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Postcards from the Road — 024 — August 2019
Hi friends,

Last August my husband went away for 10 days to the mountains of Yamagata to become a Yamabushi, a practitioner of Shugendo. Shugendo is an amalgamation of a few different religions including, esoteric Buddhism, Tendai Buddhism, Daoism, Animism, Taoism, and elements of Shintoism—it is practiced in the mountains. The Yamabushi are tough and have even been known to join in battles as warriors (many centuries ago). Today you’ll mainly find them in their white robes, carrying conch shells roaming the mountains of Wakayama and Yamagata.
Eiji (the husband) was sworn to secrecy about what he learned during those 10-days of practice in the mountains—so all I can say is he came home with rashes after not having bathed, and that he had learned to rewire the reactive side of his brain by replying “I accept” to literally EVERYTHING that happened during his time in the mountains. 
“What’s your name?” “I accept.”
“What do you do?” “I accept.”
“You smell.” “I accept.”
“Eat faster.” “I accept.”

He fell down and scraped his knee, it was bleeding a ton, but no grunts or cries, just, “I accept.”
I was really impressed by how much he took away from the experience and was able to incorporate in his day-to-day life. So when I saw that there was a temple accommodation just outside of Kyoto offering a Yamabushi experience I jumped on it!! The temple, Miidera, is located on the Western edge of Lake Biwa, about 20-minutes by train from Kyoto.

The temple’s accommodation is Waqoo Miidera. Oh my goodness, what a temple stay, just as nice as any of the high-end ryokans I’ve visited. The accommodation itself is a 400-year-old house on the grounds of the temple, that up until about 10 years ago had a female monk as the tenant. It’s beautifully redone, and the best part is you have the WHOLE temple grounds to yourself after the temple closes to the public at 5 PM.

Arriving at Miidera from Tokyo was a breeze, one of the temple attendants even met us at the station with a car and drove us back to our accommodation. It was such a different experience from arriving in Kyoto Station—no crowds, no lines for taxis, no confusion. 

Our plan had been to start the Yamabushi experience as soon as we arrived at the temple, which involved dressing up in their uniform—multiple layers of pants and shirts, including a fur square that was hung conveniently around our waists, to protect our bums from the wet or rough ground when we sat down—and heading out into the mountains, but as our guide-monk saw the beads of sweat forming on our foreheads, he decided to abandon the experience, in fear of heatstroke. Clearly we're not as tough as the Yamabushi as this is their year-round wardrobe. Instead, we did a lovely tour of Miidera, which is named after the three natural springs on the property, one of the springs is still very active. You can stand by it and hear the water gurgling up from below. It’s beautifully tranquil.
While I didn’t get the chance to experience the arduous mountain practices of the Yamabushi, I learned so much during our walk, especially about how pivotal this region was to the spread of Buddhism around Japan.  I had always thought that Buddhism was brought to Japan by a monk named Kukai (Kobo Daishi) and that he founded Shingon Buddhism at Koyasan on the Wakayama Peninsula south of Kyoto.

But it turns out, in 804 when Kukai went to China to study Buddhism, he went with a friend, Saichō. When they returned to Japan they went their separate ways, Kukai to Koyasan with Shingon Buddhism and Saichō to Mt Hiei with Tendai Buddhism.  Saichō eventually set up a training temple, not just for Tendai Buddhism, but for many other sects, and they say that his temple is the “parent” temple for over 1,700 temples around Japan. 

Long story short, they both contributed to the spread of Buddhism in Japan, and neither of them actually brought it to Japan, because the first record of its introduction is in 552—the longer I’m here, the more I’m convinced, there are no simple answers!!

I love that it was by following the footsteps of monks, that I got a deeper understanding of Buddhism’s roots in Japan and I think other visitors to the region may enjoy something similar. They are many opportunities for day-hikes in the Lake Biwa region. From the temple I stayed at, Miidera, it is even possible to hike all the way to Daimonji (10+ kilometers), a mountain famous for the large symbol that is burned into its hillside ever summer to mark the end of the Obon holiday.  

Or even an easy train and cable car away from Miidera is Enryakuji, the temple that Saichō founded when he came back to Japan, which has fantastic hiking. The monks from this temple are known to try and walk the circumference of the globe over the course 1,000 days over 7 years -- you can follow their sacred path for an enjoyable day’s walk.
To top off this already incredible experience, I also got to see the local fireworks show. It lasted for about one house and shot off over 10,000 rockets. It was GORGEOUS. All summer long you can catch fireworks festivals like this one, I cannot recommend enough!
The Lake Biwa area is so incredibly rich in spirituality, history and nature. For anyone interested in Buddhism, the warring years of Japan (c. 1467 – c. 1600), or hiking, you have to plan a visit. 

Happy travels!

All my best,

Elizabeth Mueller
Be Here Asia
Email sent lovingly from Tokyo, Japan.

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