Shukubo: Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan


“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”  ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet

Entering Through Our Temple's Gate

Entering Through Our Temple’s Gate

“Here is our drink menu,” our apprentice monk says as he prepares one of our suite’s tatami rooms for our first vegetarian shojin ryori (vegetarian) dinner.  Picking out a nice white Riesling, Jody and I are quite surprised since we are sitting in the middle of a practicing Buddhist temple atop Mount Koyasan, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites in all of Japan.  In fact, it is the very place where Buddhism took hold many centuries ago in this island nation.  The monks here, in progressive and pragmatic fashion, simply don’s take offense at the idea of alcohol.  After all, as they say, they are not the ones partaking!  And like I say, “what would Jesus drink,” right?  Many sects of Buddhism in Japan are not anything like your Mamma’s Southern Baptist Church, Catholic Cathedral, or Jewish Synagogue.  And that’s exactly why this temple will serve as our luxury hotel accommodations for the next three nights.

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

28253113885_da4d5c10c8_bShukubo is a type of accommodation in Japan that is actually part of a working Japanese temple or shrine.  But it’s really so much more than that.  Shukubo is about capturing the tranquility and the beauty of Japan, which in large part emanates from that country’s legendary spiritual culture and zen-like harmony.  A temple stay can help calm your body and mind, where Japanese rock garden can be peacefully and privately contemplated, and where healthy yet extravagant vegetarian dishes are served privately in your room by resident monks.

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

28149079872_44610a4d08_bHistorically, this type of lodging was offered only for worshippers, especially those on pilgrimage.  Today however the clientele have expanded and the temples and shrines have become well-accustomed to foreigners of all flavors.  Koyasan is perhaps one of the best places in Japan to experience a night at a temple, with something in excess of 50 of the 117 temples found there serving as shukubo.  But be careful though; the accommodations run the gamut from in expensive hostel-like digs to high-end ryokan (see Live Fishbowl Prime:  Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan for more), and the staff there may not be proficient in your language, or even English.  Reservations can be made online if you are careful; the typical cost for a stay starts at around $100, although there are cheaper and MUCH more expensive rates.  Those with private bathroom facilities, which only a few offer, can climb up in excess of $300 a night, with luxury accommodations costing even more.  Note that like for the rest of Japan, these rates are quoted “per person, per night.”  Most stays include dinner and breakfast, some served privately while others serving family style in a common area.  Many accept credit card, although be sure to check as some still operate on a cash-only basis, although this is becoming more and more rare in Japan.

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

The wooden temple structures, sparse décor, and tatami covered rooms all promote a warmth of form and function which focuses your energy not on things, but on the moment.  The courtyard gardens of sand, rock and foliage, viewed from the rooms’ long, narrow corridors, dictate the essence of a deep spiritual harmony with nature.  And the floor-centric culture found throughout Japan literally grounds one with Mother Earth, resulting in a renewed perspective and one of the most fabulous nights of sleep, EVER.

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

28253136925_eacb41890e_bTemple lodgings typically offer private, traditional Japanese style rooms with tatami floors, paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma) and shared or communal toilets and sinks.  There actually are very few temple stays in Koyasan that offer en suite washrooms.  Thick futons and rice or pellet-filled pillows are spread on the tatami floor in the evening after dinner, repurposing the room’s dining and living room into your bedroom for the night.  There is sparse furniture, if any.  Some shukubo have typical Japanese air conditioning and heat provided in each room by remote control; other more basic accommodations utilize gas heaters in cooler weather and offer no cooling other than a portable dehumidifier during other seasons.

Living and Dining Area

Living and Dining Area

28253131585_92b4003563_bThe temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through Booking.com) went far beyond these average standards, and instead offered facilities more aligned with nicer ryokans, complete with private a private washroom, soaking tub, and lavishly prepared and presented meals in our suite that probably approached the size of smaller houses in Japan.  The Japanese measure rooms by the number of tatami mats, and our living/dining room was 12, and our bedroom area was 8.  Since we had a corner suite with long corridors on two sides overlooking the gardens, add another 16.  Then there was our closet/kitchenette area, separate toilet, sink basin, and washroom (waterproof room with shower and soaking tub), say another 4 mats.  Converting 34 mats into square feet returns a value of roughly 700!

Jody Enjoying our Temple's Zen Garden from our Suite

Jody Enjoying our Temple’s Zen Garden from our Suite

28253133865_57d70b9bc8_bJapanese Buddhist temples serve a kind of vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori.  This is a cuisine completely free of fish, meat, and many of the stronger spices, like garlic or certain onions.  Our monk explained it all this way:  true Buddhists do not eat any animal or animal product from life that is sentient – the ability to feel or perceive and respond to sensations of any kind.  Monks, however, can eat meats and fish if offered to them.  At shukubo, many small delicately prepared and visually stunning dishes served over a number of courses that span sometimes well over an hour, and are thought to be the very origin of Japanese food which has become so popular.  Prepared by the right chef, the meals can be quite delicious, but certainly are different for most Westerners.

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Since Shukubo accommodations are an integral part of working temples and shrines, guests are usually required to follow a certain decorum, or even some house rules.  While some have curfew hours (usually around 0600-2200), others do not.  But they all will have quiet hours, and respect is required at all times throughout the complex.  However, since ancient times, Buddhist Temples and to a lesser extent Shinto Shrines have been accepting of many peoples while offering little or no judgment.  Regardless of your country of origin or religion of choice, as long as you can respect the religion of others, you remain welcomed at shukubo.

Kevin and an Early Dinner

Kevin and an Early Dinner

27972082880_40392c3e9f_bGuests are also invited to participate in morning prayers, which typically begin promptly at 6:00am.  Go at least once to soak in the timeless traditions of esoteric Buddhism of harmonic chanting, rhythmic gongs, and the thick fragrance of incense permeating the air.  The ceremonies last about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around thirty minutes later.  During your stay, ask for a formal tour of the temple grounds:  each temple has its own unique cultural treasures, painted screens and Zen garden that the staff will happily share with you.

Suite's Sitting Area

Suite’s Sitting Area

28149071702_f7d029f616_bThen there is zazen.  Not every shukubo offers a zazen experience, but it’s worthwhile to find one which does (see Temple Transcendence:  Zen Meditation in Kyoto for our experience).  Sitting still, eyes closed, attempting to empty your mind in phase with the mesmerizing chants, you can begin to feel that the very essence of time slows and moves around you rather than through you as it so harshly does in our normally overly hectic lives.  Zazen provides much-needed escape, a way to break from the inertia of everyday life, stilling forces which normally compel frenzied thought and chaotic motion throughout the day.  In fact, after just fifteen or thirty minutes of focused, controlled breathing, a measure of tranquility can be felt.  It is said that the more demanding a person’s life is or the more cluttered someone’s mind may be, the more relief which may be realized.  Take this opportunity to refresh and revitalize yourself!

