A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do

To Display Pilgrimage: Reflections on the Saikoku Thirty-three Kannon Pilgrimage Exhibition
May 29, 2009, 10:54 pm
Filed under: Thoughts and other poetries

And in fact memory is a sort of anti-museum: it is not localizable.

Museums have been associated, not only metaphorically, with temples or churches and the type of practice engaged in the museum has been considered to be characterized by a ritualized behavior. The argumentation brought to support such an understanding of a very common modern and contemporary phenomenon relies on overcoming any distinction between religious and secular ritual activities, to uncover the way culture is performed, metabolized, institutionalized and reproduced. In this sense we could say that the person going to see an exhibition will be in frame of mind, will relate to the objects on view, will walk, behave and experience in a “ritualized manner.” The layout of an exhibition is fixed just as much as that, for example, of a pilgrimage: it allows detours and stops, but ultimately it has to be completed. The objects on display in the galleries cannot be touched, are illuminated in a specific way, protected by screens and ropes that make it often quite difficult to get a close look at them: they have to be gazed from a certain distance, just like in a temple or a church. The most important works are obviously given relevance in the organization of the room with the intent of generating a sense of awe in the spectator. The art object, even when is something as desecrating as Marchel Duchamp Fountain or Joseph Beuys rotting food, is viewed, arranged and perceived as a sacred one.
On the other hand, religious objects displayed as works of art suffer from the opposite effect: the decontextualization of the sacred object that takes place when set out in a museum or an art gallery, depriving the object of its primary religious function, desacralizes it almost completely. The decontextualization is not necessarily caused by the taking of the sacred images outside its physical location, the temple or church, it is not the museum that strips the sacred image of its religious function, it is the way in which the viewer is encouraged to approach it that does. I am not suggesting that the type of practice is intrinsically and universally the same, but I often find myself asking: If we consider the museum as a ritualized or ritualizing space when displaying objects that are not religious in nature, could the exhibition of sacred ones, in turn, generate a type of religious practice? And if it did, what would be the incisive factor?
I do not believe that the key lies in reproducing the religious layout, as there are already enough parallelisms involved, but rather on the process of identification between the viewer and the practitioner. In the museum display formula, and certainly it its practice, the interaction between the object and the curator is crucial for the understanding of the general public, but is ultimately the viewer that determines what to make of the outcome or to choose how to perform the museum visit. It is even more so because the object per se, its production, existence and dissemination say very little about its use to those who are not familiar with it; therefore, if the viewer is able to identify with the practitioner, for example by relating to the object in a devotional way, by bowing, making offerings or praying, then maybe the original function of the object is not lost completely. For obvious reasons, it is easier if the museum viewers are culturally acquainted with the objects on display, but even here the intention of the viewers alone is not enough.
And so I start wondering through the halls of Nagoya City Museum, holding the exhibition Worshipping Kannon: Treasures from the Thirty-three Pilgrimage Sites of Western Japan (西国三十三所観音霊埸の祈りと美), organized in occasion of the 1000 anniversary of the death of Emperor Kazan 花山 (968-1008).
The focus of the Saikoku exhibition was to provide through the devotional objects a better understanding of the Thirty-three Kannon pilgrimage and several factors surely played in favor of the curators: the familiarity most of the viewers would already have with the types of objects and the practice, the fact that the objects were not culturally decontextualized, the possibility of creating a dialogue with the temples involved, and finally the intrinsic parallelism between the museum visit and pilgrimage.
In the first instance, it is quite clear that even thought not all the observers might be knowledgeable of Buddhism or might have done the pilgrimage, they are partially aware of the power and function of the objects (even when they think that this power is generated by an aesthetic value, which they are able to assess). In this sense the religious items are recognized by the viewers as such, something that would not always happen in a western art museum. In this case, the exhibition was also conceived as a sort of side-pilgrimage of the actual one: from September 2008 and during the next two years, the thirty-three honzon of the temples, all of which are hibutsu, will be on view in their original location. In doing so the curators worked with the temples in order to get access to images extremely rarely displayed, without taking them out of context, at the same time encouraging the museum viewers to visit the pilgrimage sites.
Furthermore, if the way a museum experience unfolds can be theoretically compared to that of a pilgrimage to a sacred site, as a journey in search of a place or a state that embodies a “valued idea”,  and where the person setting off to view the exhibition does so in a frame of mind of discovery, enriching and changing experience, the 33 Kannon exhibition had all the prerequisites to have a  successful outcome.
As far as the organization is concerned, there has been no attempt to translate the pilgrimage route onto the exhibition one by ordering the objects on display from temple 1 to temple 33, which makes even more sense if we consider that there is no prescribed way of doing the pilgrimage: it is not important to start at temple one and finish at temple thirty-three, as the location of the temples suggests, what is important is to visit them all.  Instead, the space has been divided into seven sections, each dealing with a particular aspect of Kannon faith along the pilgrimage route, trying to stress the implications of the religious practice by looking at the production of meaning created by the interaction of worshippers, objects, people and texts.  In this equation, pilgrimage clearly becomes the context and field in which faith is produced on a variety of levels and the thread along which the path unfolds, uniting each location, is the Bodhisattva Kannon. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the first section of the exhibition is dedicated entirely to Kannon sacred statues. Among the ones displayed, coming from fifteen of the 33 temples, the two most striking are the Kamakura period Seated Thousand-armed Kannon enshrined in Kiyomizudera 清水寺 (Image 1, Catalogue 11) and the Heian period standing Eleven-headed Kannon of Kongōhō-ji 金剛宝寺 (Catalogue 3), all designated Important Cultural Properties. As the honzon of the temples could not always be shown, the exhibition featured other Kannon statues coming from temples that are part of the saikoku route or that are in proximity of one of the Thirty-three temples.  This enabled the viewer to assess the impact that the faith in one the many forms of Kannon had in each location and even made me wondering wether the proliferation of a particular iconography or healing function of Kannon in a specific area could be derived from the power and popularity of that enshrined in the nearest saikoku Temple. This would also suggest that each station on the route in turn shaped the Kannon worship in the area, insofar as today we can witness a form branding. (A few days after the exhibition, I visited Matsunoodera 松尾寺 for research purposes. The main deity of the temple is Batō Kannon, a form of Kannon which is rarely enshrined as main deity. Interestingly enough, around Matsunoodera there are other two temples devoted to the same deity. Initially I thought there might have been a connection with horse breeding, usually an index for the proliferation of Batō faith. After some research it became apparent that the area is not famous for any horse-breeding activity and the temples itself do not really focus on the protection of horses: it rather seems that with the popularization of the saikoku route in the Edo period, Batō Kannon worship also flourished in the area, thanks to the importance of Matsunoodera, as suggested also by the dating of the Batō Kannon statues).
In this light, Kannon faith provides not only the link between each temple on the route, but is extremely important in the shaping of religious practice of every one of the sacred areas the pilgrimage cuts across. Consequently, the second part of the exhibition focuses on the origins and development of each temple in its original context, by looking at the foundation myths of the pilgrimage and its temples. The first object of the section is the Saikoku Sanjusansho junrei engi 西国三十三所巡礼縁起, the Origin of the Thirty-three Pilgrimage sites in Western Japan, a hand scroll dated 1536 ( Tenbun 5, Catalogue 25). According to the engi, the pilgrimage was instituted in the eight century by priest Tokudō, of Hasedera 長谷寺 temple in Nara, of which two Edo period portraits are displayed (Catalogue 26, 27). The revival of the route is attributed Cloistered Emperor Kazan and to priest Shōkū 証空. Catalogue image 27, four Edo period portraits, shows the thee personalities together with Butsugen 仏眼, and the exhibition also features a Kamakura period statue of Shōkū, originally held in Engyō-ji 円教寺 (Catalogue 32). From the objects displayed, it is quite clear that in this section, the curators wanted to give a certain prominence to the figure of Kazan and Shōkū. Through a number of beautiful Edo period engi of the Thirty-three temples and the association between the engi and the images displayed, there was a subtle attempt to maintain the centrality of the figure of Kazan in the development of the pilgrimage, so that he serves the purpose of creating a story-line for the institution and development of the pilgrimage.
The third section of the exhibition deals with how the role and power of Kannon faith along the saikoku route has been furthered, reinvented and kept alive through temple treasure, both those passed on from other temples and accumulated through times, and devotional objects produced by and for the faith of people. Both these aspects are extremely important in understanding the dynamics of sacred places and their ability of maintaining a tradition alive, which inevitably goes through the accumulation of sacred wealth, in turn a reflection of the faith and worship practice. Among these, surely worth mentioning are the exquisite Heian Period hanging scroll of Fugen Enmei (National Treasure, Catalogue 78) and two Kamakura period Guhari Amida. Unfortunately, not much attention is given to more common objects, which would have been used, bought or circulated among the pilgrims.
The exhibition further investigates the role of Kannon faith through the production and importance of sacred objects in the religious practice, in the fourth and fifth section, dedicated to the Lotus sūtra and to miraculous images and the transmission of benefits respectively.  These two sections look at the reproduction and circulation of sacred texts and images of the Thirty-three Kannon for meritorious or venerational purposes and the spread of their beneficial power throughout the territory. Through the variety of objects, such as scrolls, reliquaries, mandalas and statues the viewer gets the sense of the richness and variety of such miraculous images, yet it would have been even more complete, for the sake of the argument made, to show more “ordinary” types of objects circulated among people, such as talismans or portable images, fuda and pilgrims book. The transmission of benefits did not go through the most outstanding reproductions alone, its is often manifested through the proliferation of copied and less valuable items among people.
The sixth part of the exhibition deals with sacred geography and Mount Potalaka, the abode of Kannon. As in the previous section there is a prevalence of Kannon images, except for two miniature shrines and two scrolls from the Kegon sūtra 華厳経 describing the Pilgrimages of Sudhana. In this sense I believe the section was weaker than the others, not for the richness of objects on display, but because it failed to develop through the materials presented the association between some of the temples on the route and Potalaka.
The seventh and final section, attempts to contextualize all the above to the pilgrimage practice,   and it was one of the more interestingly developed sections for the way it was able to use different types of materials, from personal diaries to official temple documentations and records of donations, from map printing blocks to pilgrimage mandalas, from pilgrimage engi to pilgrimage guides and placards to examine the nature of the Saikoku pilgrimage, what attracted the pilgrims, which type of devotional practice it involved.
The exhibition richness of materials and they way it has been organized made it extremely thought provoking and critically engaging: the viewer is enabled to learn and reflect on each section thanks to the poignant explanations provided. Of course, as any good exhibition, it also raises a number of questions pertaining the nature of pilgrimage experience in the Japanese tradition and the way it can be best explained to museum viewers. To stress the importance of the objects, intrinsic to the museum experience, and to make visible the production of religious faith through the display of a variety of artifacts is one the most successful aspect of this exhibition. Yet the story-line of emperor Kazan, which has to be maintained because the exhibit was held in his memory, fails to address an important point: the diachronic development of the route. The objects on display are chronologically decontextualized. By putting on the same level the objects produced in different periods, without attempting any considerations on the way the saikoku pilgrimage has changed through time, and the lack of any reference to the way these objects where perceived and employed in different historical circumstances, gives the false perception that the saikoku pilgrimage has somehow maintained the same characteristics from the Heian period until today. Furthermore, it fails completely to investigate the type of people that did the pilgrimage: each temple on the route was initially the residence of ascetics and hijiri and those who embarked in the practice from the Heian throughout the Kamakura period, tracing the earlier saikoku route, belong to this category. Yet it is never acknowledged, nor is there any mention the first ascetics for whom we have written records of the saikoku practice. The way materials are presented never hints at the popularization of the route from the Fifteenth Century onward, a change that surely had deep repercussions on Kannon faith along the route and on the definition of the rout itself.
Given the almost complete absence, if not for the two diaries, of the practitioners, how could those visiting the museum relate or identify with the pilgrims? The sacred objects loose, behind the cabinet, their religious power not because they are misplaced, but because they are frozen in time, just as they had expired on the date shown on the explanatory tag. This clashes with the explanations of each section, which are accurate and raise important points on the popularization of Kannon worship along the saikoku route, and it would have been even more interesting to see such considerations somehow translate in the objects displayed.
My impression is, that by trying to create a mythical scenario for the saikoku pilgrimage, an idea that it is supported by the fact that only highly valuable materials have been put on display and with the little attention given to the type of people who have embarked, in different times, on the journey, the curators failed to show the most active and dynamic part of the pilgrimage practice. It is not enough to show the religious objects: pilgrims define the pilgrimage.
I recognize that the pattern chosen by the curators was not aimed at reproducing a religious practice, rather, through the value and of importance of the objects displayed and the centrality of Cloistered Emperor Kazan, they wanted to provide the viewer with a specific interpretative framework for the pilgrimage, which they surely succeed in doing. Yet while approaching the end of the last gallery I was still hoping to be surprised. After the cases and the cabinets orderly displaying objects of faith, sacred texts put momentarily on hold, living images in suspended animation, there is a map laid open on the floor. The visitors can stand in front of it, look down at it, try to make sense of directions, names of places, mountains and rivers they have just learned about. There are thirty-three temples on the map, and a route is sometimes visible, sometimes not, as if traced with a very light pencil, a labyrinth. If we take refuge in the rules of the game, we can walk it and have it mean something: a replica of a pilgrimage brings just about enough merit as walking it in real life. It grants a privileged point of view that obviously is not granted to the pilgrim, a vision of the whole, yet this is the only moment we can witness an identification between the visitor and the pilgrim. A group of monks passes by the hall quickly and exits the exhibition without looking at it, a young couple start carefully their journey on the map, and the two western scholars look at the scene. Here it is, after all, the ritual practice!

