Jan 29, 2008

Naritasan by Night

For the past few weeks, my morning commute has been full of old people. My hopes of getting a seat have been pretty much nonexistent, so I've been standing, a head and a half taller, on the train. Like so many others here, one of my hands is gripping a hanging support ring, and the other propping open a book.

Normally, I have a fairly easy commute- forty minutes, no transfers, and against traffic, which means I can sit and read for all of it. Luxurious by Kanto standards. Lately, though, I've had a bit of my luxury chipped away by the geriatric swarm that gets on in Tokyo and Chiba, and then gets off at the same stop as me- Narita. While others use commuter passes and cards, they clutch single-use tickets. Many of them take a few moments with the ticket machine at the gates, a motion that for others hardly interrupts a stride.

It's January, and New Year's festivities and prayers are still going on at one of Japan's largest Buddhist temples- Naritasan. My classroom is on a sixth floor, and from my window I'm fortunate enough to see two things. One is the multi-storied pagoda in the back of the temple complex, and the vast green roof of the main hall. They jut out of a sea of buildings and trees, and I have, very possibly, the best view of any eikaiwa teacher.

The other thing that I can see clearly is the winding street that leads up to the temple. The street itself is primarily for pedestrians, and lined with all manner of touristy shops and restaurants. You can buy anything that typically "Japanese" on that street- fake katana, minature Buddha statues, cheap kimono, etc. It edges toward kitsch, though it's not as extreme as Asakusa.

Recently, this winding, kitsch-lined street has been crowded with the same flock of seniors that ride the train with me. I can see them, the back of their heads making a gray winding sea, ready to clap, ring a bell, and throw five yen to the temple while praying for the new year. It's rained a few times, and that doesn't deter them- they gray winding sea was replaced by an expanse of umbrellas, their wet movement shielding the aged devoted.

Until two nights ago, I myself had not made it to Naritasan. I wanted to go, but I had little desire brave the crush of the crowds, and I've also been out in Tokyo and Chiba on the weekends. But the night before last I happened to be in Narita and, on a whim, I decided to walk to the temple. I had no good reason for this- it was something to do. At first, I thought I'd only walk to the gate, simply to see how far it was from my apartment.

The answer is, not that far at all. A bit over 800 meters, according to a helpful tourist sign.

I had assumed that the whole thing would be locked for the night, and that I'd be greeted by a sliding metal gate. Such a thing was conspicuously absent. The huge wooden gate was wide open. The wood, for the most part was a fresh looking brown-yellow, with various parts of it accented in gold. Not a bit looked worn, and I wondered if it had been touched up for the new year. Beyond the main gate, a courtyard, several statues, and a staircase were apparent. I looked around for security cameras, didn't see any, and decided that if I got caught trespassing I could just pass myself off as a foreigner who didn't know any better.

It was a real concern for me- back in Okayama some friends and I tripped a motion-activated alarm while exploring a shrine at night. We ended up sprinting away from the alarm and lights before anyone found us, but I didn't want to repeat the experience. It was exhilarating, but once was enough.

I walked through the gate, and was utterly alone. No old people, no umbrellas. Inside the gate was a stone avenue lined with statues and rocky monuments. I looked at them, looked for "keep out" signs, looked at the empty visitor information counters. Imagining the array of workers that would be behind them during the day, I looked into an open counter: chairs, boxes, and pamphlets. I imagined that the boxes were filled with even more pamphlets. Every historical place in Japan has a pamphlet to go with it. I've gotten so many, that I've stopped trying to save them.

The first flight of stone stairs took me to a pool in the side of the hill with a metal and stone bridge arched over it. The pool had a pair of fountains, one on either side of the bridge, each jutting water into the air. Around me the massive steps, the huge gate, the jagged rocks of the hillside, and several stone statues. The tiny drops sounded strange when compared to the huge visuals.

It seemed ironic to me that I would have probably walked past the statues and rocks had I been there in the day. During the day, when I could see them clearly, I would have shuffled along with the crowd, taken a nicely illuminated look at the statues, and walked upwards. But the half light forced me to look at the gods, pick out their shapes and forms. I felt something curious- the figures were fearsome. Even a little frightening. They were the same sort of roiling dragons, glaring dogs and lions, and open-mouthed foxes that I'd seen several times before, but now it was as if I was seeing them on their own terms. Whatever artist had initially carved an angry-eyed storm god probably didn't think of his work as something that would be bathed in sunlight and accompanied by a pamphlet- he probably thought of it as a figure of reverence and power, framed by shadows and night.

The context in which we consume art is definitely important. Galleries and museums serve not only as holding places for art and artifacts, but also as generators of atmosphere. I remember going to the Portland Art Museum, in high school, to see the Imperial Tombs of China exhibit. The place had been done up in red banners with Chinese characters festooned on everything. The inside of the place was dimly lit and supulchral, and what I Chinese-like music played on the headset. Had I seen the jade burial suits and ancient swords simply placed before me on a wooden table, they would have been interesting. But, in the created context of the museum and gallery, those things became even more ancient and inspiring in my fifteen-year-old mind.

The shadows and silence, I thought, was the appropriate gallery for the stone figures. It was not some created context that served them best, but genuine night and solitude that elevated them to fearsomeness. I continued upwards, to the main part of the temple, where I finally saw a security guard.

I decided to not do anything, and, if approach, simply comment on how pretty everything was. The security guard looked at me, grunted, made his way to a public restroom. Either it was okay to be there, or the guard didn't care about kicking me out. Either way, I was fine. I walked around the upper part of the temple for some time, seeking out the smaller buildings and out of the way statues. I found the pagoda that I can see from my classroom, as well as another that was bedecked with several gold dragon heads. They would have been gaudy by day. They were resplendent in the half-light.

I went into the main part of the temple that housed the Buddhist artifact around which Naritasan was built. The main part of the sanctuary was walled off with glass, and it was too dark to see inside- I could only glimpse the various gold implements- braziers, gongs, screens -that accompany the Buddhist services at the temple. The grunting security guard came back. He nodded to me, and grunted again. I stood there for a while, turned around, made my way down the steps, was passed by a huffing jogger making his way upward, and made my way home.

I have little desire to see the place during the day. I feel like Nartiasan is a night place for me now, the kind of place that one associates with atmosphere and solitude that would lose something if you saw it during the day. Setsubun, another Japanese holiday, is coming up soon, and I know that the aged devout will be making there way there. I'll watch them from my classroom.

The next morning I mentioned my trip to my American coworker who mentioned that the place is, indeed, open twenty four hours a day. "Yeah," he said, "it's really cool at night."

Indeed it is.


Eric said...

Exploring by night! That was always one of my favorite things to do when I traveled. It seems like there's just a little more magic in the air.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

wow. sounds beautiful. I would have probably been creeped out by the statures.