Time Travel

Posted on Monday, May 07, 2018, under , , , ,

Many of us have dreamed of being transported in time to a world entirely at odds with the one we live in. Suppose a time machine were invented and is now at hand. A question then: if you had a choice, which era / place would you want to end up in? Me, I always head a weak spot for the ancient Athens: it would be lovely to wash vegetables together with Diogenes or play poker with Socrates.

Well, last Sunday April 29th, at Jōnangū shrine in south Kyoto I did experience time-travel of sorts. Twice a year – in spring and autumn – the shrine hosts a re-enactment of an ancient poem-composing ritual, called Kyokusui no Utage曲水の宴 (Wandering Stream Banquet). It is a ceremony going back to the late Nara period (8th C.). The practice slowly died out as the samurai gained political power, until a revival in the mid 20th century.  

© DiscoverKyoto
Seven waka masters (5 men, 2 ladies) dressed in rich silk robes gracefully proceed onto a moss-carpeted garden and, after receiving the season's theme from the shrine priests, seat themselves along a garden stream, and write their poems on strips of paper to the tune of a koto melody wafting through the air. As the small cups of sake are sent sailing down the stream on bird-shaped boats, the poets occasionally lift the cup and take a sip. Once the waka have been composed, the strips of paper are collected and what follows is the highlight: the poems are finally read, or rather chanted out by a mini-choir of Shinto priests: a powerful, expressive harmony of complementary voices.

‘This was life!’ I said to myself, gradually drawn into this world of elegance, ritual and beauty. In fact I don’t recall ever being so at one with the environs so peculiar. I would like to reconsider my first choice for the time-travel.

Click below to watch videos.

Gagaku music with Shirabyoshi dance

Composing cum sake drinking

Priests intoning one of the 7 poems

Finale: Poets tottering back to their seats (that sake must've been rich!)

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Pigs and Greeks

Posted on Friday, March 23, 2018, under , , ,

For the third day running the rain is lashing against the windows, powerful gales are shaking the shutters, assaulting a rare passer-by or whoever heroically waits at the bus stop. Just below the house the furrows on the vegetable field are saturated with rainwater, brushwood and green onion stalks lying low, looking beaten. Shrouded in thick mist, Mount Hiei smoulders like a massive pyre. Up the famous mountain, somewhere deep in the forest, right now there are wild boars braving the cold.

I imagine them being constantly on the move, alone, trudging the mud from tree to tree, sniffing, looking to shelter from the relentless squall. Recently there has been a resurgence of wild boar in and around the old capital. There have been numerous sightings, and on occasion an animal has been caught on camera, as was the case a few days ago when a well-rounded specimen roamed the grounds of Kyoto University campus.

Who can blame them? A hog is a hog. A hog longs for rummaging but unless one is a hog one does not know why. If I were a boar I’d likely do the same: I’d wallow, I’d forage, I’d drag my snout through dirt, I’d trespass, I’d raid, I’d invade.

In Greek Myth Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover, is killed by a boar. Ovid’s Metamorphoses narrates the legend in ‘Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta)’. In it Aphrodite ‘pillows her head’ on Adonis’ chest as she recounts the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes, two ‘godless lovers’ who make passionate love in a cave shrine ‘older than a human race’, where the wooden images of the ancient gods ‘averted their carved faces in horror’. For their act of sacrilege Atalanta and Hippomenes are transmuted into a pair of lions, ‘with a thorny scrub of a nuptial chamber’.

Aphrodite finishes her tale with a somewhat cryptic message for Adonis to ponder:

            Oh dear love,
            These and others like them, that disdain
            To give your hounds a run but come out looking for the hunter,
            For my sake, O dear boy, let them lie.
            Do not ruin our love with your recklessness.
                                                Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, p.141

Alas, soon enough the Fates interfere with the most tragic outcome:

            [Adonis’] hounds woke a wild boar in a wallow.
            When this thug burst out his boar-spear’s point
            Glanced off the bone into the hump of muscle.

