SYNOPSIS:  About the headquarters of the Shotoku sect and one of the oldest temples in Japan.  About a long walk, three pagodas, national treasures, getting lost, and meeting a woman who does not want to be remembered.


When every muscle in both legs hurts every step and every movement becomes an act of mindfulness.  I was glad, I did not have to talk to anyone today, at least not while walking.  Yesterday it was my face.  Today, there were my legs.  That mountain keeps on giving…

I am in Nara, I should do Nara, but Professor Kane would not approve.  Before Nara, there was Horyuji.  And since I have the chance, I might as well do this in chronological order, do it “right”.

The Nara region is the cradle of Buddhism in Japan.  Only a few miles to the South there is Horyuji, where it all started:  Buddhism entered Japan in the first half of the 6th century.  In Horyuji, Japan has its oldest extant Buddhist Temple, the oldest now in all of Southeast Asia dating back to 607 AD.   Even though many buildings burned down in 670, they were rebuilt in the early 8th century, and still count among the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

In importance as well as in size, Horyuji is the largest of all Buddhist temples in Japan.  It was always under imperial patronage.  But more so, a cult developed around one of the Buddhist emperors, Prince Shotoku in the 12th century, and Horyuji became the headquarters of the newly developing Shotoku sect.  The compound is split into a Western section with 31 and an Eastern section with 14 buildings, including a spectacular 5-tiered pagoda.   Each and every one of these buildings is considered a national treasure.  Horyuji is located in a town named Ikaruga-no-Sato.  But even the train station is named after the temple, not the town.

If I would get into each and every building now and consider its art historical value – this could get very technical.  I will leave that to future class-room lectures.  If you need to know more now, you can google all of this.  I will let some of the images speak for themselves and will focus here, as always, on travel events.

Today, I entered Professor Kane’s dream land.  Professor Virginia Kane was my instructor in graduate school at the UM and her classes were the reason I completely shifted gear from becoming a 20th century western art historian to becoming a multi-cultural non-western, particularly Asian and Buddhist art historian.  Teaching at a community college does not allow for much in depth special topic teachings.  For decades, much of my Asian background has laid dormant.

In this region everything is the first, the oldest, the largest, the most precious, the only extant and so on.   She, ever the purist,  loved those authentic things.  I could not believe how many images I remembered from slides in class.  To stand in front of the real things was very special.  And to think that over 40 years ago she would have stood in front of the same buildings and sculptures was quite moving.

The outstanding Visitor Center of Ikaruga suggested a walking trail of about 5 km to see two more three-tiered pagodas and temples of outstanding cultural significance.  It was raining and I had already put in two very mindful kilometers to get to Horuyuji and about 2 more hours on my feet just at the temple, but how could I not?  I was so close…

With a big sigh I was on my way.  To protect my camera I put my plastic shopping bag over my backpack. The rain was now dripping right into the back of my pants.  But who cares?  The rain was warm.  Nothing like Fuji.  And I was a lot more occupied with my legs.

Since it was a rainy day, the walk was quite magic; there were hardly any people, but a shrine, rice fields, cemeteries, dripping wet greenery, birds, and in the distance the pagoda looming across the tree line.

Few of the visitors of Horyuji will go out of their way to see just one more pagoda or one more temple.  But to me it was all worth it.

Both of the temples I visited, the Horinji and the Hokiji seemed deserted, closed.  But once you entered through the small gates and found the hidden side entrance to the main halls, there would be somebody to sell you a ticket to see a few more sculptures dating back from the 8th to the 12th century.  Everywhere inside of the buildings, photography was strictly forbidden.  Surveillance cameras were in plain view…

Many of these images are large.  They knock you off your feet with their presence, their serenity, expressiveness, and quality of craftsmanship.  I can fully imagine the people of the time falling for this.  This new import of Buddhism, after the much more abstract and austere indigenous Shintoism, must have seemed overwhelmingly awesome!

I sat for long times in front of many of these Buddhas.  By the end of the day — and this is just the first day in this region — they already jumbled in my head…  But perhaps it is not as important to remember in which exact hall which image is located — I can google that — but to have felt the presence of these amazing sculptures.

At Hokiji I was ready to call it quits and to take the bus back to the station — but there was no bus.  The hiking continued.  The rain continued.  And I must have been fatigued enough or just a bit too mindful, to take a wrong turn…

When I thought I should be within reach of the station, I found myself at the outskirt of town at a big intersection.   The road ended, I was forced to cross a bridge.  No such thing on my map.  Damn it!

As I looked around for a place to inquire about my whereabouts I saw the word hotel embedded in some Japanese characters.  There must be a reception.  There must be a person to direct me.

Where I expected the ground floor, there was a garage.  Where I expected the reception, there were only floors to enter with rooms.  This was weird and creepy.  There was nobody around, it was rainy, I was lost, and my legs… well, I won’t mention them but up and down stairs that were leading nowhere was not in the program, not after 7 hours of walking.

There was a couple who had just arrived, getting out of a car — I ran and used my ever so useful phrase:  Sumi masen.  Where is the station?  The man immediately cut me off and indicated that he did not speak English.  I gave him a very brisk counter hand gesture and said:  Ho-ry-ju-ji Eki.  That was to the point and nothing but Japanese.  From his all Japanese response I gathered that I was far, far from it; straight, left, right, straight…   Then he took off with the woman he had in tow and I was none the wiser.

Where was the hotel?  I could not believe a more non-welcoming hotel than this.  No official entrance, no lobby, no reception, just stairs and halls.  From the outside it had looked so cheerful, almost Victorian.  Back to the garage.  It was my best bet.  And indeed, another couple got into the car, ready to leave.  I trapped them.  A young woman rolled down here window and she spoke English!  But she was not from around here.  Translating between me and her man, I first got the same far, far away straight, left, right, straight…  But all of a sudden she said:  We will take you.

She sat with me at the back of the car and we chatted.  She was the sweetest young woman, in her late 20’s perhaps.  She had studied in Michigan for a couple of years!  I thanked her profusely for taking me and told her how I had looked in vain for the hotel reception to receive help.  Oh no, there is no reception she said.  Not in a hotel like this.  And out of the blue she added:  You just have to forget about us.  You need to forget!

What was that supposed to mean?

I think I got it:  I must have stumbled on to a so-called Love Hotel…  Sometimes, young couples who still live with their parents will use these, but other times…  The man she was with did not seem to be a good fit for her.  I had assumed it was her father.  If she was a prostitute, she was certainly the most kind, intelligent, educated, unassuming and pleasant one I have ever met.  I immediately liked her.  I hope she did not feel threatened by me or my “discovery” of her.    I  would love to see her again.

We arrived at the station – this would have been an excruciatingly long walk.  Within minutes a train took off to Nara.  From here the program is always the same:  eat, download photos, blog.  And when it is midnight, stop.  And so it went.

Good night.