Vegetarian Meals

Vegetarian Meals

But why so many shukubo here in Koyasan?  The mountain top serves sometimes as the beginning, but almost always the end of an important pilgrimage for spiritual Japanese (see Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe” for more).  And all those pilgrims need places to stay and eat during their spiritual quests.  Further, more and more tourists flock to this area of Japan just a short train ride outside of Osaka since it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, in large part due to the important and expansive temples and famous cemetery located here, along with ancient cedar forests, historic gates, local restaurants, quaint cafes and of course discount souvenir shops.

Gates Closed at 2200

Gates Closed at 2200

With a town population of only about 3,000, Koyasan stands at the very genesis of Shingon Buddhism, a Chinese-influenced esoteric philosophical interpretation of Buddha introduced to Japan in the year 805 by a man named Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered religious figures, who’s mausoleum is also found here.  Kongobuji Temple in the town serves as the headquarters for this sect, which has more than 4,000 temples and missions throughout the world.

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The foot of Mt. Koyasan can easily be reached by train from Osaka station or Kansai airport with one switch.  Your fare will include a final funicular ride up the steep mountainside (the Japanese refer to this mode of travel as “cable car”), where a bus can be taken to the stop nearest your shukubo.

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And be sure to clink together a couple of glasses of wine during your stay; the monks will happily oblige, and besides, what would Jesus drink, right?

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Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe”


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher

Pilgrim on their Journey

Pilgrim on their Journey

Jody and I have only just arrived at Koyasan atop Mount Koya and we already feel like we’ve cheated on the pilgrimage…that we knew so little about.  It’s not long before we spot Japanese pilgrims dressed in mostly white, sporting walking sticks and topped with conical hats….  Although it’s much more common for a non-believing tourist to make the journey to this mountain retreat temple complex, the truly faithful pilgrims are still a source of great inspiration.  And 2016, the 1,200th anniversary of monastic settlement in the area, has increased numbers of both tourists and pilgrims alike.

First settled in 816 by the monk Kukai as a retreat far away from the more less faithful courtly intrigues of Kyoto (then Japan’s capital and center of power), Mt. Koya is located some 2,500 feet up in the mountains amid eight surrounding peaks.  The original quaint monastery complex has grown over the last millennial into the modern but still old-world religious town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and over 100 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and visitors alike.  In 2004, Mt. Koya and the surrounding area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scenic Temples

Scenic Temples

The revered monk and scholar Kukai, now better known by his posthumous formal title Kobo Daishi, brought the tantric teachings of Esoteric Buddhism from China and developing it into the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect, and in the process founded the sect’s headquarters on Mount Koya.

While most modern-day pilgrims, upwards of some 100,000 annually, travel by tour-bus, a small minority still set out the old-fashioned way on foot.  This journey of ~725 miles linking 88 temples is a favorite of pilgrims, known as o-henro-san (formally).  Henro can be spotted in the temples and along roadsides and throughout the trails of the pilgrimage clad in a white jacket emblazoned with the characters Dogyo Ninin, meaning “two traveling together,” as all pilgrims travel with the spirit of Kobo Daishi.

Contemplation

Contemplation

While I refuse to associate with any given religion (I can’t speak for Jody), I find that Buddhism is, by in large, one of the most accepting, open, and non-judgmental of the major organized religions of the world.  However, quite irrespective of a specific faith or denomination, I find the idea of a cleansing journey of catharsis very intriguing.  And apparently so do many others, all around the world.

The “88 Temple Pilgrimage” (hachijuhakkasho-meguri) is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, one that loops around the island of Shikoku.  Completing the course traditionally on foot is a serious undertaking that demands several weeks up to many months of rather strenuous travel.  Good physical fitness and stamina – and more than a little faith – are required to endure the stress of constant walking over the uneven terrain of Shikoku, in every type of weather.

Larger-than-Life Staffs

Larger-than-Life Kongozue!

Many pilgrims choose to dress in traditional attire, which can include a byakue (pilgrims’ white coat), wagesa (scarf-like accoutrement worn around the neck, usually purple, indicating a religious pilgrimage), sugegasa (iconic Asian conical straw hat), and kongotsue (uniquely pilgrimage-specific walking stick, also spelled as kongo-zue).  In addition, most pilgrims carry a book called nokyocho or shuincho where red ink stamps called shu-in are collected as each temple is visited.  All of these items can be purchased at Mount Koya or at Ryozenji, traditionally the first temples of the trek.

Pilgrims' Staffs

Pilgrims’ Staffs

The Brocade Cover We Selected

The Brocade Cover We Selected

Jody and I wanted a meaningful souvenir of our spiritual visit to and temple stay within Koya, and the wooden staffs pilgrims were spied walking with caught our eye, and imagination.  The kongo-zue or kongo-jo is the wooden staff carried by henro (“pilgrim,” informal) on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, and is full of symbolism.  It is said to represent the body of Kukai/Kobo Daishi, who metaphorically and physically supports the henro along the way.  In this sense, it is to be treated with great reverence and respect, having its “foot” washed at the end of the day’s journey, and brought inside to rest for the night.  They are inscribed with the chant Namu-Daishi-Henjo-Kongo and Dogyo-Ninin:  “We Two Pilgrims Together.”  The staff is also traditionally carried aloft when crossing a bridge; Kobo Daishi was known to sleep under bridges, and pilgrims should take care to not disturb his sleeping spirit found in such locales even today.  A bell is usually affixed, which jingles during the journey to warn and avoid accidental harm of other sentient living beings, a critical element of the more orthodox Buddhists.  Further, the bell also acts as an o-mamori, or protective amulet, to help safeguard the pilgrim while on their path.  Many pilgrims use a colorfully designer brocade cover to protect the top of the staff, but this doesn’t seem to be obligatory.

Jody on a Pilgrim's Trail

Jody on a Pilgrim’s Trail

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Nenju, also called juzu, are the Buddhist version of prayer beads (rosaries), found in so many religions.  A standard nenju has 108 beads, one for each of the “afflicting passions” that Buddhists recognize.  The number is determined based on our six senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and mind/conceptualization), our six reactions (desirable, undesirable, neither, painful, pleasurable, neither), and the temporal aspect of those reactions (past, present or future).  In other words, 6 x 6 x 3 = 108.  These “afflictions” are what bind humans to Samsara, the world of suffering.  Other larger beads may be present (“parent beads), but this are not counted as above, and beads are also used to assist in counting recitations of various mantras.  Many different styles of nenju can be found, from round to flat beads, some topped with metal rings and others without, while still others are adorned with decorative tassels.  When traveling, the nenju should always be held in one’s left hand, which symbolizes Samsara, while the right hand represents Nirvana.  It is only through handling the nenju that these two worlds come together into “Oneness.”

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Prayers near a Daishi Hall

Jody and I had made up our minds.  Being adamantly rebuked after trying to get pilgrimage stamps affixed in our own booklets, we started to look to put together our own kongo-zue.

