2006/04/27

Amida vs Godzilla

When I first heard about the largest Buddha statue in the world, the Ushiku Daibutsu, being located in Ibaraki - our fair prefecture - I was not very interested in seeing it. Another tourist trap I thought, built by someone seeking fame and money, or a town council run amuck with taxpayer's funds, or perhaps a bored millionaire seeking enlightenment through statue building. But I was mistaken.

In recent weeks I happened upon more information about the statue. It was built by the Higashi Hongwanji of Asakusa in Tokyo. Higashi means East and Hongwanji means "temple of the primal vow". Amida Buddha is a mythical being, in contrast to Shakyamuni, the historical figure. Amida made 48 vows before becoming enlightened and one of those, the 18th is considered most important in this sect and so is referred to as "the primal vow".

Having myself been associated with the (Nishi) Hongwanji in Hawaii for many years, I was quite familiar with the organization. The Nishi and Higashi branches, while separate entities, share the same roots and have virtually identical teachings. The statue IS a tourist trap of sorts, but its purpose is to spread the dharma and to house important artifacts related to Buddhist history. With this knowledge, I viewed the statue in a different light and decided I would like to see it after all.

Located near the town of Ushiku, in the south end of Ibaraki, the statue is not all that far from home. It took us just under two hours to get there, with a short lunch break on the way, which means the Moody Minstrel's BLUE RAV4 with its R2D2 navigation system and warp drive could probably make it in 30 minutes or so. (Just kidding Moody!).

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It was a pleasant drive through Sawara City, the countryside and along rivers lined with yellow flowered cannola - nanohana in Japanese. Serveral times we found ourselves behind large trucks as there is a Cannon factory in the area that evidently requires a constant stream of whatever was in them.

I was in navigator mode with my maps in my lap. The maps have Japanese Kanji characters which I cannot read, but labels are not necessary as I apply my airplane pilot navigating experience and go by the relationships of roads, rivers, train tracks, and so on - no electronics required. Poor signage led us to go past more than one turn off, but I caught it quickly. We weren't looking for the fastest route, but rather the simplest, most pleasant one. I enjoy navigating and came up with creative alternate routes which proved useful later on.

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As we got closer to the area, large signs with a picture of the statue pointed the way and I could relax. And then we saw it. Godzilla! No, I mean Amida Buddha, but as big as Godzilla ('Gojira' in Japanese), towering over the surrounding trees, buildings and power lines. Happily it was stationary and not roaming about crushing buses, breaking bridges and knocking down skyscrapers, which of course is not Amida's thing anyway, but the comparison may help the reader to grasp the size of it. It is big. Very big.

Just how big is it? Let's get this out of the way so I don't bore you with superlatives for the rest of the post. From the ground to the top is 120 meters - about 394 feet. From head to toe is 100 meters - 328 feet. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty is 40 meters from the feet to the top of the torch. The famous Buddha statue in Kamakura is 14.9 meters tall and would fit in the palm of this statue's hand. For my fellow Godzilla fans, this "monster" of a daibutsu is over twice as tall as Godzilla, who was a mere 50 meters (164 feet) in height.

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It took them ten years to build this daibutsu (big buddha) which was completed in 1993. It has an internal steel framework and bronze "skin" about 6mm (1/4 inch) thick. There is an elevator inside that goes up to the chest level with observation windows 85 meters up. To see how it was built CLICK HERE..

The surrounding grounds feature flower gardens (best seen in May), a Jodo Shinshu style garden with koi pond (no fishing or kayaking allowed), and a children's zoo.

At the gate we stopped to ring the bell. K went first and gave the bell a nice solid hit with the wooden mallet. As the sound reverberated through the countryside, she read the sign which asks visitors to ring the bell "softly". Oops. I did the same. How do you ring such a big bell softly?

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Half way from the gate to the statue is an incense burner - the largest in Japan of course. There is also another, larger bell. We each had a whack at that one too. Nice tone.

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A small ramp along the path, which actually forms a bridge across a pebbled gap in the path. It is sectioned off with colored lines, and has foot steps next to it labeled "na" "mu" "a" "mi" "da" "butsu" to invite people to repeat "namu amida butsu" as they walk across the ramp. This is the recitation that all followers of Jodo-shu and Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (as in the Hongwanji) repeat. It is an afirmation of entrusting oneself to Amida's compassion and I think this bridge is meant to represent crossing to the other shore of the Pure Land. I trusted that Amida's statue wouldn't fall on top of me and squash me like an ant with its 4000 tons of steel and bronze. (Like Godzilla would probably do.)
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I was impressed with the interior of the statue. One removes one's shoes upon entering. The entire space is carpeted. You first enter a darkened room with a golden statue of Amida on a pedistal in the center. To one side is a display of smaller statues of different colors set on black cloth with a lighted ribbon weaving through them. This represents Amida as the buddha of "infinite light and life".

