9th temple: Jyoshin-ji

After ramen lunch, we wander toward Jysohin-ji. From a block away, we spot Hotei beckoning, a pearl cradled in his left palm. In China he’s called Budai. This particular representation at the gates of Jyoshin-ji has travelled all the way from Taiwan. In the west we’re familiar with him as “Fat Buddha” or “Laughing Buddha”, but he is not Gautama. He is a jolly fat monk with a huge sack slung over his right shoulder, a bit like Santa Claus, but without the reindeer and elves and fixed address: no workshop at the north pole. His cloak is red and his skin stark white, his belt a black sash, like a martial artist or sumo wrestler.

Budai lived in China over a thousand years ago. He left a death note claiming he was an incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, a millenarian messianic figure who will return to teach the pure dharma to the suffering world. He’s part of a long procession of travelling monks, but at the same time stands outside the mainstream of a tradition extending all the way from Gautama himself, to ascetic monks meditating on mountaintops, to troubadours and other pilgrims (like us), to tramps and hoboes, with their meagre belongings in sacks tied to sticks carried over their shoulders. Today they might push a shopping cart. Hotei is different because of the size of his sack and because of the smile on his face. Most of his brethren are a sorrowing and sorry crew of travellers, like Beckett’s tramps. Somehow, Hotei came to represent luck and abundance. Some say he stores blessings in his sack. Someone told Ranjini that he hauls away our worries.

His smile makes me think of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, though he carries more flesh. A Zen koan tells how a monk approached Hotei and asked him the meaning of Zen. Hotei dropped his bag. The monk then asked him how one achieved Zen. Hotei picked up his bag and continued on his way.

We enter the gates of Jyoshin-ji feeling blessed with abundance. Near the gate we meet Kannon holding a baby, another child draped over her shoulder, like Hotei’s sack. We think of our four children in Canada and Dubai.

Jyoshin-ji distinguishes itself from the other temples we visit in Bunkyo-ku (we’ll visit six today) by its size. For a local temple, it is large, though this morning we are almost alone on the huge grounds. Jyoshin-ji is mainly used for funeral services and as we approach the main temple we are surrounded by the dead, their graves stretching away all around. After dropping off our go-shuin books with the monk in the office, we climb the long stairs up to the temple, pausing to take photos at the incense burner wrapped around by a dragon with yellow eyes.

At the top of the stairs we find the main hall closed, but glassed completely so that we can peer in at the altar. This is a Pure Land temple. Amida Buddha is flanked by Seishi Bosatsu and Kannon.

To the left is a life-sized carving of a tiger, and to the right is the largest mukugyo in all Japan. The mukugyo is a fish drum, used in Pure Land Buddhism to keep the rhythm as the devotees chant the name of Amitabha. Simply speaking the name is enough to awaken oneself to our home in the Pure Land, which exists right here all around us in the world we sleepwalk through each day. This mukugyo drum is a metre-and-half high, two metres wide, and weighs over five-hundred kilograms.

We descend the long temple steps, retrieve our signed go-shuin books and, like wandering Hotei, proceed on our pilgrimage.

8th Temple: Seiren-ji

In 1977 Seiren-ji’s head priest, Joichi Nishioka, began planning the construction of a traditional wooden three-tier pagoda. Its model was one of the oldest surviving wooden structures on earth, the five-tier pagoda at Horyu-ji in Nara. The Horyu-ji pagoda dates from the Akusa period in the 7th century, at the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. Nishioka’s goal was to employ the traditional building techniques used in constructing this national treasure, but his ambitious project was found to have structural problems and had to be entirely dismantled, the work begun again.

On the second day of 2016, shielded behind dusty grey screens, the work continues. Fundraising efforts are ongoing, and we do our part by having our go-shuin books signed and buying another book: an English translation of the Heart Sutra from 7th Century Japanese (as opposed to a translation from the original Pali) done by American-Japanese writer Hideo Levy.

In the 7th Century, at the time of Buddhism’s introduction to Japan, the pagoda was the central structure of most Buddhist temples. Pagodas originated in China as an interpretation of the Buddhist stupa. The stupa, a reliquary, was a heap of stones meant to mark the grave and store the bones and other sacred relics of the Buddha (and also meant to symbolize the mind of Buddha). Pagodas originally served the same purpose. Unlike Chinese pagodas, the Horyu-ji five-tier pagoda is built around a single pillar, the shinbashira, the trunk of a cypress tree felled in the year 594, a thousand years before Shakespeare. This “heart pillar” is what has allowed an ancient wooden structure to survive 1300 years in a country that sits on “the ring of fire”, one of the earth’s most active fault-lines. The pagoda is anchored by this central pillar, allowing it to survive earthquakes that have flattened modern concrete buildings. The shinbashira is now used for “earthquake-proofing” modern structures such as the Tokyo Skytree, built around a central concrete pillar. I recall condominiums built this way in the Westend of Vancouver.

