The paths one can take in Kyoto are long and meandering. As a city, Kyoto’s boundaries stretch about 830km², nearly seven San Franciscos in area. One of my favorite places to go is Ohara, a small mountain village to the north, about a forty minute bus ride from my house.
I discovered the beauty of the area about three years ago, when I decided to ride my bicycle as far north as the road would take me (though I don’t recommend it, as the pedestrian lanes all but disappear once you reach the mountain!) At the time, the plum blossoms were in bloom and farmers were burning off all of their winter refuge: a classical image of simple life that is so easy to find in the rural parts of the city.
Ohara is famous for several things: Its pickles, the women known as Ohara-me, and a series of temples that boast gorgeous moss, flower, and maple tree gardens. The town is charming, in every sense of the word, and the quiet tranquility one can achieve there is faster and far more lasting than other respites in the area.
(press ‘pause’ on slideshow to read captions clearly)
I could talk about any number of things in Ohara that I love, or could suggest to others, but today, I’m going to focus on a small temple hidden amidst the larger attractions, Hosen-in.
While the temple has a long and assorted history, I’ll not go into it all today. I’d rather talk about the attraction that truly moved me to stillness – the blood ceiling (shitenjo) in the main hall. N J Magas, who went with me, will soon be debuting her Taiken Japan article on the series of temples that have these ceilings, but I feel I won’t be giving too much away to talk about my personal experience there.
Shitenjo are ceilings made from the bloody floorboards left after the brutal siege of Fushimi Castle in 1600, in which hundreds of samurai lost their life either to the enemy, or by their own hand in the aftermath. Buddhist superstitions believed that the souls of the dead samurai could not rest with the gruesomeness of their demise, and so it was decided that several temples around the Kansai region would take some of the boards into their temples, where the monks and peaceful atmosphere might appease the dead.
Hosen-in is situated in a quiet corner of Ohara, and the day we went, typhoon rains brought a strange curtain of silence to the town. Especially in Hosen-in, the stillness was palpable. Entry included a bowl of matcha tea, which N J and I enjoyed under the open concept of its main hall, which had unobstructed views of the garden for a full ninety degrees. Right above us, a dark mahogany ceiling bore the marks of fingers clenched in palms, a swash of bleached out color designating where, we would learn later, prisoners had been executed in expedited fashion.
The juxtaposition of peaceful scenery and gruesome history of the boards brought both unease and reflection – those boards that had soaked up so much violence had sat in this temple longer than the U.S.A. has even existed.
The monk on duty spoke of a mother and child that had been caught in the fray; the mother died cradling her child against her on the floor. Nearby, the facial features of a samurai have all but impressed themselves on the wood, giving an immediate understanding of the paranoia in recieving ghostly retribution.
The temple is not for the faint of heart, but it is a fascinating place, that left me recognizing the anger and anguish that has brought some parts of the world to develop better ways to communicate and solve disputes. Of course, we are a far way from being finished with that journey, and though our weapons have changed and gotten uglier, but in Japan, this is seen so starkly in the belief of non-violence whenever possible (Prime Minister Abe excluded).
I leave you with final gallery of the temple, and a video recording of Hosen-in’s sekiban, a musical water well that monks use to find the right pitch for chanting. Until next time!
Sekidan Water Well at Hosen-in: