Ancient rites, deep pockets
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; firstname.lastname@example.org.