Wooden Grave Tablets

Wooden Grave Tablets

Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Our Staff’s Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Sometimes extensive calligraphy can found on the staff.  The top usually has four sets of notches, dividing it into five sections. Each section has a character, and from the top to bottom, they represent Ka or khah (space), Ra or Rah (air), Ha or Hah (fire), Va or Vah (water), and A or Ah (earth).  In this way the kongotsue symbolizes a Buddhist stupa, originally a reliquary for housing a relic of the Buddha or other revered monk/teacher.  These stupas form the basis of the Japanese pagoda.  Pagodas in Japan have taken the form of five-storied structures, each story representing the same elements as scribed on the walking staffs.  There are the elements to which the body returns upon death.  Considering the staff as a representative pagoda, combined with its pyramidal top, also represents a sotoba, or wooden grave tablet.  In this function, the kongo-zue was historically used as a gravestone if a pilgrim were to die upon the trail.  In fact, some pilgrims still write their kaimyo, their posthumous name by which they will be known in the next realm after death, just as it would be on an actual gravestone.

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

We found a shop in Koyasan, not far from Okunoin, the famous cemetery found there.  The staffs themselves were all very similar, but there was a huge array of accessories that made choosing very difficult.  Prayer beads of every sort, brocade covers, and decorative tassels.  In another store we found just the perfect bell to adorn our walking staff.

Our Staff

Our Staff

Written in the middle area of the staff are passages from the Gohogo Mantra, whos central message is roughly, “Homage to the Savior Daishi, the Illuminating and Imperishable One.”  This Mantra is chanted by pilgrims three times in front of the Daishi Halls found at each temple visited during their journey.

Jody at Koya's Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Jody at Koya’s Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Most pilgrims leave their kongo-zue at Okubo-ji, the 88th and final temple of the pilgrimage.  Interestingly, a funerary practice can still be found in Shikoku and some other parts of Japan whereby the decedent is dressed as a pilgrim (unlike the West, in Asian white is the color of death), complete with a staff and pilgrim’s stamp book, preparing them for their final journey.  Finally, there are two different colored staffs.  Novice pilgrims use bare wooden ones, while those experienced who serve as leaders or guides utilize scarlet-colored staffs denoting their elevated status.

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

And even when you reach the 88th temple, you’re still not technically finished!  The formal trek requires a return back to your 1st temple starting point.  Many select Mount Koya, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, for the end and beginning, where thanks can be given directly to the monk for his spiritual companionship along the way.  The journey is a rather lengthy and difficult ordeal for those who attempt it, but then again, that’s rather the point.

The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain, with journey times of 80-90 minutes.  The final half of the trip is a slow twisting train climb up into the heavily wooded mountains and can be beautifully scenic in the right weather.  The train fare includes the final and steep 10 minute funicular train ascent from Gokurakubashi to the town of Koyasan.  Once off the funicular you’ll have to take a short bus or taxi ride into town.  Like elsewhere throughout Japan, the train, funicular and bus schedules are all synchronized like clockwork, with very little time to spare.  We barely had even five minutes between train, cable car, and bus.

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan's Bus Terminal

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan’s Bus Terminal

A good value if planning a visit is to purchase the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket available from any Nankai ticket counter.  This ticket includes roundtrip train, funicular, and an all-day Koyasan bus pass, for either a day-trip, or overnight stay, and also includes coupons and discounts to the area’s most popular destinations.

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Most pilgrims ending their journey at Mount Koya would claim they do so in order to give thanks for a successful pilgrimage.  While Jody and I visited for very different reasons and with knowing very little of the sacredness of the area, I think we ended our own little journey still as a culmination of something much bigger.  Koyasan spoke to our souls, and we to this day proudly and respectfully display our kongo-zue in our home.

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“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”  ~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Polish-born American Rabbi

Lotus Flower Folding & Enlightenment in Cambodia


“The spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the new lotus in the [muddy] water which does not adhere to it.” ~From the Lalitavistara, a sacred text of the life of Buddha by Dhrarmaraksha (308 AD)

“I worship the Buddha with these flowers; May this virtue be helpful for my emancipation; Just as these flowers fade, Our body will undergo decay.” ~Buddhist Chant upon offering flowers

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

Hand-Folded Lotus Flower Bouquet

“Those petals ARE folded,” I whispered with excitement to Jody as we watched our Cambodian guide quickly fold back the green outer petals of the lotus flower she just purchased at the temple.

We had noticed various lotus flower bouquets in the high-end hotel where we were staying, and Jody was convinced that the green outer petals of the flower were all hand-folded and tucked away to show the flowers’ beautifully colored hearts. I was not yet a believer; some of the bouquets literally have hundreds of flowers, and thinking about the work that goes into folding each individual bud, I thought maybe there was another way or that the folds were a natural result of this flower’s blooming mechanism.

But of course then there is Occam’s Razor, of which I am a firm believer: simply said, all things being equal, the alternative with the least complex assumptions (the simpler one) is usually the “right” one. Yes, these flowers – and bouquets – are all individually hand folded and arranged.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, central tower of a village temple WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple tower in stone WMWe were visiting the ruins of a 12th century Buddhist temple well off the tourist-beaten path about 20 miles south of Phnom Penh. Ta Prohm, a temple built by Jayavarman VII, was still a very active religious temple, where local poor people were allowed to maintain various Buddhist altars in what’s left of the individual towers of its compact complex. Our guide felt compelled to buy lotus flowers during our visit, and I too joined in with a few American dollars. I had learned earlier in the day, quite surprisingly, that it is the locals in Cambodian who predominantly support beggars, rather than tourists. The purchases weren’t just a form of charity; the items are worldly and long-standing offerings made to Buddha, and there’s little doubt that we all could use a little more karma in our lives.

Buddha is very often depicted sitting on a lotus flower. But why is this particular flower the symbol of such a long-standing philosophy which teeters as a religion?

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

Huge Buddha on Lotus at Peace Prayerl Park, Okinawa

In Buddhism, the lotus flower represents good fortune. But please don’t think about this in terms of prosperity or abundance as in material wealth. Rather, the flower represents spiritual fortunes in this life…and in the next.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe lotus grows in muddy waters, where it rises above its dirty and humble beginnings to blossom to its full potential, attaining a form of natural enlightenment. Coupled in this process of fully flowering is the notion of purification: we are all born into the muddy murkiness and dirty suffering of our physical lives, where we must strive to rise above and purify our spirits. This itself takes faith and perseverance, more important symbolism found in the lotus blossom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, rustic flowers and gates WMFlowers, especially in a religious context, can be thought of as exceedingly pure, and proper in every respect. They are rich in beautiful colors, emit soothing fragrances, and offer soothing touch. Worldwide, flowers are a supreme source of joy and comfort; they are used in celebration of birth, marriage, and even death. Flowers cover the earth, and can be obtained without engaging in evil or tainted deeds. Even the most humble among us can collect them without fear of depletion and without exchange of monies or other types of barter. Likewise, flowers can be offered without fear of regret or loss (as opposed to, say, tithing), so such offerings can be made with a pure mind and heart.

