大原野 Under the Sakura Sea

When my parents came to visit (which was quite a long time ago now…) we decided to head to Oharano. This town is rather out of the way but we decided to go to get out of the crowds and check out some temples that I had read about in the wonderful book Exploring Kyoto: on Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy (I strongly recommend this to anyone spending a considerable amount of time in Kyoto). It was very out of the way, requiring 2 trains and a bus to get there, but I enjoyed getting out of Kyoto and into new territory. We visited a number of temples and shrines that day, all of which I enjoyed, though some were better than others.

The first shrine we came to was Oharano shrine 大原野神社, founded in 784 as the new shrine to the kami of the Fujiwara family. The Emperor had moved the capital to Nagaoka-kyo that same year and the powerful Fujiwara family needed a family shrine near to the new capital. It is said that the Fujiwara family kami accepted the move and appeared riding a deer. The Fujiwara family animal is a deer, it is the same deer that appears at the Fujiwara clan shrine Kasuga Taisha in Nara. The capital was moved by Emperor Kanmu due to the increasing influence of Buddhism on the court in Nara. See this post for more background on Buddhism and politics in Nara.

Oharano Shrine continued to flourish even after the capital moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto), and in 965 Emperor Murakami ordered that imperial messengers should announce important events to the kami residing at this shrine. Also please note the little turtles in the picture above! Pretty rare sight but they are native to Japan.

The shrine should have been peaceful but we had walked straight into a corporate hanami event. Hanami 花見 (literally ‘seeing flowers’), is the ancient tradition of sitting under cherry trees during full bloom and getting very drunk (it started around 700AD). Well, at least that’s what it is in practice. This was a corporate-style event complete with microphones, pre-packed lunches and business suits. This meant that we couldn’t get anywhere near the lovely weeping cherry that Oharano shrine is famous for, but at least we got a taste for true Japanese corporate hanami, further cementing my view that I don’t ever want to work for a Japanese company in Japan.

The next stop was mercifully much quieter. This next temple was Shobo-ji 正法寺, a temple founded as a hermitage by Chinese monk Chii-Daitoku. Though there is very little information about Chii, he was the disciple of a very influential Chinese monk called Jianzhen, who tried to visit Japan 6 times before finally succeeding. One of his failed attempts led to an infection that rendered him blind, meaning he never got to see Japan. Jianzhen still ended up presiding over Todai-ji in Nara, the most important temple in the country at the time, and he ordained former Emperor Shomu and former Empress Kotaku.

Though Shobo-ji, originally known as Ohara-ji, was burned down in the Onin war (1467 – 77), it was restored under the name Shobo-ji in the 17th Century. The temple features a beautiful zen rock garden with views over to the Higashiyama mountains. The garden is famous for the rocks that look like different animals, such as mice, elephants and frogs. Some of the images were a bit of a stretch, but I could see most of the ‘animals’ the monk pointed out.

Shobo-ji also had an inside section with screens and scrolls which we were allowed to take pictures of (usually it’s banned). A really lovely temple and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

The next temple was a little way away from the other shrines, through the forest. We went through a rather dilapidated gate with a sad looking protective statue and up the hill past some rather worn out older Japanese who praised our youthfulness in getting up the slope (it wasn’t really that steep…). The temple at the summit was Shoji-ji 勝持寺, better known by the  name Hana-dera 花寺, meaning ‘temple of flowers’. It is famous for the cherry blossoms that surround the temple. We were a little late for full bloom but there were still blossoms on the trees.

Shojiji was founded in 679 and is famous for the Saigyo cherry tree that can be found here.  This is a special type of cherry tree that was planted (or created, it’s unclear) by the poet Saigyo. Saigyo (1118 – 1190) was a poet of the Heian period. He was a body guard of the retired emperor until age 22 when he suddenly decided to become a monk. He took the religious name Saigyo, meaning Western journey, as a reference to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. His poetry is fairly melocholy, lamenting the decline of Buddhism as a feature of Japanese politics and the sense of disillusionment with Buddhism felt by the Japanese people. His poems focus on sadness, loneliness, his path of Buddhism and his thoughts on the Buddhist teaching of releasing desire and its conflict with his love of nature.

An example of one of Saigyo’s poems is:

願わくは花の下にて春死なむ  その如月の望月のころ

Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.

Kisaragi is the classical Japanese for February, and the kanji 衣更着 sometimes used to write it (sometimes its 如月) means ‘wear more clothes’. Normally a monk would pray to die facing West towards the pure land, but Saigyo, despite his name, wishes to die surrounded by his beloved cherry trees. Perhaps he would be happy to die at Shojiji. The third generation of Saigyo’s cherry tree still lives in the gardens of Shojiji.

Finally we got a taxi from the station to Yohsiminedera, a rather out-of-the-way temple in the mountains. Though it was a little far it was worth the visit, with a huge main gate and sprawling temple complex. It cost 500円 (£2.60) entry but it was definitely worth it.

Yoshiminedera 善峯寺, is a Tendai sect temple dedicated to Kannon, a Bodhisattva of Mercy. It was founded in 1029 by the monk Gensan as a personal retreat. It too was destroyed in the Onin war but it was rebuilt in 1621. If you are wondering, the short version of the Onin war is that it started as a dispute over shogunal succession and ended up starting the Sengoku-jidai, or ‘warring states period’ that lasted a hundred years.

