Japan Trip 2010–Day 12a


The final phase of the trip began with check-out from the tour hotel and a brief subway ride to Kyoto railroad station, where we navigated through throngs of commuters to the the basement counter set up for idiot foreigners to validate their rail passes.


Around the corner, we checked our bags until afternoon departure.  As we rode the escalator to the ground floor we had no idea that we’d emerge into one of the world’s most grandiose and quirky buildings.  Immense horizontal and vertical volumes were framed by a variety of visible structural members and open at both ends to daylight, which illuminated ascending ranks of terraces recalling the steep mountain temple complexes at Kiyumizo and Nanzenji. But the deliberate lack of symmetry, the oblique fractioning of functions, spaces, levels, shapes, colors and textures suggested the frenetic overabundance of malls and market arcades.


My first reaction was childlike eagerness to ride the escalators, as far as they would go up into the white expanse of the firmament.


As we did so, my eyes were drawn to opaque and translucent layers of canopy dancing above our diagonal ascent.


These were  multiplied by segmented surfaces of mirroring windows which made it impossible to distinguish substance from reflection or to discern the dividing line between them.



Each landing was decorated with brightly colored sculptures hard to differentiate from functional structures.


As we rose, views of the station below and the hotel complex at the opposite end brought new disparate elements into sight and glimpses of the surrounding city revealed railroad yards and skyscrapers in the foreground, temple roofs in the middle ground and the city’s surrounding mountains in the distance.


The fifteen-story ascent ended at a green roof designed as as a modernistic garden paying tribute with signage in Japanese and English to the importance of nature, energy conservation, and the role of landscaping in traditional temples and fortresses.  But the vegetation was not thriving.


More alluring was the entry to the Skyway, a glassed-in catwalk traversing the length of the station just below the roof


which offered more prospects of the dissonant configurations below.



At the end of the Skyway stood one of many statue-like janitors holding a disinfectant cloth against the moving handrails of escalators before they disappeared into the floor.


After more than an hour of tribute in this monument to Japan’s enviable transportation system, Jan said we should walk over to Hongwanji, a large temple complex we spotted from the roof, a couple of blocks away.  This place was less an antiquity and tourist attraction than a vital hub of worship and institutional administration.  The heritage tree in the center of the plaza was shielded from ongoing construction,


the great hall was newly outfitted with collection boxes and lamps,


a group of shoeless parishioners in business attire were listening intently to a sermon being delivered by a female monk who looked liked like a round smiling Buddha, her musical voice perfectly amplified by a public address system whose large console blinked colored lights in a far corner.


We left through a side doorway and searched our map for an entrance to the gardens enclosed by gates at the back of the temple.  I was surprised when the monk who’d been preaching came upon us and asked in a sweet voice if she could help and then apologized for the gardens now being closed to the public.  She gave us the eye contact, the smile and the slow bow I’d wanted from the Zen priest and then disappeared into an adjoining building roofed like the temple, but framed with steel and glass.  This was the international headquarters of Shin Buddhism.


On the way to a bathroom in the busy bookstore nearby, among hundreds of beautifully bound Japanese texts I found several shelves of volumes in English and a video showing a DVD animation of a story of  Shinran Shonin, the sect’s founder, taming the  fury of an attacking samurai warrior with only a peaceful look in the eyes.


The contemporary vitality of this sect was further brought home during our walk back to the railroad station along a street lined with shops selling religious paraphernalia–not the inexpensive charms and talismans offered at other temples but gorgeous lacquered altars produced in Kanazawa and elegant gold-leaf statues, paintings and scrolls, none with prices marked.


As we headed out of this city of shrines dedicated to glorifying and retaining the experience of eternity bestowed on rare individuals, I was struck by a memory of my own brush with such experiences during my twenties, experiences that Jan and I usually shared.  I remembered  the choice I had made to depart from “the path of totality” involved in a deliberate spiritual quest and to find my own path through matrimony, family and procreation.  Now we were headed to Osaka to meet the beloved nieces, their husband and fiancé, and their large Japanese-Korean family, whom I had become related to through my wife’s brother’s first marriage.

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