Re­as­sur­ing rit­u­als

At some shrines and tem­ples in Ky­oto, Ja­pan, vis­i­tors can sup­pos­edly find true love, make their prob­lems dis­ap­pear, and drink their way to good things.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By YUEN MEIKENG star2­travel@thes­

CLOS­ING my eyes and clasp­ing my hands to­gether, I took small, care­ful steps for­ward.

The in­struc­tions were sim­ple, re­ally: From a large stone placed on the floor, walk with your eyes closed un­til you reach an­other stone.

It was only 20m, but when you can’t see any­thing, it can feel like 2km.

Some peo­ple gig­gled softly as I walked past.

“Oh, no. I’m about to bump into some­thing, aren’t I?” I thought to my­self, as cu­rios­ity drove me to sneak a peek ... and see that I wasn’t even halfway there!

Love and blind stones

The strange rit­ual I was at­tempt­ing was at the Jishu-jinja shrine, steeped in myth and mys­tery, and tucked away atop Mount Kiy­omizu in Ky­oto, Ja­pan.

And if you did what I was sup­posed to do – com­plete the walk (mi­nus the peek­ing) – you will find true love. Or so says the leg­end be­hind the mekura-ishi, or blind stones, placed in an open space along this bright orange shrine.

Feel­ing like I just stepped into an In­di­ana Jones movie, this tem­ple of love is also guarded by Ja­pan’s own ver­sion of Cupid – a god known as Okun­i­nushino-mikoto, whom be­liev­ers turn to for love and good matches. Hold­ing up a mal­let in his right hand, this mighty statue stands watch near the en­trance of the shrine, to­gether with a mag­i­cal rab­bit which serves as his mes­sen­ger.

At an­other cor­ner of this mys­ti­cal tem­ple, peo­ple can make their prob­lems “dis­ap­pear” by writ­ing them on a piece of doll-shaped pa­per and dip­ping it into a pail of wa­ter.

When the pa­per dis­solves, so will your trou­bles, reads a sign next to the pail filled with pa­per con­fes­sions.

Or sim­ply, one can just buy lucky charms off the counter. But no mag­i­cal items needed, I was al­ready charmed. With the place, that is.

I was spend­ing a week in Ja­pan, on a pro­gramme spon­sored by its govern­ment to savour a taste of its cul­ture. The trip couldn’t have come at a more mean­ing­ful time, with this year be­ing the 60th an­niver­sary of diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Malaysia and Ja­pan.

And in the thick of it all, I found my­self cap­ti­vated by one of its many won­drous tem­ples.

Just a few steps away from the Jishu-jinja shrine is the main Kiy­omizu Tem­ple, whose his­tory dates back to the year 778 CE.

The main hall of the Kiy­omizu Tem­ple houses an im­age of an 11-faced God­dess of Mercy, or Kan­non, as she is known in Ja­pan. Many vis­i­tors come to pay homage to the god­dess and have their for­tunes told, while oth­ers linger around to en­joy the calm, scenic view.

And while those in search of love go to the Jishu-jinja, many are also drawn to an­other fas­ci­nat­ing fea­ture at the tem­ple – three foun­tains said to bring bless­ings to those who drink the wa­ter.

I waited in line as I watched other peo­ple lit­er­ally “hope to” drink their way to good health, longevity and wis­dom from the three foun­tains, us­ing long poles with cups at­tached at the end.

The wa­ter, from the Otowa no Taki water­fall, is be­lieved to con­tain ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties. As it cas­caded down in three sep­a­rate streams, we used the long poles to catch the wa­ter for a quick sip while some tourists also used the wa­ter to wash their face and hands to soak in the bless­ings.

At first, I was ap­pre­hen­sive about the clean­li­ness of the shared cups but I re­mem­bered I was in high-tech, hy­gienic Ja­pan. Im­pressed, I saw that the used cups were placed into com­part­ments con­tain­ing ul­tra­vi­o­let rays to be ster­ilised.

And while I wasn’t sure if the wa­ter was truly mag­i­cal, it some­how felt that way since I was thirsty.

A big bowl of tea

But it was my thirst for more ad­ven­ture that led me to the Saidaiji Tem­ple in Nara where I drank some green tea. Only that it wasn’t just any green tea nor was it served in an or­di­nary cup.

In an un­usual cer­e­mony called the Ochamori Shiki, I was served the tea in a cup mea­sur­ing 40cm in di­am­e­ter. Be­cause of its sheer size and weight of 7kg, you had to hold it with both hands.