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Walking up to the second floor, you go through displays about the history of the sect and the construction of this statue through pictures and models including a full scale model of one of the big toes. Of course I thumped the 5 foot high toe with my hand before K could read the sign that says "don't thump the toe" or something to that effect. Oops again. Other rooms on this level have tatami mats and tables with brushes, ink, and paper for copying sutras.

This is the floor where you catch the elevator, which has an operator to keep you from getting off at the wrong level. They do have arrangements for people with wheel chairs by the way. The elevator is dimly lit when you get in and has walls painted a sparkling metalic silver. As you go up, the lighting increases until it is normal upon your arrival at the observation floor. It's a cool effect.

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View South showing the gate we entered.

The observation floor has three windows on the front and back, and two on each of the left and right sides. The visibility was not great this day, but on a clear day one can see Mt. Fuji to the west. Also on this floor are three gold statues. One each from India, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) which reportedly contain a small amount of ashes from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Painting along the walls explain the life story of Shakyamunni Buddha.

Down a stairway there is a gift shop. It is also where one catches the elevator down, but not all the way down, for another stop is made to the third floor, which has walls covered with golden statues. Called the Lotus Sanctuary, the walls and ceiling are all in gold and it has tatami mat floors. For a hefty donation, you can have your name placed below a statue. One can also buy a tile on the grounds outside the statue where you can have your ashes placed.

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Lotus Sancturary inside the statue.

Down a flight of stairs again, to a part of the second floor you don't see on the way up and you find a class room with three altars and and a chalk board. There are also displays of art and posters done by students.

Back outside, we were in time to watch the last ten or so minutes of a monkey show. Two monkeys on leashes were doing back flips, catching rings tossed to them, walking on stilts, riding a tricycle and occassionally urinating on the stage. It made me feel sad for the monkeys. They looked pathetic as they robotically obeyed commands and stared blankly at the audience.

We walked through the children's zoo. There were rabbits and squirels which you can feed. (yawn) They also had a pot belly pig, goats, peacocks, prarie dogs, a macaque and some wallabies. The children there seems to like it a lot. As we left the zoo area we saw a group of Europeans - I didn't quite place the language - wearing matching coats and ties and I noticed they had Rotary club emblems on their coats. Back through the gate, we stopped at one of the shops to buy sweet potato cakes for K's co-workers.

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The left hand is raised as a gesture to fear not, the right is lowered facing the palm out to indicate a welcome to all sentient beings.

There is also an old winery in Ushiku, but it was getting late in the day already so we headed home. I had K take the scenic route - a road that parallels the Tonegawa (Tone river). It turned out to be a good choice, as there was little traffic, nice scenery, and only a few signals all the way back to Sawara where K's shortcut spared us the congestion of downtown and landed us back in Kashima City unscathed.

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I kept a lookout behind us, but the Amida statue wasn't following, and likewise, Godzilla was nowhere to be seen.

2006/04/25

Yet Another Time Capsule

In my early posts of last year, I told of how I stumbled upon a small "hidden" Rinzai (Zen) temple near our home that is over 200 years old, and a Shingon temple just a couple of kilometers away that is over 800 years old. I called them "time capsules" for they allow one to travel back and get a glimpse of another time, another way of life.

There is a third old temple nearby, which I have not written about before. It is also of the Shingon sect and I would estimate by its construction details that the building dates from the Edo era and is probably well over 200 years old. That's just a guess on my part. It may be much older. It is located at the base of the bluffs, not far from route 18 that runs along the east shore of Lake Kitaura.

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The entrance to the temple is not wide and comes off of a small road and is partly hidden by a barbershop next to it. The temple itself sits back from the street about 50 meters or so. Thousands of people must pass by this area every day, oblivious to the temple's existence.

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The large famous temples in places like Kyoto and Nara receive huge numbers of tourists each year and along with that comes a lot of money with which the buildings can be restored and maintained. Out in the countryside it is a different matter, and small temples rely on the generosity of the families associated with them. To renovate an altar or the carvings on the exterior of even a small temple is a very expensive proposition and better left undone rather than done improperly with the wrong materials. The improvements to this temple have leaned heavily toward the practical - such as a steel hand rail in the center of the steps to aid the elderly priest.

Looking at such temples today, one can only imagine how they looked in times long past with paint and gold leaf adorning the intricate wood carvings of lions, dragons, and flowers.

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Dragon's head and claws clutching an orb. Dragons are protectors of Buddhism.


