Here in Japan, I live for the weekends. I can neither speak nor read the Japanese language, so I exist in an impenetrable bubble of people talking around me, at work, in the shops, and on the buses and trains. I, only half-joking, call myself illiterate, only understanding a few phrases and words. Unless written in Romanji, I can’t read anything. I cannot read any Kanji characters except the “Dai.” I float alone in a vast sea of incomprehension and misunderstanding.
I have been here three months on a six-month assignment from my employer, a large consulting firm. I am not sure what good this has created in terms of happier clients or more business; sometimes you just need to go along with the culture, and the firm’s culture is to move staff around the globe. So, I agreed to work in Japan; it could have been worse, it could have been Lima or Capetown.
Weekends are planned carefully, not to be wasted. Saturday, when I awoke, it was drizzling and grey, though the temperature had warmed up into the fifties. I had used my time at the office during the week to plan my trip. I was starting out on a 37 bus to the west, then a train to Mitsuo, a change at Karasuma for another train, getting out at Kami-Katsurama. From there, it would be a pleasant walk of twenty minutes into the Western foothills to see the UNESCO World Cultural Site, Kitaoji Temple. In the vicinity, my tour book informed me that there was also a painter’s house that had been turned into a museum, which sounded worth a visit.
It was my intention to get well out of town, away from the millions of tourists pouring into the city to see the cherry blossoms. The trees had budded out in the last week, with the white blossoms popping first and the weeping purple Sakuras threatening a show in the next few days.
The bus ride and train trip out of town were uneventful. The number of travelers seemed less than weekdays, to be expected. For now, I was glad to be out of the steady drizzle that covered the entire valley in which the city sat. I would soon be getting wet when I commenced to walk.
Upon reaching the final train stop at Kami-Katsurama, I hoisted my small backpack and pulled my rain hood over my head. I had a twenty-minute walk, according to the travel guide, provided I did not go astray. Unable to read street signs of any type, it often took me far longer to find the desired destinations than promised by the guide. However, this Saturday, using the train tracks as a guide, I headed off in the correct direction. Five minutes later, I turned off the main street at a sign in Romanji pointing to both Kitaoji Temple and the painter’s, whose name was Enteraki, museum.
The air was fresh and crisp, pouring down from the surrounding mountains like the rain that it enfolded. The rain made a sibilant hiss as it landed and was driven over by cars, busses, and trucks.
Trudging uphill, because I have found temples always lie uphill from the lower surroundings, I passed by small canals lined with cherry trees. Most were in full blossom. After ten more minutes, I passed a busy parking lot for Suzumanji Temple. This would be my last stop of the day before getting a revitalizing cup of coffee and heading back to town on the 63 bus.
I had read nothing about Suzumanji, but there it was on the map, directly in my path, so I thought I would give it a brief visit. You never know when a temple has an interesting piece of art or cultural artifact that makes a visit worthwhile. In fact, I have found some of my best gardens just by stopping in at the temples I pass on the weekends.
As I passed Suzumanji, a parking attendant in surprisingly good English asked where I was going. This proved to be the most complete conversation I had had with a Japanese person outside the office in weeks.
“Kitaojidera,” I replied.
“You have appointment?” he queried.
Now this was interesting. Except for some houses owned by the Imperial family, no appointments have ever been necessary to enter any temple or garden, especially not one designated a World Cultural Site.
“No,” I replied.
“Well perhaps you get to see gate,” was his response as he waived another car into the parking lot at Suzumanji.
I trundled up the road another two-hundred yards to a massive industrial-strength gate blocking the entrance to Kitaojidera. It was just as he said. A large sign on the gate, in both English and Japanese, instructed people to apply for a permit at least seven days in advance, to be completed in Japanese, no less, and stated visitors must be willing to participate in chants, prayers and services. So much for passive tourism.
After giving up on Kitaojidera, I straggled back down the hill to the museum. The museum, a converted lower floor of an old schoolhouse, displayed perhaps forty scrolls. One scroll showed the painting featured in the tour guide; the other thirty-nine consisted of only calligraphy that I could neither read nor understand. My Saturday so far was a real bust. Plus, I was getting wetter than was comfortable.
Wondering further down the lane, I found myself back with the parking attendant. “Nice gate,” I said. He laughed.
“I like Canada,” he said. With that non-sequeter, a new car arrived for his full attention. I wandered down the walkway towards the Suzumanji temple.