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

My Attempt at Lotus Flower Folding

But they are offered in a certain way to the Buddha in Cambodia. The unopened bud’s green protective petals are individually peeled back, folded over on themselves and then tucked back under in order to uncover the next layer of wrapping. But soon the inner “heart” of the lotus starts to peek into view, and then is completely revealed, uncovering its sublime beauty for all – especially Buddha – to see and admire.

Jody's Folding her Flower

Jody’s Folding her Flower

I was surprised at how well my folded lotus turned out. Although Jody and I took much longer than our guide did in folding, and ours looked rather like a 5-year-old attempted the task, we were all ready to provide our own offerings at various altars within Ta Phrom.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 4 WMCambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, folding a lotus flower for Buddha 3 WMLotus coloring also holds important meaning. White flowers, like in most of the rest of the world, implies purity and perfection, of both the mind and the spirit to the True Nature of Things, called Bodhi in Buddhism. It generally has eight petals corresponding to the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path of the Good Law,” and is the lotus on which depicted Buddha’s sit. Red, again like in most of the rest of the world (we are more connected than we are different), refers to compassion and love that is the original nature of the supreme heart (hrdayam). The blue lotus represents the perfection of wisdom, logic and knowledge, all of which are needed to obtain true enlightenment, always displayed only partially opened with its center never fully in view. Pink flowers, or the “Supreme Lotus,” help to recall the history of Buddha and the legends and myth which surround him. And finally, gold, the color which Buddha wears, reflects awakening or enlightenment.

Temple Ruins

Temple Ruins

Our particular flowers were purple, which reflect the magical mysticism found in following the teachings of Buddha. A perfect choice for non-Buddhist lay people with only the most basic understanding of what is not so much a religion but a way of life, one which seems to circumvent most of the thorny issues that make monotheistic faiths so exclusionary, divisive, and generally incompatible with even their own core teachings.

Temple Gate Ruins

Temple Gate Ruins

The growth cycle of the lotus holds other important symbolism in Buddhism, primarily as physical representations of the stages one moves through to attain enlightenment. When closed they represent those in search of enlightenment, while a bloomed and open lotus flower signifies divine rebirth in the form of full enlightenment and self-awareness.

Temple's Central Tower

Temple’s Central Tower

Buddha Altar

Buddha Altar

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, celestial dancer carving 2 WMWe had three flowers to offer to Buddha, one each: our Cambodian guide Thalay’s (her nickname pronounced Tah-lay, where an “h” is not pronounced in Cambodian unless it’s a double consonant), Jody’s, and mine. Thalay offered hers first at the main altar in the temple, always found under the tallest, most central tower. Hers was a ritual we watched closely to help ensure that we didn’t later offend any of the locals…or more importantly, Buddha! She presented her folded lotus, took and lit incense, dropped to her knees and placed her hands together in the Cambodian sompeyar, a form of greeting and show of respect. In praying to Buddha (or showing respect to the King), the hands are held in front of the forehead while the upper body is bowed. Monks are greeted with hands in front of the face, while a standard show or respect is with the hands over the chest. Basically, the higher the hands, the more reverence shown. This type of prayer is very common to both Thailand and Cambodia, countries of the Therevada tradition of Buddhism. In such traditions, the offering of lotus flowers is commonly supplemented by incense and/or candles.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense offerings WM

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, crumbling tower WMCambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, facial carving WMThe act of offering is called dana – an act of generosity, itself an emotional and physical expression of veneration not just to the Perfectly Enlightened One (Buddha), but also to Buddhism’s Dharma – The Truth – and to all the other lessor but still Noble Enlightened Ones, like the Bodhisattvas. And since flowers are the some of the most beautiful, pure, and untainted creations of the natural world, they are perfect offerings in most any setting. Even when they fade, they often remain at Buddhist altars as a reminder that all things in this life fade as well; as a Buddhist teaching goes, “whatever is of the nature to arise is also of the nature to cease.”

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha WM

Jody and I placed our offerings at two smaller altars under minor towers to the sides of the main, central tower of the temple complex where Thalay left hers. When we provided our flower, and in return were given freshly lit incense to also place before the Buddha statue, which often are missing their heads, most stolen eons ago since they are much easier to transport than entire solid-stone effigies.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, lotus flower for Buddha 2 WM

Incense is thought to have a calming effect on the mind, although you must see my blog Serene Sanctuary for quite a different take on the role of incense in Buddhism served up by a head monk himself. In offering incense to Buddha, we are, in essence, offering our own peace of mind. It serves to remind us that we always wish to offer a little bit more patience, calmness, and peace to the world, thereby attaining those qualities for and in ourselves.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, temple attendant WM

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, incense for Buddha WMOf course not being practicing Buddhists, Jody and I only did what we were comfortable doing. I have and always will respect the worlds’ great religions, but I will admit that I feel much more spiritually centered and less conflicted in a Buddhist setting than I do or have in any other religious setting. In making my offering, I paused to reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and for all that I still have left to do in my own journey forward towards fuller awakening. In no way do I claim to be on the path of enlightenment. Or on any path to that end. What I will admit is that I remain a student to what spirituality can teach me, and love, unity, and peace in our lives is an obtainable goal worthy of which to strive.

Cambodia 2015, Ta Prohm & Yeay Peau, weather stone and wild flowers WM

In the meantime, however, I continue to swim in the muddy waters to which most of us seem relegated. For me, however, the lotus blossoms at the surface become clearer every single day.

Cambodia 2015, Tonle Bati Ta Prohm, ladies peek WM

 

 

Sources used in this Blog:

http://buddhists.org/buddhist-symbols/the-meaning-of-the-lotus-flower-in-buddhism/

http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/b_lotus.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offering_(Buddhism)

http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/dodrupchen-III/offering-flowers

https://essenceofbuddhism.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/why-do-buddhists-give-offerings-to-the-buddha/

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/theravada.html

Fortress of Peace: A Buddhist Arsenal on Okinawa


This is a Buddhist  Temple.  And a former American nuclear missile site....

This is a Buddhist Temple. And a former American nuclear missile site….

Driving up to the Buddhist Temple entrance, I stopped at the gate where a well-dressed older Okinawan man motioned me to stop. I rolled my passenger window down and greeted him good day.

“Konichiwa!” I said with a big smile.

“Konichiwa,” came the man’s reply, a bit less emphatic.

“Visit?” I asked as I motioned towards the hardened silos ahead in view. He didn’t understand. “Tour?” “Photos?” I finally try as I point to the cameras on my passenger seat and then to the imposing structure just ahead….

Finally, out of desperation, I mimic the launching of a rocket, trace a ballistic arc through the sky, and then mime an explosion, but with appropriate sound effects. Ah, now he gets it…and after signing in with my name and vehicle license plate, I’m directed where to park.

