Thursday, September 12, 2013

Kamakura: Zen Temples

Our wonderful day was topped off by the view we had of the sunset over Mount Fuji, the top of which was visible above the clouds. Again, we feel incredibly fortunate to have seen it now three times, when it is usually shrouded in clouds.

We met our guide, Ken, yesterday afternoon at 12:30 just outside of the Kamakura train station. I had discovered only a few days before that the organization to which Ken belongs offers free tours of 3-5 hours, tailored to the specific interests of the clients. It's unbelievable that more people don't know about this service. They primarily do it to boost tourism in Kamakura, which is less well-known than other tourist attractions around Tokyo.

Ken, at a Japanese Zen tea ceremony that he arranged for us
We had communicated our desire to see Zen temples, and Ken had lined up three, plus a visit to a famous shrine here in Kamakura.

A bit of background. Quoting from Insight Guide's Japan: 
"Cradled in a spectacular natural amphitheater, Kamakura is bordered on three sides by wooded mountains and on the fourth by the blue Pacific. From 1192, when Minamoto Yoritomo made it the headquarters of the first shogunate, until 1333 when imperial forces breached it's seven 'impregnable' passes and annihilated the defenders, Kamakura was the de facto political and cultural capital of Japan. During those years, the military administration based here built impressive temples and commissioned notable works of art, a great deal of them Zen-influenced."
Portion of a rock garden at Hokokuji Temple. The gravel represents the ocean, the small boulders
the mountainous sea coast of Japan and, further "inland" the forests, represented by moss

From another guidebook comes the following information about the founding of Zen in Japan during the Kamakura era:
"A series of Zen temples were created in the 1200s under the Hojo regents, acting on behalf of the Minamoto shoguns. These regents were to favor the Zen teachings that refugee Chinese priests were bringing from the mainland as they and other Chinese intellectuals fled the persecution of Kublai Khan and his Mongol forces, which were conquering the Song dynasty of China. Zen practices and doctrines had a great appeal to the Hojo regents because of Zen's simplicity, its disciplined training and its reliance on one's inner self."
Our first stop was Hokokuji Temple. There, Ken explained the significance and meaning of so many things of which we would have been ignorant. I, for example, had heard of Zen rock/gravel gardens, but did not know their meaning.

Ken explained that this monuments reflect earth, water, fire, air and, at the top,
the Zen concept of "nothingness" or Nirvana

Monuments to unknown soldiers that were once found all over Kamakura. Ken told
us that people still find these occasionally in the ocean or in the hills around the city.

The bamboo forest at Hokokuji

From Hokokuji, we walked a short distance to Jyomyoji Temple for a tea ceremony that Ken had arranged before-hand. This was not the "high" (extremely formal and ritualized) ceremony, but there was still some formality to it. We were in a tea house overlooking a Zen rock garden. Ken explained, after ritually cleansing ourselves, that we would eat something sweet prior to drinking the tea in order to cut the bitterness. )Apparently in years gone by, the tea was indeed quite bitter.) Then would come the tea. We were to pick up the bowl with both hands, turn it slightly clockwise for three turns, then drink. When finished, we turned the bowl back and set it down.

From Jyomyoji, we back back to the center of Kamakura, where Ken guided us around Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a very large Jinja (Shinto) shrine. Along the way and throughout the afternoon, he explained that Japan had a natural religion for centuries, which is now commonly called "Shinto" - but Ken preferred the other term, "Jinja." When the shogunate ended around 1870 and the powers that be reinstalled the emperor to full power over the government and military, they carried out a war of sorts against Buddhism. 

Formerly, Jinja shrines and Buddhist temples had existed side by side and were, in some senses, one and the same. But the Meiji government made the emperor himself a deity, and this is what ultimately led to the full flowering of emperor worship directed toward Hirohito. When Hirohito was forced to announce that he was not a god but a mere human, Ken explained, many people were devastated.

Sake barrels, one of three stories of such barrels on the grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu

Our final stop of the afternoon was Kenchoji, another Zen temple. Lonely Planet's guide describes this temple:
"Dating from 1253, Kehcho-ji is Japan's oldest Zen monastery. The central Busuden (Buddha hall) was brought piece by piece from Tokyo [then known as Edo] in 1647. Its Jizo Bosatsu statue, unusual for a Zen temple, reflects the valley's ancient function as an execution ground (Jizo consoles lost souls). There's also a bell cast in 1253 and the juniper grove, believed to have sprouted from seeds brought from China by Kencho-ji's founder some seven centuries ago."

A lantern in the juniper grove

Mark talking with Ken

The Jiza statue

Pine behind the temple and its reflection in a small pond

It had been another wonderful experience. More temples today ... Off to Kyoto tomorrow.

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