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October 18, 2005
Kyoto: Kokedera - I saved the best for last (Intro)
Filed in: Current Affairs, Japan, Photography

When my friend and business associate said, "Well, you must go to Kokedera - we'll just have to get you an invitation.", I didn't think too much of it. I thought it was like ordering tickets or something.

At the time I didn't realize that a letter had to be submitted - via snail mail - to Temple Saihoji - and that an invitation had to be received back from the temple. Thankfully, my friends knew everything that was required, so when I checked in to my hotel in Kyoto - they reverently handed me my invitation to Saihoji (my friends had asked them to reply with the invite to my hotel) that hotel personnel had translated from Japanese to English. I believe that some of the hotels in Kyoto are versed in making the invitation request, but of course they must be asked, and the lead time is a week.

This means that I am in a group of a comparatively few westerners that have been able to visit this place (and I don't mean a complete rarity - but these folks limit visitors to less than 100 a day and aren't open every day and the visitors are approximately 99% Asian). It also means that I was almost completely unprepared for what was to transpire. My translated invitation basically says "Please visit Saiho-ji (which is popularly called Kokedera) at 1 o'clock pm on the 29th of September with this card. Please pay 3,000 yen on that day. We are sorry that your applied date of 30th of September for visitng here is not acceptable because of special Buddhist service." There was a lot more Japanese on the post card than that - but they gave me the essentials: I knew what day, what time, and how much it was going to cost. So far so good.

I didn't know how far it was to Saihoji so I left pretty early - it was about a $60 cab fare so pretty far to the north and west of the city. The cabbie dropped me off at the gate.


It was all locked up and not a soul around. Well, I was a half-hour early...


The entire site is protected on the south side by the Saihoji river - which is really a moat with rock walls on either side.

This site was originally (back sometime before 700 AD) the home of Prince Shotoku and his family for some generations. Sometime in the mid 700's a priest named Gyogi Bosatsu founded a group of temples in the area - at the request of Emperor Shomu - and the original Saihoji temple was erected here to house 3 Amitabha Divinities. Gyogi Bosatsu is revered as the founder of Saihoji.

By the 1300's Saihoji was in need of repair. A Shinto chief priest - Fujiwara Chikahide - confined himself in 1338 in the temple for prayer and meditation. It was revealed to him that he should ask the Zen priest Muso Kokushi of Rinsenji (Zen Temple) to head up Saihoji. Muso agreed and began to live in Saihoji temple. He reconstructed the original garden with his own design. He is said to have been very skilled in making gardens and "put his heart into the work". He is revered as the restorer of Saihoji and his design is still imprinted on the garden to this day.

Isn't it amazing to contemplate these events at such dates? As Europe lay in the Dark Ages this place was constructed and it was old when the Norman Conquest was occurring.

As the half-hour passed, more people began to show up. In total, I would say there were about 45 that were at the gate when the priest showed up. He poured over each of our invitations at the gate and allowed us to pass within.


Before realizing that it was forbidden, I took a couple of quick pictures of the main temple after we had entered the gate complex - I never had time to really work out the exposure so it's a bit dark there at the temple entry.


This is what the entry looked like when we arrived.


We were all ushered under this portico (the main temple is behind it) and were told to remove our shoes and replace them with these sandals that were placed around those pads under the portico. (I took this picture much later).

The sandals were made for the general stature of an Asian person - which means they were VERY small - another sign that not too many westerners show up here - I should have had a clue by then. Anyway, the rear of my pair of sandals came pretty much to the middle of the arch of my foot, so I literally hobbled my way inside. There we paid our approximately $30. Pretty quickly, they assigned a priest to me who walked up and said in perfect English: "Do you speak Japanese?", I answered "少し" (sounds like 'Sco-shi'), which means 'just a little'. He said "That's too bad, it would help you understand what is going on better if you spoke Japanese." Then he said "You must not take any pictures anywhere in this area." I said "Do you want me to leave my camera here?". He said "No." I said "I took a few pictures as I walked in - should I delete them?", He said "No, just please do not take any more pictures until I tell you that you may." The group had begun moving to the temple so I hobbled my way with them - the priest in tow.

When we arrived in the temple - behind the doors that you see in the pictures above - there were little 'desks' (and desk is far too generous a word - these were about twenty inches wide and about nine inches deep - and they were fifteen inches off the floor) with small 'pillows' (that's generous as well) behind them and these little wooden things that looked rather like a toy dugout canoe to the right side of each 'desk'. The priest assigned to me (I did appear to be unique in that sense for this visit - no one else had a priest assisting them) took me to one of them on the end of a row - right next to the door and he showed me how to sit at the 'desk'. (I had removed my sandals - thankfully - to enter the temple). This involved folding my legs up and sitting on my heels. I probably wouldn't have had much of a problem with that 30 years ago - but I don't sit like that anymore and it was excrutiating. Oh well, so far so good.