And so it was that on January 2nd, 2016 we purchased a translation of The Heart Sutra to help pay for the heart pillar for this auspicious and ambitious pagoda, an ancient modern visualization of the form of Buddha’s mind. The goal was to unveil the pagoda in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I’m writing this in 2021, so I know now that those Olympics were cancelled by a global pandemic. So far as I know, the pagoda has also not yet been completed.

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Despite all the bustle of construction and fundraising going on at Seiren-ji, it is its neighbor, Kogen-ji, that we remember best from our visit. This area of Tokyo, Bungkyo, is dense with temples, and there is no fence to separate Serien-ji from Kogen-ji, so we don’t even need to walk back to the street to pass from one to the other. Kogen-ji is not part of our pilgrimage, but Seiren-ji’s small Kannon holding a lotus, the image related to the pilgrimage, is housed in an outer building that isn’t even open today, while Kogen-ji’s special treasure happens to be open to public viewing for the New Year.

Kogen-ji dates from 1589 and in 1697 they erected a spectacular eight-metre tall figure of Kannon on the site. This was destroyed in the WW II Allied bombing raids, but was re-erected as a six-metre, eleven-faced golden Kannon in 1993. Marcus Powles calls this the most beautiful Kannon statue in all of Tokyo. Housed outside the main hall, in a building much like a small chapel, this majestic Kannon is regal and awe-inspiring. He (for this is definitely a male Kannon) holds a golden Pilgrim’s Staff that stretches from the ground to higher than his head, though he is twenty feet tall. His eleven heads are surrounded by a huge golden filigreed halo.

The top of his Pilgrim’s Staff holds six rings, symbolic of the six karmic realms of existence: damned in hell, hungry ghosts, animals, asura (semi-blessed beings, partly good and partly evil, who exist in a realm of constant war), human, and heavenly beings.

I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon over her shoulder and leave her to pray and to sit with Kannon. A small boy comes and gazes up at Kannon as she rests in the doorway of the chapel.

7th Temple: Jyosen-ji

Jyosen-ji in Bunkyo-ku is not well known. In fact, I found it impossible to find any information about the temple at all, other than what Marcus Powles tells us in his guidebook: it was built in 1621 but destroyed, like most everything in Tokyo, in the Allied bombings during World War II. The main temple image, a small golden sitting Amida Buddha, did survive the bombing, but the golden seven-headed Kannon had to be remade after the war. Jyosen translates as “purification” or “decontamination”. When I Google it later I find many other more famous temples named Jyosen-ji, along with references to decontaminating sites (such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant) that have been exposed to radiation.

The white building is a mixture of modern and traditional, with sweeping hip roof eaves. As we approach through the lush peaceful garden, we have no idea that this temple will remain with us as a favourite memory of our pilgrimage. The front sliding wooden doors are flanked by windows in the shapes of bells. We ring the buzzer and are welcomed inside by a friendly monk dressed in blue jeans and a denim robe—unusual—with a face familiar from a million carvings. If he told us his name, I’ve forgotten, and we did not write it down. The name I give him now is Buddha.

In India, a traditional greeting is Namaste, which means “I bow to the god within you”, and in Hindu/Buddhist tradition there is a Sanskrit saying Atithi Devo Bhava, which means, “the guest is god”.

Buddha himself was more often a guest than a host as he travelled around the country, spreading the Dharma. Monks were instructed never to stay anywhere longer than two nights, in order not to take advantage of their hosts. They begged for alms and enabled their hosts to gain good karma through generosity.

However, during the monsoon season each year the Buddha would stop for three months in a park near an urban centre, such as Deer Park near Varanasi, and the monks would set up a community there for that extended period. Supplicants would come to visit the Buddha and learn the Dharma, thus becoming guests, and gods, themselves. This communal living became a central innovation of the Buddhist religion that has lasted 2500 years.

We are Buddha’s only visitors on this January 2nd morning. He shows us the beautiful altar room with the ancient Amida Buddha, the seven-headed Kannon, and countless other resplendent relics. Behind the bell-shaped window openings are stained-glass renderings of lotus flowers against a colourful checkered background, light streaming through, and nearby a painting of Honen, the founder of the Jodo-Shu school of Pure Land Buddhism. When the monk returns with our go-shuin book he invites us for tea at a table overlooking the garden. He wonders how we discovered Jyosen-ji and we show him Marcus Powles’ book, which he has never seen before, and which, like everything else, delights him. There is a wonderful warmth to the man that makes him feel like an old friend we are seeing after a long separation. The tea is hot, its flavors subtle, and looking out at the beautiful gardens we feel an exquisite peace and happiness.

