After the metropolitan mayhem of Tokyo, former Japanese capitals Kyoto and Nara offered a welcome change of pace and a chance to thoroughly medicate our nagging temple anxiety. The cities are awash with temples and shrines, often in the most unlikely surroundings, and these provide the reason for the Kansai region’s inclusion on most tourists’ itineraries.
While a handful of sites have emerged as the must-see destinations for the avid temple-hopper (namely Kiyomizudera and the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto and the Daibatsu in Nara), enlightenment came closest for me on the side of a soaring mountain in the Arashiyama area. We lit incense sticks in a square filled with hundreds of grey stone Buddha images as snowflakes bounced and skittered off our faces and the stone surfaces all around us. Drifting sheets of snow enclosed the shrine, blocking out any sight or sound of the city. The leering mountain slopes seemed to huddle even closer over the moss-sprouting thatched rooftop of the shrine. When the thick clouds cleared and snow ceased to fall, blue skies revealed the city below us and we squelched through newly formed puddles, our backs to the hills.
Back on the tourist beat, I decided to treat my chances at prayer realisation to a vertiginous boost. Sure, you can rub a statuesque stomach here or piff your spare change at a metal bowl there, but why not just get reborn? Out for a fresh start and feeling sporting, I turned first to the challenge of Daizuigu Bosatsu’s womb.
Underneath one of the pagodas at the famed Kiyomizudera, a gaggle of improperly dressed schoolchildren (surely a winter uniform is called for in these conditions) and I descended a staircase and entered absolute darkness. Figuratively speaking, we had all just set foot in the womb of a female Bodhisattva with the power to grant any human wish. Maintaining a white-knuckled grip on the handrail and flailing an arm in front of myself, I adroitly negotiated a few 90-degree turns before coming upon a softly top-lit circular rock. This was duly treated to a quick spin, some impromptu gestures were performed in the dark and I emerged from the womb blinking and rubbing my eyes (but otherwise fully dressed and looking quite well for a newborn). Rebirth: check.
Later, in Nara (note: not one mention of this being Canberra’s sister city, ungrateful so-and-so’s), I decided to ramp up my chances at spiritual jackpot yet again. Having entered the Todaiji (largest wooden structure in the world) and observed the Daibatsu (literally, Big Buddha), we came upon a small tunnel carved into one of the huge timber supports that held up the immense roof. Kate told me that the hole was exactly the same dimensions as one of the Daibatsu’s nostrils (see picture)and those able to squeeze through got all sorts of next-life goodies. Sure enough, we observed one young man make a successful pass at it and I needed no further encouragement.
Stripping off some winter layers, I conjured memories of my childhood escapades scrambling through cat-flaps and got down on hands and knees. With only an innocent gyration or two required in the centre, I soon emerged victorious and gratefully accepted the adoration of the assembled crowd. The feat seemed somewhat less astonishing moments later, however, as a parade of schoolchildren neatly assembled themselves and proceeded to slide through the hole with startling machine-like efficiency.
Thus having maximized my chances at prayer fulfillment, I venture forth.