Monday, October 18, 2010

They have eyes, but don't see

This is one more entry about my recent trip to Kyoto. If you’re tired of reading about it, you can stop now.

Most people who know me say I’m a nice guy. Let me prove them wrong.

On Sun Oct 10 I went to Kiyomizu-dera, interesting place from an architectonical point of view and a great window into Japanese folk religion. The place was packed to the gills with tourists and pilgrims, (as per pic 2 above) so after getting caught in a bottleneck I decided not to proceed and return the following morning (indeed the following day at 6 am very few people were there - as per pic 1 - and the beauty of the area was overwhelming ).

Another neighboring sacred space, not recorded in my map nor in my guide book, had caught my eye. In front of the gate stood two pillars with kanji I couldn’t read so I inquired about the place with a small group of Japanese who looked like tourists and were standing in front of them. I could see they had no clue of what the place was, but still they answered that it was a garden. It was not a garden, even though there were trees and grass and a pond and koi and lanterns. Rather it was the Nishi Otani, a temple with a cemetery and a mausoleum containing the remains of Shinran, the founder of one of the major sects of Japanese Buddhism.

Now at the Otani there was not one word in English, not one sign explaining what the place was. I had found out where we were only by chance. Hearing sutras chanted in the hondo, the main hall, I approached the building and found a little sign that explained how to open the lock in one of the sliding paper doors. So I joined what must have been a memorial service, at the end of which I picked up an explanation sheet (typed but not with a PC).

But it was not Shinran’s mausoleum and the story of the accidental discovery of his remains that made this little side trip interesting and amusing. As I am standing in the courtyard in front of the hondo reading the explanatory sheet I hear a known accent, a familiar intonation: ah, mameloshn, Italian. And there they were, four landsmen of mine! As always in these circumstances I never identify myself as Italian and if asked I say I’m either Israeli or Greek. Rapid check of what I was wearing: all items had been bought in the US, no chance that my clothes would give me away.

What were the four landsmen of mine doing at the Otani? They had mistaken it for Kiyomizu-dera, and they were now reading their guide book looking for the different components of Kiyomizu-dera in the precinct of the Otani. For those of you who haven’t been at Kiyomizu-dera nor the Otani Mausoleum, imagine mistaking an apple for a pineapple. Imagine looking at the apple while reading the description of the pineapple and trying to match that description with what you have in front of you.

One of them approached the booth of the security guard to purchase the tickets but was told that there were no tickets to pay. His joy for saving the group 1200 Yen (15$) could not be contained. In the quiet of the temple he had to shout it to his friends , just a few meters away, that there was no ticket for this one. I checked again what I was wearing.

All Buddhist temples have more or less a similar structure, the same elements located approximately in the same way. But Kiyomizu-dera and the Otani are so different from each other, that I don’t know how they could possibly not realize they were in the wrong place. In the Otani there are enough smaller buildings that could pass for something from the other temple, but how could they not see that the wooden structure for which Kiyomizu-dera is famous was nowhere to be found?! Walking behind or next to them, while pretending to read my guide book, I would shake my head and think that if they were really so dumb, they did not deserve to see the real Kiyomizu.

At the end of the tour, coming down a tiny street that runs next to the wall of the temple, one of them exclaimed in Roman dialect: “Aò che culo! Nun ce stava nessuno. That was lucky! No one else was here!”

I could have told them that Kiyomizu-dera was further up the hill, couldn’t I? But it was too much fun.

I know, I’ll burn in hell for this one.

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