Noilly Prattle: Getting Reacquainted 12 – bound by a rope - a spike in the head

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Getting Reacquainted 12 – bound by a rope - a spike in the head

     Japan’s archeological history ended with the Kofun period c. 538 CE. The oldest surviving artifacts of Japan’s first historical (Asuka) period (538—710 CE) can be found in Nara area Buddhist temples. On the last two days of our getaway trip we visited three of the oldest temples in Japan: Yakushi-ji (697 CE), Horyu-ji (607 CE) and Asuka-dera (596 CE) in Nara Prefecture.  

        The historical beginnings of non-mythical Japanese history can be attributed to the introduction of the Chinese characters known as kanji in Japan. The first Chinese characters probably arrived in Japan on official seals and as decoration on coins, mirrors and such practical items early in the Common Era (CE) as early as 57 AD. The characters were not understood, however, until the 5th Century when scholars were sent from the Korean Peninsula to introduce Buddhism and writing to Japan.

        Our original plan was to drive from Toba City, making a brief stop at Meoto Iwa, to Asuka-dera (25 km. south of Nara City)—about a 3-hour drive. However, we missed an important route turn off and, as the drive seemed to be dragging on, we realized that we had screwed up and were in the wrong [northern] suburbs of Nara City. After stopping and asking directions a couple times we discovered that we weren’t far from Yakushi-ji, the temple we had planned to visit last the following day. Thus, we decided on a change of plans. We would visit Yakushi-ji and Horyu-ji that day, drive south and find our Super Hotel, visit Asuka-dera the next morning and then drive back to Okayama from there. 


poster of the replacing
of the ropes ceremonies
        Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩), meaning “the rocks of the bound lovers” (no SM intended), are two rocks in Ise Bay adjacent to the Futami Okitama Shrine (二見興玉神社) not far from the Grand Shrine of Ise. These rocks represent the progenitor god and goddess Izanami and Izanagi in Japanese creation mythology. They celebrate the conjugal union of man and woman in Shinto belief. The rocks are bound by a heavy rope made of rice straw that weighs more than a ton. Due to the wear and tear of the elements the rope is replaced a few times a year in a special ceremony. We made a brief visit to Meoto Iwa on our way to Nara. In a way going from the shrine at Meoto Iwa to the temples in Nara we traveled from Japan’s mythological past to its early historical present.

bound rocks of Izanami and Izanagi


unusual 5-step pagoda
with two intermediate
smaller and indented 
inner temple precinct showing base of pagoda
         Yakushi-ji (薬師寺)was originally planned in 680 by the Emperor Temmu to pray for the recovery of his consort from a serious illness. Perhaps the gods extracted an eye for an eye because she recovered but he died. She then became the Empress Jito and commissioned the construction of the temple which was dedicated in 697. It was common for the Japanese nobility of the early Buddhist period to build temples as acts of devotion or seeking favors. The temple has been moved and destroyed several times over the centuries. Since much work has been done to restore this temple you get a good impression of what these colorful temples originally looked like.

main hall housing the original Buddha
dedicated by the Empress Jito
the Buddha flanked by the
gods of the sun and moon inside
the main hall on the left

recently built hall for meetings, conferences, etc. -- behind the main hall and sparkling in vermilion and white


5-step pagoda at Horyu-ji
        The full name of this temple, Horyu Gakumon-ji (法隆学問寺), means “Learning Temple of the Flourishing Law”—pretty impressive title, I’d say. The 5-step pagoda of Horyu-ji is one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world. Many of the temple buildings are probably just as old—and look it. 

* the Guze Kannon
        The temple complex is huge and my bum hip was giving me trouble since walking around two large temples was pretty tiring and, for my hip, a bit abusive. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and visited what to Road Buddy was the main reason of the visit to Horyu-ji , the Guze Kannon. 

* the Guze Kannon's
spiked head and halo
        This statue of the Buddhist deity Kannon (a sort of Christ-like savior figure) is said to be cursed because its halo is spiked to the back of the head by a very large nail. (The halos [or auras] on Buddhist statues are usually set on top of a pole behind the statue and not physically attached.) The Guze Kannon is thought to be a likeness of the revered Prince Shotoku whose son was forced to commit suicide thus ending the Shotoku imperial line. The spike in the head is thought to be a kind of voodoo effort to calm Shotoku’s spirit. Beats hell out of me how a spike in the head is expected to “calm” a spirit. The statue, usually hidden from the public except for brief periods in the spring and fall, is housed in the oldest octagonal building in Japan, which looks it. In fact, and maybe it’s because my bad hip was grousing me, the overall look of Horyu-ji is dilapidated.

the oldest octagonal building that houses the Guze Kannon

detail showing some of the original color
and the effects of time on the woodwork


main gate of Asuka-dera
the Great Buddha, the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan, 609 CE
the countryside around Asuka-dera
        Asuka-dera (飛鳥寺) is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) temples in Japan c. 588 CE. Unlike the large complex of Yakushi-ji and the even larger complex of Horyu-ji, embedded in otherwise busy commercial areas, Asuka-dera is small and surrounded by farmland in an obscure, difficult to find location. Once you find it, being small, it is easy to take in as a whole and pleasant to walk around in without exertion. The most impressive thing at Asuka-dera is a great (three meters [over 15 feet] high) bronze statue of a seated Buddha. Made in 609 CE it is the oldest statue of Buddha in Japan. The temple buildings themselves have been rebuilt several times; the present buildings were rebuilt in the Edo Period in 1632 and 1826—not as fresh looking as Yakushi-ji, but not as dilapidated as Horyu-ji either.

small and easy to walk around in the main compound of Asuka-dera
- the Great Buddha is housed in the central building


just in time for a couple of Martinis
*Note: Guze Kannon photos from the Internet

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