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April 14, 2009, 1:10 pm
Filed under: Places, Travels and the Likes

Vai pure da solo a visitare la citta’.
Devi dirmi che hai voglia di abbracciare la mia ombra che passa sui muri.

Easter in Noto. It is cold and rainy, not really Sicilian – but I am no Monica Vitti. The sun is horizontal, almost parallel to the ground. I play with my camera to steal some yellow off the walls, to find drought and sand in the humid and cold corners of the Churches, of the Basilica, of the Nunnery.
I am intrigued by doors. Baroque, rotten and rusty doors. Doors open onto ruins, open toward the sea. Doors full of cats and ex-voto that fill my eyes, thick, just like the ricotta of my morning cannolo.
Doors that are closed,  are almost open on Easter morning. I dare to take a glance  (I have years of training for that): the porters are trying to lift the palanquin with the Christ, I see only part of the drape moving slowly up and then fast down again. An eye crossing mine – the intruder. And the Door shuts.
There are two types of movements, on Easter Sunday. They have an almost identical pattern and a colliding trajectory. I follow – rain falling silently on my dress, and I can hear this silence through the sound of the steel band – I follow the icon of the Christ, all the way from my house to the Cathedral of San Niccolo’. Coming toward him, toward the crowd, the Black-Veiled Virgin Mary. Black in mourning, no steel bands on the follow. The clad Mary and the bare Christ. Mourning and Resurrection.

When the two icons finally meet, the steel band is mute, and the veil is dropped on the ground.

Preface to Spring and Ashura by Miyazawa Kenji
March 10, 2009, 8:22 pm
Filed under: Thoughts and other poetries

A friend recently gave me a book of poetries by Miyzawa Kaiji, Strong in the Rain. It was on the day after my birthday, following a night-long conversation on philosophy and buddhism, interrupted by sporadic trips to the toilet and random recitations of Leonard Cohen lyrics. I read the introduction to Spring and Ashura on the morning train, and I still do read it.

If there is any truth to be revealed or sought, I feel ever so close to these words.

Preface to Spring and Ashura

translation by Roger Pulvers

The phenomenon called I
Is a single blue illumination
Of a presupposed organic alternating current lamp
(a composite body of each and every transparent spectre)
The single illumination
Of karma’s alternating current lamp
Remains alight without fail
Flickering unceasingly, restlessly
Together with the sights of the land and all else
(the light is preserved…the lamp itself is lost)

These poems are a mental sketch formed faithfully
Passage by passage of light and shade
Maintained and preserved to this point
Brought together in paper and mineral ink
From the directions sensed as past
For these twenty-two months
(the totality flickers in time with me
all sensing all that I sense)

People and galaxies and ashura and sea urchins
Will think up new ontological proofs as they see them
Consuming their cosmic dust…and breathing in salt water and air
In the end all of these make up a landscape of the heart
I assure you, however, that the scenes recorded here
Are scenes recorded solely in their natural state
And if this is nihil then it is nothing but nihil
And the totality is common in degree to all of us
(just as everything forms what is the sum in me
so do all parts become the sum of everything)

These words were meant to be transcribed truthfully
In the monstrous bright accumulation of time
Of the present geological era
Yet they have gone ahead and altered their construct and quality
In what amounts to a mere point of contrasted light
(or alternatively a billion years of ashura)
Now it is possible that both the printer and I
Have been sharing a certain turn of mind
Causing us to sense these unaltered
In all probability just as we are aware of our own sense organs
And of scenery and of people through feeling
And just as what is is but what we sense is common
So it is that documents and history…or the Earth’s past
Are nothing but what we have become conscious of
Along with their divers data
(at the root of the karmic qualifications of space-time)
For all I know in two thousand years from now
An appropriately different geology will be applied
With fitting proofs revealed one after another from the past
And everyone will surmise that some two thousand years before
The blue sky was awash with colorless peacocks
And rising scholars will excavate superb fossils
From regions glittering with iced nitrogen
In the very upper reaches of the atmosphere
Or they might just stumble
Upon the giant footsteps of translucent man
In a stratified plane of Cretaceous sandstone

The proposition that you have before you are without exception
Asserted within the confines of a four-dimensional continuum
As the nature of the mental state and time in and of themselves

