Celebrating Saint Nichiren

The train pulled into Ikegami Station, in the southern outskirts of Tokyo, and a flood of people piled onto the platform. We were immediately met with station masters shouting orders at us, as they herded the masses through the ticket gates as smoothly and quickly as possible before the next train arrived. Outside the station, strange shapes loomed from the crowds. With long tentacles bobbing up and down and a bright light shining from within, these curious mythological-looking creatures made their way down the street past thousands of onlookers and off into the night.

Welcome to the Ikegami Honmonji Oeshiki, a festival that commemorates one of the most important Buddhist monks in Japanese history. Nichiren Shōnin lived in the 13th century and devoted his life to studying and writing about how to save people from suffering and create a stable society that lived in peace. He protested against practices of Buddhism that didn’t follow the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, a scripture which he considered held the answer to all problems. He gave public sermons where he chanted the mantra, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, and predicted events that would occur if people didn’t convert. He was met with a lot of opposition himself and some of his followers were killed trying to protect him during assassination attempts. He was persecuted by the government and exiled from the capital, Kamakura. However, none of these events discouraged him and by the time of his death, he had established temples and handed over his teachings to his disciples who would go on create a recognized school of Buddhism known as Nichiren-shū.

Nichiren died on October 13, 1282 at one of his temples, Ikegami Honmonji, which had been built in the same year. For 733 years and counting, it has served as one of the major centres for Nichiren-shū. Every year on October 12, around 300,000 people come to witness the Oeshiki Festival. Floats are paraded towards the temple down streets lined with food vendors. Security guards control the constant flow of people who are only allowed to walk in one direction. Once they reach the main temple, people gather at the entrance waiting to be let in – they will have just a few seconds to throw a coin into the donation box and say a prayer before exiting. Some devotees choose to sit with the monks who are beating on taiko drums and chanting the same mantra passed down from Nichiren.

As a first timer to this Buddhist festival, I was overwhelmed by the ceremony inside the temple. Rather than being calming, the chanting was loud and intense. And with so many people hustling their way in and out, it felt a bit chaotic. I was definitely relieved as soon as we got out. The entire night was pretty crazy but a lot of fun!

Ikegami Honmonji
The hanging paper flowers represent cherry blossoms
Ikegami Honmonji
Amazing detail
Ikegami Honmonji
Pictures depicting Nichiren Shōnin
Ikegami Honmonji
Floats entering the main temple gate
Ikegami Honmonji
The main temple is 28m high
Ikegami Honmonji
Inside the main temple
Ikegami Honmonji
Followers chanting inside the temple

One of my favourite parts of Japanese festivals… the food!!

 

Tanabata: Legend of the Stars

Long, long ago, there lived a princess named Orihime. She was the daughter of a god of the heavens, and lived by a vast river of stars known to us as the Milky Way. She diligently wove cloth to make clothes for the people in her kingdom.

One day, her father realised Orihime was no longer a little girl, but a young woman who longed to be in love. Wishing to see his daughter happy, he set out to find her a suitable partner.

After searching high and low, he came across a boy tending his cow by the bank of the river. His name was Hikoboshi. He was a noble, hard-working young man. It was inevitable that as soon as he and Orihime met, they would fall in love. Before long, they were married and enjoying life to its fullest.

However, the couple were having so much fun together that they neglected to do their work. Without Orihime, the people’s clothes became ragged. Without Hikoboshi, his cow became weak and sick. The celestial god became very angry at the pair for their recklessness. He decided the best solution would be to have them live apart, on opposite sides of the river. Hikoboshi was sent to the east side, and Orihime was sent to the west. The separation devastated them.

Seeing Orihime so sad was hard for her father. So, the god made one final decision. Once a year, on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month, Orihime was permitted to see her beloved husband. Over the years, Orihime worked tirelessly on her loom and Hikoboshi took great care of his animals. Their love stayed strong and they worked hard knowing they had this one special day to look forward to.

***

This tale of Orihime (Vega star) and Hikoboshi (Altair star) was originally adapted from a Chinese legend. Today, it is celebrated as a traditional festival known as Tanabata.

At Zojo Temple in Tokyo, a special display made up of hundreds of candle-lit paper lanterns was set up last week on July 7th. These lanterns represented the Milky Way ‘river’. It was beautiful with Tokyo Tower in the background! As well as the river, hundreds of lanterns decorated by elementary school children were also displayed. Their drawings depicted what they want to be in the future – bakers, dressmakers, teachers, train drivers, Anpanman! Many of the children came to the temple with their parents. It was so touching seeing them earnestly search for and find their creations!

As a custom of Tanabata, people write their wishes and prayers on colourful strips of paper and tie them to bamboo tree branches. Ceremonies are conducted at many shrines and temples, like Kanda-Myojin Shrine, where musicians play traditional instruments, girls perform a traditional dance, and priests pray for all of our wishes to come true.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Serenity

I’ve been so busy since coming back from holidays – getting back into my work routine, apartment hunting and sorting out immigration paperwork to renew my visa – that I feel like I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath. So, this week’s photo challenge theme “serenity” has actually come at a great time to make me stop and relax!

Japanese gardens are designed as serene places where you can reflect, meditate and be at peace. They are always aesthetically pleasing, and grab your attention in the most gentle of ways. From the lines in the raked sand, to the colours in the garden, and the moss on the rocks, you can rest assured everything is in its place!

