Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on my Way to see Buddha ... a Good Friday pilgrimage to Mt Hieizan and Enryakuji Temple

I had always wanted to visit Enryakuji, a World Heritage site, and one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan.  The temple complex is located on Mount Hieizan and because of this the mountain is also known as a "holy" mountain. A Japanese friend who knows of my particular affinity for Koyasan (see earlier post) encouraged me to visit Hieizan so that I could "compare" both "holy" sites.

On this latest trip to Kyoto, we found ourselves on Good Friday setting out for Mount Hieizan.
I had detailed instructions from guidebooks, websites and from my Japanese friend so I was quite sure I knew how to get us there.
But ... Buddha has such a sense of humour.  On my first trip to Kyoto, we got lost along the way to Kinkakuji Temple.  This last trip, a few weeks ago -- Buddha struck again.  This time, he got us on the wrong train. We were supposed to take the Kosei train line from Kyoto Station ...

Hieizan-Sakamoto, our designated station was just four stops away from Kyoto station.

We left in such high spirits -- but Buddha knew better.  Apparently, we didn't check the train details when it pulled in -- we just naturally got on and grabbed our seats.  We got on the wrong train -- who knew that both Kosei and Biwako lines left from the same platform?

It took over thirty minutes and quite a number of stations away before we realised our mistake and we had to backtrack, get off the Biwako line and get on the Kosei line.   Here is Jay facing the right direction this time.  He does look a bit peeved.

As for me, I was just happy to be back on the right track.  At least we still had the whole day ahead of us.  

A few stops later, we found ourselves at the right station -- Hieizan Sakamoto.  There are different ways to get to Mount Hieizan --  and everyone had said that this was the easier and faster way  (unless Buddha decides to play games with you) .  
From the train station, we wanted to walk through the town to get to the cable car for Enryakuji but the lady at the station said it would be quite a distance and suggested we use the shuttle bus instead.  As you can see from the photo above, it was a slow day and we were the only two people on the bus.

I'm glad we did take the bus because the road to the cable car station was all uphill. Here's the bus waiting for any passengers to take back to the train station. 

The Sakamoto Cable car has been in operation since 1927 and is the longest cable car route in Japan. It's a funicular cable car that follows the steep incline of the slope.  The ride to the top of the mountain takes a little over 11 minutes and would take us through interesting views.  Since there was only one cable car going up, I was pretty sure we were getting on the right train.

The cable car leaves every half hour.  While we waited to board, we took the time to look around the interesting details on exhibit at the station.

The cable car interiors were spanking clean and very spic and span.  There were very few of us on board so I could move from seat to seat to get the better views.

Aside from its "holy" mountain status, Mount Hieizan is also well known for its rather violent past.  The "Siege of Mount Hiei" in the 1500s by Oda Nobunaga caused the massacre of thousands of "warrior monks".  There are certain places in the the mountain that have small statues that honour the lives lost during the particularly bloody time.  

The cable car glides smoothly through the mountain slope.  

At some point, the tracks split in two and there is a short wait of about three minutes as we wait for the car coming down Hieizan to pass us, before we continue on our way.

Along the way up ,  we saw statues carved out of tree logs of animals like wild boar, snake, eagle,  deer and this monkey -- they  are all  guardians of the mountain and Enryakuji.

Soon enough, the cable car reaches its final stop. 

The view outside the station is not as clear as I would have wanted it.  A slight haze obstructs our view of the towns below, including Lake Biwa, largest lake in Japan.  Trust me, it's somewhere beneath that haze.

From the cable car station, it's another kilometre or so to the entrance to the temple grounds -- most of it still uphill.

So we huff and puff our way up.  Thankfully, it's a cool spring day and ideal for hiking.

We loved the clean, pine scented air of Mount Hieizan.

Thank goodness for the benches placed along the path.  Walking up a mountain, even along a well paved road is hard work.

Once inside the temple grounds, first order of the day is to symbolically wash our hands and purify our mouths before entering the temple.

Enryakuji is composed of three major areas -- the east area called Todo,  the west area called Saito and the farthest area called Yokawa
There are buses that travel between the three areas but the times are  infrequent at best so for today, we decided to confine ourselves to the Todo area, where most of the main buildings are.
This building above is the Konpon Chudo, the Main Hall and a National Treasure of Japan.  It's a gorgeous building and like the Okunoin in Koya san, there is a lamp on the main altar with a fire that's been burning for centuries.  Unfortunately, no photos inside the Konpon Chudo are allowed.

There are different stone monuments that are right outside Konpon Chudo - along with a late blooming weeping sakura.

Right across Konpon Chudo are stone steps that lead up to Monjuro. Steep as they are, we make the climb.  Towards the top, there is someone busy with pencil and paper, capturing the image of Konpon Chudo on his sketchbook. 

Monjuro, while not one of the four notable buildings of Enryakuji, is a beauty nonetheless.  I initially thought it was a torii but upon closer inspection, it's not.  It was well worth the climb up the steep stone steps.  However, a few meters away from the building was another way we could have gone up, a less steep and shorter staircase.  Hmm,  Buddha was up to his tricks again.

Along the sides of the Monjuro are these petition and prayer boards.  I don't know how long these have been here but they have a certain patina that blends well with the weathered wood.

From Monjuro, we saw there were more steps to climb to get to our next destination.  
Buddha was certainly making me sweat on this visit to Enryakuji!

This is the Daikodo, a designated important cultural asset.  The Daikodo is the dojo or training hall of Enryakuji, one where monks received their academic training.

Around the bend from Daikodo is another lovely building, the Kaidan In where Buddhist priests were ordained into the Tendai Sect.  This is another of Enryakuji's important cultural assets. 
I love its solemn, elegant grace.

Aside from the Konpon Chudo, which is a National Treasure, there are three cultural assets in Enryakuji, all within the Todo area.  To get to the last one, I see that there are more stone steps to climb.

This is the Amida-do,  burned down during the siege of Mount Hieizan by Nobunaga, it was fully restored four hundred years later, in 1987.  It is a striking vermillion sight amidst the dark green cedar forest in the background.  The Amida-do was used for memorial services for the dead and continues to hold these services until today.

On the walk back to the bus stop to catch the bus to Kyoto, we pass by these posters that tell the story of Mount Hieizan and Enryakuji.  While everything is in Japanese, you can get the drift from the pictures.  Apparently this one chronicles the battle between Nobunaga and the warrior monks of Mount Hieizan.

The posters mark historical dates of Enryakuji's establishment.

It's interesting to see the history of the temple through these posters conveniently placed along the path.

The temple was established in 831 by Dengyo Daishi Saicho -- Koyasan was also established around the same time by Kobo Daishi.

It's mid afternoon when we decide to return to Kyoto -- this time via bus.  The cable car and the train would have been faster but somehow, we couldn't muster the energy to trudge back to the cable car station.  
Despite the missteps and many steps we've had to walk and climb, we gave thanks to Buddha for this gift of a visit to Mount Hieizan and Enryakuji.  
It was certainly not my usual way to spend Good Friday but it was a spiritually uplifting experience nonetheless!

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