Kenji Miyazawa
20 January 1924

from Strong in the Rain, Selected Poems, Translated by Roger Pulvers, Bloodaxe Books 2007. For more informations on the poet http://www.kenji-world.net/english/

Jogging, Break-Dancing but mostly Eating in and around Kichijōji
March 9, 2009, 4:30 pm
Filed under: Places, Travels and the Likes
What comes is better than what came before,
and you better come
-come come-to me

I am waiting for Erica outside the Northern exit of Kichijōji  station, is sometime past midnight on Friday night and I am drunk, having worked my way through a Bradford-family sized bottle of sake (not alone) at the farewell party of a friend. I am standing on the pac-man shaped non-smoking ban, letting my cigarette smoke away while I stare in amusement at the break-dancer rotating is feet in front of me. I cannot hear the music coming out of his stereo, Lou Reed is singing in my earphones and I find the combination of the two performances quite thought provoking. I decide to hang out and take a couple of pictures, I don’t want him to see me and while I try my best to disguise my paparazzo moves, my attention is caught by another late night street performer. This one is surely less athletic, and i hadn’t noticed him before simply because he was squatting next to a rusted bicycle, all absorbed in the arrangement of what I thought was a cardboard box, but was, in fact, an amp. Now he is looking at me, singing at me with his guitar, almost inviting me to take a picture. So I do.
Late Night Break-danceKichijōji station, like many others in Tokyo, provides a 24-hours stage for dancers, musicians and other performing artists and a great deal of entertainment for passer-by or for those who, like me, are waiting for someone who’s running a bit late. Sometimes the whole northern side of the station is packed with bands, playing a few meter away from each other, so that it is impossible to actually listen to anyone in particular. My all-time favourite Kichijōji station rock band was playing facing the wall, turning their back on the crowd…of all the others lined up next to them, they surely caught people’s attention for their strategic nonchalance.
This atmosphere is not confined to the station area, but is one of the main characteristics of the whole neighbourhood, which, once you get away from the Isetan-Tokyu-Sun Road bermuda triangle, is filled with hidden book-stores and artisans shops, artsy cafe and small galleries. During these excruciatingly fast last days of residency in Tokyo, preceding my fake European return, I am living in Nakamachi, some 20 minutes west of Kichijōji, along Nakamichi. Right after getting lost in the grid-like labyrinth of small alleys and sakura-blessed villas that characterise the neighbourhood, I have decided to go on a daily jog and discover my way around this city in the city.
The park of course is a big highlight for Tokyo inhabitants, not only is huge and pleasantly filled with green areas you can actually walk on, but it is full of life: from manga performers, to painters, preachers and flea-markets, arguably protected by Benzaiten, enshrined in the Meiseisan Taiseiji at the centre of the park. The last time I walked through the park it was raining and not really crowded, even if it was Sunday, and looking at the dark waters surrounding the Temple, I couldn’t help but thinking about Osamu Dazai. The goddess Benzaiten, apparently jealous of any couple who enters the park, is believed to have cursed the writer and his lover Yamazaki Tomei, who committed suicide by drowning in the Tamagawa canal.Gyoza
In the same cold Sunday afternoon, I was sheltered by a lovely Thai restaurant-cafe just in front of the main pond (the one full of duck shaped boats)…the food here is comforting and reasonably cheap, with a good selections of herb teas and a dreadful choice of desserts (quite astonishingly for Tokyo). This seems to be quite common for Thai restaurants, I might say, as the other Kichijōji-based one I usually go to, Amrita, beside a huge variety of incredibly tasty dishes, and a green tea umeshu really worth trying warm and rokku (on the rocks), lacks a tempting dessert list. Of course it is not difficult to satisfy your sweet tooth: one of the first places I was introduced to along Nakamichi is Hara-doughnuts. It is not difficult to spot as there is always a queue of 15 to 20 people waiting to grab a bag-full of these tasty tofu doughnuts, which, as the story goes, are delicious but very healthy (don’t mind them being deep fried). A number of other lovely hidden cafes can supply you with your monthly intakes of sugars. Cup-cake cafes that, besides tickling all those wildest little house in the Prairie-dream that you believed were dead and gone by 1985, will serve you any sort of (and one and one only shape) cup cakes, bakeries, French brasseries with porch to enjoy your tarte en-plain-air and so on. Thank God I go jogging…even because the real temptation of Nakamachi is a small corner-shop specialising in gyoza, jumbo-gyoza, sui-gyoza and gyoza on rice, extremely cheap but oh so good. (Without considering that just a few paces a way we find an equally tiny shop, packed literally up to the ceiling with toys, from the 70s until yesterday.)