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Silo's Transformed Interior

Silo’s Transformed Interior

You see, Okinawa is home to the Okinawa Training Center of the Buddhist sect of Soka Gakkai International, a place also known as their “Peace Fortress.” In the early 1970s, SGI’s President Daisaku Ikeda saw the abandoned, dismantled nuclear missile site and was immediately struck by a vision: what better way to utilize such a facility than to dedicate it to peace. In 1984, he achieved this vision when the site was ultimately transformed and officially opened as a base for world peace. The missile silos now provide meeting spaces and offers two free museums, one contained in a restored silo which tells the story of nuclear weapons on Okinawa, and the other which features the story of the sect’s peace movement.

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Back in the fall of 1962, the US and the USSR teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation after American spy planes discovered Russian-based nuclear missiles deployed on communist Cuba, a short 90 miles from the Florida keys. These atomic weapons placed large swaths of continental America within range of little-notice nuclear attack, something the President and US Government at the time simply would not stand for. The standoff sparked a two-week showdown between the world’s nuclear-armed superpowers that has been claimed as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

However, a short six months prior, a potential parallel drama was being played out on the other side of the world. On the tiny island of Okinawa, the US had deployed short-range nuclear missiles, nearly identical to those the Russians placed in the Caribbean, but ones which (unnecessarily) targeted China.

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

The presence of these missiles on Okinawa, and more widely in Japan, still has not been fully or officially disclosed. But people have started talking: specifically, the people who were responsible for the maintenance and launching of these terrifyingly devastating weapons.

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

498th TMG PatchIn the early 1960s, men of the 498th Tactical Missile Group (TMG) were the stewards of America’s latest weapon in the nuclear toolkit — the TM-76 “Mace.” The 40 foot long Mace missile, weighing over 8 tons and costing $500k each, packed a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at many times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could annihilate anything within a three-mile radius of ground zero. Or, it could create a crater 20 stories deep when employed against hardened, buried targets.

Mace Test Firing

Mace Test Firing

Some of those men, having trained intensively for months in the states destined for combat postings overseas assumed they would find themselves in Europe. Instead, much to their surprise, they found themselves on the long island-hopping flight to the far reaches of the Pacific, destination Okinawa.

Why and how? Well, the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, the one which ended the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, granted America continued control and administration of Okinawa – which lasted until 1972. After the communist transformation of China in 1949, followed by the hot and almost nuclear war in Korea in the first half of the 1950s, America rapidly transformed this peaceful sliver of land into the linchpin of its Cold War plans for Asia.

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Starting in 1954, nuclear armed aircraft (see Nuking Japan for my very personal history involving nuclear bombs) and atomic artillery shells were deployed to and stockpiled on Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa. These were the first of what would amount to at least 1,200 atomic weapons that would remain until their final removal in 1972. But that was just the start. Starting in the early 1960s massive construction projects were in-work building semi-hardened silos designed to shelter and launch some of the earliest nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to be deployed.

The Silo's 2nd Level tells the MACE Story

The Silo’s 2nd Level tells the MACE Story

 

War Wounds Remain:  Art on  Display in the Silo

War Wounds Remain: Art on Display in the Silo

Okinawa Traces of War 2015, Mace B Missile Site, preserved silo and museum bottom level war art 3Back then, just 15 years after the Typhoon of Steel (see my blog of the same name for more on the Battle of Okinawa) that overtook Okinawa during WWII, the island still visibly bore the scars of war. Within view of the rusting hulks of war wrecks still lying just offshore, Bolo Point in the village of Yomitan became the first of Okinawa’s nuclear-missile sites to become operational in 1962. The site held eight Mace missiles aimed west over the East China Sea, ready to, as the TMG put it back then, “defend the island, protect the institution of democracy and halt the spread of communism.” The missiles were kept ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

mace

Although some surely thought their posting to the sunny and sea-surrounded sub-tropical island was a dream, the events of October 1962 dashed such hopes. The missile force found out about the Russian deployment of missiles well before the American public, and from that moment on, life for the missilers became much more serious.

Russia had stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders for the first time, missiles capable of reaching Washington D.C. in fifteen minutes with a megaton warhead. President Kennedy took their deployment as a personal affront, branding Khrushchev “an immoral gangster.” The President demanded immediate removal by the Russians publicly, but secretly ordered his top military generals and admirals draw up plans to bomb the Cuban sites and even invade if the Russians refused.

A standoff between the world’s nuclear superpowers ensued. The Pentagon raised the nation’s Defense Condition (“DEFCON”) to TWO. The Okinawan missilers were told that DEFCON 2 meant a declaration of nuclear war was possible within 15 minutes; if DEFCON 1 was reached, missile launch could be expected within 5 minutes.

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

It looked as if launch orders might actually be received as events began to spiral out of control on the other side of the world. The Cubans shot down a U.S. spy plane flying over sovereign Cuban territory, and the American Navy dropped explosives on Russian submarines within a self-declared maritime exclusion zone surrounding Cuba, forcing them to surface. Okinawa braced itself for an escalation to DEFCON 1 at any moment. Sealed launch codes were delivered to launch sites, and personnel were locked in place. The world – both eastern and western hemispheres – was seconds away from midnight on the nuclear clock.

Luckily for everyone, those launch orders were never issued. On October 28, 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally struck a secret deal whereby the Soviets promised to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for promises by the United States not to invade the island and assurances we would pull atomic rockets out of NATO-aligned Turkey.

Art Displayed along the Silos' Lower Level

Art Displayed along the Silos’ Lower Level

But where would have the Maces of Okinawa struck if and when they were launched? The missilers didn’t know for sure, but a safe (and pragmatically the only) assumption was somewhere in China. The relatively short-range of the missiles based on Okinawa put almost the entire USSR tantalizingly just out of reach. At the time, US intelligence leaned toward a belief that China was largely aligned with the Soviet Union. However, the Sino-Soviet split of the time is now well-documented, and highlights one of the worst intelligence failures of the Cold War. Given the existing and serious tensions between Russia and China, it is highly likely that Chairman Mao would have sat out any such Soviet-American Armageddon. On the other hand, had the Okinawan Maces annihilated Shanghai and Beijing – both cities easily within range – killing possibly a hundred million Chinese, the U.S. and China would have been most certainly at war, resulting no doubt in WWIII.

In any case, most agree that the U.S. missiles on Okinawa – if they were known by the Russians – made the island a potential Soviet target. There was a very real chance of Okinawa evaporating in a preemptive or retaliatory Russian strike. JFK in 1962 had accused Castro of turning Cuba “into the first Latin American country to become a target for nuclear war.”   But now it seems clear that the residents of Okinawa were also pawns (see my related blog Pawn Shop) in a far larger power play among distant superpowers that apparently cared little about the civilians whose lives their nuclear weapons were supposed to protect.

