Appropros of nothing today one of my students asked me "can you eat peas?" ?!?

So having bored you all to tears with my last post lets get back into my not at all tedious extended selection of holiday snaps.

Sometimes I’m so sarcastic I’m not sure if I’m actually telling the truth by accident?


As I already mentioned, the New Year is a big time for Japanese people and a much bigger deal than it is in Britain. Japanese culture is much more attuned to nature than western culture and many of its religious ceremonies are directly associated with natural cycles. This is true of Christianity too but only because we nicked a load of pagan ceremonies that were associated with natural cycles and tarted them up with references to Jesus.

The New Year in Japan is not only the culmination of the whole year before it but a time to begin anew. There is a big emphasis on the “first” thing of the New Year, the first meal, the first bath and most importantly the first shrine visit of the year.

Now not being Japanese I have no obligation to do this. I could have waited till all the Japanese people were back at work before I resumed my travelling. This would have been the sensible thing but it wouldn’t have been the proper thing. I was determined to get into the spirit of the thing and go to a massively popular shrine on the most popular day of the year for shrine visits and partake of the Japanese national past time, “just exactly how many people can we get in one place before it becomes physically impossible to move”.

Prior to the actual shrine visit Ryan, Patrick and I headed off to see something I’ve been trying to see for a long time now Sanjusangen-do, the hall of a thousand buddhas.

Now those of you that can read Japanese have gone, “hang on Adam. Surely sanjusan means 33?” Well yes it does and the name refers to the 33 bays in between the pillars that support the hall and in which the buddhas are housed. However frankly when you’ve got a hall with a thousand buddhas in it naming it after architectural features is a bit dull so amongst westerners it’s generally known as the thousand Buddha place.

Technically there are 1001 buddhas. A large statue of Kannon in the centre and 500 identical statues of Kannon either side. Each statue has 42 arms and each arm holds 25 worlds in its palm so according to Buddhist mysticism each statue has more than a 1000 arms in addition to there being more than a 1000 of them.

Kannon is the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. Kannon is a woman but before she became a bodhisattva she was a prince called Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara was also briefly depicted as a buddha himself and completelty separate from Kannon (or rather Guan Yin as it is in sanskrit) leading to the slightly odd situation that while most buddhsts consider kannon to be female most images of Kannon stem from depictions of Avalokiteśvara and so consequently she is often depicted with a bare male torso and a small moustache, as indeed she was in Sanjusangen-do. Apparently you shouldn’t think of her as either female or male but rather a form encompassing both as compassion is not an exclusively female energy.

The reason for the thousand arms is highly debated and depends on which buddhist philosophy you subscribe to. In some it represents a similar thing to daibutsu’s 7 fold lotus leaf i.e. it demonstrates the presence of the buddha in all things and our connection to nirvana through attaining oneness with the universe, in tohers its an allegorical representation of the dharma. Rather than getting into all that I’m just going to copy the mystic legend behind it from wikipedia (slightly edited) and leave it there.

“According to legend Guan Yin vowed to never rest until she had freed all sentient beings from samsara, the process of reincarnation. Despite strenuous effort, she realized that still many unhappy beings were yet to be saved. After struggling to comprehend the needs of so many, her head split into eleven pieces. Another Buddha called Amitabha saw her plight and gave her eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering. Upon hearing these cries and comprehending them, Avalokitesvara attempted to reach out to all those who needed aid, but found that her two arms shattered into pieces. Once more, Amitabha came to her aid and appointed her a thousand arms with which to aid the many.”

It’s a constant barrel of laughs is buddhism isn’t it.

Anyway the hall itself is definitely stunning. In no way is ti an exaggeration or a cheat like the thousand arms there really are a 1001 statues in there. Individually they’re all beautiful, absolutely gorgous works of craftmanship and the overall effect is quite mindbogglingly. Your brain just can’t quite process what its seeing, an effect enhanced by the strange mystic air it posesses. A feature that all the finest buddhist temples seem to have, mostly a feature of lighting I think.
It’s not as immediately breathtaking as daibutsuden but it was definitely well worth seeing.