(Hopefully to be continued soon)

Sound track: I found a Reason, The Velvet Underground/ Perfect Day, Lou Reed.

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On how I got a Pachinko-ball with a B on it
February 24, 2009, 3:48 pm
Filed under: Thoughts and other poetries

Pachinko Ball

I have been in Japan for over a year now and, until recently, I had never, with much shame, set foot inside a Pachinko parlour. It’s one of those things I have always wanted to do and went as far as peering through the automatic doors into the curtain of smoke and nauseating sounds, without actually never stepping in. I have no problem intruding in any forms of ceremonies and rituals I surely still understand very little about, but somehow with Pachinko I really feel a sense of non-belonging, which has always prevented me from trying. (And, as a matter of fact, I still haven’t). The truth is that Pachinko is not welcoming nor foreigner-friendly. No one is inviting you in, surely not the noise or the smell, and even less the staff, who avoid any eye contact with the few gaijins who wanders the game halls: they just want to look.
Well, the good thing about curious guests is that not only they will give you a fresh pair of eyes for what has become all to familiar, but they will also push you to brake all the taboos carefully built for your own -economic, in this case- safeguard.
Pachinko is not immediate, you can stare for the whole afternoon at a player without ever understanding what he’s doing: the player does not move (or so it might seem), he has no expression whatsoever, he rarely even blinks. The only thing you are positive about is that is a game that involves balls, tiny silver balls that moves very fast and gets eaten by this loud flash-lighting machine.

On day one, I approach an attendant of the pachinko parlour in Hiroo who, completely bypassing the fact that I am talking in Japanese, shows us a card with few “how to” English explanations, in a mixture of surprise and contempt: we are distracting the other players, or at least the one seated next to us who cannot help checking out, without ever moving his neck, every move we make. The explanation says something along these lines: 1. Please, put the money in the machine (and the attendant points us where). 2 Push this button (again, we are shown which one). 3 Turn the wheel with your hand. (I am sure there was a fourth point, but by the time I had processed the mimic of the attendant, a few dozens silver balls were running through a series of flippers and needles, while the two main characters of the movie Ghost danced in the background). The explanations were simple and I couldn’t be more confused: the game is over in less than two minutes, a few balls went where they were supposed to- a little hole in the middle of the machine-  and came back out, but apparently Demi and Patrick were not reunited and she kept shaping vases all alone… A similar attempt follows on day two, in Ochanomizu. This time the battlefield is the latest King Kong remake, again with little luck for Kong and his blondie. I still don’t get which skill exactly you need to master this game, but Nicola seems quite keen: concentrated on the screen, a cigarette smoking in the ashtray, not moving at all like all the other players around him, he only hears the sound of his marbles. If there is a zone for pachinko, he is definitely in it. After a quick visit and incense offering at Senso-ji, Kannon-sama decides to send our way this article on Pachinko for Dummies, a Skilful Mean for Gaijins, which provides indeed some sort of illumination, at least as far as the technique is concerned.
After careful study, on day three of Pachinko, in Shibuya, we know exactly what we were doing, or kind of. We start scanning the machines in search of the stats…too bad there are so many numbers displayed on each monitor that it is almost impossible to understand which one is the most indicative, the one you want. To be on the safe side I have a quick look at the stats on the machines of players with pyramids of marbles baskets lined up behind their chairs, and pick one with “similar” numbers. It’s Kong again, and the truth is that this machine is not acting any differently than the previous ones, only this time we know that the few balls that hit the central hole should not be played again, unless you want to look like an addict in credit crunch…
Finally the machine goes on Reach (it probably did the previous times as well, I just didn’t noticed it…): there are two blondies on the screen and if we get a third, it’s a win! Truthful to the movie plot, Kong looses his battle and blondie, while we are left with one solitary silver ball (with a B on it).

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On How I met the Snow Monkey
February 22, 2009, 9:13 am
Filed under: Places, Travels and the Likes