These are some of my favourite Moss, Rock and Promenade gardens of Kyoto.

June Colours in Kamakura

Colourful. Magical. Plentiful. Wonderful!

The hydrangeas are in full bloom. Brace yourselves for a flower overload!

I couldn’t think of a better place than Kamakura to enjoy this beautiful feast for the eyes. The seaside town, about an hour from Tokyo, is home to loads of temples, hiking trails, nature… oh, and a 13th century, 13m high Great Buddha statue. Minor detail! :-P

My recent trip to Kamakura was not to see Buddha, although I have before, but to visit two temples in particular. One was Meigetsu-in, also called Ajisai-dera (hydrangea temple). The other was Hase-dera, probably the most popular temple complex in Kamakura.

Meigetsu-in is about a 10 minute walk from Kita-Kamakura Station. It is famous for its perfect round window, an impressive hydrangea garden, as well as an ‘inner garden’ which is only open to visitors twice a year – in June and November. Lucky me, I got to enter this exclusive area and enjoy walking around the immaculately kept lawns, iris garden, and small moss-covered woods. It was really elegant and peaceful, and definitely worth the extra entrance fee. The main garden also has an admission fee, but is much more crowded than the inner garden. People flock here to see the hydrangea avenue, a stairway which is surrounded either side by a mass of flowers. It’s a challenge to get a photo with no one on the stairs, but if you’re lucky enough (and you go on a quiet weekday!) then you just might get 10 seconds to quickly snap a couple of non-obstructed pics.

Meigetsuin
A perfect circle
Meigetsuin
Entrance to the tea house
Meigetsuin
The famous ‘hydrangea stairway’

A few trains stops, or an hour’s walk away, is Hase-dera. It’s a temple on the side of a hill, just a few hundred metres away from the seashore. From the top of the hill you get a refreshing view of Sagami Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, like most beaches in Japan, the sand is not soft and white, but rather, black and fairly uninviting! The sea hawks constantly flying above are also a bit of a turn-off! It’s a good thing there’s plenty other good reasons to go to Hase. The temple is home to more than 40 varieties of hydrangeas, and about 2500 actual hydrangea shrubs. Talk about overload! But it’s so nice just to walk around the hillside and admire the stunning colours, shapes and patterns of this celebrated flower. Kamakura is a fantastic day trip from Tokyo any time of the year, but especially during the rainy season!

Hase-dera
A splash of colour surrounding the temples
Hase-dera
Bank of hydrangeas
Hase-dera
Sneak peak of the bay
Hase-dera
Jizo statues in memory of deceased babies

Autumn Mission: Temples in Setagaya

It was a very chilly morning, already well into December. I thought I had completely missed the chance to see kōyō in Setagaya. Work, life, bad weather (and sometimes just pure laziness) had meant I’d kept putting it off. I’d been looking forward to visiting Gotokuji Temple in particular, ever since I saw its momiji maple trees back in summer. Gotoku-ji is a temple that I had stumbled across during a walk around my neighbourhood, not knowing it was the birthplace of the famous ‘beckoning cat’ or maneki-neko! I didn’t take anymore photos of the cats this time – you can look here at my post about Gotoku-ji, if you’re interested. Either way, I hope you have a look back to compare how different the place looks in autumn compared to summer! At that time, the leaves were as green as grass, but I knew come autumn it would be one hell of a sight!  

There’s one thing that the Japanese always know how to get right: gardens. Their meticulous culture means that nothing goes unnoticed and every little detail is considered. Some people might think it’s a bit over the top, but it’s one of the reasons I love Japan! The beautifully trimmed shrubs, the contrasting colours, the symmetry – it’s all the ingredients for a perfect Japanese garden, just like that at Gotoku-ji.

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

The second temple I visited was Jotoku-in, just around the corner from Gotoku-ji. I stumbled across this one, too! Actually, I had been zooming down the street on my bicycle when to my right I glimpsed a giant yellow tree. Drawn to this lone ginkgo tree, I slammed on the brakes and swerved into the entrance of the temple. The very dramatic discovery was followed by a tranquil exploration of this small temple. I was the only person there so I could take my time taking photos and soaking up the beautiful nature.

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Rub the head of Ikkyu-san, a famous anime monk boy, for good luck. :-)

Jotoku-ji

It wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t a vending machine in sight. I’m not even joking.

Autumn Mission: Nikko

The leaves have started changing in Tokyo! Finally, I can get on track with my Autumn Mission.

One place that was on my list, and I’m happy to say I’ve now checked off, is the one and only Nikko. This was my second time to the World Heritage town, and it was just as spectacular as I remembered! A couple of friends and I spent the day around the back streets, discovering beautiful colours around every corner. It was so peaceful being away from the crowds. It’s actually kind of unfortunate that most people only go to the well-known sightseeing spots. They’re missing out on so much! At night, we checked out the “light up” at the shrines and temples. I wasn’t sure how good it was going to be, but maybe that’s what made it all the more impressive! The red shinto shrines and momiji leaves against the black night sky were intense and powerful. I literally couldn’t put my camera down! Walking around the small pond in Shoyoen Garden was probably the most memorable part of the night. The reflection of the trees in the water was so picturesque… if only there hadn’t been hundreds of other people there! As usual though, there was no pushing and shoving despite the crowd sometimes having to walk in single file. And even when the line came to a halt because someone wanted to take a photo, people waited patiently. It really is a special country.

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn