Shrine

Accepting the invitation to visit a shrine on the edge of Fukuoka on my half-day-off feels a bit dubious at first.  Already a frustrating morning, I had attempted to get out on the water by taking the first run of the Uminaka ferry across Fukuoka Bay, leaving from the pier on the back side of Wedding Island.  But they had changed the schedule from yesterday to today with the end of ‘Golden Week’, the Japanese equivalent of the Easter break.

Suddenly the crowds have disappeared from the hotel, the German festival has packed up (weissbier and bratwurst and oom-pah music in the midst of Japanese calm made me wonder again how these two countries formed an alliance), and the ferry rocked unattended at the pier – so I headed back to the hotel like a good boy to be taken to visit the local tourist attraction.

All week, Kaori, Yuki, and Masa have been joking about the ‘magic wallet’ that we were given to cover all expenses.  I have managed to spend about $5 on water and a pair of cheap sunglasses, except for an Italian lunch I insisted on covering to thank the generous and enthusiastic Dr Takeda, an innovator who runs the Pilates-based rehab clinic where the seminar was held.  Everything else has been top-drawer food and hotels and cabs everywhere we need to go.

But this morning the purse strings have apparently been pulled tight.  Kaori has already left for Tokyo, Yuki and Masa are visiting a friend, so I am stuck with the young and tongue-tied Shinye to take a series of buses to a subway to a train.  It is a strain to converse here at the best of times – it always is when surrounded by a foreign tongue – but Shinye’s halting attempts at English require a concentration that feels like work in the only few hours I might have been left to my own thoughts.  It’s all been great, but it’s also been 12- to 14-hours a day busy.

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There was a flap a while back when the voice of the London Underground (‘Mind the gap’) made a series of satiric messages that were posted to the internet.  Someone needs to do something similar with the voice that needles your ear in every elevator and station in Japan – she is high-pitched, sing-song, and ripe for satire.  And it takes a lot of characters to say ‘Watch Your Fingers’ – good advice for bodyworkers everywhere, I suppose.  And there’s a No Smoking sign next to the cigarette dispenser. But I am reaching for useful material here. While I smile and incline my ear to decipher ‘subway’ when Shinye says ‘shrubbery’, I am grumbling inside myself that I would have done better to do my souvenir shopping this morning for those at home who think these trips are a dawdle.

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As we board the next train, we pick up Miwa, who just returned from athletic trainer school in America, so communication takes a leap, and the magic wallet appears again when we reach our final station in the suburbs for a delicious bento box (very welcome, I was feeling a bit peckish as well as peevish).

Up from the station is the Dazaihfu shrine (just give each vowel equal value and make the ‘f’ really soft), a Shinto holy site dedicated to the god of scholarship. The first purification begins when you walk under the Todi-I, that square gate with a curved upper lintel that marks every sacred place in Japan – you don’t need a picture of that, do you?  Good.  Then we walk over the three arching bridges over a lake filled with huge goldfish.  We feed these carp and the turtles, who struggle to get anything amidst the faster fish.  The bridges represent past, present, and future, apparently another purification.  By now we are in another world, surrounded by twisting plum trunks and another set of absolutely huge-trunked, 500-yr-old trees whispering deliciously in the spring wind.

The next purification consists of standing in front of a seemingly nondescript little shrine house, until you realize that it has stood there for 400 years, season in and season out, an intricate puzzle box of thousands of pieces of wood without a single nail or fastener from it’s log base to the mossy roof of cypress bark.  You go back and forth between total admiration and an American dismissal ‘These people had too much time on their hands.’

The final purification, inside the last courtyard, is a ritual washing of the hands.  I am guided through the proper order, dipping my wooden cup into the clear spring to wash my left hand, right hand, rinse my mouth (can’t help it, I think about swine flu even though it has yet to reach Japan), and then tip the cup up to rinse its long handle before replacing it.  Thus as pure as I am going to get, I approach the shrine itself.

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The shrine – a sweep-roofed old Japanese construction with gilded carvings – is dedicated to a Master of Rites in Tokyo’s court who was banished here after being falsely accused, and has since become the patron saint of scholarship and plum trees.  (Supposedly one flew from Tokyo to Dazaihfu overnight to give him one last whiff of its fragrance before he died.  The Japanese love these legends and write poems about them.)  He is depicted as a typically severe mustachioed and coiffed fellow seated with his fan.  According to his wishes, his body was placed on a cart pulled by an ox (he and I are both born in the Year of the Ox), and the ox set free to roam.  Where the ox came to rest is where he is buried, right here under the shrine – this is around 800 AD.

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Students come here – Miwa did as a child – to pray to do well on exams.  With no exams of my own coming up, I self-consciously assume the position and pray aloud to the mirror at the center of the altar – interesting symbol for scholarship – for my daughter, who when last Skyped was near tears with the weight of her junior year end-of-term exam prep.  Though I know she will do well, any help is welcome, so I also rub the nose of the brass ox beside the shrine and then rub my head, as I see several students doing this as well.

OK, this was interesting enough, if a bit hokey, but the breathtaking finale was the Zen temple and gardens.  I almost didn’t go – the plane to Tokyo beckoned – but we hurried down a side street and through the wooden gates.  Those who have seen Tassajara or other Zen sites will know the clean clarity of their approach, but this was exquisite.  On the outside was a rock garden, with carefully raked white gravel surrounding a set of 15 buried stones creating the kanji character for ‘light’.  To sit on the bench at the end was to invite the light of the Buddha.

Walk through the dojo (what do Zen folks call their meditation halls?) the air thick with austerity, all dark wood and tatami mats, and single azalea blossom on a shelf angled precisely to a scroll on the wall – and emerge over a garden of arresting beauty.  Stunned, plane time forgotten, I kneel on the narrow porch to gaze out over a sea of gravel raked as waves with islands of sculpted moss and Japanese maples and birches.  One large stone stands in the center with the characters of a poem carved in, a softly trickling fountain with a bamboo spout just audible beside it.

Drink it in – it’s perfect, it’s just perfect, balanced and magic and silent and joyous.  Unlike the excrescences of our cities that I must re-enter after just these few precious moments, it looks like what Man was put on earth to build – praising God and healing humans at the same time, transcending nature without dominating it – creating something like this is a worthy lifetime goal.  About an acre, framed by the temple on one side and a steep curved hill on the other, this is the kind of place that could pull you to the side of your road, lead you to leave your peeved thoughts and useless strivings behind, to purify for real and let the Carver work on you in peace.

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