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Japanese Temples in the Forest
Temples in the forest
In late September we take the express train to Kyoto from Umeda Station in Osaka. Soon Japanese city-scapes appear as a whirl of buildings with glaring roof tiles reflecting the sun. giant temples loom here and there like surfacing octopi in the Humbolt Current. The clacking of wheels on the tracks lulls me off into a mid-morning snooze interrupted only by a jarring swerve to the left or right at which time I open my eyes long enough to take in a whiskey distillery beneath volcanic fingers covered with a hair of bamboo and pine. Shallow sleep again benumbs my consciousness until the train roars inside a tunnel deep beneath Kyoto.
Almost too sleepy to disembark, I and my family along with Dr. Taaka Shimose stagger off the train with crowds of people shoulder to shoulder. Soon we stand in the glare of the streets amid honking taxicabs, cafe, bakeries, department stores, trinket shops, bookstores, tourist bureaus, bars, woodblock print shops, and Kabuki theatres.But I see mountains all around and am reminded somehow of Santa Fe, New Mexico, only with the Kami River and not the Rio Grande. Perhaps my sleepiness has not yet dissipated.
We board a bus which conducts us to the northeastern edge of the city where Nature takes over. Again I am lulled to sleep except for the high-pitched female voi9ce announcing the next stop: "Tsugi no...Doshishan desu." When we get of the bus, I am surprised to see that it is a male driver relying upon a recorded female voice for announcements. The scent of pine fills the air as we stroll past Ryoanji Temple pond with lotus leaves flopping in a gentle breeze like elephant ears back in India. Approaching Ryoanji Temple itself, we are struck with the stark simplicity od architecture blending so effectively, so harmoniously with the landscape.
We all take of our shoes and proceed into the inner temple past a class of beginning practitioners of Buddhism and sit on the wooden planks astride the rock garden. I suddenly feel all alone and become unaccountably frightened. I believe momentarily that some devastating, cataclysmic event will destroy our planet. I distinctly sense that what we think is stable is an illusion; the rocks in the garden are not solid at all. But then a feeling of calmness and serenity flows like a river through my spirit. It is almost as if I had sunk beneath the surface of the crushed white stones (raked in waves) and mossy rocks only to come soaring up and out and back to my body sitting on a wooden plank beside the rock garden of Ryoanji Dera. This is no ordinary place.
I join my family and Dr. Shimose who are already moving on toward the moss garden. As the rocks are life and death, the moss, ever-so-green, is life and birth. I stand and stare at the snake-like roots of a camphor tree twisting on the green surface of the moss garden. Maple trees rustle and cedars thrum in life-giving winds just outside the temple. I know I must visit this place again and again for however long I remain in Japan--perhaps part of me will never leave Japan. No amount of high tech gadgetry can compete with such an accomplishment of spirit as Ryoanji Dear (temple) and its rock and moss gardens. And no other temple in Kyoto, even Kiyomizu Dera high on stilts with silver wafts of smoking incense or the vast ark-like structure of Chio-in and its miles of tatami mat floors, will affect me so profoundly as Ryoanji Dera.
Breaking away from the tedium of teaching classes in English as a second language, I burst off to Kobe by myself. Descending the steps of Sannomiya Station, I merge with the city. The constant railway sounds of "ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom" at Sannomiya Station blend with the beating drums of striptease joints north of the tracks. But I don't wish to see some Japanese girl's breasts so much as I wish to see the mountain above the city. Soon the drone of locusts overtakes the drone of traffic and I am deep in the forest.
The trail becomes steep and angular causing me to sweat. Somewhere half way up the mountain I know there is a shrine called Shinrezan Jinja. But nothing like it comes into view--only forests of pine, cedar and maples sticking up through a dense underbrush. The city spreads below as does tje Inland Sea and distant Awaji-shima. It is far too hot; I must rest.
Minutes later I follow the trail ever upward leading me into a misty hollow of the mountain. It is here that I spot a bright orange and white structure with a balcony in front. I ascend the steps to peer inside at a remarkably ornate altar where the Buddha sits staring at an infinity of space. Time slips by like a mamusahi snake slithering on the floor of a rain forest. A priest by the name of Yoo Niti Kai appears and speaks to me in Japanese asking me where I am from and how long have I been in Japan. I struggle with answers in broken Japanese. He invites me into his office where he signs my temple book and serves me a refreshing drink of mugicha. He then shows me pictures of a temple in Hawaii where he had served years ago. I struggle to express myself. Kai Sama then invites me to the temple's dinning room where I am served by monks an exquisite lunch of mountain vegetables, green tea, and bean cakes.
The priest tells me to wait a minute, just one minute and he disappears behind the altar to come forth with a golden Buddha as a present for me. I am overwhelmed and try to say I cannot take such a gift, but all the while he puts it in a box and ties a string around it for me to carry home. I leave the temple in a daze and try to thank this man called Yoo Niti Kai. The golden Buddha and I proceed down the mountain through the thick forest to the edge of the city and Sannomiya Station where together we are whisked off by an express train to Nishinomiya and then a local train to Nigawa and up to our little home overlooking urban Japan and temples beyond count.
© 2016 Richard Francis Fleck