Thursday, June 26, 2014

Nary a Dull Moment in Nara & Taking Tea with a Buddhist Abbess

Thursday, June 26, 2014
Nara, Japan

Today was all about superlatives: biggest, tallest, oldest, holiest. It was a day for exploring some of Japan’s most sacred Buddhist sites and to marvel at the devotion and artistry that made such construction possible.

 We were all excited about visiting Nara—a compulsory stop on any Japan itinerary—kind of like visiting the Taj Mahal when one is in Delhi. So, although we are still waking up in the Land of the Rising Sun sooner than the sun itself, thanks to remnant jetlag, we raced through showers and got ourselves downstairs to the Dining Hall for another good breakfast—rice flavored with nori seaweed, a selection of French rolls and pastries, orange marmalade, butter, strawberry jam, fresh grapefruit, salad, soup (I tried the Chicken soup today and found it pleasantly boosting).

            By 8.00 am, the lot of us was in a large coach hurrying our way out of Kyoto and on the highway towards Nara. But before we arrived there, we stopped at Horyu-ji, an important religious and historic site at which point our incredible guide Monica Berthe took over.

Exploring Horyu-Ji Temple:

         After one has explored a few houses of worship of a particular religion, one kind of knows what to expect and look for: like the Mihrab in a mosque, the cathedra in a Gothic cathedral. So too, having already seen the most significant of Japan’s Buddhist places of worship in Kyoto, we know to expect to find the twin guardians called Ah (Open Mouth) and Um (Closed Mouth) at the entrance of the shrines. Tori or entrance gateways, usually in vermillion, denote the point of entry into the sacred precinct. Here at Horyu-ji, we gazed upon ancient wooden structures that go back to the Heian Period (about a thousand years ago). While each temple boasts into own distinctive feature, Horyu-ji’s specialty is its striking pagoda that towers above in five levels, each representing one of the earth’s elements.

            Our guide Monica explained that the pagoda’s construction is based on a single tall wooden post (cut from an obviously tall tree) that is driven into the ground. The floors are then ‘hung’ from it to fan outwards: a particularly clever way to create tall structures that roll  gently from side to side in a land that is plaqued regularly by earthquakes. Apparently derived from Indian sources, the pagoda as a form of Buddhist religious construction is now firmly associated with the Far East. This particular pagoda at Horyu-Ji is the world’s oldest wooden religious building and yet it wore its age lightly. As we moved from one door to the next, we peered into the darkness to see clay images from the life of the Buddha paced under grottos. One depicted the Reclining Buddha in metal—the Buddha on his death bed.

            Right opposite the pagoda in a Hall of Worship were ancient representations of the Buddha covered by elaborate canopies and surrounded by Bodhisattvas and Guardian figures. I was heartened to see these monuments mobbed by Japanese students of all ages who were being led in incredibly disciplined fashion by their escorts and chaperones--most dressed in suits and pill box hats that would any contemporary stewardess a run for her money. These field trips, I was told, are meant to create in them an awareness and appreciation for their nation's grand heritage.

On to Chugu-Ji Nunnery:

            A short stroll later, we were entering the hallowed precincts of Chugu-Ji Nunnery where we were in for a very special treat: Tea with the Mother Abbess, an 83- year old Buddhist priestess who runs the convent with the aid of a single novice, a singularly beautiful young nun who spoke pergfect English with the hint of a British accent. The fact that she has taken tonsure (her first vows) was evident in her shaved head. Monica served as guide as she explained that following in the tradition of Prince Shotuku's mother who had popularized the concept of becoming a Buddhist nun almost a thousand years ago, this nunnery was created for a princess of the Japanese imperial family of the late 19th century who had entered the convent and ended up running it.

In keeping with her regal stature, the inside of this princess' home that we visited was functional but also decorative: birds and flowers adorned the walls, shjoji screens provided light and privacy, tatami mats underfoot made floor coverings that were comfortable to our sock-ed feet. The entrance to these private female quarters were via the kind of long wooden arched corridors as we had seen yesterday at Ninna-Ji Temple: the ones I have grown to love and that romanticize for me the austere life of a Buddhist nun. Within these precincts is a very holy and very ancient sculpture of the Thinking Buddha, seated with one leg across the other knee, his hand just before his chin in a gesture of contemplation.  It makes this nunnery attractive to tourists and Buddhists scholars alike. While visitors are not normally allowed to go too close to inspect this ancient sculpture, special concessions were made in the case of our group as the scholarly guides who lead us raised funds for its conservation. Thus, we were permitted to encircle it in order to examine its features more closely. I particularly love the frilly skirts that fan around the Buddha in lyrical fashion as he is poised upon the lotus petals. 

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony with the Mother Abbess:
            This little excursion was followed by an invitation to Tea with the Mother Abbess of the convent, an 83 year old woman who was beautifully dressed in a rich purple kimono and crisp, white pyjamas reminiscent of the costume of Buddhist monks. Although she did not speak any English, she was able to communicate with us through an interpreter. Most graciously, she led us to an inner room where the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony was performed with the assistance of a number of women who provided us with sweet refreshment in the form of red bean (azuki) cakes that created a sticky paste in our mouths. This confection was meant to be chased by Japanese matcha (unsweetened green tea) that was sipped from out of heavy earthern bowls.  It was a deeply spiritual experience matched by a quenching of our need for something to nibble on.

            After we had taken tea with this gracious lady, she posed for pictures with us and patiently answered our questions. Never did I dream that this educational and cultural experience in Japan would lead to the privilege of entering the sanctum sanctorum of a Buddhist convent where we were treated like royal guests and quite generously entertained. Before we left, the Mother Abbess presented us with a little souvenir of our visit with her—a colored pamphlet of the nunnery that gave details about its most precious treasures: the sculpted Buddha, a piece of embroidered silk, the inner room of the princess. We were delighted as photography was not permitted anywhere inside.

