Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - Temple and Shrine hopping along the Yamakasa Matsuri Route

Our first visit to Fukuoka would take just all of five days.   Jay and I wanted to maximise each day and see as much as we could.

I had found a local tour company called Trip Insights that offered different kinds of tours for both Fukuoka and areas out of the city.  When travelling, specially to a new place, I always prefer taking tours with an independent, local company.  The owner, Makoto Tanaka was very helpful and made great recommendations on what we could see and do. 
So on our first whole day in Fukuoka, we headed off to the very large and modern JR Hakata Station to meet up with our Trip Insights Guide.

Mariya Nogouchi  is a licensed English speaking guide who also does tours for Trip Insights.
Very knowledgeable, warm and gracious, she made us feel instantly welcome.  
This morning we would be walking around the area right behind Hakata Station.

This map shows and explains the Hakata area which contains a number of important temples and shrines -- all of which we would be visiting today.

Our walking tour started along Taihaku-dori, the city's History Walk so called because of the number of historical and cultural sites that are are within the area.  This avenue is where the Yamakasa Matsuri,  Fukuoka's most famous festival passes through.  The Yamakasa Matsuri involves very large,  one-ton heavy floats borne on the shoulders of men, who race through the streets of the city,  each group trying to post the best time.  I would have loved to see it but the festival happens in mid July and we were one month too early for that.

Our first stop was Jotenji, just a few meters off the main road.  The temple is along a rather narrow street so I can just imagine how hard it is for the large Yamakasa  floats to navigate this stretch.  
But it is a key stop of the race because the temple's founder, Kokushi san  started the festival as thanksgiving for saving the city from the plague. 

On this weekday morning, there is hardly anyone so we were able to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.  The temple belongs to the Rinzai school of Buddhism and was founded in 1242.  Mariya san led us behind the main hall to explore the other half of Jotenji -- which has been bisected with a narrow public road.

At the back part of Jotenji you will see these monuments to the founder Kokushi san who was 
quite a talented individual   -- he introduced the milling techniques to make udon and soba and he also introduced the recipe for manju or steamed buns in Japan.   Another monument honours the origins of Hakata-ori, a locally woven cloth that is indigenous to this area.

Mariya san brought us to Jotenji's beautifully arranged karesansui or dry landscape garden.  
The gravel has been raked meticulously to form waves, depicting water.  Strategically placed 
rocks and some greens denote islands.  The temple's service hall right beside the garden has a 
wooden viewing deck,  perfect for contemplating this lovely masterpiece.  
This garden is normally not open for visitors but thankfully Mariya san has accreditation which allows her to bring her guests to see it. 

We had just three hours to finish our tour so we were not really able to go in and visit Shofukuji,  
the first Zen temple in Japan and founded by the revered monk Eisai.  
Because she knew how interested I was in temples, Mariya san did a short detour so we were able 
to take a quick peek at this designated National Historic Site.  Hopefully I can come back another time to see Shofukuji and  walk around the tree shaded grounds.

We headed back to the main road, Taihaku-dori where the city's most important temple is located.  Can you see the five lines along the wall?  Five lines on a temple's wall denotes its highest importance.  This is the entrance to Tochoji -- a temple I really wanted to see since Kobo Daishi 
or Kukai, the Buddhist saint is said to have founded this in 806.

A  hexagonal building at the entrance is a sutra hall where sutras are written on the interior walls.

Tochoji is Temple number one on the 88 Kyushu Pilgrimage.  Patterned after the more famous 
and ancient 88 Shikoku Pilgrimage, the Kyushu version was started only in the 1980s and involves 
a pilgrimage around 88 of Kyushu's Shingon Temples, the sect that Kobo Daishi founded.  
I was able to get a temple seal from Tochoji so while  I may never do the  88 Kyushu Pilgrimage, 
I am happy that I have the seal of Temple #1 in my go shuin cho (temple seal book).

A five story pagoda  stands bright and vermillion in the temple grounds.  This is not an old structure but is relatively new.  It makes a nice backdrop for a photo with Mariya san.

Time to see the Fukuoka Daibutsu or the Great Buddha of Fukuoka which is housed in that tall building on the rightmost.  Mariya san said that this is one of the tallest seated wooden Buddhas in the world and was finished after four years of carving, in the early 1990s.

No photos are allowed of the Buddha so the photo above is from a postcard that you can buy at the temple shop.  
The Daibutsu is indeed awe inspiring and impressive.  The face radiates compassion and kindness.
Thousands of little Buddhas made in the Daibutsu's image surround him -- Mariya san said there were 5,000 of them. From the base to the top, the statue is 11 meters and just dwarfs you with his presence.
Mariya san invited us to go "under" the Buddha where a narrow passageway is lined with paintings showing the various stages of hell ...  are these enough to scare you into abandoning your evil ways? 
After the last painting,  I walked through a thick black curtain straight into pitch black darkness, 
with nothing to guide me but a handrail.  I felt my way along --  handrail on one side, smooth 
wall on another -- the passageway is just wide enough for one person to go through.  Mariya san whispered to  "watch out"  for the circular ring on the right side of the wall -- touching it would 
mean salvation granted by Buddha.   Did I find it?  Well, with a little help from Mariya san, I did. 
Being in total darkness is slightly discombobulating -- so this is what it feels like to be completely blind!  After what seemed like minutes but I am sure was just a few seconds, we emerged  on the other side of the passageway.  
Perhaps this experience is meant to be a metaphor for being reborn -- out of the darkness and into 
the light.  

After that unique and thought provoking experience, Mariya san led us back onto Taihaku dori 
for our final destination.  While we have been "walking" for over two hours, in reality, every stop 
has just been within 10 or 20 minutes of each other.

We reach Kushida jinja -- the city's oldest and most important Shinto shrine, dedicated to Amaterasu,  sun Goddess and her brother Susanoo.   

There are quite a number of visitors this morning.  Aside from the main hall, small shrines can be found throughout, and there is even a 1,000 year old gingko tree in the front yard.

Aside from its historical importance, Kushida jinja is noted for being the spiritual heart of  
the Yamakasa Matsuri.  On one side of the shrine grounds there is a  wooden structure 
that houses the framework of a typical Yamakasa float.  Nowadays, due to power lines and 
cables lining the race route,  the actual floats do not reach this height but each float is still many meters high and weigh at least a ton. .

This is a poster advertising this year's Matsuri.  Look at how big that float is.  Can you imagine carrying that on your shoulders while running non-stop through  the parade route?   It would 
certainly be a most exciting festival to watch.

All too soon, it is half past 12 noon -- and we have to rush to have lunch before our next tour 
which starts an hour later.
But first, I make a beeline for the small stand holding the o-mikuji, those fortune telling strips that 
are practically ubiquitous in shrines and temples.  Luckily, there's an english version and as  
Mariya san puts her hands together to wish for good fortune for me ... I roll out the paper to read "Very Lucky".   That's definitely a good omen for the rest of our stay here in Fukuoka!


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