Ranjini takes a photo of the monk and me, and he offers to take our photo together in front of the altar. Afterwards, he leads us up close to the ancient Buddha, showing us some painted panels stored in cupboards under the altar, one of the hell-lands and one of the Pure Land. Dream-like figures float in suffering and ecstasy against the plain brown background. I take a photo of Ranjini with Kannon. She says a prayer to the goddess before we return to finish our tea by the gardens. I study the guide book and our Buddha gives us directions to the next temple, Seiren-ji, and gives us some cookies to take with us. We thank him and go.

Outside, we stay a while in the gardens, sitting on a bench next to the fat Buddha, enjoying the lovely morning air, before we set off on our way.

6th Temple: Gyoran-ji

In the story generally associated with Gyoran-ji, Kannon appears as a beautiful young maiden in a village market. The fish in her basket look so tasty that many people rush to buy them from her, to which she responds that she’ll only sell them to someone who will set them free. People laugh and no one buys her fish.

Each day she reappears in the market, her beauty driving the young men crazy. Many propose marriage to her, so she offers a challenge: in exchange for her hand, she will marry the man who memorizes the Heart Sutra, the dharma verse where Kannon was first introduced to the world. The next day twenty young men answer the challenge by reciting the verse. The young maiden congratulates them, but it is impossible for her to marry twenty men, so she tells the twenty that she will marry the one who can memorize the Diamond Sutra. The next day four men are able to recite the sutra, and she challenges these four to perfectly memorize the entire Lotus Sutra within three days time.

Only one man, a young scholar, is able to pass the test, and the young maiden agrees to marry him. However, on the morning of their wedding day, the young woman falls ill and dies.  The entire community is overcome with grief, and the young woman’s body is buried. A few days later the grieving young scholar is approached by a monk who tells him that his betrothed was Kannon, and directs him to dig up her body for evidence of his claim. When the scholar and the villagers open her coffin they discover that the young woman’s bones have turned to gold. Mission accomplished, the monk disappears into thin air.

Two women wearing kimonos meet us at the gate to Gyoran-ji. We say the name of the temple and they nod and motion us inside. Ranjini tells them how beautiful they look and they nod and smile.  Six stone sculptures at the gate have been dressed in bright red bibs and hats to match.  These are Jizo statues. Jizo is a Bodhisattva usually depicted as a monk carrying a staff and a jewel or prayer beads. His principal role is to ease suffering and help those serving time in the hell realms. The statues are dressed in red bibs and hats because the colour red is associated with driving out illness and demons. There are six statues of Jizo to represent the six realms of suffering.

We enter the temple grounds and watch as a family approaches the main temple to ring the bell and clap their hands. We do the same, throwing a few coins in the box as an offering. Ranjini goes into the office to have our go-shuin books signed while I take photographs of three Jizo statues clad in red bibs and hats outside the doorway to the graveyard. There are two buckets of water before the statues and also plastic sacks of salt. It is traditional to offer salt to Jizo and to splash water on the statues as an offering. New Year’s Day is particularly important to the Jizo Cult: people petition the god for fertility, or recovery from an illness, or success in some endeavor, and tie a small piece of rope around the statue. On New Year’s Day the Priest cuts the ropes corresponding to wishes that have not been granted.

I walk through the graveyard, taking photos of the gravestones and the offerings that families have left to their ancestors, and watch as a father directs his young son to wash his hands before placing flowers on a grave. I think of my father, who died on the 6th of January, nine years ago, and of my Mom.

Ranjini returns with our go-shuin books, telling me that they are very busy with New Year’s preparations and the temple hall is closed. Ranjini tells the story of the fish-basket Kannon teaching dharma and we read in Marcus Powles’ book that her golden bones are also reputed to be a hidden relic of this temple.

Ranjini, I only realize later, is my fish-basket maiden.

5th Temple: Saikai-ji

In the Pali Sutra, Buddha tells the gathered monks to imagine the world an ocean containing a blind turtle that rises to the surface once every hundred years. On the surface of the ocean floats a single wooden cattle yoke.

“What chance is there the blind turtle will rise to the surface and pass his head through the wooden yoke?” Buddha asks. 

“Not bloody likely,” the monks answer.