            The boar deftly hooked the futile weapon
            Out of the wound and turned on the hunter,
            Overtook the boy’s panic scramble,

            Bedded its dagger tusks in under his crotch
            Then ploughed him with all its strength as if unearthing
            A tough tree’s roots, till it hurled him aside, mangled.
                                                Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, p.141-2

In Homer’s Odyssey, the eponymous hero was injured in the thigh as a boy during a boar hunt. The boar emerges suddenly, close by Odysseus

But first [before he could strike] the boar struck him
above the knee, and gashed much of his flesh with his tusk.
                                                Odyssey, 19; 449-450

The scar on his leg proves to be a blessing in disguise when, many years later, it leads Eurycleia to recognize Odysseus on his return to Ithaca. What also strikes me is Homer’s description of the boar before he is disturbed by the footsteps of humans and dogs: the boar lies hidden in his lair, and is completely invisible:

There a great boar lay in its closely-knit lair.
The power of wet-blowing winds could not blow through it,
nor the shining sun strike it with its rays,
nor yet did the rain penetrate it, so solid it was,
and there was a great pile of fallen leaves on it.
                                    Odyssey, 19; 439-443

My image of a boar ‘constantly on the move’ in harsh weather is then most likely incorrect, as the beast seems to be adept at securing itself inside shelters impenetrable to the elements. Well, my lesson for today: check the facts if your imagination soars a bit high.

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Midorogaike Jizo

Posted on Sunday, February 11, 2018, under , , ,

It is odd to imagine that once upon a time this stately piece lay buried in a peat bog on the outskirts of Kyoto city. The handsome fella is in fact a bodhisattva Jizo statue, and the bog none other than our Midoroga pond. This Jizo is believed to be one of six similar statues carved from a single tree by one Ono-no-Takamura, a scholar who lived, died, then lived again in the early Heian period. The legend tells how the man passed, spent time in the underworld, then rose from the dead after some serious worshipping the Jizo. Once back on earth Takamura set about carving the six statues in the heat of religious verve.

The finished products were individually distributed to guard each one of the six ancient routes linking Kyoto with various towns and municipalities, such as Fushimi, Toba, Nagoya etc. Kurama-kaido connected Rakuchu (inner Kyoto city) to Shiga and beyond. It had the statue – affectionately known by locals as Kuramaguchi, or Midorogaike, or Aneko Jizo – posted at the road’s entrance, serving as a safe journey guardian.

Kurama-kaido used to pass by Midoroga pond. Tradition has it that nearby lay ‘a demon gateway’. The demons were supposed to reside in Kurama and Kifune, a few kilometres north of the pond. In order to keep the wretches at bay, the custom of bean-throwing (mamemaki, 豆まき) sat about at a nearby Yoshida shrine and has been continued to this day as part of the Setsubun (節分) celebrations at the start of spring (Feb 3rd).

It remains unclear though how this particular statue ended up in the bog, or the way it was found and retrieved from its muddy cradle. Currently the statue, all spruced up, sits enshrined at Jozenji near the present day Kuramaguchi subway station – once a boundary separating the inner city (rakuchu) from the suburbs (rakugai), or ‘the world beyond’.

Jozenji is one of those local ‘B-temples’, exuding a certain dose of neglect and lack of refinement (an odd carton box in the worship hall, a motorbike casually stationed by the main entrance). At the same time this semi-lax atmosphere lends it an air of intimacy that is largely absent from its more famous, touristy cousins. In late August pilgrims flock to the temple for the Kyoto Rokujizo Meguri – a pilgrimage to Six Jizo temples. The ceremony involves the worshippers walking along the route connecting the points of the ancient roads, as well as hanging paper amulets (ofuda) outside their homes for exorcising unquiet spirits. The powers of superstition drag on.

* A pond about 1,500m in circumference
* Creatures surviving since the Ice Age
* Biological communities designated as natural treasures 
* A pond of many legends
* The name’s origin unknown. One link to the discovery of      "Miroku Bosatsu Bodhisattva statue" inside the pond
* Midorogaike 深泥池: a straight reading of kanji impossible, loosely translated as ‘a bottomless muddy pond’

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