A shrine-seeker’s ac­ci­den­tal pil­grim­age

An hour from packed Ky­oto, Nara makes for en­light­en­ing overnight­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH ZACH

For nearly two decades, I have ea­gerly col­lected Ja­panese tea and sake sets, wood­block prints and geisha fig­urines. They de­light me with their el­e­gant and dis­tinct de­sign, with de­pic­tions of in­tri­cately shaped maple trees and daz­zling silk ki­monos and the I-know-some­thing-you-don’t-know gaze of the women wear­ing them. My col­lec­tion started spon­ta­neously with a love-at-first­sight pur­chase of col­or­ful geisha book­ends from the 1950s. Stamped “Made in Oc­cu­pied Ja­pan,” they were at a flea mar­ket near the Sacra­mento-San Joaquin River Delta in Cal­i­for­nia, where many Ja­panese im­mi­grants once worked in the or­chards, and they led me to muse about an­other world and era.

Yet it was only in Novem­ber that I fi­nally made it to Ja­pan. My tour started in Tokyo and in­cluded Ka­makura, Hakone and Ky­oto. Like so many visi­tors be­fore me, I thought I would make Ky­oto the cen­ter­piece of my visit, but I was also keen to veer from the tra­di­tional tourist’s path and dis­cover Ja­pan for my­self, to see if or how it re­flected my deep and rather mys­te­ri­ous af­fec­tion for the coun­try.

As it turned out, the dozen or so ryokan, or tra­di­tional Ja­panese guest­houses, in Ky­oto that I con­tacted were fully booked. Dis­cour­aged and dis­ap­pointed, I even­tu­ally re­signed my­self to overnight­ing in Nara, about an hour’s train ride to the south.

I knew Nara had its own brag­ging rights. As Ja­pan’s first per­ma­nent cap­i­tal, it eas­ily main­tains its noble stature with eight UNESCO World Her­itage sites, in­clud­ing the Daibutsu — or gi­ant Bud­dha — bronze statue housed in an im­pos­ing wooden tem­ple, as well as the tame and friendly de­scen­dants of sa­cred deer, which are anointed as na­tional trea­sures, that roam freely among the tem­ples, pago­das and forested parks. It sounded dreamy.

Stay­ing in Nara, too, would put me close to Ise, or so I thought. My Cal­i­for­nia friend Hiroko, who is a Tokyo na­tive, had vis­ited the small town a year ear­lier, and told me of its Shinto shrines — an as­ton­ish­ing 125 in all, mak­ing it es­sen­tially Ja­pan’s ver­sion of the

Vatican and a prin­ci­pal pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion for many Ja­panese peo­ple. Spread out around Ise and its out­skirts, the shrine area is the same size as Paris. Know­ing very lit­tle about the Shinto re­li­gion, I was cu­ri­ous about how so many shrines could ex­ist in a place I hadn’t heard of un­til Hiroko had men­tioned it, though I later learned that the 2016 G7 Sum­mit had been held there in April.

I re­lated this to Kayoko Kuwa- hara, my host at the tiny Guest­house Saku­raya sit­u­ated along a quiet res­i­den­tial street, as we sat sip­ping tea on my first evening. A fierce wind had picked up by the time my train from Ky­oto had pulled in, and af­ter a short bus ride to the sub­urb where Saku­raya is, I had to walk some 10 min­utes in the cold to reach the guest­house. But upon en­ter­ing, I was en­rap­tured.

Af­ter Kayoko showed me to my room — one of three she rents to guests — I took in the heav­enly view from the slid­ing glass doors: an en­closed court­yard and dimly lit gar­den, a care­fully shaped arch­ing pine and a palm tree among moss-cov­ered step­ping­stones. Kayoko later told me that she had bought the build­ing in 2008 from a mar­ried cou­ple who had op­er­ated a work­shop on the grounds to pro­duce cal­lig­ra­phy ink. Nei­ther of their two daugh­ters was in­clined to carry on the fam­ily busi­ness that had ex­isted for 130 years.

When the aging cou­ple put the prop­erty on the mar­ket, there was in­tense in­ter­est in the tra­di­tional wood-and-stucco struc­ture in this at­trac­tive district where mostly mer­chants had lived and worked. Kayoko felt very lucky to be the se­lected bid­der; she had dreamed for years of open­ing a ryokan and saw great po­ten­tial in the home. She set about clear­ing the en­closed gar­den area — “It was a jun­gle,” she told me — and re­mod­el­ing the in­te­rior. y, the Saku­raya is at once mod­est and dig­ni­fied.

From the mo­ment I set foot in­side, my perch felt priv­i­leged — so much so that when Kayoko cau­tioned me that reach­ing Ise would re­quire a very early start and three hours of travel on four dif­fer­ent trains, I was loathe to book an overnight’s stay closer to the shrines. I wanted to re­turn to my oa­sis. More­over, it oc­curred to me that in the spirit of re­li­gious pil­grim­ages, the long and com­pli­cated jour­ney to Ise and back would be fit­ting, if not ad­ven­tur­ous. Part of the trip, Kayoko told me, would be through pic­turesque canyons and pretty coun­try­side.