“The likelihood is comparable to that of any non-human sentient being’s chances of being reborn as human,” Buddha says. “Only humans understand the dharma, follow its teachings, and find peace. Only humans can achieve enlightenment and be reborn in The Pure Land.”

The secret Kannon of Saikai-ji (like many Kannon, she’s hidden from prying eyes) stands on a turtle’s back. It’s an unusual representation, as there doesn’t seem to be any narrative explaining why she’s there. One educated guess is that this manifestation relates to the Pali Sutra and the blind turtle: Kannon is reminding us of how grateful we should be for our precious human lives.

Her choice of perch may also relate to her role as a protector of sailors.  One can imagine her appearing to them riding a turtle.

Many of Ranjini’s New Year’s prayers are for her dad. Only a month ago, she was called to Atlanta to be by his side. His health was failing and her mother and sister feared he might go at any moment, so she booked a flight from Dubai and rushed back to see him. By the time she arrived he had rallied. I flew down to spend a few days with her and her family in Atlanta.

My mother had died only six months before, on June 4th, 2015. I’d gone to Saskatchewan to visit her on Victoria Day weekend and was lucky to spend time with her before the end. Less than two weeks later she fell and fractured her knee. The doctors operated, and when they cut her open they found bone cancer. Then, on the operating table, her heart stopped. The medical team revived her and were surprised when she stabilized long enough for us to gather around her hospital bed. My sisters, my son Adam, and I were there with her when she died.

Ranjini’s father and my mother never met. Though from opposite ends of the earth, they had many similarities, the most obvious being that dementia had left them confused in their final years, the only time that Ranjini knew my mom and I knew her dad. Mom didn’t always know who I was at the end, and Ranjini sometimes wondered if her father knew her.

A more important similarity was the sense of calm watchfulness that I saw in Ranjini’s father and had always associated with Mom. They were both quiet, caring, and supportive parents.

In Hindu mythology a turtle holds up the earth. Ranjini’s father and my mother held up our two worlds.

Another important similarity was that neither feared death. My father, who died of lung cancer almost a decade before, fought the reaper to the very end, but my mother met him calmly, and if you asked Ranjini’s father where he was going, as he set off somewhere, he would often point to the sky and say, “Up there.”

Saikai-ji, once the French Consulate, has more the air of a government building than a place of worship. It functions now as a funeral home. We walk through the imposing gates to find ourselves in a parking lot, beside a small wooden shed. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of the shed, knowing from Marcus Powles’ book that this is the Kannon-do. We peer through a gap in the frosted glass but can see nothing inside.

Nearby, centuries ago, fifty Christians were executed after refusing to step on the cross.

We enter the temple office, ring the bell, and a woman tries to send us away before we get a chance to show our go-shuin books. The woman offers some pre-stamped pages. Ranjini points to the calligraphy from the previous temples and the woman impatiently asks for our money and tells us to wait outside. We stand in the parking lot and a few minutes later a friendlier woman brings us out our go-shuin with the new stamps and calligraphy. She smiles, bows, and we bow and go on our way.

4th Temple: Douou-ji

Entering the gates of Douou-ji, we find ourselves on a stone path bounded by a latticed fence on one side and a elegant temple floating above us against the blue sky. Douou-ji was established in the 17th Century, during the Edo period, and belongs to an ancient denomination of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo-shu, but there is little that is old about this temple or its grounds. The architecture is Modernist and minimalist, by Masaki Ogawa, and the temple was inaugurated in April of 2013. As we approach the ground floor along the path, we see to our right a fountain for performing ablutions and a cemetery where the graves are swept and polished. Families have left offerings for the ancestors before their gravestones: flowers, mochi, fruit, and beer. New Year’s is a particularly important time to give thanks to one’s ancestors. With gratitude for the past, we can face the future without fear.

DSCN0949.jpg

Douou-ji is dedicated to the future of Buddhism. The lower floor of the temple, housing a community centre where weekly yoga classes are offered, is almost entirely glass, and a Zen rock garden bedded in white gravel extends in a rectangle both inside and outside the windows, connecting the inner sanctum to the outside world. On the inside, contrails in the gravel make lines that suggest the rocks move when you aren’t looking, tracing their own paths in the pebbles. On the outside there are circular patterns, wheels within wheels, descending to a single simple dot. The peaceful atmosphere of the garden and its surroundings make me feel content to sit and enjoy the calm, but we ring the bell and Ranjini tells the voice who answers that we’re here following the Edo Kannon pilgrimage.  The voice instructs us to come up in the elevator.

