Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Big Buddha, the Lucky God & the Goddess of Eloquence, Beauty & Wisdom

I'm sorry it's been so long between updates--it's been a busy few weeks! My trip to Yokosuka was a bigger deal than I anticpated, and I was a little sorry we hadn't taken the Navy up on their offer to let Fearless Husband come with me. However, we both decided it was better for his career for him to ship out at the beginning of May rather than have him stay home and travel to Yokosuka with me. So, off he went to Singapore and Thailand.

The Navy gave me a plane ticket to Haneda Airport outside Tokyo, and instructions on how to get a train ticket to Yokosuka once my plane landed. After some confusion and the help of the costumed "airport helpers"--I boarded the train. The airport helpers are a particularly Japanese custom...young women in their early 20s drift around the airport, wearing powder-blue skirts, jackets, cute little hats with ribbons, and dainty white gloves right out of the 1950s. They're paid to look pretty and seek out confused tourists to aid. The helper who approached me had very little English, but more English than I had Japanese! She called out in her high, clear voice, and two more dainty blue-wrapped girls came running to join us (working women in Japan seem to ALWAYS run with tightly clasped knees and teeny little steps, giving the impression of eagerness and hurry even when they don't move particularly fast!) Between the four of us, we managed to navigate the train ticket machine. I'd found the button to convert the screen text to English, but the train line name I was given was not on the screen, nor was the station name I'd been told. I kept repeating "Yokosuka! Yokosuka!" in desperation, and the three girls figured out how to get me there, pushed the right buttons, and handed me the ticket that the machine spit out. All three were eager to show me the right escalator to find my train, and I was escorted like royalty to the train platform.

I struck up a conversation with a couple on the train--he was miltary, she was Japanese, and they were also on their way to the hospital at Yokosuka. I was grateful, as the wife was able to read the signs, of course, and told me I'd lucked out and gotten onto an express, and would not have to change trains. They showed me how to get to the base from the station, which saved me taxi fare, and I was grateful. Once on the base, I had to take a taxi though--it's a BIG base! The housing folks tried to put me in a shared room with a young female sailor, but I wasn't having any of that. I checked myself into the Navy Lodge (which is where I would've stayed if FH had come with me) and got permission for reimbursement afterwards.

The medical stuff went extremely well--I've never had such attentive, professional, courteous care in my life! I guess I expected the Navy hospital not to be on par with a private hospital, but I was proven wrong very quickly. I am so grateful to have such wonderful medical service available! I had a great time talking with the Lieutenant who was the head nurse. She and her husband have adopted two Japanese babies, and of course, I had lots of questions! The whole experience was great, despite being a lot more involved than I first thought. The doctor decided he didn't want me going home to Sasebo the day after the procedure, so my "orders" were extended several days. So...I decided that rather than make this a trip all about medical stuff, I would treat it as a mini-vacation and a chance to see a little more of Japan on the Navy's dime!

I arrived in Yokosuka on Wednesday afternoon. It poured rain on Thursday (and most of the day was taken up with medical stuff). My surgery was Friday, and then it poured all day Saturday. I was getting a little impatient! Luckily, Sunday was overcast but not rainy, so I headed back to the train station, armed with a photocopied map of Kamakura, directions to the Daibutsu (giant Buddha) and my meager handful of Japanese phrases. I got on the train to Kamakura (or so I thought!) A little worried that I couldn't find any signs on the train in Romanji (English alphabet), I spoke to a young man, pointing in the direction we were travelling and asking "Kamakura"? The answer was an emphatic NO! I'd gotten on the wrong train, going in the wrong direction!

So, I got off at the next stop, and figured I would just jump on the next train going in the opposite direction. While I waited, a little boy and his parents came onto the platform. He was running and laughing and jumping in puddles as his father chased after him, making sure he didn't overshoot and fall onto the tracks. The child's mother saw me watching her son, and smiled...and then spoke to me in great English. We talked, and I ruefully explained my mistake to her. I'm certainly glad I met Asoko! Turns out I could not just get on the train and go in the proper direction...I had to go back one stop, get off the train, and get on an entirely different train line! Oooops!

So...this young family offered to escort me. It wasn't until we'd gone back one stop, changed trains, travelled several stops and changed trains again that I found out they had changed their plans entirely, just to make sure I got where I was going! They left me there at the Hase train station in Kamakura, and promptly got on a train going back to where they'd come from. They all three hustled down to the end car, and waved and beamed at me from the back window of the train until it was out of sight.

Kamakura is a fascinating town. It's small--smaller than Sasebo--with lots of little restaurants and touristy shops. Their claim to fame is the plethora of shrines and temples, and the Daibutsu, which is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan. It's 13.35 meters high, of cast bronze, built in 1252. It was originally built inside a temple, but a tsunami washed away the temple walls and roof at the end of the 15th century, so now it stands in the open. Its official name is Taiisan Kotokuin Shojo Senji. One can pay to go inside it, but it was plenty hot enough without going into a giant metal windowless box, so I abstained.

My favorite part of Kamakura was not, surprisingly, the Daibutsu, but instead was the Hasadera Temple. Of course, one enters the temple grounds at the garden level, and begins to climb (anything worthwhile in Japan is worth climbing to reach...) On the first "level" there were literally hundreds and hundreds of little statues called sentai jizo, maybe 12 inches high. Each represents the soul of a child who was stillborn, miscarried or aborted. The men mostly kept moving up the stairs, but it seemed that every single woman had to stop here, to pour water with a bamboo dipper on the head of a child-like Buddha statue, and pray before the ranks and ranks of sentai jizo. Another, larger statue sat in the middle of them all, wearing a red cloth cap and cape on its stone head and shoulders. There were many candles being lit, and lots of incense, and more than one woman walked away weeping.