As I reached the end of the walkway, a towering flight of steps, perhaps as many as two hundred in all, spiraled off to the left. There must have been a good hundred people on the steps already, all with umbrellas out, waiting to climb the steps and, I assumed, gain admission to the temple.
Previous visitors were slowly making their way down the slick stone and moss-covered steps, carrying small plastic bags with the temple sect’s logo, four golden inscribed overlapping circles within a larger golden ring, on a shiny black plastic background. Scanning the departing visitors, I quickly realized that most of those people descending the steps were girls. Now, I can’t tell the difference in age between most Japanese girls; they could be anywhere between twelve and twenty-five, and I would still think of them as “girls.” Among the other people coming down the steps towards me were a few solicitous boyfriends holding umbrellas high over the girls, and here and there, a couple of parents, but fully ninety percent of those people making their way down the stairs past me were young girls in what looked like a sixteen to twenty-two range, each with their shiny plastic bag.
The line to climb the stairs moved forward a few times in fits and starts, and then stopped. It seemed that perhaps thirty to forty people moved on, the line moved up closer to the top of the stairs, and then stopped again. I had now been on the stairs for forty minutes. I estimated I had perhaps another forty to go, but with the two prior busts of my Saturday, what else did I have to do but wait in that line?
I looked up at the forty or so people ahead of me on the stairs as people began to line up behind me as well. A similar proportion of girls both above and below me. I recalled watching a city bus pull out from the bus turning point next to the temple parking lot as I approached my friendly parking attendant. Smiling, happy girls. Giggling together, hands frequently covering their mouth, as if to say, “I can’t believe I said that.”
As they descended the stairway, most were smiling and chattering together, though occasionally, one or two looked downcast. When they passed me, a westerner, with my direct eyes, they cast their eyes down and covered their mouth. Their knees and toes pointed in from their incredible footwear.
Oh, yes, the footwear and the clothes of Japanese girls of that uncertain age. The girls descending the stairs and waiting in the line ahead of me had shoe sense that would knock out most American women. These girls all, and I mean every one, wore black hose or thigh-high stockings. On their feet, four-inch high pumps, five-inch high stilettos, or equally towering suede or leather boots. Occasionally there was a pair of flat boots, but most were equipped with towering heels.
And the skirts, well, they were so short, I was abashed and did not look up the stairs too directly for fear of what I would see. Some wore micro-shorts with their hose and shoes in lieu of skirts. On their top, they wore short dresses or long sweaters that came over their lower coverings. Raincoats were not worn, but short jacket-like coats were. The umbrellas were all that kept these girls from a soaking.
They were all young, acting cute, giggling a lot, and were mainly accompanied by other girls. What kind of temple had I tumbled onto? In my dozen other weekend sojourns, I had visited dozens of temples and shrines. The visitors then, besides me, were a complete mix of Japanese society from the young to the old in various familial groupings of fathers, mothers, small children, and grandparents, with a good smattering of middle-aged and older couples. No temple I had visited so far had a visiting contingent that looked like the audience for a Japanese teen boy band.
Slowly in the rain, we continued to climb those slippery rock steps, slick with wet and smooth with moss. I could see the temple gate as they let in another group of twenty or so.
According to the guidebook, Suzumanji was built in the Momoyama period around 1520. Like many other temples, the original buildings had been destroyed in fires, and legend had it that the first buildings at Suzumanji were built in the Heian period in the 11th Century at Nara and moved to the current location. None of this was the least bit unusual in the world of Japanese temples.
As I finally walked through the front gate after an hour on the stairs, pretty much soaked through, a smiling Japanese Buddhist monk in his early forties in a blue jacket cotton jacket, tied on the side, with matching pants, called out to me. He had large, western-style glasses and, by being up on the outside porch of one of the buildings, was staying dry.
“Nihongo ga wakarimas-ka?” he queried.
“Nihongo ga wakarimas-sen,” I responded with my practiced illiterate announcement. “No, I don’t understand Japanese.”
In perfect English, without missing a beat, he explained, “They are lining up for a lecture. On the morals and the old ways from when Japan was isolated, and the priests were a particularly important class. In fact, many Emperors retired to become priests because the life was better. Oh, so much better," he added with a grin.
I couldn’t tell where he had perfected his English; he sounded rather American. He continued on; “The lecture and prayers are in Japanese. You won’t understand them. Our Head Priest will say prayers and then speak - the whole thing lasts an hour. You would be wasting your time.”
I had been wasting my time all day trying to get into a locked World Cultural Site and viewing a single painting. I was wet and getting wetter. “I would like to hear the lecture,” I replied.