Emotional  Art on Display in the Silo's Lower Level

Emotional Art on Display in the Silo’s Lower Level

Throughout the 1960s, neither the government of Japan nor the U.S. admitted that there were nuclear weapons on Okinawa. The Japanese government didn’t want to confirm officially the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Okinawa because they hoped to avoid any responsibility for them. This kind of thinking has resulted in a big rift between Japan’s leadership and its ordinary citizens.

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

The Japanese government’s hypocrisy in pretending it knew nothing about U.S. nuclear weapons in Okinawa was necessary in order to maintain face with its public, especially since in 1954 the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5 were mistakenly irradiated in the U.S. H-bomb test at Bikini Island. As a result more than 30 million Japanese people sign a petition in protest. Then, in 1956 the Ryukyu Assembly of Elected Officials demands the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Okinawa and any other islands. In 1965 a hydrogen bomb is “lost” from the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga 130 km off Okinawa’s coast, and in 1966 Iejima Island residents successfully blocked the deployment of U.S. Nike nuclear-tipped antiaircraft missiles. But it was only in 1971, when America and Japan were negotiating for the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty that the U.S. government publicly admitted to their presence for the first time. And it did so by demanding that Tokyo help pay for the removal of nuclear arms from Okinawa! Wow.

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

My visit to the Temple was fairly awe-inspiring. I consider myself not prone to naiveté, but I had assumed that Japan was left nuclear-free per their wishes. Silly boy! As one of the missilers put it, “We [Americans] were all just kids doing a man’s job. The American military machine taught us that it was our right to take anything or go anywhere we wanted. But we never realized that people didn’t want us or our weapons on their island.” To America, Okinawa then was neither American nor Japanese, but solid ground on which to station a far reach of our war machine. A machine that of course included nuclear weapons.

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

In the opening of the Monument to World Peace at the site of this relic of a different age, President Ikeda proclaimed, “We turn this missile site into a foundation for our thoughts and reflections on peace, not only for Japan, but for the whole world. Let’s preserve these remnants forever. Let’s leave them as evidence that humanity once engaged in something so foolish as war!”

Unfortunately, it seems that we, along with the majority of humanity, continue to act so foolishly. I however stand firm for change. In leaving the Memorial Hall today, I signed the SGI’s roster, officially making me “Cosmo Politan” World Citizen #90,761. Each of us should always endeavor to Choose Hope…Choose Peace…Choose Life. Even if it’s one of us at a time.

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace

 

 

More on Nuclear Weapons Deployed to Okinawa:

Some of the weapons deployed to Okinawa included the B43, B57 and of course the Mace cruise missile. The B43, put in service starting in 1961, was an air-dropped variable yield nuclear weapon used by a wide variety of aircraft, and was one of two primary nuclear weapons that I was trained to employ while flying the A-6E Intruder in the 1990s. The B43 was built in two variants, each with five different “dial-a-yield” options, and 2,000 weapons were produced through 1965. The B43 was 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter, about 13’ feet long, and around 2,100 pounds. Explosive yield varied from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton of TNT. The BDU-8 pictured below is the practice “shape” for this nuclear weapon and was recovered by Okinawans when it fell outside of the bombing range in Ie Island.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Nuchi du Takara Anti-War Peace Museum, nuclear bomb shapes lost off-range WM

The B57 nuclear bomb was a tactical nuclear weapon developed during the Cold War, entering production in 1963. The bomb was designed to be dropped from high-speed tactical aircraft and was specifically streamlined for supersonic flight. It was about 10 feet long, about 15 inches in diameter, and weighed about 500 pounds. The B57 was produced in six versions with explosive yields ranging from 5 to 20 kilotons. 3,100 weapons were built through 1967, the last of which was retired in June 1993. The BDU-12 Pictured above is the practice shape for this nuclear weapon, and was recovered in the same fashion as the shape described above.

71st_Tactical_Missile_Squadron_-_TM-76_Mace_Missile

The Martin Mace (TM-76, MGM-13 or CGM-13) is a tactical cruise missile designed to destroy ground targets. It was developed from the MGM-1 Matador, and reached operational status in 1959. Mace was launched from a transporter-erector-launcher or a hardened bunker using a solid rocket booster for initial acceleration and an Allison J33-A-41 turbojet for sustained flight. The Goodyear Aircraft Corporation developed ATRAN (Automatic Terrain Recognition And Navigation, a radar map-matching system) in which the return from a radar scanning antenna was matched with a series of “maps” carried on board. The missile could reach Mach 0.85 (~600 mph) over a 540-mile range (low-level 750’), or 1,285 miles at high altitude. Mace “B” incorporated a jam-proof inertial guidance system (designated TM-76B), with range exceeding 1,300 miles. The Air Force first deployed Mace to West Germany, where six missile squadrons served with just short of 200 weapons. In South Korea, the 58th Tactical Missile Group became combat ready with 60 weapons in 1959, but was relocated to semi-hardened sites on Okinawa in 1961-62 with the 498th Tactical Missile Group.

 

Sources used in crafting this blog:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/07/08/general/okinawas-first-nuclear-missile-men-break-silence/#.VPWP-fFIuUk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MGM-13_Mace

https://booksinmynook.wordpress.com/k-k-s-homework-page/okinawas-first-mace-missile-site-at-bolo-point-yomitan/

http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/147414

http://www.japanfocus.org/-Jon-Mitchell/3800

Surprising Swastikas of the Far East


buddhist-swastika-japan

Nazis in Kyoto?  I mean, my son and I joke about how most things bad or evil in the world today are, or can be traced back to roots in the Nazi party (at least in pop-culture and through mass-media), but seriously, what are these symbols doing everywhere in Japan’s cultural capital?

Buddhist+Problems_+Source+Imgur_810216_4767883

The swastika (卐) is a symbol instantly recognizable worldwide.  In the West, this is predominantly due to Hitler, Germany, and their Nazi party of the 19th century.  However, in the Far East, as most things are, such preoccupations are quite a bit different….

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Symbol of the Gods…

swastika-300x199

…and Samurai alike.

The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates to 3300-1300 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilization of modern day India & Pakistan, but can also be found with the ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Indians of North America, and throughout Paleolithic Europe.  Swastikas have been widely used in various ancient civilizations around the world, including Turkic, India, Iran, Nepal, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, and remains widely used in both Hinduism and Buddhism.  The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika – “su” (meaning “good” or “auspicious”) combined with “asti” (meaning “it is”), and originally translated as “it is good.”  It is not a German word, nor is it a German symbol; in German it is called the hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” in an odd attempt to tie it to perhaps to the more Christian traditions of the West.  As used in the Far East (primarily China and Japan) as a homonym for the number 10,000 (much like banzai, see my blog on that idea here), it more appropriately means “all,” “whole” or “eternity.”