DSCN0931 (1).JPG

The priest meets us upstairs and takes our go-shuin books to stamp, directing us outside to contemplate the Kannon-do while we wait for him to finish his calligraphy.  The shrine is located at the corner of the building, and we approach it along an upper deck that passes in front of windows revealing the main hall of the temple. This Kannon-do is one of the loveliest we’ve seen, with 33 different images of Kannon gathered from temples across Japan, representing her 33 different manifestations (seated, standing, eleven headed, thousand armed), all arranged inside the black box of the shrine. Ranjini sits while I photograph her image reflected in the glass between the camera and the varied Kannon images. Walking around behind the temple, I photograph the fountain and gardens and cemetery below.

DSCN0936.jpg

Returning for our go-shuin books, we tell the priest how impressed we are by the temple. He’s pleased, and intrigued by the fact that we’ve come all the way from Canada. (Ranjini always introduces herself as from Toronto, even though she’s living in Dubai). The idea of West has a special status in Pure Land Buddhism, as the Pure Land lies in the West. Perhaps that is why Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest was used for the elegant beams that support the temple. The priest introduces us to his teenaged daughter, who is studying in Canada, and Ranjini tells them that her daughter will also soon be starting University somewhere in Canada. After exchanging email addresses, the Priest offers to give us a tour of the main hall.

DSCN0955 (1).JPG

The room is flooded with light. At its centre is a golden Amida Buddha cast in the Edo period. A light tower above the statue showers down sunshine, and the windows behind the Buddha and behind us open the temple to the world and to the gardens and the ancestors lying below. Wooden chairs have been set out for a service. The hall feels open and spacious, with the focus squarely on the central Buddha. The architect, Masaki Ogawa, was concerned that dark and crowded ancient temples had left the Japanese feeling out of touch with their spirituality and so he designed this temple with the idea of renewing and deepening the intensity of a worshipper’s relationship with the Buddha and his teachings.

DSCN0943 (1).JPG

3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (New Year’s Eve)

Lee:

And so we arrive on New Year’s Eve in Ryusen-ji, home of the black-eyed fire-god.

Our friendly guide leads us through the grand Nio gates, the monstrous horned guardians scowling down at us as we pass. I remember them from yesterday at Senso-ji, but at night, brilliantly illuminated, they are much more menacing.

3c975929-9bac-4260-a72c-8e8bc704d961

Once inside, we are met by Fudo Myo-o, every bit as frightening as the Nio twins. Like us, he has come a long way: his origins are in India, as the Hindu god Acala. He perches to our left on a large stone. He has two fangs, one pointing upwards and the other down, and clutches a sword in his right hand, and a lariat in his left. Nearby two small waterfalls flow from a natural spring presided over by another image of the fire-god. Here initiates sometimes perform a purification ritual associated with the god by standing under the torrent of cold water.

DSCN0821

We’ve arrived early and our guide and the few others at the temple are just setting up, readying for the celebrants, who will come closer to midnight. No one, though, seems to mind our presence. I snap a photo of Ranjini in front of a tall Kannon statue.

DSCN0824 (2).jpg

We climb the stairs alone to the upper temple and circle around behind to discover Dainichi Nyorai, the Cosmic Buddha, haloed in gold. Ranjini sits while I take more photos. We have no idea that the wrathful fire-god, Fudo Myo-o, is an emanation of this peaceful figure. Once frightened by the fire-god into believing, you are beckoned by Dainichi Nyorai toward the Pure Land.

DSCN0836 (1).jpg

People have begun to arrive. At 11:30 a procession forms, led by two men walking abreast in purple robes (are they monks?), followed by eight monks in multi-coloured robes walking single file.  We follow the crowd toward the temple bell-tower, where we stand and watch and listen to the 108 gongs of the bell. I’ve heard it explained that there are 108 human sins and as we begin again in the New Year we are made mindful of them by this ritual. People snap photos on their phones. The final gong comes a moment after midnight.

It is 2016.

DSCN0894 (1).JPG

We kiss and join the line and follow the crowd up the steps toward the temple, which houses Ennin’s original sculpture of Fudo Myo-o, now 1200 years old. We pass the dragon incense burner and Ranj directs the smoke over us; throw coins in the offering box, clap our hands twice, and bow. Exhausted, we make our way back down the steps, past the fire-god and through the Nio gates, by the sleeping lovers, who we still do not notice, and plod wearily back to the station to catch our train to the Hotel.

DSCN0916.JPG

Ranjini:

Lee and I make our way up the steps of the main temple. Time on our hands, not exactly sure what we’re waiting for, we begin to circle the temple, turn the corner, and see an immense Buddha sitting in absolute stillness. He is Dainichi Nyorai, especially important in Esoteric Buddhism: Vairocana Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism.

