Monday, February 1, 2016

My Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Sites Bucket List #15 Kozan-ji ... of tea plants, manga and St Francis of Assisi

I go to Osaka for my stomach but I go to Kyoto for my soul. In Osaka I kui-daore or eat until
I am ruined.
If I tweak that word, and play fast and loose with the Japanese language, can I say that in Kyoto, I like to ji-daore, maybe tera-daore and yes also definitely,  jingu-daore.
Loosely translated (in my mind at least) it means that I go to temples or shrines until I am ruined. 
Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shrines and 17 of those are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Since I first visited Kyoto, I have seen 14 of those world heritage sites and now, I have just 3 more to go.

On this visit, I resolved to finally visit all three.  Kozan-ji, Saiho-ji and Ujigami-jinja were the last world heritage sites remaining on my list.
So, on a cloudy and cold day last December,  we set off for the first two temples, along with favourite Tours by Locals guide and friend, Chieko san.  She recommended we hire a van for the day as buses going to Kozan-ji and Saiho-ji are few and far between.

Our first stop was Kozan-ji,  located an hour from Kyoto centre.  Along with two other temples, it's 
situated in the valleys around  Takao Mountain.  The temple grounds are spread out over foothills, surrounded by centuries old trees. 

Originally established in the 8th century, the temple was restored by the monk Myoe in the 13th century and belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Myoe san was one of the great monks  during the Kamakura period.  He lived a devout and uncomplicated life,  dedicated to upholding the precepts of Shingon Buddhism.
Kozan-ji (and Myoe san) would give me some interesting discoveries today.

Chieko san led us to the start of what would be a steep climb up to the entrance of Kozan-ji.  This is directly beside a parking lot so it is convenient for those who take private transport to the temple. 

We climb up and up and thank goodness for the bamboo handrails -- I have something to pull myself up with.

Midway through the climb, there is a small hut where you can stop and catch your breath.  

The stone steps lead us first to the doorway of the scripture hall or the Sekisui-in.  This simple wooden building is the only surviving original structure from the 1200s when Myoe san restored Kozan-ji.   The Sekusui-in is a designated National Treasure. While the rest of the temple grounds are free to walk around in, there is a 600 yen charge to enter the Sekusui-in.

Photographs of the Sekusui-in are not allowed but after removing your shoes and leaving them outside, you can walk on the ancient and unvarnished wooden floors.  A very peaceful moss garden can be viewed on one side of the building.  I sat down on the steps of the wrap around balcony,  keeping in mind that I was probably viewing a scene that Myoe san may have also enjoyed. 

The balcony which extends all around the wooden hall looks out on a marvellous view of trees and mountains.  I can imagine how glorious this must be during autumn since Takao is a prime koyo viewing destination in Kyoto.  But I rather like the stark and leaf-less view.  Anything more vivid would be a distraction to quiet contemplation.

Kozan-ji is most famous for one of its National Treasures -- four scrolls said to be the first ever manga drawn in Japan.  These scrolls called the Choju Jinbutsu Giga  show satirical drawings of animals engaged in human activity.  While it is forbidden to take photos of the replicas in the Sekusui-in  (the originals are in the National Museum in Tokyo),  here's a sample of a drawing taken from the scrolls which I found near the entrance to the temple grounds. You can see that even many centuries later, the drawings are of universal themes which one can still relate to.

From the Sekusui-in we climbed more steps to reach the other parts of the temple.
Chieko san showed us another reason why this temple is a designated world heritage site --
near these stone steps is the first and oldest tea plantation in Japan.

A stone marker is placed near the entrance to the small field where the monk Myoe planted tea seeds from China that would eventually become the first tea plants in Japan.

It is wonderful to see these tea plants, perhaps descended from those very first seeds that Myoe san planted.  This is the oldest tea field in the country and some say that the Japanese tea culture started here in Kozan-ji.

Uphill from the tea field, reachable by a flight of stone steps is the Gobyo, Myoe san's simple and unadorned grave.
The monk Myoe san was a nature lover as can be seen by the unspoilt and uncultivated beauty of his temple, Kozan-ji.
A brochure of Kozan-ji states that Myoe san could even "communicate" with animals and because of this,  he has been likened to St. Francis of Assisi.  It is probably not a coincidence that both these saints, albeit of different religions, lived during the same era.
I am astonished to learn that  Kozan-ji is recognized as a "sister" temple of  the Basilica of
St. Francis in Assisi.   Now who would have thought that I would find St. Francis' kindred
spirit here, on a Buddhist temple in Kyoto?

NB Like Kozan-ji, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are many places for "walking meditation" along Kozan-ji.  The ascetic atmosphere is a natural aid for reflection.

Enshrined in a small hut is the Bussoku-seki, carved footprints of the Buddha.  

Towards the top of the temple grounds,  at the highest level is the Kondo or the main hall.  Dating back to the 1600s, this is newer than the Sekusui-in and replaced an original structure which had burned down.

I look up and wonder what kind of animal is carved on the entrance to the Kondo.  Is it a lion,  a dragon or is it a wild boar?  

From the Kondo,  steep stone steps lead  down to the exit of Kozan-ji.   Massive trees line
every step of the way.  The air is chilly and scented with the fresh smells of the forest -- of
pine needles, cedar trees and yes even the damp sweetish smell of decaying leaves.

Kozan-ji's natural and rugged setting makes it one of my favourites.  Its quiet and enduring appeal lies in its vastness and tranquility.  I  half expect to come upon the monk Myoe, walking about -- tending to his tea plants and doing mountain meditation.

NB Thank you to my husband Jay and son Gani for some of the photos used in this post.

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