Unfortunately they don’t allow photography inside at all. Not even sneaky camera phone trickery is allowed as the monks get very, very annoyed. We were told all this by Ryan who has been before and done just that so we took his word on it.

So I’ve nicked one off Wikipedia and I’m legally obliged to state that this is distributed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Plus there was a service going on whilst we were there, something I haven’t actually seen before. Obviously I don’t understand one word of sanskrit so I had no idea what was happenning but it was all very reverential. I’ve been struck on more than one occasion that Japanese worship is a lot more like performance art than prayer. Rather than suggesting an idea for contemplation it seems to try and evoke a state of mind in the recipient such as ecstatic fervour or quiet calm. All that chanting, the prayer wheels and bowls and the drumming and gongs are less about what the actual words are than in trying to send the listener into a trance, where conscious thought is abandoned. This is of course what all that meditation is about, losing the conscious sense of self and its quite moving to be witness to it.

Moving on from Sanjusangen-do we wandered over to an Udon place (a kind of noodles) where I had duck –udon and then made our way to Yasaka-jinja, the local shrine of Gion and affectionately known as Gion-san.

Two things were quickly evident.
1. We shouldn’t have eaten. None of us realised that of course this
was a festival, and for the Japanese that just means an excuse to
eat constantly.

2. There were a lot of people here.

No a lot.

Whatever you’re picturing there were more.

people and lanterns

people and stalls

girls in kimono

Mostly they were clustered around the main shrine, hurling money into vast bins and offering prayers or else buying fortunes and lucky charms. We had all bought a fortune in Sanjusangen-do (in English but I lost mine as usual) so we didn’t bother with the crowds for these. I did, however, buy a lucky arrow. No idea why it’s lucky but apparently it is. Next year I have to take it back to the shrine to be burnt and buy a new one. This apparently is also lucky. I mostly just think it looks cool.
Truth be told there isn’t much to say about the actual shrine visit. I’ve now seen so many shrines that the novelty of a lot of it has definitely worn off. I think I need to take a break from shrines so that when I start going again I’ll be enthusiastic about them once more.

Mostly we just ate festival food, (the taiyaki was goooood and Ryan introduced Patrick and I to a Kyoto speciality, rice pancake folded over red bean paste that was ooey gooey and gorgeous; if very difficult to eat), watched crowds of people, had a wander and stopped so Patrick could perve on girls in fancy Kimono’s with massive fur collars.
Oh and we watched a juggler for a bit who dropped his clubs almost every time. You’d think he’d practise a bit before he subjected himself to the scrutiny of that many people.

Aaaaaas for nearly being arrested well there isn’t much of a story there just a little tease. Y’see on New Year’s Eve (well day technically) as we walked home calling out happy new year to everyone we saw Patrick paused to chat up some goth girls (never stops that boy). That momentary delay may have saved us a lot of trouble because asw e walked on we came to a junction. Marching across was a MASS of coppers and a huge herd of rowdy whopping gaijin, some in cuffs and looking distinctly the worse for wear. No doubt the revelry had all got a bit too much for them and they’d been hauled in to stew in the cells for a bit, not that unusual. Problem was, there were so many of them that had we accidentally got swept up in their crossing we would have undoubtedly been lumped in with all the other gaijin. And quite frankly I’m not supposed to get arrested, I have a government job and if that happens they deport me. So a lucky escape methinks.

And that’s the past finally dealt with onwards into 2008! A shiny new year all innocent and unsullied. This Monday is the “coming of age day” so I may have a look for any festivals going down but if not I’ve got a party and some airsoft already lined up and that’s a full weekend right there.

Have a good one everybody and see you back on Tuesday.

1 comment
  1. OK so you managed to fill us in on religion in Japan – Very Good. Was under the impression you went all that way to earn some money and work, wrong again as usual!!!Missed you at Christmas and thanks for the card. It’s been carefully stashed with the other Christmas relics to see daylight during the fetive period. Don’t work too hard will your god-mother


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