Then the priest put a sheet of paper with what looked like ancient Chinese characters on it - the content exactly like this (though the picture above is of the 'chant' book) - but on a much larger sheet of paper - and on the sheet that he laid out for me the characters were very light almost as if they were printed on the reverse side and you were seeing them through the paper. He showed me on an adjacent 'desk' how to rub the bottom of the little 'boat' to the right with a stick that looked something like a chalk eraser (I mean an eraser made out of a square piece of chalk) - I noticed there was a black liquid in the little 'boat' and the stick was used to draw the liquid out thinly on the bottom of the 'boat' - this was very important. There was also a little brush in the 'boat' that came to a very fine tip. "This is Buddhist writing exercise", he said. And he traced out a few of the characters with his brush - very deftly - and said "Now you do the same". By now, my legs have gone completely to sleep so I'm only dreading getting back up. I'm also a lefty so - after having done my best to spread the ink out thinly on the bottom of the little 'boat' I dipped the brush and switched it to my left hand and began to very carefully trace out a few characters. The lefthandedness didn't seem to be too disconcerting to the priest, but after a few minutes he said "When you have finished, on the left hand of the paper please write your name, address, and your wish and bring it to the altar." (There was a fairly large blank area to the left of the 'tracing' page with some character odds and ends here and there). He got up to leave and said "I will check back with you in a little while."

I decided to observe for a few minutes - there were several people who were 'tracing' furiously - most were working very diligently. I decided for the moment that I would do this seriously and began to work out how lightly the brush needed to be used and how the thinnest layer of ink in the trough was the blackest. After about 15 minutes, the priest that had been assigned to me and two other priests assembled themselves in the center of the temple - they had a drum that looked much like a djembe, a rather large Gong, and some bells and stick looking things. They began a very vigorous chanting ceremony - it went on for about 15 minutes and the drum was going at about 4 beats per second. The chant was evocative and powerful - many of the people at their desks chanted with the priests and I realized that they were chanting the characters that we were tracing - these characters, as you might be able to see, were very complex and all of them had several accent marks around them - so I don't know if they just went through them once or over a few times - my guess is that they were repeated two or three times.

I count myself as a sensitive person spiritually. And although the ceremony was emotionally powerful, I felt no spiritual activity - none. I observed with interest, realizing that I was seeing something that is really typically reserved for practitioners. The priests were definitely focused and in a trance-like state. Suddenly it ended.

As soon as the ceremony ended - four or five people took their pages to the priests - who had remained in the center of the temple area - the priests took each of their pages and examined them - in a couple of cases they just handed the paper back to the offeror and pointed back to the 'desks' - in a couple of other cases, the priests got out new 'tracing' sheets and handed them to the offerors. None of the 'early' finishers were given a passing grade. I observed this for a little while and kept carefully working on my own writing. After about an hour quite a few people completed their writing exercise and took them up to the priests. Most were directed to the altar at the far end of the center of the temple where they knelt before a creche of statues and other effigies and placed their sheets on a little pedestal. Some were refused - some of them went back to their desks. Some left in disgust.

I made up my mind at that point that I was not going to be defeated by this Buddhist writing exercise and whatever it took, I was going to finish - no matter how many times they sent me back. I was really in extremis at this point because of sitting on my legs. But I'm a pretty determined fellow.

Folks, it took me almost two hours. That's right: two hours to finish my tracing of the 278 ancient Chinese characters with accents. The priest visited me a couple of times - each time he only said "When you are finished - please write your name, address, and your wish in this area and bring it to the center of the temple."

I've written quite often before of my travels in Japan about the disregard for multiculturalism there. This is a really good example. This would be like having visitors to the National Cathedral in Washington, say a bunch of 'Hail Mary's', write out a Calvinian Catechism, and one of the Psalms in Hebrew before allowing them to tour the grounds. In America, we wouldn't even think of that. Can't offend other cultures now can we?

I wasn't offended at all by this process. It's their country. It's their religious ideal. I respect that, understand that, and I'm interested in it. 

But I didn't know if I had just pledged my existence to Buddha - or just what I had done with my 'writing exercise'. So to be very clear about my personal persuasion, I wrote vertically on the left side of my 'tracing' sheet the word: ΙΧΘΥΣ (using the Greek lettering) which is the 'Ikthus' anagram - "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior" - which was good enough for me in terms of expressing my position.

Then I wrote my name and address where indicated and wrote "I ask God's blessings on my business endeavors in Japan."

After this, I unfolded my legs and crawled to the nearby doorway where I dangled my legs over the ledge and endured the spiking buzz of blood flow back into my legs. It took me several minutes to be convinced that I could walk. I took my 'tracing' page to the priest and he and another priest looked it over and conferred for a moment. The priest assigned to me said "This is a good effort. Please offer it at the altar." I took it up to the altar, and I wasn't going to kneel, because I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to get back up again - I just laid it atop the others that were there.

I turned around and walked back to the priest. He said to me: "You may now go into the garden by yourself."

And so I did just that.

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People Pulling

Your tales and travels. How wonderful they are.

Posted by: Ana at Oct 19, 2005 8:58:12 PM

Hmmm, sounds vaguely familiar somehow... :)

Posted by: jlb at Oct 20, 2005 6:02:15 PM

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