SYNOPSIS:  Catch-up day in Takayama.  Meeting Sylvia from Portugal.  About finding the key to paradise.


As wonderful as the “grasshopper villages” were, they were too expensive.  At $90 a night and cash only, I had to get out sooner than I would have liked.  I urgently needed a day to catch up writing and working on photos — the first computer mishap was haunting me: my external backup drive was “no longer readable” by my computer.

Reformatting the drive, reloading thousands of pictures from various camera chips, relinking them all with Lightroom and catching up with two days of writing was promising to take a full day.  But if that was all I had to worry about, no big deal.  Just a matter of time.   Takayama, just at the edge of the Japanese Alps, promised to be a great place for that.

I arrived in the late morning and found another Buddhist Temple that provided lodging.  Yokina, a gentle, young woman in her late twenties (but then age is often hard to gauge here) with straight black hair and a very soft voice, led me around.  I had a choice between the quiet Japanese-style room in the residential area of the temple, with a view into the meticulously kept temple garden and the more noisy Western style room near the entrance, which had a sofa and a desk.  I was ready to sacrifice beauty for practicality, just this once.  Sitting on the floor for hours is proving more challenging than I want to admit…  And the separation from the other bedrooms allowed me to skype without having to worry about keeping everyone else up.

The Zenko-ji is a temple affiliated with the exoteric Jodo sect of Pure Land Buddhism (in contrast to the esoteric Shingon or Tendai sects).  As I am on my way to visit the  headquarters of this sect next, which has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, this seemed a good start.   Obviously, a lot more about this sect and its practices is coming soon.

Takayama is a working town which has made great efforts to preserve its old downtown area of original Edo-period houses.  An entire area of historical preservation has been designated.  It is filled with stores, restaurants, shops and souvenirs of the typical kitsch type, but also of very tempting high quality stuff.  I had to buy just a couple of things, including a very cumbersome traditional Japanese paper and wood umbrella.  How am I going to lug this thing around for another month, don’t ask… I opted for the slightly flawed and discounted $19 version rather than the hand-painted $190 one.    Let’s see what will be left of it when I get back.

There is a whole area of shrines, there are several museums and parks, and there is a government building from the Edo period, the Takayama Jinya, which is by now unique in all of Japan.  Much of this I had to skip.  But I did make a stop at the Takayama Jinaya.  The Tokugawa shoguns which I have mentioned a few times, ruled over over 60 distinct domains via its Bakufu (government).  In addition to that, about 250 feudal lords, known as Daimyo, ruled over independent areas even though they had to be loyal to the Tokugawa shoguns and pay tributes.

The Tokugawas sent government officials known as Daikan, to the local offices where they were responsible for tax collection, finances, policing, the judicial system and infrastructure such as forest management.   The Jinya reflected these functions in the various parts of the maze-like structure down to the biggest rice storage (rice was the most common form of tax payment), a fire-proof archive, a rough-looking torture chamber, and a huge conference room.  Japanese architecture proved even more flexible than I had seen so far.  The same architectural features which can provide emperors with high-class living comfort can be found in buildings for working functionaries:  tatami mats, shoji sliding doors, tokunoma alcoves.

Just as I was leaving to do my sightseeing, another woman exited the temple.  Sylvia, a teacher from Portugal, had just the same idea as I did — she had work to do; a semester to finish up, and had chosen this place to do it.  It was quite funny as we started talking how much we had in common down to a very similar personal history.

Semi-guilty, we embarked on a few hours of sightseeing and shopping before returning to our work.  At night we went out for a small bit to eat, and my first try at Sake.  When I eat in, I usually go for a can of local beer.  Surprisingly, I liked it.  I only had sake once years back and then it was served warm.  I had not cared for it much.  I learned that the lower the quality of the sake, the better it is warm.  Good sake will hold its own even when served cold.  This one was good.  Sylvia had the smooth-sweet one while I opted for the more dry variety.   The photo recovery session at night went just that much smoother.  🙂  For now, the external drive seems to be working again.  I will keep my fingers crossed.

Since I stayed up until midnight, I observed a phenomenon Sylvia had told me about: a uniformed woman was walking through the streets at night using wooden clappers to make a lot of noise — what was that all about?  Yokina, who turned out to be the head priestess at this temple (!) solved the mystery for us: this is the old way of fire patrol.  Volunteers, or now paid fire marshals, patrol the town at night and the clappers are there to raise people’s consciousness — don’t fall asleep with an open fire in the house, don’t smoke, etc.  Very funny, how some old customs are preserved.

The Zenko-ji has an interesting feature which I have not seen in any of the Shingon temples.  In the main temple area a staircase leads to the basement into a circular corridor which remains in complete darkness.  Worshippers are invited to go down, to feel their way to the center and to find the “key to paradise”.  If you do, and if you pray with deep sincerity to Amida Buddha, your sins are forgiven and you will make it into paradise, particularly if you pay more than the recommended $3 to go into the tunnel (as the nearby information statement points out).  The more you pay, the more likely, Amida will listen…  But unlike all such invitations I had seen on Koyasan (try to lift the rock, look into the well, or listen to hell — all but one provided negative reinforcement) — here the guarantee that you will find the key is nearly 100%.  This is the “no person left behind” sect of Buddhism.  Even if you can not devote your life to meditation and the solitude of a monastery, salvation is assured to the devout follower.

And with that assurance I will have a very good night.