There was a tiny little temple with a wooden statue of Buddha inside, with the usual grid-topped box for donations...but surrounding the box and the feet of the Buddha were piles of toys and candy and sodas. A woman saw my puzzled expression and whispered to me "for the children, because they never got to play and be happy on this earth." So much for no tears!

Once I got myself together and stopped sniffling, I made my way further up the hill to the main temple halls. The Hasedera temple is of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, and is famous for its statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statue shows Kannon with eleven heads, each representing a characteristic of the goddess. The gilded wooden statue is over 9 meters tall, and is regarded as the largest wooden sculpture in Japan. It was so serene and cool in the temple hall, and though there were plenty of tourists, almost all were Japanese, and everyone was very quiet and reverent. It was really beautiful! Go to for more info about the temple and the statue.

I really wanted to take a photo of the statue of Kannon, and there were some tourists doing so, but there is a sign that specifically asks visitors NOT to take photos. I thought about how I'd feel if someone came into St. Peter's in the middle of a service and started snapping photos and talking, and I decided to respect the request. I did take a photo of the huge bell, and the giant tree trunk that is swung against it to ring it, and several photos of the gardens, the temple roof, the statues for the children, and of some of the toys and offerings for the souls of the children. I also took a photo of the revolving kyozo, which is a carved wooden storehouse for the sutras--the Issaikyo, which are all the scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism (100 volumes, 900 pages each!) The whole thing revolves on an axle, like a huge, ponderous top. There were several very solemn-faced people struggling to push it around one complete revolution--an elderly couple, then two plump housewife-types, then three teenagers. If a pilgrim pushes it around in a full circle, he or she gets the same spiritual benefit as reading all the scriptures!

I really enjoyed the Daikokudo hall, the home of the Daikokuten. He's a fat, funny god with a huge smile, a bald head, and fat, pendulous earlobes. He stands on a sack of rice with a treasure bag over one shoulder and a mallet or mace over the other shoulder. He supposedly shakes his mace and treasure and goodies fall out, showering the good people. He used to be the god of grain, but is now considered one of the gods of good fortune--one of the seven lucky deities. In a little alcove off the Daikokudo sat a solemn priest. His job was to carefully paint beautiful calligraphy in the "pilgrimage books" of visitors, and to sell little trinkets. I bought a little Daikokuten charm, and he smiled and handed me a little tiny brass statue of the Daikokuten as a gift. While I was there, several people came in and rubbed the statue, including two very serious old ladies who approached the statue chanting something as they rubbed him all over, using both hands with great purpose, seriousness and intensity--his swollen earlobes, his knee, his fat cheeks, his eyebrows...and between his legs! I had a hard time keeping a straight face, especially as the fat statue was shorter than both women, but much wider, and his grin was so huge!

On my way back down the hill, I followed two elderly women from New Zealand (mostly so I could listen to their Japanese guide/friend!) They passed a little tatami-matted, glass-walled building filled with people kneeling in front of low desks, busily writing. The guide/friend explained that they were copying from an ancient sutra, which gave them spiritual benefits. Past the building, there was a torii in front of a little tiny cave. The NZ ladies stooped over and went straight in, so of course I followed. Inside the cool, low-ceilinged cave carved out of the hillside, water dripped and shadows loomed. The one large Benten statue (goddess of eloquence, music & wisdom--of course she's female!) was followed by 16 relief carvings of her followers and messengers. I was confused...the torii is Shinto, but the Benten statue is Buddhist. The guide/friend explained that this was an example of the overlap of the two beliefs, but I'm not really sure I understand. More reading for me, I guess.

The cave startled me, as it got so low at one point that we practically had to crawl to get through to the next part. There was a room with hundreds and hundreds of teeny tiny wooden Buddha figures about an inch and a half tall--tucked into nooks and crannies in the wall, on rock shelves, on the floor, teetering on the metal pipe through which the wires for the few electric bulbs run. The guide/friend said people bought these little figurines and left them, often with prayers written on the bottom. I asked her why these things were in a cave...was there persecution in the past? She smiled and said "it means more if your prayers are private and quiet, and not showing off for your neighbors." Made me think of "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...." (no, I don't have it memorized--I had to look it up).

I was so glad I made the effort to go to Kamakura. I wish FH had been with me, but maybe we'll get a chance to head in that direction together at some point in the next two and a half years. If you're anywhere near Tokyo for any reason, don't miss the little town of Kamakura.

More adventures to come. I still have to give you the lowdown on cousin M's visit...we went to Kumamoto, Arita, Fukuoka, Kashimae was great! But it will be a day or two, as FH is home (YIPPEE!) Seems they got halfway to Indonesia, and Indonesia decided they didn't want help. So they headed home. His hours are truly crazy right now, as the ship is doing some sort of important excercise/qualification/I don't really understand it, and so even though he's in port, he's on the ship more often than not. Though I won't see much of him (and nothing at all during the week!) at least he's close, and he gets to be home a few evenings in the next two or three weeks. He's working insanely hard and I'm really in awe of him right now.