DSCN0842 (1).jpg

This New Year’s eve, I pray especially for my father. Last summer, Lee and I had visited my parents in Atlanta.  Sitting out on my sister’s screened porch, my father would say, all-smiles and cheer, “See! See, God!” and point to the trees, or, “Listen, God,” and bow his head before birdsong and cicadas.

“I’m ready to go.”

“Where Daddy?”

His deep-set eyes still bright, “Up there.”

DSCN0446.jpg

Some weeks before Japan, I had flown again from Dubai to Atlanta and on the day that I was returning to Dubai, we had admitted my father to the retirement home. I pray to the Christ whom my father loves with all his heart to release him from the limitations of his body.  I pray now that my mother will know when to bring him home so that he can leave this world from the bed that they have shared for decades.  I pray that he can transition from this world to the next with her by his side, from their home.

George and Sarah enjoyed a simple love and like the fabulous hikyoduri, they had flown together for almost 56 years.

Lee and I line up, throw coins, clap hands, and enter the temple where the goma fires burns away wooden plaques with last year’s wishes and prayers. I linger before the deities, smoke, and chanting.

DSCN0919 (1).JPG

3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (The Lovers)

Lee

East meets West where the Samurai meets the Cowboy: Ronin.

Sometime in the 17th Century the young Samurai Gonpachi got into an argument with his clansman over who had the better dog. A sword fight ensued and Gonpachi, being handy with his weapon, killed his clansman. Forced to flee, he became a ronin: a wandering Samurai with no master to serve.

74c1111e-9df6-46cc-be8b-ec10a789f22c

One evening he slunk into a country inn for a drink, a meal, and a bed.  In the night he was startled from sleep by a gorgeous 15-year-old girl, Komurasaki, come to warn him that the inn-keepers were robbers and villains, intent on murdering him and stealing his beautiful sword. She also revealed herself as the daughter of a rich merchant, kidnapped by these evil men, and begged him to save her. So he sliced up the gangsters, killing them all, and returned Komurasaki to her parents.

843bbe85-2e2a-4433-a70b-aac8b1f5368a.jpg

Gonpachi and Komurasaki had fallen in love, and father and daughter did everything they could to convince him to marry and take over the family business, but Gonpachi, ever the cowboy, was not through with wandering, so he rode off into the sunset. Back to Tokyo. Or Edo, as it was then called.

Time passed.

Gonpachi began to hear stories of an extraordinary courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, not far from where Ueno Station now stands. This young prostitute was reputed to surpass all of her competition in beauty and womanly skills. Gonpachi went off to the Miuraya brothel to find out if the stories were true. He discovered that the young woman was his Komurasaki. She had indentured herself into prostitution to support her destitute parents: apparently her father’s business had not done well since Gonpachi rode away.

eb0523a5-5a51-4d0a-8871-bf38d98b4352.jpg

Reunited, the lovers could not get enough of one another. Gonpachi returned to Miuraya brothel every day. Ronin, though, have no source of steady income and Gonpachi soon ran out of funds to pay for his lover’s favours. Komurasaki would never have kept him from her bed, but Gonpachi was too ashamed to come to the brothel without money, so he killed a man, stole his money, and gave it to Komurasaki. In the days that followed he killed another man and then another and another, showering their money on his beloved. By the time it was finished he was reputed to have murdered 130 men for love of dog and Komurasaki.

1bf1523f-39be-4909-9e61-7ad7fa502d8b.jpg

In the end, the law caught up with him and he was executed by haritsuke: crucified and impaled by spears.  His body was buried just outside the gates of Ryusen-ji, better known as Meguro Fudo, an important Buddhist temple dedicated to the black-eyed fire god Fudomyo. Komurasaki killed herself on his grave and is buried there beside him.

In Japan these two lovers are symbolized by the fabulous bird hiyokudori, which has only one wing and so must find its other half in order to fly: the incarnation of faithful love.

c4136cd3-9cdc-4e32-9280-9ea46177ad7c.jpg

Ranjini

On December 31st morning in Tokyo, Lee and I make our way from the Grand Prince Takanawa to Sunset Plaza hotel in Shinjuku. As we step out of Shinjuku subway station, I misjudge the height of one of the steps, my weight coming down heavily on one foot. Except for a pang of pain that disappears as I walk on, I am okay.

At 3 P.M. Lee returns, subway map in hand, and suggests that we make it to another Kannon temple. We get off at the Nakana-Fujimicho station and find that Toen-ji is closed. We wander down deserted streets searching for a nearby temple. Everyone seems away for the New Year holiday.  We meet Amy who has learned English from her month in Canada at the University of Manitoba, and she guides us to the subway stop.