Snow Monkey

I am driving along route 17, from Jomo-kogen to Hoshi-onsen, in Gunma-ken. It’s late afternoon and the setting sun is looking at me right in the eyes, blinding slightly the road ahead. I have never driven an automatic car before, my left foot restlessly pushing the footrest, one hand on the stirring-wheel, Nicola correcting my trajectory when I try to put off my cigarette.
The view along the lake is stunning, the snow sprinkled along the banks like icing sugar, the sky is light and almost asleep. When I reach the mountain road leading to the onsen, the traces of the snow become like a blanket. I check every tree in search of the monkeys, and suddenly there they are. We spot five all hanging from the same tree, looking at us slowing to a stop to take a couple of quick pictures, until one of them makes a quick move toward the car when I pull down the window, or so I think…
Hoshi is one of my all-time favourite places, in the heart of a mountain, is the furthest you can go before red Tori gates of the Inari temple lead you into the woods, toward the mountain top. I follow the porter up the icy slope, his geta lither than my shoes, and once I step through the door and take them off, I am safe inside a Meiji period time-travel. The wooden structures of the onsen (designated important cultural property) soaked in the smell of time reaching from the pictures on the walls and the tatami mats, the long corridor above the spring-water rill, the icicles hanging from the low roofs. The onsen was built toward the end of the 19th Century along the mountain spring that still provides a sulphuric and hot water for its wooden pools. The structure of the main bath, dating back to 1895, is stunning, with tall wooden beams and dim lantern light, the air cold and humid when you take off your yukata to quickly wash your body at the edge of the pool, the black stones in the water warm and silky.
Time in a secret onsen in the middle of nowhere is slow, and the snow falling silently gives the night an enchanted pace that mingles with the smell of meat boiling in your pot and of miso with fresh brown mushrooms. I am carried by the storm through the window to Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari, when the two old Hirayama parents are sent to the onsen and are kept up all night by people talking and drinking and playing music. And here I am, almost sixty years later and thirty years younger, drinking sake on a snowy window. When we open our eyes in the morning and gaze through the rice-paper door toward the stormy garden, the air is white and thick and so very silent. I decide to head to Tamaki furo after breakfast, I cover my head with a straw hat, step outside and let the snow cover its pointy tip, soaking in the hot water.
The road is now completely white and we drive slowly leaving the icy secret onsen disappear in the rear-view mirror, weaving at the snow monkey.

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Day 100 in Hokekyō-ji
February 10, 2009, 11:41 pm
Filed under: Thoughts and other poetries