Yoshiminedera is famous for its Yūryu no Matsu 遊龍の松, or ‘playful dragon pine tree’, a pine tree that has been trained to grow horizontally and stretches over 40m. This pine is 600 years old and used to be over 50m but 10m were cut off due to insect damage. It is indeed very long and supported by props in several places. It is intended to look like a dragon swimming through waves, and I could see the resemblance, though if you imagine the outline of a ‘dragon swimming through waves’, a long wavy line probably sums it up pretty well –  not exactly a challenging shape but still impressive for a tree.

Praying at Yoshiminedera is said to ease the symptoms of neuralgia and lumbago, and the temple has medicated baths that open twice a year (2nd Sunday of May and October) which are said to cure these diseases. I can imagine it gets very busy on those two days and the complex car park was  huge so they are definitely prepared. It is also very popular in the Autumn.

We had to phone a taxi to get back from Yoshiminedera as we went late in the day and it was deserted. Mum pointed out that I now bow on the phone when speaking to Japanese people… I suppose I am internalising Japan quite a bit. Tomorrow I am off on a spontaneous solo trip to Ise to visit one of Japan’s most sacred shrines, so no blog posts on the weekend, but I will have lots of material for next week!

大原 Pure Voices in the Mist

Today I would like to talk about the other three temples I visited with my parents when we went to Ohara, a town just North of Kyoto. These three temples are united in their purpose, as all three are Tendai sect temples dedicated to the practice of Shomyo, a type of Buddhist chant that has existed in Japan since the 9th century.

The first temple I would like to talk about is also the oldest of the group. Raigo-in 来迎院, was founded by the great teacher En-nin in the 850s especially for monks to practise the new art of Shomyo 声明 (meaning ‘pure voice’). Shomyo is a Buddhist chant practised by both Tendai and Shingon sects. The chants follow a pentatonic scale, also known as the Yo scale, which follows the pattern D E G A B in Western musical notation. This means there are no semitone gaps (such as a black and white key next to each other on a piano), instead there are gaps of two or three semitones. This makes the scale sound ‘happy’ and prevents any clashing chords. Shomyo is said to have influenced a lot of Japanese folk music and vocal style.





While Raigo-in itself was not particularly spectacular, featuring a simple garden and hall with statues of worship, the path behind the temple leads to a beautiful waterfall known as 音無の滝 – “waterfall without sound”. It was given this name when Ryonin, another great teacher, came to visit Raigo-in. He went to meditate by the falls and declared in a magic spell that the falls must not drown out the sounds of the Buddhist chants. The falls are said to have fallen silent. I can tell you that the falls are definitely not silent, and make the normal amount of noise for a waterfall, so perhaps the spell has worn off. Nevertheless, they are very pretty.



The next temple on our musical pilgrimage is Jikko-in 実光院, my favourite temple of the three. This temple was founded in 1013 and was also intended for Shomyo practice. As we entered we were instructed to ring a gong, presumably as part of the tradition of this particular temple. We bought tea tickets (temple entrance fee + tea fee) and sat in the temple building looking out into the gardens. The gardens feature cherry blossoms that bloom all year round, with a spectacular weeping cherry right in the centre.













The pond at Jikko-in was designed so that the nearer side of the pond represents everyday life and the further side represents paradise. The pond is also said to be in the shape of the tradditional Chinese character for heart 心, though I couldn’t really tell. Really beautiful gardens and definitely worth visiting – it is very close to Sanzen-in, the main attraction of the area, so it could be a good secondary stop.











Finally we visited Shorin-in 勝林院, very close to Jikko-in. This temple was founded in 1013 by En-nin’s disciple. It was also intended to allow monks to practice Shomyo and the temple featured a Shomyo audio display (you press a button and shomyo chants play in the temple hall). This temple is famous for the Ohara Mondo, or Discussion at Ohara, in which Kenshin of the Tendai sect invited a teacher of Pure Land Buddhism (a rival sect) to discuss faith. It is said that during their discussion the principle Buddha statue of the temple dispersed light from his hand and enlightened the listening masses.







This temple is also not as spectacular as those surrounding it but the hall itself was beautifully carved with images of dragons and flowers. The sound display inside also gave us an idea of what all these temples are dedicated to.






After we had visited the 5 temples I have covered so far in today’s and yesterday’s blogs, we set off for a walk through the mountains to Kurama (which I have covered here and here). We followed the Tokai Nature Trail, a trail that spans over 1,000 miles of Japan. We got a little lost initially and ended up walking along the road for a good portion, but we eventually found the path.









It was a rather rainy and misty day, and we got a little damp, but I really liked the effect of the mist on the mountains. We saw some parts of the mountains in Kyoto that most people don’t visit and got a good amount of exercise (those hills are steep!). We were a little nervous about the signs that warned about bear sightings in the area, though I understand that they are very rare and the Japanese subspecies is much smaller than those in the rest of Asia, weighing 60 – 120kg. I still wouldn’t want to run into one, but they seem less scary than a grizzly bear.










We also met a very pretty cat that was hiding from the rain in a bush by the path.



There were a number of small travellers’ shrines on the path through the mountains, including one shrine that told the tale of a monk walking through the mountains who had seen a vision of the Buddha. A convenient story as no one else was around, but he got his little plaque on a mountain road nonetheless. We were hoping for a view of the town from the top but the trees were so tall and thick we couldn’t see anything.








We eventually arrived in Kurama after around two and a half hours of walking and got the train back down to Demachiyanagi station. It was a really good day out despite the weather.

Apologies if this blog took longer to load; I’ve had to switch image hosting from WordPress to Dropbox due to running out of space. I will be compressing my images in future so as to save space and hopefully improve loading times.