At our $100 dinner, there is once again nothing much for me to eat.  Where are the famed soba noodles? Hungry and a little despondent at being pilgrims who cannot find temples or arrive at temples with closed doors, I pick at the margarita pizza that the organizers, belatedly, ordered for their handful of vegetarian participants, while others relish the famous Kobe beef and grilled fish.  In this island country the fish looks delicious, but I remember my joyous dream of fish basket Guan Yin (there is one such temple on this pilgrimage); in a second dream at CTTB, Kannon-like, I’d gathered hallways of dying jeweled fish and returned them to the water: I saved some, but not all.

bdd72d30-2517-44f5-99ad-cd6aca827a5b.jpg

After dinner Lee and I plan to attend New Year celebrations at a Tokyo temple. I suggest Meiji shrine, interested in seeing its unadorned cypress wood buildings, bronze lanterns, expansive gardens and roof of camphor trees. The temple commemorates Emperor Meiji who transitioned Japan from a feudal to modern society.

Lee suggests the 33rd temple on the Kannon pilgrimage, Rysuen-ji.

“Really? Will they have New Year celebrations?”

“They should. It’s a large temple.”

This evening in Tokyo, his belly may not be full of soba gold, but his heart is pure and his body when we embrace is warm.  I know that he wants this for me. It would be perfect to spend New Year’s in Kannon’s presence.

554d4394-9921-451c-bfb6-ddb0074515f6.jpg

At Rysuen-ji, we may miss out on gongs and a large-scale celebration, but I am happy to be with him.  In the restroom, I slip out of my dress and slip on comfortable shoes, jeans, and a sweater.  Lee wears a suit jacket with his jeans and I worry that he will be cold.  Dressed almost always in blue jeans, he has something of the cowboy in him.  Fortunately, in our love’s history there are no murders and brothel. Yet, will our love rival the fidelity of Gonapache and Komurasaki?  Against seemingly impossible odds, we are still together.

3c975929-9bac-4260-a72c-8e8bc704d961.jpg

 

2nd Temple: Seisui-ji

Lee

Seisui-ji could not be more different than its colossal neighbour, Senso-ji. A modest modernist structure built in 1993, we identify it by the golden dharma wheel on the face of the second floor balcony. Bright prayer flags frame an open window on the balcony. There are no crowds. We ring the doorbell and when a young man answers we have the awkward feeling that we are intruding in a private home. Once we’ve shown him our go-shuin books he understands and escorts us to the lovely shrine, leaving us alone there while he takes our books to the monk for inscription.

DSCN0691

Despite its modern look, Seisui-ji dates to the 9th Century, though the original temple was located more than three miles away. It was built to house a Kannon statue that, according to legend, saved Tokyo from a terrible epidemic. Marcus Powles’ book tells us that the monk who carved the statue prostrated himself 3 times before every stroke of his chisel. When he finished carving the statue and placed it in the temple, the epidemic ended.

The original statue was destroyed in a fire, but before us is a Kannon that dates from the 14th Century. All the way back to Chaucer’s time, I can’t help but think.  It was Canterbury Tales that introduced me to the concept of pilgrimage. The thought of the Knight and the Miller and the Lady of Bath takes me back to memorizing the opening lines of the poem in high school. As I sit, trying to let go of these thoughts and to meditate, I am finally overwhelmed by my bladder. That beer I had with lunch. My body getting the better of me. I tell Ranjini I’m going to look for a washroom, but I can’t find our host, and the urgency of my mission makes me leave the temple altogether, telling Ranjini I’ll meet her there in a few minutes. She agrees and goes back to her meditation.

Ranjini

We would not have recognized the temple if it had not been for the gold wheel of the dharma chakra, a symbol of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Standing with Lee by the bare plum tree with the Zen garden to one side, we are disoriented by the smallness of Seisui-ji. We are the only pilgrims here.

On the first floor, I admire a scroll with the Heart Sutra.  A young man guides us to the shrine and shuts the door behind him. The shrine is gold leaves and flowers, candles, black lacquer and hanging lanterns. After the millions of pilgrims at Senso-ji—the bronze-roofed incense burner, thick smoke, roof of 70, 000 bronze tiles, falling oracle sticks—here, there is silence. When Lee leaves in search of a restroom, I remain seated before a many-armed gold Kannon. To the side of this elegant altar, I spot an unusual looking Japanese Kannon: she is around two-feet tall, a young woman with straight-black shoulder length hair and a gold disc of a seated Amitabha on the crown of her head.

