site Sigiriya Rock. The site opens at 7am, and it is wise to begin one’s climb straight away, to be on the top at 8am, and making one’s descent by 8.30.

Sigiriya Rock

The heat is such that a visit any later in the day invites both exhaustion and burning for northern European white skin. The rock is the vanity project of a 5th Century CE royal usurper, defeated in battle by the ‘rightful’ king, who temporarily transferred the royal capital from Anaradhapura to this pleasure-palace-cum-fortress for the length of his reign. As a feat of urban planning and architectural folly it is perhaps in many ways unsurpassed, and remains immensely impressive a millenium and a half later.

The many, many steps up are nothing compared to a climb up Mount Misen in Japan , taking only 30 minutes, but the final section up fire-escape-style metal steps is definitely not for the faint-hearted: if you have any kind of vertigo that makes you quiver up a ladder, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is probably not for you.

Steps onto Sigiriya Rock
Steps onto Sigiriya Rock
One of the two surviving paws of the Lion’s Gate
View from the top of Sigiriya Rock
Me atop Sigiriya Rock
View of the gardens from atop Sigiriya Rock

I was not the only one quite fearful on this stretch of the climb, both up and down, and you have to steel yourself to brave the trip. The rewards, however, at the top, are very well worth it. The views across Central Province are astounding and unmissable, and the extraordinary brick architecture of the citadel palace built upon the flat-topped summit are a wonder to behold, even now, some 1500 years later.
Back at the hotel, after a shower and a good breakfast, I made ready and embarked on our journey to Anaradhapura. On our way, we took a detour down rural country roads, past local country shrines to Pulyar (Sri Lanka’s name for Ganesh) where the locals pick a twig of leaves to hang by the shrine and pray for a safe journey.

Pulyar Shrine

Aukana

Aukana Buddha

Just past here, our destination was Aukana – the largest rock-carved Buddha in all Sri Lanka. This enormous statue of the standing Buddha, hand raised in blessing, and the rock-hewn water cistern nearby, are contemporary with the palace at Sigiriya Rock (late 5th century CE) and although somewhat out of the way, well worth the visit if you have time. Here, the orange robed monk, with impecable English, clearly a very well educated and highly intelligent man, personally welcomed me and showed me around the site, as the coach of local children came and went. He was clearly pleased to see an international tourist and I would recommend any visitor to the country to make the time to come here. It is a very special place with a fantastic ambience, and I was deeply moved by the exquisite carving and serenity of this enormous standing Buddha sculpture.

Me with the monk at Aukana Buddha

Anuradhapura

The largest brick building in the world

After Aukana we headed on to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Anuradhapura. This time I stayed at the Rajarata Hotel. This was a good hotel – not unlike Zinc Sigirya – although offering hot water for people to make their own coffee with sachets of Nescafe is for the rooms, not for the breakfast buffet, please! Dinner, however, was very good here, as it had been at Zinc Sigiriya.

I then spent all day – from 8am to 3pm – with Jagath, a guide whose excellent English and understanding of the sites made the whole experience exceptionally interesting, despite the crushing heat (a very humid C29-31 most of the time.) I kept applying sun block and spraying anti-mosquito spray, but still got a bit red, and several bites. (You have to take your hat and shoes off to get into/near to the Buddhist shrines.) Jagath was extremely informative, and Anuradhapura is simply incredible.

The Samadhi (meditating) Buddha in the 2nd Monastic Complex – from the 1st century BC

The village of Anuradh was founded by a King’s minister (called Anuradh) in about 600BC, and only later became a city (a ‘pura’) in 300BC when Buddhism was introduced to the country, when pagan Sri Lankan King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism, and his people with him. Anaradhapura was the place, shortly after, where a clipping was brought from the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, had reached Enlightenment. Relics of the Buddha’s body, of objects from his life, and of things associated with him, form the three different kinds of relics, nearly all of which are buried in sacred caverns (called relic chambers), and then enormous solid brick domes are erected over those chambers. Atop the domes, where once were a kind of fence, there are now square or rectangular boxes, and above these, where once were parasols one atop another, there are now cylindrical columns. Crowning the pinnacle of the columns there are now bright crystals ( – possibly lightning conductors in their day – ) where once there was a simple pillar next to the fence.

The 2nd largest brick building in the world

This religious architecture is called a STUPA, and is completed by three rings around the base of the dome, representing the Buddha, his life, and his Enlightenment. The main stupa at the First Monastic Complex at Anuradhapura, originally built around 100BC, contains many such relics, and is the largest brick built building in the entire world. (Nearby, at the 3rd monastic complex, the Stupa there is the 2nd largest brick building in the world and is estimated to have 93million bricks in it, which would be enough to build a wall from London to Edinburgh.) The biggest is repainted every June.  The second biggest has just been restored, from being covered in greenery.  Beside the main stupa in the First Monastic Complex, from that original cutting brought to Sri Lanka around 300BC from the tree in Northern India under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment around 600BC, is a giant fig tree – the very same Bodhi tree. It is, thus, the oldest chronicled tree in the world: now 2600 years old. So this oldest tree in the world, and the largest brick building in the world, together form the centrepiece of the First Monastic Complex of Anuradhapura.

The Bodhi Tree
The Samadhi (meditating) Buddha in the 2nd Monastic Complex – from the 1st century BC

The Second Monastic Complex is a city where 5000 monks lived, worked, meditated, ate, slept, and welcomed international visitors from around Asia for study and sharing. There are a further six or more such complexes, which were sub-schools of the Second Monastic Complex, some of which remain buried in the jungle, some just beginning to be excavated. The site, in short, is vast – literally a kind of Ancient Rome or Athens in Sri Lanka, but entirely devoted to the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. It finally came to an end, in the 10th century AD, when Sri Lanka was invaded from South India, and the great city was completely destroyed and burned. The capital moved to Polonuwara (where I don’t have time to visit on this trip) briefly, and then to Kandy, which, at last, fell to the European colonialists.