Be­fore the long jour­ney, how­ever, I took a day to ex­plore Nara, first in­dulging in some shop­ping along the open-air Hi­gashimuki Shop­ping Mall and prac­ti­cally squeal­ing with de­light at the fine ceram­ics, brightly colored ki­monos and fans on dis­play. From there, walk­ing east­ward, I was grad­u­ally greeted by some of Nara’s ubiq­ui­tous and cor­dial deer, mak­ing it clear I’d reached Nara Park and was near i-ji tem­ple.

I had seen pho­tos of the tem­ple and what’s known as the cos­mic Bud­dha housed in­side it, but these don’t pre­pare the visi­tor for the awe­some, tow­er­ing bronze sculp­ture, flanked on each side by the golden Kokuzo Bosatsu — or bod­hisattva of mem­ory and wis­dom — and Ta­mon­ten — called the lord who hears all. Com­pleted in A.D. 798 and ar­guably one of Ja­pan’s most strik­ing sights, the three tow­er­ing fig­ures held my at­ten­tion. I took my time walk­ing the perime­ter, con­sid­er­ing mean­while what I’d read ear­lier, that the con­struc­tion of these mighty sculp­tures had em­ployed, leg­end has it, some 2 mil­lion la­bor­ers and had nearly bankrupted the coun­try, in part be­cause the stat­ues were cov­ered in gold leaf.

But more im­pres­sive to me was the 8th-cen­tury Ka­suga Taisha Shrine, tucked deeper in Nara Park and painted a jolt­ing red. En­ter­ing the com­plex, I was im­me­di­ately riv­eted by a long pas­sage filled with hun­dreds of golden and bronze lanterns, all of which sur­prised me, be­cause from what I’d read of Shinto shrines, they are mostly aus­tere ed­i­fices, void of color and decor.

Af­ter that, I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect in Ise. The next morn­ing, soon af­ter de­part­ing east­ward from Nara, the train passed through a long and misty cor­ri­dor of bam­boo stalks and then hugged the edge of a plung­ing forested ravine cov­ered in ra­di­ant fall fo­liage. Part of the jour­ney wound through farm­land punc­tu­ated by snug vil­lages with black-tiled roofs, small groves of crim­son-colored Ja­panese maple trees, well-tended fam­ily gar­dens and solemn pago­das and tem­ples atop grassy hills, some with sim­ple ceme­ter­ies en­cir­cling them. In this re­mote cor­ner of Ja­pan, on this clunk­ing ru­ral train, I saw no tourists and few res­i­dents.

But once I reached Ise and found my way to Geku, or the

Outer Shrine, I was sur­rounded by other pil­grims. I was among them as we crossed the wide bridge lead­ing to the shrine area, washed my hands along­side them at long stone ves­sels with wooden la­dles and fol­lowed them un­der soar­ing torii, or gates, mark­ing the sa­cred en­try.

Fol­low­ing a map here and later at the Neku, or In­ner Shrine, some 20 min­utes away by bus, I came upon shrine af­ter shrine, quickly see­ing that visi­tors could only get so close to the for­bid­ding and ven­er­ated wooden struc­tures dat­ing to the 3rd cen­tury, all un­adorned, fenced in and re­moved from the path­ways bor­dered by im­pen­e­tra­ble Ja­panese cedars. Shinto tra­di­tion also dic­tates that the shrines be re­built ev­ery 20 years, us­ing wooden dow­els and in­ter­lock­ing joints in­stead of nails, and only pri­ests and mem­bers of Ja­pan’s im­pe­rial fam­ily are al­lowed in­side the in­ner sanc­tums. I watched, al­most spell­bound, as fam­i­lies lit vo­tive in­cense sticks and young cou­ples timidly ap­proached the picket gates be­fore slowly bow­ing in si­lence.

The prayers, I un­der­stood later while read­ing about Shinto phi­los­o­phy, are for pros­per­ity, a boun­ti­ful har­vest and, above all, peace in the world. These are noble and com­pelling ges­tures, now more than ever. But my own re­flec­tions, as I sat on the lum­ber­ing train back to Nara, were of grat­i­tude: for no va­can­cies in Ky­oto, for seem­ingly com­mon­place yet be­guil­ing views of Ja­pan — not un­like the ev­ery­day scenes of maple trees and pago­das depicted on my sake sets, tea cups and saucers — and for that in­ex­pli­ca­ble and cu­ri­ous plea­sure upon see­ing those geisha book­ends which still, years on, move my imag­i­na­tion to peace­fully and hap­pily wan­der to other worlds, into other eras.

PHO­TOS BY TAKAHIRO BESSHO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: At the Ka­suga Taisha Shrine in Nara, Ja­pan, one of the tame de­scen­dants of sa­cred deer, anointed as na­tional trea­sures, roams freely. LEFT: Visi­tors browse the charms in the To­dai-ji tem­ple.

PHO­TOS BY TAKAHIRO BESSHO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: In Nara, the tow­er­ing bronze Bud­dha statue in To­dai-ji tem­ple, com­pleted in A.D. 798, dom­i­nates the space — and the at­ten­tion of its visi­tors. BE­LOW: At the tem­ple’s en­trance, peo­ple cover them­selves with in­cense smoke, hop­ing that it will con­vey good health and for­tune.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHO­TOS BY TAKAHIRO BESSHO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The open-air Hi­gashimuki Shop­ping Mall fea­tures fine ceram­ics and brightly colored ki­monos, among other wares; the Ka­suga Taisha Shrine is tucked deep in Nara Park; in­side the shrine, hun­dreds of lanterns made of gold and bronze light the pas­sage­ways.

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