A modern pilgrimage in Kyoto, home of Japan's most ancient and fragile temples.


A modern pilgrimage in Kyoto, home of Japan’s most ancient and fragile temples.

by Peter Delevett, an award-winning travel writer and editor at the San Jose Mercury News. His 14-month, 14-country backpacking trek through Asia and Europe formed the basis of the forthcoming travel memoir, Walking on the Moon.
He and his family live in one of America’s three remaining Japantowns.

If Tokyo is Japan’s head, its diplomatic and technological cortex, the Kansai plain is its breadbasket. The cities of the Kansai, anchored by Osaka and Kobe, are industrial reactors, wide-shouldered fishing towns, steady stolid ports shipping steel and electronics.  Kansai has dirt under its fingernails.

Yet Kansai also is home to Japan’s most ancient and fragile temples and to the imperial splendor of Kyoto, the former capital. The nominal seat of government was here for a thousand years, a period that saw the blooming of Japanese Buddhism and poetry and art and civil war.

Kyoto is a trove of temples, some ancient and some opulent and some both.  They have musical names like Kiyomizu-dera, Sanjusangendo, Yasaka-jinja, Eikando…  Ryoan-ji houses the most beautiful rock-and-sand garden in Japan; Toji has the tallest pagoda; Chion-in claims the largest Sanmon gate and biggest bell; Daigo-ji is home to the oldest structure in the city, a thousand-year-old pagoda. The biggest, oldest, grandest, richest, all of Kyoto’s legion temples in age-old competition for divine favor.

My first night in town I visit Gyon Corner, a theater in the old geisha quarter that specializes in traditional entertainment, from koto music and ikebana arranging to bunraku puppetry.  Bunraku is Kansai’s contribution to the theater: tiny figures with exquisite porcelain faces, worked by masked puppeteers in black who stand right in front of the audience but draw no attention, so lifelike and convincing are the tiny robed figures they manipulate.

Then women in layered kimonos of mint green and peach and grey move stately across the stage, geisha wigs bobbing gently as they pluck a koto or drowse through the painstaking rites of the tea ceremony.  Every flick of the bamboo whisk, every gentle wipe of the cup with a linen napkin, is choreographed and deliberate, inexorable and calm, like a bansai master at work. I am amazed that these deliberate people and the breathy aesthetic they produce can also be such driven engines of toil and frenzy and automation.

There’s one more stop on my pilgrimage to the holy places of Kansai: Koya-san, a mountain southeast of Osaka with more than 100 temples on its summit. A cable car ascends to the cool, cedar-lined community, where there is stillness marred only by bird-song and prayer gongs.

I wander across a modest little temple, windowless, the walls covered with paper behind a raised patio.  Someone is chanting inside, and I move closer to peek through slits in the paper walls. I’m not exactly sure I should be on the patio, but none of the passing priests pays me any mind. Through the slits I see a figure moving in the temple’s dimness, lighting candles.

I move around the veranda to an open rear door, and removing my shoes I walk cautiously inside. It is dark and incense-filled, and a lone monk continues his chanting and candle-lighting.  I walk around the stillness of the room, angling for a better view of the altar, which is gilded and laden with fruit and flowers. Burnished effigies of Sakyamuni and Amida gaze impassively back at me.  The monk’s brown robes rustle as he tends to his work.

I’m not more than five feet from him when he turns and screams.

Christ!  He’s advancing on me now, jabbering away, and I’m backpedaling quickly, offering the only words of apology I know, “Gomen nasai!  Sumimasen!” In the back of my head somebody observes, “Guess I wasn’t supposed to be in here after all.”

As I reach the door with the monk shouting and brandishing his candlestick, there’s a pounding of feet on the wooden porch and a blue-robed monk whips around the corner.  I “Gomen nasai” to him while pointing to my stocking feet, so at least he’ll know I didn’t stomp around in there with muddy boots on.  It’s probably a close contest which of us is more scared, the brown-robed monk or me.

The one in the blue robe tries calming his friend, then turns to me and in clunky English demands, “Who are you?  Why are you here?”  I do my best to explain that I’m just another stupid American, that I saw the open door and thought it was OK to come in, that I didn’t wear my boots and I didn’t take any pictures and pleeease, gomen nasaaaai…  I’m not so much worried about getting in trouble as I am sick about having shown disrespect.

The two monks confer again, and the one with the candlestick finally grunts and turns back inside, glowering.  The monk in blue faces me and delicately, pointedly says, “Please be careful.”  Bowing and backing away, I wish desperately to drop into the cracks in the veranda.

I see myself as I must have looked to them, a cartoon redneck from the land of Wal-Mart. I slip into a nearby cemetery and try to disappear amid the twilight and the cedars and the cool.