The ‘Moon Stone’
Door Guardian

In the Second Monastic Complex I had time – amongst the vast area of living quarters and shrines – to visit some special places selected by my guide: the finest ‘moon stone’ in Sri Lanka, the finest ‘door guardians’, and both the largest water cistern and the pair of most attractive water cisterns. The sandakada pahana, or ‘moon stone,’ named after a half-moon, is a semi-circle laid at the entrance to many different Buddhist sites around Sri Lanka. There are a series of semi-circular rings. The outermost ring is of fire: the experience of the world, of desire, and the pain and suffering that go with it. The next ring is of elephants, lions, horses and bulls – the four animals that represent the four pains of life: birth, ageing, ill-health, and death. They are also the four stages of life: growth, energy, power and forbearance. The next ring is a twisted creeper, representing the tortuous routes one must sometimes take to put aside desire in search of one’s true happiness. Then the next ring is of Thorn Birds or Swans; in Sri Lankan mythology the Thorn Bird can magically separate milk and water. This symbolises, then, the moment when the follower of Buddhism begins to discern the true happiness from the fires of the world. At last, then, in the inner semi-circle is reached: a semi-circle of lotus flowers, and the radiant inner happiness of nirvana. Thus, at the entrance to a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, stepping upon the ‘moon stone’, one is stepping upon the path to Enlightenment. It is the cycle of Samsara – from worldly desires to the achievement of Nirvana.

There are, of course, lots more photographs on Flickr.

Japan trip #8 – Nara

Todai-Ji Buddha
Todai-Ji Buddha

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.

Kosagu Taisha
Kosagu Taisha

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.

Deer in Nara Park
Deer in Nara Park

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.

Me at Izumo Taisha
Me at Izumo Taisha

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.

Oyster gratin
Oyster gratin

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!

A large number of photographs from my entire trip are available to view in my Flickr account, with brief descriptions of each.

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Japan trip #7 – Miyajima Island

The Great Torii, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima
The Great Torii, Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

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.

Five Tiered Pagoda, Miyajima
Five Tiered Pagoda, Miyajima

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.

Daishoin Temple
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.

View of the Daishoin Route
View of the Daishoin Route up Mt Misen

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.

Dainichido Temple
Dainichido Temple

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.

View from summit of Mt Misen
View from summit of Mt Misen

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!

Cable car ride
Cable car ride

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!

Itsukushima Shine
Itsukushima Shine

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.

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Japan trip #6 – Hiroshima

A Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
A Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

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.
*************
Sunset over Miyajima Island
Sunset over Miyajima Island
Itsukushima Shrine, from the ferry
Itsukushima Shrine, from the ferry

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.

 

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Japan trip #5 – Izumo Taisha

Izumo Taisha
Izumo Taisha

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.

Choice of charms
Choice of charms

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.

Family day
Family day

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.

Magatama
A particularly big, expensive Magatama in one of the many crystal shops

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.

Priests enter the shrine at the start of the ceremony
Priests enter the shrine at the start of the ceremony

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.

Untitled

Untitled

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]

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Japan trip #4 – Food, Kyoto, and the Moon!

Bento on the Shinkansen to Osaka
Bento on the Shinkansen to Osaka

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!

Dotonbori
Dotonbori

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.

Dotonbori octopus
Dotonbori octopus

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.

Sashimi Whale
Sashimi Whale

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!

Shisen-Do
Shisen-Do

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.

The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple

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.

Matsunoo-Taisha
Matsunoo-Taisha

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.

With the Leader of the staff at Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
With the Leader of the staff at Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto

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.

Supermoon
Supermoon

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!

Sushi chef
Sushi chef

 

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Japan trip #3 – To Tokyo and Wakayama

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.
Shinkansen arrives at Nagoya
Shinkansen arrives at Nagoya

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.
Kanayama Shrine
Kanayama Shrine

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.)
Kanayama Shrine
Kanayama Shrine

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”.

Kanayama Shrine
Kanayama Shrine

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!

Japan trip #2 – Nintoku and Ise

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.

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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.

Emperor Nintoku's Mausoleum - from beyond the moat
Emperor Nintoku’s Mausoleum – from beyond the moat

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.

Nintoku-tenno-ryu kofun
Nintoku’s Mausoleum – one of the two information boards I found, this one at the bottom of the keyhole

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.

Nintoku-tenno-ryu kofun
Entrance to Nintoku-tenno-ryu kofun

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.

Cat in Daisen Park
Cat in Daisen Park

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.

 

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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.]

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My Private Onsen
My Private Onsen

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.

Kaiseki
Kaiseki

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.

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Tuesday 8th November.

Outside Geku main shrine
Outside Geku main shrine

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.

A Geku Shrine
A Geku Shrine

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.

Outside Geku Main Shrine
Outside Geku Main Shrine

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.

Cleansing the old way, at the river in Naiku
Cleansing the old way, at the river in Naiku

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.

Naiku Torii
Naiku Torii

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.

Worship at Well Kami Shrine
Worship at Well Kami Shrine

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.

Naiku Main Shrine
Naiku Main Shrine

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.

Takimatsuri-no-Kami
Takimatsuri-no-Kami

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.

Worship at Takimatsuri-no-kami
Worship at Takimatsuri-no-kami

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.

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Japan trip #1 – Arrival in Osaka

Northwestern Japan
Northwestern Japan

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.

Osaka from 19th floor of Shin-Osaka Marriott
Osaka from 19th floor of Shin-Osaka Marriott

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.

So begins an adventure – 17 days in Japan!

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