Jun 5, 2007

Kyoto, Reprise: Hall of the Rice Goddess, Rocks of Insanity

In Shinto mythology, Inari is the goddess (well, sometimes also the god) of grains, particularly rice. As you can imagine, such a deity gained a fair amount of popularity in Japan, where rice is more or less omnipresent. The goddess was usually portrayed as having kitsune (fox) attendents, figures that are also some of the cooler parts of Japanese myth. In Kyoto, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is very much suited to the goddesses' popularity and importance, and is one of the niftier places that I've been to in Japan.
From the outset, the shrine seemed very much like other places that I'd seen in Kyoto before- a large torii just in front of the entrance, with various small altar-like buildings scattered about. There were, of course, people clapping and ringing the bells in front of the altars, several statues of kitsune (foxes) and the general feeling of both peace and business that seems to pervade Japanese religious sites. I found the kitsune particularly interesting. Their statues were almost all arranged in pairs, one of which was clutching a parchment in its mouth, the other holding a ball. I still don't know the significance or symbolism of this.
As Kori and I went up the hillside, though, we eventually found the entrance to the torii tunnel. The paths up the hill were amazing. It was a grey, cloudy, day and the inside of the torii tunnel was suffused with a faint grey-orange light. We climbed upwards, into it, a grandly yonic tunnel. We also noticed that apparently all of the torii that lined the path were apparently volunteer donations, each of them bearing the name of an individual, company, or government group. It was sort of amusing to find intermittent katakana among the kanji, markings of things of foreign origin amid something that was very distinctly Japanese. There were intermittent breaks along the way, the path lined with stone foxes and various altars. Upon reaching the summit we saw a collection of graveyards, the headstones piled against each other, a crowded necropolis attended to by foxes. Other statues were there as well- lions and horses, almost all outfitted with red drapery, all watching the dead on a hill.
I think I enjoyed Fushimi Inari precisely because I knew nothing about it before I got there. I knew that it was "a bunch of torii on a hill," and that was about it. To go into something with no expectations whatsoever and then be astounded by it was quite the nifty experience. Like Himeji castle, the shrine demonstrated quite a lot of what I think is neat and interesting about Japanese aesthetics and architecture. The shrine was a wonderful and unique mix of grandness and simplicity that I find uniquely cool.
And speaking of architechture, Kyoto Station is awesome.
Yes, the Japan Rails Kyoto Station. In a city full of temples, shrines, castles, etc., one of the most interesting and awesome buildings is the train station. Kori and I met up with her brother and cousin, who were visiting Japan, and as we made our way back to our hostel, we took a bit of time to explore the station. It's a remarkable public space, really.
It's massive, to begin with. Which makes sense, it's one of the bigger cities in Japan, and the station is also filled with all manner of shops, restaurants, cafes, and whatnot. But the architechture is all niftily modern. It's not the sort of modern architechture that looks too slick, too new. It's convincingly futuristic, if that makes any sense. Seriously. One could imagine spaceships docking there.
But, the best part of it, is a massive flight of stairs.
The station, it seems, is built next to a hillside, on on the top of said hillside is this sort of miniature garden/terrace thing. Leading up to it is a pair of escalators, but right alongside the escalators is a long, long, and very wide flight of stairs dotted with various modern sculptures. Dan, Kori's brother, pointed out that this was an awesome addition, because the stairs invited people to sit on them. And he was right. Looking down from the terrace we could se several groups of people lounging about, sitting, chatting, drinking coffee, etc., on the stairs. The stairway itself was a very nice public space worked into the side of a hypermodern building. In a country like Japan, where it is sometimes quite hard to find a place in public to sit down, I really, really admired the massive lounging area.
So, between Fushimi Inari and Kyoto Station, it had been a day of awesomeness in architecture. The next day, though, yeilded not as much architectural awesome. The following day we made our way to Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, probably Kyoto's most famous spot.
Someone once described Kinkakuji as "historical bling." I like that description. It's a well known sight, probably the most well known temple in Kyoto, but, damn, it's a silly building.
A really, really silly building.
Something Kori and I talked about a few times was how Buddhism, which is supposedly all about simplicity, withdrawl from worldly concerns, contemplation, etc., has so many blinged-out temples.
Seriously- Buddhist places seem to be awash with gold, statues, incense, tapestries, and various other bits and trinkets that seem distinctly non-unworldly. It's probably just good old religious grandiosity at work. When one thinks about all the gold and statues in relation to the stained glass and incense in a Catholic church, it doesn't seem too unusual.
But Kinkakujin is sort of in a class of it's own.
Make no mistake, the building is actually somewhat anticlimactic. It doesn't exactly leap out and amaze you with it's golden grandiosity. It's not ugly, by any means. But it does seem to mistake its own excess for aesthetics. Kinkakuji is of a category of things that are both banal and amazingly opulent. Things like Hummers, diamonds, and most pornography- it's an amazing feat of construction, something polished and perfect and lustrous to the point that it's lifeless.
What's additionally funny about the golden temple is that it's reconstructed. In 1950 an insane monk burnt the place down and what stands now is a modern reconstruction. I couldn't find anywhere on the grounds of the Temple that acknowledged this little detail.
Kori found the perfect metaphor for the structure- it's an elephant. Like an absurd white elephant given as a tasteless joke or a real, outsized elephant, Kinkakuji is an opulent beast. Perhaps the insane monk merely had a moment of Buddhist clarity.
Close to Kinkakuji was the Ryoanji temple, which I liked much better. While still packed with tourists, this temple wasn't as insanely opulent and hectic as its golden neighbor. The main feature of Ryoanji is a famous Zen rock garden. There are fifteen stones in the garden, and supposedly one cannot see them all at once. It is said that if you can see all of the stones simultaneously, it's a sign of having attained Nirvana. I tried this, and indeed could only see fourteen. Silly zen rocks and their stealthy ways.
Kori also suggested that perhaps one of the monks hanging out her was getting all meditative, contemplating the rock garden, could suddenly see all fifteen of the rocks at once. Poof! Enlightenment! In a fit of sudden realization, the monk got up, walked to nearby Kinkakuji, decided that giant gold buildings really weren't all that Buddhist after all, and torched down in a fit of insane enlightenment. This story probably isn't true, but I sort of want it to be.
In the Ryoanji temple's rock garden, it was sort of odd to see how many people were looking at a simple collection of stones. The rock garden isn't especially big or thrilling, but it is well known, and it was sort of interesting and absurd to see how many people (myself included) came to simply sit and look at rocks. But they were very nice rocks, which could possibly drive one to insanity or Nirvana.
In our case it drove us to karaoke. Kori's brother and cousin had never experienced the joys of this pasttime before, so we had a grand old time belting out Journey songs after taking in all that shiny/contemplative history stuff. Yes, Kyoto was nifty. Now, where to next...

