Friday, September 08, 2006
The contributions of the aforementioned Kobo Daishi to Japanese culture probably cannot be overstated. In addition to founding one of the four major Buddhist sects, "Great Teacher" Kobo is also credited with introducing tea to Japan, as well as with devising the Japanese syllabary known as hiragana. He was a famed calligrapher, and numerous legends relate almost supernatural feats of brushwork. I will paraphrase one such representative tale. The Emperor of Japan, desirous that a tablet destined for a certain Kyoto temple be decorated by the brush of Kobo, despatched a messenger bearing the tablet to the great priest's abode. A swollen and impassable river blocking the way, the worried messenger was standing on the bank, concerned lest he forfeit the Emperor's trust-and perhaps his own life- when who but Kobo himself should appear on the opposite bank. Being made to understand what was required, Kobo asked that the tablet be raised overhead, whereupon he traced the characters in the air with his brush. No sooner was he done than each of the characters miraculously appeared on the tablet, held aloft by the messenger on the farther bank. The accompanying photos show a statue of Kobo Daishi, flanked by candelabra of gilt lotus blossoms and leaves, in a shrine at Shijiin Temple.
The photo accompanying the introductory remarks shows a temple of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. Shingon was founded in the early 9th century by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Today, Shingon and its 47 sub-sects maintain some 12,000 temples and number 12,000,000 adherents. The inscribed pillar beside the gate informs us that Shijiin, as the temple is named, is one of 21 such temples in the Echigo region, an ancient province that comprises Niigata Prefecture. While there are probably hundreds of Shingon temples in Echigo, I suspect that Shijiin Temple (as well as the other 20) claims its special status by virtue of its impressive size, as well as from its collection of statuettes representing the 88 temples of the famous Shikoku pilgrimage. Each statue is inscribed with a number, 1-88, which indicates the order in which its corresponding temple appears along the pilgrimage route. Furthermore, the Buddhist deity or saint associated with each temple is carved on the statue in relief. Each year thousands of Buddhist faithful and non-believers alike undertake to complete a stage, or some few stages, of the pilgrimage route. The especially devout or determined may don the traditional white robe of a Buddhist pilgrim and, with the pilgrim's staff for support, set off on foot. Others dispense with the garb and staff, opting to save time and shoe leather by traveling on two wheels. For those of infirm body or purpose, there are charter bus tours available.
This blog was begun with a dual purpose: to provide myself a forum in which to articulate my impressions and broaden my understanding of Japan, the country I have called home for eight years; additionally, I hope to offer the viewer illuminating pictorial glimpses of Japanese culture and daily life, as well as insights into a Japan that is typically bypassed by the standard travel itinerary and tourist guide.