An­cient rites, deep pock­ets

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia - Chris Viney

IT is a Bilbo Bag­gins mo­ment, but in­stead of be­ing on the banks of an un­der­ground lake swap­ping rid­dles with Gol­lum, I am walk­ing along­side a jovial Shinto priest, daz­zled by the au­tumn colours of the gar­dens around Ka­suga Grand Shrine in Nara, south of Ky­oto on the Ja­panese is­land of Hon­shu.

I no­tice that the flow­ing sleeves of my guide’s robe are full of odd bulges and I can’t help ask­ing what’s in his pock­ets. He chuck­les and dips a hand into the left sleeve.

Out comes a leather wal­let of busi­ness cards. I re­ceive his card (in­scribed Ya­suhiko Ki­ta­mura, Shinto Priest) with care, in­spect it po­litely, thank him and present my own, to the same for­mal­i­ties.

But there is more to come. Back goes the priest’s hand, to reap­pear with a small note­book, pen­cil and a pocket-sized packet of tis­sues. He chor­tles at my sur­prise, then dives into the other sleeve and with­draws a brochure (in English, hap­pily) about the shrine.

We walk be­neath gink­gos and maples, the trees ablaze with gold and scar­let fo­liage, bright against the dark green cedars and cy­presses. He tells me that his shrine, the largest in Ja­pan’s first cap­i­tal, is one of six an­cient wooden build­ings of Nara and the sur­round­ing re­gion in­scribed on UNESCO’s World Her­itage list.

An­other World Her­itage site is To­daiji, at the far end of Nara Park, where hun­dreds of deer roam free. This tem­ple, the big­gest wooden struc­ture on earth, houses a colos­sal seated Bud­dha, 30m high from floor level to the top of the tight curls on his head, which rep­re­sent mar­tyred snails who gave their lives to moisten his holy scalp.

Each eye is more than 1m wide and the white-clad monks rev­er­ently brush­ing dust from the statue are al­most as tall as the serene fin­gers of the Bud­dha’s out­stretched hand.

Climb­ing the steps to the main shrine at Ka­suga, Ki­ta­mura ex­plains that Ja­panese peo­ple say there are 8 mil­lion Shinto deities. They are present in air and fire, wa­ter and wind, rivers and moun­tains, an­i­mals and trees. Moun­tains are par­tic­u­larly sa­cred places. There is a tiny shrine on ev­ery sum­mit and climbers fol­low the cor­rect rit­ual: first, a small of­fer­ing of coins or food, then two loud claps to wake the spir­its, a bowed head and a silent prayer.

When­ever I climb in Ja­pan, my thoughts at the shrine on top are al­ways the same: grat­i­tude for the good for­tune to reach an­other peak and heart­felt wishes for the safety and health of my fam­ily at home. Do I be­lieve the moun­tain spir­its are lis­ten­ing? Not re­ally. But the rit­ual feels right and is strangely sat­is­fy­ing; it would seem gauche and dis­re­spect­ful just to turn my back and walk away.

So be­fore leav­ing Ka­suga, I fol­low the same sim­ple rite, this time not on a windswept sum­mit but in front of the im­pos­ing and richly dec­o­rated al­tar of a Shinto shrine.

There’s an au­tumn chill in the af­ter­noon air as the visit ends. Shak­ing hands with Ki­ta­mura, I feel the weight of his sleeve and risk an­other ques­tion. I ask if he has pic­tures of his chil­dren in there as well. Tri­umphantly he fishes about, pulls out his mo­bile phone and flips the lid. On the screen is a happy snap of a de­mure young wo­man and three small boys with very big smiles.

The Ja­pan Na­tional Tourism As­so­ci­a­tion, the UN World Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the Asia Pa­cific Cen­tre will host a World Her­itage Wooden Struc­ture Tourism Fo­rum in Syd­ney on Fe­bru­ary 22. There will be pre­sen­ta­tions on the his­tory, struc­ture and tech­nol­ogy of the World Her­itage­listed wooden build­ings in the Nara re­gion and on the im­por­tance of moun­tain wor­ship in the Shinto re­li­gion. Free ad­mis­sion; book­ings by Fe­bru­ary 8. More: (02) 9251 3034; jnto@toky­o­net.com.au.

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