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Eric said...

You left after reaching 14 rocks?!? You were just ONE stone away from Nirvana. Think about playing guitar while Kurt Cobain helps you along and Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic hit up the drums and bass. Sweet!

Sydney said...

I think every culture/country must have its own Kinkakujin. In Lyon, there was Fourvière. Fourvière is the gaudiest, neobyzantine basilica imaginable. There is not a surface that is not covered in some kind of rococo flourish. In fact, the flourishes have flourishes! Everything is gilded and the walls are covered in mosaics. It's kind of what I imagine having a petit mal seizure acid would be like. You said that Kori mentioned something about Kinkakujin being a white elephant, the tacky gift that nobody wants. Fourvière is actually called "the white elephant of Lyon," but not because it's tacky. It's because it's white, it has a large tower in each corner, and it sits on a hill with it's apse thrust out over the city. In short, it looks like a huge white elephant lounging over the city on it's back. I could never accurately determine whether the Lyonnais we secretly proud of their éléphant blanc or what.

Digression: I wanted to check the gender of "éléphant" - my brain decided it was a trick word, secretly feminine despite its obvious masculinity - so I typed "the white elephant" into babelfish. The translation? "L'objet superflu." Huh!

Joseph said...

Yeah, religions seem to have no sense of taste when it comes to important buildings. I remember being more than a little put off by a lot of the famous churches in Jerusalem when I lived there -- the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is particularly bad. I suppose there are few religions that promote their devotees based on their design sense (except, of course, for the Church of Ikea). So maybe gold-plated buildings (a popular choice!), shiny censers, and chandeliers are an inevitable byproduct of religious upbringing. Now there's a depressing thought...

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

from talking with students, i.e. real live Japanese people brought up in Shinto/Buddist traditions, they generally explain the gaudiness of Buddist temples and pavilions as being a purely secular display of wealth. So basically, some one so rich that they want to build something bling-y in the name of religion.

Generally I find the shinto shrines, with their strong influence from nature and often requiring climbing many flights of stairs, more inspiring. but that's just the hippy in me really.

hey man, let's check out that big tree...