DSCN0697

Now, the young man returns with our go-shuin books and it is 4:30 pm and closing time. I wait outside for my Beloved.  When Lee returns, we cross the road and enter a store stacked with beautiful bowls. I am drawn especially to a bowl with the image of an orange phoenix, mythical bird, fire and ashes, symbol of endings and new beginnings.  I am bone-weary of the rapidity of the many beginnings and endings of my life and I walk away from the beckoning phoenix. Tired of packing and unpacking, disposing and giving away things, storing and shipping things, I am also trying to buy less, own less.

DSCN0701.jpg

On Kappabashi Dogugai Avenue, we stroll past plastic food displays—steak, sushi and fruit baskets, and a cut-out of a chef floating high above a corner building. In a tiny store cluttered with stainless pots, I spot a small crème plaster-of-paris Kannon, right knee raised, seated on a lotus in regal repose: six U.S. dollars.  I ask the old woman if she has a second Kannon similar to this, and she rummages, unearths a box.  For 10 U.S. dollars, I buy two Kannons—one for each of us to take back to our separate homes to mark the first day of our pilgrimage.

DSCN1089.JPG

Sakura Gardens

Lee

There are no cherry blossoms at this time of year, but the late morning is a pleasant 10 degrees Celsius, and the garden is large and green and lovely. There is a meditation room with tatami mats and a small shrine, so we slip off our shoes and sit a while listening to the birds singing the dharma and the distant hum of traffic, my brain floating off in all directions with the giddiness of the time-change and the dislocation of being in this beautiful and unfamiliar place.

DSCN0555 (1)

When we continue down the path we come to a small shrine. Peering through the glass we see her: Amida Buddha rests in her crown, a vial containing her tears clutched to her heart with her left hand, and her right hand open in her lap to accept our offering.

DSCN0563 (1).JPG

We have come upon Kannon, the goddess of compassion, by chance in this sakura garden in Tokyo. Last night Ranjini reminded me that she was to be an important part of our trip. We were to visit some of 33 temples dedicated to her on a pilgrimage that would lead us all over Tokyo. Ranjini had a book to guide us.

DSCN0592 (1).jpg

I agreed. It sounded like a fun way to explore the city. We’d see how many we could do in our week in Tokyo.

After our walk through the garden, we go for a brunch of noodles and when we finish I think we should go back to the Hotel to check on our luggage. When we do, the jetlag hits me and I lie down for a rest. By the time I realize Ranjini isn’t pleased it’s too late. She’d hoped we might visit the first temple on our pilgrimage.

I promise we’ll do one tomorrow.

DSCN0581.jpg

Ranjini

In the morning we go down to the lobby and in the sunlight I see the gardens. We sit in the meditation room, and walk until we see her: Kannon. She is in a miniature temple of white walls with red trimmings, green window shutters and silver-gray shingle roof. The sun reflects off the glass, and to see her I have to shield my eyes and press my face to the glass. This is the eleven-headed Kannon, rare in China but more common in Japan.

DSCN0554 (2).JPG

After lunch, we head to our new room. I use the hot water dispenser and make roasted green tea.  At 4 p.m., the gong in the sakura garden sounds. Ten chimes.

Listen to the sound of the bell. It is the voice of the Buddha, inviting us to go home to ourselves.

The sign says that the bell has been rung once each day since April 1, 2009 at the occasion of our hotel’s 55th anniversary: March through October the bell is rung at 5 pm and from November through February at 4 pm.

DSCN0617.JPG

4:30 pm and it is already dusk.  I climb the stone steps that lead me to Kannon. Once there, I see that the shrine is lit up. She is so beautiful and my eyes fill with tears.

I have been on pilgrimage ever since a woman, Marie, came up to me at the Buddhist temple on Millcreek Drive in Mississauga, Ontario—“I feel I have to talk with you”—and introduced me to a goddess with toenails and fingernails painted pink, one foot stepping forward, holding a vase and the wish-fulfilling jewel of the enlightened mind.

Kuan Yin.

DSCN0588.jpg

I sit on the window ledge of our room, 1256.  Ornamental “finished’ carp lie still at the edges of the koi pond—silver, orange, red, white skin jeweled with red and blue, sleeping with eyes open: emblems of compassion. The wooden fish drum, mokugyo, is used during the recitation of sutras.

DSCN0578 (1).jpg

In this city of the 33-temple Kannon pilgrimage, she is there, hidden, behind red doors.

Please let me see your temples, Kannon. 

DSCN0579 (1).jpg