“OK,” he said in his American English. “Eight hundred yen at the window.” He yelled something quick and staccato to the monk selling the entry tickets. I detected a little anger in his voice, but by then, I was already at the window. I bought my ticket.
After buying my ticket, I moved towards the open door of the Kondo, or prayer and lecture hall. Slipping off my shoes, I mounted the old wooden steps and stood on the outside balcony. I put my umbrella, shoes, and raincoat into the appropriate storage areas, and moved up the stairs with the other people.
The treasure house and other buildings in the temple were attached to the Kondo by a covered walkway. This was not unusual; however, these walkways had walls that prevented seeing who was passing along them, which I had never seen before in any of my temple visits.
The lecture and prayer room seemed more modern than many I had seen; albeit, under an ancient roof. Around the exterior, but under the eaves, glass imitation sliding shoji doors covered the sides and front. The inner sliding shoji doors were all pushed back, creating a single large room that faced a wooden Buddha about twenty-foot-tall seated on a lotus-flower base. Noren, or curtains, covered the top half on the space holding the Buddha, as well as the back walls on either side. Nothing unusual there.
The large room was covered with tatami mats and, in turn, by about a hundred visitors facing a priest in white robes with a purple surplice. The priest’s hair was cut to a stubble; he looked prosperous, slick, and shiny. The priest sat in front of the Buddha on a thin pillow, facing the audience.
The session began as the priest turned away from the audience, facing the Buddha, and rang a metal bowl that hung in the air forever. He then began to chant. The Buddha itself was difficult to see in the dim light of the back, while the rest of the Kondo remained well-lit from the glass doors to the grey outside.
I had slipped my pack behind me on the floor, and like everyone else, had started on my knees. Being a typical westerner, I could only hold this pose for a few minutes, so I shifted to sitting on my heels. I kept my back to the side glass doors. The chanting began from the audience in time with the priest.
After a few minutes, no more, the priest finished the chanting and rang a wooden gong next to him. The gong looked like a frog, but it echoed a nice tone around the room. The priest then turned around to face the room of visitors, adjusted himself on his imperceptible pillow, and began to talk in a friendly tone. At least he sounded friendly and fatherly; he sounded like a father teaching his children in a kindly and caring manner. Not like any priests I had ever received instruction from.
After about ten minutes into the lecture, another priest or monk, dressed in the same blue outfit as the man who had greeted me inside the temple gate, came from behind a curtain at the far back of the room. He walked into the audience and put his hand on the shoulder of a girl, then bent over and whispered a few words in her ear. She looked up at him, rose, and disappeared behind the rear curtain with the monk.
In just a few minutes more, the routine was repeated with another monk and a different girl. In rapid succession, perhaps twenty girls left the lecture hall with twenty different monks through the curtain at the back of the Kondo. The head priest kept talking, his voice more a drone as girls continued to be selected and then departed.
I was drying out now; the rest of the room seemed alive with a nervous pulse. I felt that some girls were wondering if they would be chosen, while others were, in a way, giving off the aura of being relieved that they hadn’t been selected. The relieved girls mostly appeared to be those accompanied by parents or older relatives, as opposed to boyfriends or other girls.
The head priest finished lecturing, bowed his head to the remaining audience, and hit the frog gong one more time. At the sound, the first girl re-entered the Kondo shyly, carrying her black plastic bag. The second girl selected came in more loudly, sat down and whispered to her boyfriend. The girls were all coming back now, each carrying their black plastic bag.
The general hubbub in the room was broken as another girl reentered the lecture room. This girl returned to an older couple, perhaps parents or even grandparents, crying, but she was the only one.
The blue-clad monks returned. They looked to me a little disheveled, a little harried and mussed, but they proceeded to hand black bags to each of the girls. In a few minutes, one could not tell which girls had gone behind the curtain and which ones had remained in the lecture hall.
Everyone began filing out of the hall, gathering shoes, boots, and umbrellas, then went out through the gate and started down the still-slick rock stairs. The rain had lessened to a drizzle; I was much dryer than before. I was greatly confused by what I had seen or had not seen and cursed my inability to speak or understand Japanese. Not just the language, but the deep underlying roles of family, Buddhism, Shintoism, even the role of women in a society partly feudal and partly modern.
After descending the stairs, I went to the bus turning point to board the number 63 bus back to town. As I climbed the bus steps, the entire bus full of chattering girls fell silent. They looked away, out the window, at the ground, but no one looked directly at me.
I turned, descended the bus steps, and began my twenty-minute walk back to the train station.