Buddha with a Swastika

Buddha with a Swastika

swastikaswastika-flag2_thumbIn more modern times, however, following a brief surge of popularity as a good luck symbol in Western culture in the very early 20th century, the swastika was adopted as a symbol of the Nazi Party of Germany.  After Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1920s, a right-facing 45° rotated swastika was incorporated into the flag of the Nazi Party, which was then made the state flag of Germany during the Nazi era.  Hence, the swastika in the West has become almost impossibly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, death, and murder, and is now largely and permanently stigmatized.  Not surprisingly, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries (primarily EU) as a symbol of violence and hate.

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis.  Be Glad they are Easily recognizable!

Dumb-Ass Modern Neo-Nazis. Be glad they are readily identifiable by their Nazi-inspired flags and tattoos.

How did a peaceful religious symbol used around the world become so perverted?  Easy:  Political Spin.

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Nationalism at its Absolute Worst

Heinrich Schliemann, a late 19th century German archeologist, discovered swastikas during digs at age-old Troy and associated it with ancient migrations of early Germanic peoples.  Making a rather egocentric and culturally-selfish leap, he connected the symbols in Greece with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorized that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our [Germanic] remote ancestors….”  Why everything to archeologists has to have a religious or ceremonial use or meaning is beyond me.  Don’t you think that maybe someone thought the symmetry of the swastika was, perhaps, just…pretty??

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Not a Nazi, but a Member of the Red Swastika Society 世界紅卍字會, a voluntary association founded in China in 1922 based in philanthropy and on moral education.

This proposed connection of ancient migrations across Europe with Germany helped to establish a long Germanic/Aryan history then demanded by growing nationalistic pride in an only recently unified Germany of the 1860s.  The swastika quickly became the symbol of the “Aryan race”, a Nordic (Northern Europe) master race, an idea perverted from its original meaning of “noble.”

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Nothing Noble about this CosPlay Wedding in Japan.

Anime doesn't make it any better.  Quite the opposite.

Anime doesn’t make it any better. Quite the opposite.

42691e9ff8ca5bee10eab8512be17be8f3df731bef05ce51d26f532fbaa342a1In 1920, a red flag with a while circle and black swastika became the official emblem of the Nazi Party.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler describe the new flag:  “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man…as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic” (pp. 496-497).  What is it about sooooo many people hating the Jews (and I’m 1/4 Jewish, passed from my Grandfather’s side, so it COUNTS!)?

I'm not sure this is valid, special (get it), or...RELATIVE.

I’m not sure this is valid, “special” (get it?!), or even…RELATIVE.

It’s interesting to note that an abbey school that Hitler attended as a child had a swastika of medieval origin chiseled into the monastery portal (main entry) and also on the stone wall above a spring grotto in the abbey’s courtyard.  Makes one think how much of an impact, conscious or other, this rather random intersection of man and symbol may have had on what has become one of the most infamous brands ever devised by humankind.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

Copycat and All-Around General Asshole.

google-maps-kyoto-shrinesThe Buddhist swastika however lacks such strong association with things bad.  In Asia, it became standardized as a Chinese character “卍萬” (wàn), and from there entered other East Asian languages, including Japanese, “卍字” (manji).  And while the swastika remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups in the West, it is used today in the East as a symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of Buddhist temples, both in stone and on modern tourist maps!  To help differentiate East and West, please note that in Asian a flat or squared counter-clockwise (left-facing) swastika is most often used, allowing for some relief and distinction from the oppressive clockwise-rotated, right-facing symbol of the Nazis.  In a rather absurd and humorous thought, I wonder during the Japanese alliance with Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II if any Japanese official ever intimated about the Germans have it backwards…and crooked!

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple

Swastika Banner at a Buddhist Temple

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It’s time for us in the West to understand and disassociate pop-cultures of fear and pervasive paranoia with fact, tradition, and history.  Much like the re-establishment of the Rising Sun flag in Japan in 1954 after that symbol was similarly conjoined with the brutally violent Japanese conquest and occupation of much of the Pacific and East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s time to reclaim and take back this proud ancient symbol of more reasonable meaning.  Be slower to react, judge and label, especially without all the facts.  If you do these things, you and the world will be better for it.

And please, don’t confuse the monks in Japan with Nazis!!

Buddhist+Problems_+Source+Imgur_810216_4767883

Bad Year? Forgetaboutit…by Bonenkai!!


“Do not anxiously hope for that which is not yet come; do not vainly regret what is already past” ~Chinese Proverb

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.” ~Chinese Proverb

new-year

If you thought Halloween and Christmas were big now in Japan (see Cosplay in Japan and O Half-a-Christmas Tree), the end of the year and the New Year that follows are simply a celebratory season of festive fun and occasion, often to an elaborate degree.  Although traditionally the period around New Year’s in Japan (お正月 oshōgatsu) is one of the times in the year for family to formally come together, the holiday has a far larger and longer cultural and temporal reach.

1327469918663_6268088The New Year in Okinawa is actually celebrated twice, first based on the Gregorian (sometimes referred to here as the “baby New Year”) and then by Lunar (Asian) calendars, which seldom if ever coincide.  Although the Japanese have used our calendar for official and cultural New Year’s celebrations since 1873, here in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the seat), a separate cultural New Year is still celebrated based on the Chinese New Year, widely throughout broader Asia, as a remnant of Okinawa’s close historical ties with China throughout the ages.  Unfortunately for us, we’ll be in Kyoto for the Chinese New Year.  But fortunately for us, we’ll be Kyoto!!

Japanese businesses and employees often hold festive bonenkai (“forget the old year parties”) throughout December, and similar shinnenka parties are held in January to welcome the New Year.  These are not formal events, but more traditional social get-togethers, were intoxication is expected and a night’s indiscretions are customarily forgotten at work the next day.  This is one idea the West needs to import from Japan!

There's probably some indiscretion here....

There’s probably some indiscretion here….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is also during this time that houses and some personally-owned businesses are cleaned in an ancient Shinto custom called susubarai (“exorcism or purification of the soot,” sometimes referred to as osoji), a chance to purge physical spaces of the last vestiges of the old, passing year in order to start anew with a clean slate.  We were surprised at just how extensive these cleanings could be – many of our local businesses were closed but not idle; we could see all their furniture piled up outside as the inside underwent its ritualistic cleansing.

Shimenawa

Shimenawa

Kadomatsu

Kadomatsu

Shimenawa are iconic here at this time of year.  Made up of sacred rope woven with straw decorated with white stripes of paper, these are topped with an auspicious Japanese bitter tangerine (橙 daidai).  Daidai originally means “several generations,” a reference to this fruit’s custom of staying on the tree for several years if not picked and its color returning to green in the spring.  Thus, they reflect wishes for good, long life through the years and generations of the family.  The completed talisman are then hung over entrances to mark dwellings as a temporary abodes of Toshi-Gami (New Year deities), which are gladly accepted.  Finally, kadomatsu (門松, literally “gate pine”), an arrangement of pine, bamboo and ume tree sprigs representing longevity, prosperity and steadfastness respectively, are often placed in pairs on either side of thresholds to welcome and temporarily house ancestral spirits.  We have a set outside our door, but I’m not sure anyone is visiting.  I do believe they help spiritually guide our directionally-challenged feline friend back to the correct condo door…since they all look exactly alike!  The doors, not the cats.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

Gaijin Dinner Guests at the Quiet (but busy) Sea Garden.