 Sushi Lunch on the Coach:

It was time for more major refreshment, so we got back on the coach and stopped just five minutes later for a packed lunch: sushi boxes that are so exquisite to behold that one was reluctant to tear them open. But, of course, we did and for the next twenty minutes there was relative silence on the coach as we busied ourselves with the intricacies of eating a packed lunch while on the go. For vegetarians and non-fish eaters like Llew, there was a maki roll which he quite seemed to enjoy.

 A Visit to Todadi-Ji Temple:

            After a bout or two of temple-trotting, each one merges seamlessly into the next as to make it impossible to tell one from the other. So when we alighted from the coach to visit Todadi-Ji Temple, it was basically to peruse towering figures of the Amida Buddha and the Thousand Armed Buddha—both of which are carved in wood, then painted. They are so stupendous that although we could only glimpse them from behind the wired protection of a metal mesh, they were moving in the extreme. The Thousand Armed Buddha particularly is striking because he does indeed have a thousand arms--some no bigger than palms of his hands that stick out like miniature forks. 

 Finally, On to Nara:

            It was time to get to Nara (which Monica pronounced as ‘Nurra’), the frequently visited site that dates back to the seventh century and was created to be the first permanent capital of the Japanese royal family (prior to the creation of Kyoto as a regal capital). It was the grand diocese of Buddhism and the far eastern destination of the famous Silk Road. We parked our coach in the main parking lot and joined hordes of tourists and school children on foot to see the city’s most significant landmarks.

The Koduhu-Ji National Treasure Hall (Museum):
            And then the heavens opened! Rain that had been threatening to flow copiously for days but had been kept at bay by our great good fortune, came pouring down and all but drenched us at the very point when we began to cross the busy streets packed with shika (a thousand sacred tame deer) who come right up to one’s fingers sniffing for wafers that are sold by vendors on the street. With little option but to shelter under the new Museum building before we crossed the park to the Koduhuji National Treasure Hall, we lost a bit of time. But when we did brave the downpour again to seek out the entrance to the museum, it felt completely worthwhile. Inside the new museum building are the most colossal figures of the Buddha Shakyamuni, various Bodhisatavas, the Buddha Maitreya (the Coming Buddha), loads of carved wooden dragons, apsaras or celestial female dancers and innumerable monks and guardians in varied poses with the most carefully drawn-out features. It was an opportunity to discover how much Japan values her artifacts and how carefully and securely they are preserved.  Entry fees of 600 yen per person seemed hugely worthwhile.

The Colossal Wonder of the Daibutsu Statue of Todai-Ji Temple:

            The rain had abated somewhat by the time we emerged from out of the museum to make our way to the piece de resistance of Nara, the Todai-Ji Shrine which is the largest wooden structure in the world and which houses the world’s most colossal Seated Buddha. In dark bronze, the figure of the Buddha is so gigantic that people ate surprised to discover that at the time of cleaning, four Buddhist priests can stand quite comfortably in the single upturned palm of the Buddha’s hand. We watched in awe—not only did we take in the Great Daibutso (Great Buddha) but also the Kokuzo Bosatsu that sits at his side--a female companion festooned in gilding. Two Tamotens or Guardians can be seen and encircled at the back. This statue is all about size and one is suitably awestruck by its dimensions. Built by order of Emperor Shomu in the 700s, the largest bronze Buddha in the world was made through eight castings using the lost wax method and was then heavily gilded—much of the gilt paint has worn out so that the Buddha today appears to be made of black ebony wood. We could easily see why pilgrims and tourists alike would throng these far reaches—the sight of this sculpture can never be easily forgotten.

Homeward Bound:

            By then it was 5.00 pm and we had been instructed to return to the coach for our hour-long ride home. We were all tired but deeply satisfied by our excursion. Although the rain had dampened our enthusiasm, it did cool the place down considerably and so did nothing to quell our spirits. Deeply fulfilled by the day’s discoveries, we returned to our hotel for a bit of relaxation.

 Off for a Dinner of Ramen Noodles:

Having eaten such a disappointing dinner last night, Llew and I were determined to do a bit of research this evening to find ourselves a decent eatery. Lonely Planet to the rescue: we scoured the net and discovered that one of Kyoto’s best ramen noodles place was just a few blocks from where our hotel was located in Central Kyoto.

So after Llew showered and changed and got out of his damp clothing, we strolled a few blocks away to Ippudo Nishikorji and found that many members of our party had had the same idea. About eight of them were clustered in circular fashion around a wooden bar and were slurping away from a grand bowl of noodles in broth. The gzoya or steamed dumplings stuffed with tasty meat and veggie morsels were also praised warmly by Lonely Planet and so Llew and I shared a plate as an appetizer and then ordered the House specialty: ramen noodles in a hot broth with strips of pork, mushrooms and bean sprouts. It was fairly good; but I can say, in all fairness, that I have eaten better. The gzoya, however, were probably the best I have ever had.

About an hour later, we left the restaurant and with a new colleague called Xixea from China who teaches Far East Asian Studies at nearby Fairfield University close to where we live in Connecticut, we browsed about in a book store before going off in search of Nishiki Market which happens to be really close to our hotel. However, since all of it closes at 5 pm, we have little option but to try to cram in into another day.            

      We had covered an enormous amount of some of Japan’s most touted monuments, so we were glad that we enjoyed them unreservedly and found the journey to this historic site most stirring.

Until tomorrow, sayonara!      






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