The alarm goes off at 4 am. I barely have time to open my eyes and it is already 4.19: when you don’t pay attention, time seems to pass a little bit faster. In a blink of an eye I am dressed and ready to go, thanks to my careful planning the night before I can slip mindlessly into my clothes and boots, lock the door behind me (did I?) and off I go. Ittekimasu! By the time I am on the 4.51 Yamanote line I am not sleepy anymore so I look for something to do in my bag, always to heavy but never lacking amusements, and I am not disappointed. I dive into the adventures of Buddha and Jesus Christ in contemporary Japan. It is my first manga experience, so I am slow and clumsy. It is easier to read a 8th Century sutra for me than a comic book…if there is a Pure land for the nerds, I’m sure I won’t have any problems finding a lotus pond to rest my geeky bones while listening to the Buddha’s teachings. I am utterly amused by the sense of humour of 聖☆おにいさん (Saint Young Men, suggested and reviewed here by Scilla)I may get half of the jokes, but the religious ones are enlightening: Buddha (ブッダ) wears a T-shirt sporting 出家しました, meaning I take the tonsure or 南無三, Namusan which means “I take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddhism,” but is also an exclamation that sounds like “Oh my Buddha” (not to mention that if we read 三 “mi” and not “san” it almost sounds like Namu-me, “I take refuge in Me,” which maks sense if the Tshirt owner is the Buddha himself). Jesus, on the other hand, has a t-shirt saying 魚の絵2つとパンの絵5つ, meaning “two fishes and five breads (but pictures!)”, or 知らない×3,“three time stranger,” referring to the three disowning of Jesus by the Apostle Peter… Ah!
Time to change train, I am now on the Sobu line headed for Chiba, I have twenty more minutes to go and my eyes are not focusing on Jesus and Buddha anymore. Instead, I linger on the monks in Hokekyō-ji 法華経寺, who have at this very moment almost completed the 100 days of ascetic seclusion. I wonder about their time perception now that they are just 30 minutes away from leaving the sacred precinct that hosted them for the past three months, I consider it is really about their self perception at this stage, or self-less perception I shold say. Time does not metter in the way it does to the outside world, it does not structure the sequence of your actions, it is infact the other way around…
…my eyes are fixed on the commercial of a caffeine drink called Black Aroma and I am almost falling asleep, so my mind starts playing little tricks: instead of Black Aroma I read Barak Obama. Is this a subliminal message for the Japanese audience? In an hermeneuthical struggle I soon realise that my conspiracy theory has an extra C and not enough Bs or As…just in time to reach my destination, Shimōsa Nakayama. It is still dark outside, is a quarter to 6. I am not the only one walking to the temple and the street leading to Hokekyō-ji is incredibly full of rushing life.
What I am about to witness is the end of Aragyō, an ascetic practice of the Hokke-shū consisting of 100 days of austerities that have the objective of empowering the practitioners to become fully certified Shu-hosshin, monks able to perform Kitō blessings. The practice is held every year from November 1st to February 10th. During this period, which is incidentally the coldest season in Japan, monks are not allowed outside the temple precincts, nor to have any contact with the outside world. Such types of purificatory and empowering ritual practices are not exceptional in the Japanese religious tradition, but Aragyō is famous for its hardships: besides being confined within sacred grounds, the monks undergo 7 daily ablutions with cold water, once every three hours starting at 3 am, called Kanchu Suigyō. The rest of the day they recite the Lotus sutra, copy sacred scriptures and receive the secret transmission to perform kitō rituals.
The origin of the temple dates back to 1260 when Toki Jōnin, formerly a Samurai, built Hokkeji temple as part of his residence in Wakamiya. Upon the death of Nichiren, Toki underwent austerities to obtain monastic ordination – Aragyō is believed to be loosely traced back to such practices, but there is no scholarly work focusing on its developments yet – and he ordained himself Nichijō, starting the Nakayama lineage of Hokke-shu. The whole house of Nichijō was then turned into Honmiyō-ji temple by his successor Nichiko, and in 1545 that the two temples were united under the common name of Hokekyō-ji, even though they have always been under the supervision of one abbott. The aragyō practice was systematised in the Edo period by Nichikyū, who completed the practice at the end of the 17th Century, but very little is known about its origins: is it possible to date it back to Toki austerities? Do we have any texts precedent the Edo period that describe such practice?Untitled Image
Approaching the temple gates I hear beating drums, it is almost 6 am, and the monks are about to leave the Gyodō for the first time. The path leading to the hall is packed with people and banners bearing the Nam-Myō-hō-renge-kyō 南妙法蓮華経. The monks, clad in a white robe and wearing a sutra case around their neck, pace the Daimoku through the revering crowd, dispensing blessings with their now feeble, now strong breaths. They have long scruffy hair and beards uncut; the naked feet underlines their sanctity, the empowerment that eludes and subdues the elements, which is yet betrayed by their eyes, pale and purple lids. I follow the monks around the temple, the distance between me and them is made of people chanting and bowing. People that have gather here for the incredible merits that the proximity of these holy men will produce. In this sense, the ascetic practice is not only important for the training of the monks, it constitutes one of the core of sacredness and importance of of Hokekyō-ji and its surroundings. Interestingly, a certain aura of secrecy underpins the aragyō and the whole temple: not only what goes on within the sacred precincts is shielded and hidden away from the outside world, to the extent that there can be no interference of any sort, not even in case of emergencies; but also, upon completing the austerities, the monks are given a secret transmission, the Bokken Kaji, summoning Kishimo-jin to bring prosperity and peace to the country. According to the lavish English website of the Nichiren-shu, the aragyō, the secret kitō and the statue of Kishimo-jin represent the three secret practices of Hokekyō-ji, and these three secrets are what makes the temple so important. I am not entirely surprised by the use of such rhetoric within a Nichiren practice, several writings of my supervisor Prof. Dolce instructed me a while back on the matter. Yet, to see unfolding so blatantly before my eyes the application of esoteric semantic of Secret Practice/Secret Dharani/Sacred Image, gives me a lot to consider about Japanese religion and in particular on the definition of esoteric applied to its context. In line with recent publications on the widespread secrecy rhetoric within Japanese Buddhism, and its method of adaptation through time until the contemporary period, I wonder how much of it is actually synonym with or pertaining solely to esoteric denominations rather than something embedded so deep in the way of structuring religious discourse that it is impossible to separate it from any such practices.
All these considerations are abruptly interrupted by the icy-blue cold slipping through my veins at the beats of the Daimoku. The monks are proceeding to the main hall to hold a service, which begins at around 8 and lasts a little over an hour.
People have started gathering before me, and are now pressing their bare feet against their sit-bones, tightly filling the hall’s outer register. It is too crowded for me to get in, but I am still  able to gaze from the distance at the Lotus sūtra emerging from the hall, and it is a clear image before my eyes.

There is no proper soundtrack to this story, just the recitation of the Daimoku. For any insight on what I mentioned refer to Prof. Lucia Dolce article “Criticism and Appropriation Nichiren’s Attitude toward Esoteric Buddhism” in JJRS 1999 26/3-4 and to one of my favourite books so far, The Culture of Secrecy in Japanese Religions, edited by Mark Teween and Bernard Scheid. I owe a special thank you to my fellow researcher Carmen Tamas for inviting me to see the practice.

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