New Year’s Eve (Omisoka) observances, while becoming more and more Western, are not nearly as party or drink0-oriented as ours.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to easily get a reservation at one of the nicer but smaller restaurants in our neighborhood just a couple of weeks ago.  The time just before midnight is usually quiet and reverent, although firecrackers are commonplace as an ancient Chinese tradition thought to ward off evil spirits.  There was a nice fireworks display given at our local American hangout, American Village, but which itself was not overly crowded or boisterous…by US standards.  Most traditional Japanese will visit their local shrine or temple at midnight.  Although we did share our late-night dinner with a fair amount of well-dressed and happy, young, and perhaps less traditional Okinawans, the urban seawall where we live was relatively quiet.

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Our New-New Year Visit to the Futenma Shrine

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Safe Driving Omamori Charms

Hatsumōde (初詣) is the first Shinto shrine or Buddhist Temple visit of the Japanese New Year, traditionally called for between the 1st and 3rd of January.  This visit is so important that the vast majority of businesses are closed during this period (29 December – 3 January) to allow their employees wide latitude for this visit, where wishes and prayers for the new year are made (the closest analogy to our New Year resolutions), new omamori (charms or amulets) are bought, and old ones are returned to the shrine so they can be burned (to release whatever spirits may reside in them).  Thus, there are often long lines at major shrines throughout Japan and Okinawa.  During the hatsumōde, it is common for men to wear a full kimono, a now very rare occurrence here, with many families making their pilgrimage in their finery.  The act of worship at the shrines and temples is generally quite brief and experienced individually, but more extensive domestic worship usually is included with family and relatives at home in a more intimate setting.

Anime character "Good Luck Charm Himari".  Not if you're on the other end of that sword....

Anime character Omamori (Good Luck Charm) Himari. Bad luck if you’re on the other end of that sword….

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

Sacred Cave under & behind the Futenma Shrine

This is probably not a traditional - or Shinto - way to experience Hatsumode

This is probably not a traditional – or Shinto – way to experience Hatsumode

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, year of the horse placardWe decided to make our own tradition and visited one of Okinawa’s most popular Shrines the day before New Year’s!  I’m not sure this would meet the de facto assertions of the Shinto faith, but I do believe that God will understand.  By visiting early, we had ample time to explore the Shrine and its sacred cave (you must ask for entry, but does not require a guide), and contemplated our well-wishing for the coming year before drawing our fortune and leaving our prayers.

Readying for New Year Celebrations

Readying for New Year Celebrations

First we entered through the Torii – a timeless Asian symbol designating sacred ground, and conducted a cleansing ritual on ourselves, conveniently outlined by a picture board for the many foreigners who visit.

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Water Purification Ritual for Dummies

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, a written oracle number 26A common custom during hatsumōde is to buy a written oracle called omikuji.  The omikuji goes into detail about the coming year, but like most fortunes, they are vague and can be interrupted pretty much anyway one would like, thereby ensuring their continued popularity!  If your omikuji predicts bad luck you can tie it onto a tree on the shrine grounds, in the hope that its prediction will not come true….

Jody's was Better

Jody’s was Better

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!  Dang, too late for us:  not knowing any better and basically playing monkey-see, monkey-do, we ended up tying our pretty ding-dang good fortunes to the strings surrounding one of the trees on the Shrine’s grounds….  I guess we need to return there, ASAP, to pull a fortune that we can take home and keep!!

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

Our Prayers & Wishes for 2014

ChionInBellThe times around midnight on January first are much more significant here as sonorous reverberations of cast-iron bells ring to coincide with the dawn of the New Year.  At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times (除夜の鐘 joyanokane) to symbolize the 108 human sins in Buddhist belief, and allow the Japanese to cleanse themselves of such trespasses of the previous year.  This is a ritual that we will make a point to take it next year.  I already can’t wait!

Jody's "First" Soba on New Years Day

Jody’s “First” Soba on New Years Day

Of course meals during this time are ritualistic.  A common meal on New Year’s Day in Okinawa is toshi-koshi-soba, literally “year-crossing noodles,” when the sound of slurping the long soba noodles helps to secure lasting good fortune for the eater’s family.  We, quite by accident, happened to have soba on New Year’s Day, and maybe, just maybe, this will make up for tossing our good fortunes at the shrine!

A Few Stylish Nenga

A Few Stylish Nenga

Nenga Postage

Nenga Postage

Sending New Year’s cards – nengajo – to relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, and co-workers is a very important custom in Japan.  The cards must be delivered after January 1st, and the Japanese Post actually accepts and holds New Year’s cards, marked “nenga“ under the postage, from mid-December for delivery starting on the 1st!  But they must never be delivered to a family in mourning who refuse to accept such New Year’s greetings.  See here for some really funny if not odd Japanese New Year greetings!!

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Our FIRST sunset of the New Year in Itoman

Okinawa New Years 2013-2014, Futenma Shrine visit, celebration bannersCelebrating the New Year in Japan is also analogous with marking “firsts.”  Hatsuhinode (初日の出) is the first sunrise of the year, and many Japanese will drive to the coast or climb hills and mountains so that they may be some of the first to see the first sunrise of the New Year. Kakizome is the first calligraphy written at the beginning of a year, traditionally on January 2.  “First laughter” (waraizome) is an important to express at midnight.  First dreams (初夢, hatsuyume) are often recorded and retold, and “first letters” (hatsudayori), often in the form of haiku, are exchanged.  Shigoto-hajime (仕事始め, the first work of the New Year), keiko-hajime (稽古始め, the first practice of the New Year), hatsugama (the first tea ceremony of the New Year), and the hatsu-uri (the first shopping sale of the New Year) are all special events here that hold equally special meaning.

Equally as Important:  the FIRST cotton-candy of the year....

Equally as Important: the FIRST cotton-candy of the year….

Prayers and  Wishes

Prayers and Wishes

With all its ritual, tradition, and celebratory “firsts,” the New Year here is a grandiose reminder of the constant and relentless passage of time.  Such passage is welcomed, encouraged and embraced, warmly and spiritual in Asia.  However you decided to celebrate the New Year and time’s passage, and whatever you have resolved or wished, Happy New Year to one and all.

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

Happy New Year! ~Kevin & Jody

And please, whatever you do in this coming year, take heart the lesson of the opening Chinese proverb:  enjoy yourself this year.  Time’s passage can be insidious, but always relentless; more likely than not, it’s later in our lives than we all would like to think.

There is anime for EVERY occasion!

There is anime for EVERY occasion!