The 750-year-old cer­e­mony was first held by a monk known as Ei­son who served tea to devo­tees on the last day of new year prayers.

Tea was deemed an ex­pen­sive form of medicine at that time, and it was be­lieved that many drank tea for the first time then and used rice bowls since there were no tea cups. The unique tra­di­tion stuck and, to­day, such tea par­ties are held in Jan­uary, spring and fall.

Hold­ing the cup like a flower pot in my hands, I tasted the slightly bit­ter but re­fresh­ing green liq­uid. Laugh­ter filled the room as the cup was passed around un­til every­one man­aged to take a sip.

While the Saidaiji is known as the Great Western Tem­ple of Nara, my tem­ple-hop­ping con­tin­ued to its eastern coun­ter­part – the To­daiji Tem­ple, also in Nara, which

houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Bud­dha.

At the tem­ple gate, I was greeted by two fierce-look­ing di­vine guardians called Ungyo and Agyo who, to­gether, sym­bol­ise the birth and death of all things. And be­cause Nara is home to wild sika deer, I was thrilled to see the cute, gen­tle crea­tures – once deemed sa­cred by lo­cals – roam­ing freely on the tem­ple grounds.

Af­ter side-step­ping a deer on the path­way, I reached the enor­mous wooden tem­ple, which re­minded me of an an­cient Ja­panese palace. En­ter­ing the shrine, my eyes were im­me­di­ately drawn to the ma­jes­tic fig­ure of the great teacher, sit­ting serenely in the cen­tre of the hall.

Med­i­tat­ing on top of a lo­tus flower, the bronze statue is almost 15m tall and the Bud­dha’s calm ex­pres­sion evoked a sense of peace within me.

The gi­ant Bud­dha, or daibutsu in Ja­panese, is also ac­com­pa­nied by a gold statue of Kan­non and the im­pos­ing fig­ures of Ta­mon­ten and Koumoku-ten, two of the Four Heav­enly Kings who pro­tec­tively watch over the di­rec­tions of the world.

A more friendly-look­ing statue sat outside the hall – a smil­ing fig­ure of one of Bud­dha’s dis­ci­ples, called Pin­dola or Binzuru in Ja­panese, known to have mas­tered oc­cult pow­ers. Lo­cals be­lieve that when some­one rubs a part of the Binzuru’s im­age and then rubs the cor­re­spond­ing part on his own body, the ail­ment there will be cured.

As I made my way out of the tem­ple, there was no pain in my body but just a mere tug in my heart that this whole ad­ven­ture would soon come to an end.


Girls dressed in ki­monos tak­ing a stroll along the Jishu-jinja shrine, lo­cated within the grounds of the Kiy­omizu Tem­ple in Ky­oto, Ja­pan.

Nara is home to wild sika deer, which roam freely around Nara park and even on the tem­ple grounds.

Those who want their prob­lems to dis­ap­pear can sim­ply write them down on a piece of pa­per and let it dis­solve in a pail of wa­ter at the Jishu-jinja shrine.

Vis­i­tors col­lect­ing wa­ter from the three foun­tains at the Kiy­omizu Tem­ple, said to en­dow drinkers with good health, longevity and wis­dom.

A gi­ant tea cup, weigh­ing 7kg and mea­sur­ing 40cm in di­am­e­ter, is used to serve green tea in the Ochamori Shiki cer­e­mony held at the Saidaiji Tem­ple in Nara.

Ja­panese plum blos­soms or ume flow­ers are in full bloom in early March, mark­ing the end of win­ter and the be­gin­ning of spring. Some of the blos­soms are seen here at a tem­ple in Ky­oto.

An eye-catch­ing struc­ture basks in the bright sun­shine, at Kiy­omizu Tem­ple in Ky­oto. — Pho­tos: YUEN MEIKENG/The Star

The To­daiji Tem­ple in Nara houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Bud­dha.

For­tunes and wishes writ­ten and hung on a frame at the Kiy­omizu Tem­ple.

The en­trance of the Jishu-jinja shrine.

Those who want to pray for love and good for­tune are drawn to the Jishu-jinja shrine, on the grounds of the Kiy­omizu Tem­ple.

Statue of Ja­panese love god, Okun­i­nushino-mikoto, and his mes­sen­ger, a mag­i­cal rab­bit.

A tourist snaps a picture of one of the mekura-ishi (blind stones) at the Jishu-jinja shrine.

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