This temple's name is Kosodate Nioson (raising children, guardians of the temple gate). The cross beam atop the pillars at the steps of the temple has a carved dragon above it. The dragon is clutching something round with its claws, a crystal ball or coin perhaps. Gargoyle-like lions are on each end of the beam and on all four corner posts. The entire building is little more than 10 meters (about 33 feet) wide.

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At the top of the steps, looking up at the ceiling, there is a large board listing the names of donors who paid for the most recent work on the building, but more interestingly there is a painting of a dragon.
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This is the ceiling at the top of the steps. Note the faded painting of a dragon.

One can see inside through the wooden lattice covering the windows. Two large statues, obviously quite old, guard each side of the altar. The statues are large and look out of place in the small room. These are the guardians - the "Nio" or kindly kings. A common feature of temple gates throughout the Buddhist world, they are named Kongo (or Ungyo) whose mouth is closed to say "Un" and Misshaku (or Ahgyo) whose mouth his open saying "Ah". They were originally derived from Hindu Divas who became incorporated into Buddhism as protectors against evil. Due to the small openings in the lattice and poor lighting, it was difficult to get a good picture of the guardian statues.


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This is Ahgyo


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This is Ungyo


The sandals one sees at this temple are from people who pray that their limbs may be healthy and strong like those of the Nio.

Whereas other buddhist religions in Japan usually focus on one Buddha (the Hongwanji temples worship Amida Buddha for example), Shingon has a main Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, but also incorporates many others in a circle (Mandala) of buddhas. As a result, each temple may have a different Buddha as its focus of worship, but they are all important in Shingon in relation to Dainichi Nyorai.

Certainly, I need to do further research into the history of these temples and the part they played in Kashima's history. The father of the local Shingon temple's priest takes care of the 800 year old temple across the valley. I am hoping to arrange a meeting with him in order (with the help of K of course) to uncover more information.

I find it fascinating that in spite of the increased population, development, and roads, with the hustle and bustle of modern life, that there are three ancient temples within walking distance of my home. They remain undisturbed and scarcely noticed, having weathered the centuries and today offer portals through which we may experience a distant past.

2006/04/23

The Incredible Shrinking Momo Dog

A little while back, Robin commented that Momo looked a bit large for a Shih-Tzu. Robin owns a Tibetan Spaniel and three Lhasa Apso, by the way. Shih-Tzu are closely related to Lhasa Apso, the latter being Tibetan temple dogs, many of which were gifted to Chinese aristocracy. The Shih-Tzu is descended from those and over generations developed slightly different traits which the Chinese evidently preferred. In fact, Lhasa and Shih-Tzu mean the same thing in the respective languages - "lion dog".

If you have questions about these dogs, I suggest you ask Robin. He knows a whole lot more about them than I do.

Well, in the picture Robin was looking at, Momo had her full winter coat and looked pretty hefty. She's had some trimming since then and today got a shampoo. I took a picture of her before she was completely dry. She doesn't look quite so big now.

She looks even smaller when soaking wet, but I won't make her suffer the indignity of having that picture posted. :oP

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Momo the (incredible shrinking) Wonder Dog

2006/04/21

After the Storm

Thunder storms rolled across Kashima City Friday bringing darkness with lightning, thunder and rain alternating with clear skies and sunshine. I got tired of taking the laundry in and out of the house and gave it up. At times the house was dark - like after sunset dark - and the lighting flashes lit up the rooms. I turned off the computer and other electronics at those times. I was hoping for the weather to clear so I could ride down to a temple about which I am going to write a post, but every time it looked like it was getting better, another black cloud would announce itself with the a rumble of thunder.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, it was over. The sun came out to dry the streets, I gave Momo her walk, then was off on the bicycle. After my visit to the temple, which you can read about tomorrow, I headed to Lake Kitaura. I never got there, even though it was only a few hundred meters away. The rice paddies next to the lake were so beautiful I spent my time riding along the small roads that lace them together stopping here and there for a picture. The fields are flooded at this time as the planting of rice has begun and the mirror smooth surfaces reflect the surrounding bluffs and sky.

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The rains cleaned the dust off of everything and cleansed the air as well, making for excellent visibilty. At the same time, there were still cumulus clouds to catch the sun in their edges and cast shadows on the landscape.

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As I headed up the hill to home, I turned out at a workyard overlooking a valley of rice fields. It is just a leveled spot where heavy equipment is sometimes parked and small piles of gravel or soil are stored. In the valley below I could see someone walking a dog.

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I could also see the mountain range at Tsukuba City clearly, some 31 kilometers (19 miles) distant. Due to the hill, I could not quite see Mt. Tsukuba itself, which rises 876 meters from the flat Kanto plain. It is shaped like Mt. Fuji, but with a cleft at the top.
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I noticed a dirt road leading up and along a finger of the bluff and decided to follow it. It led to a cultivated field and on through a small grove of sugi (Japanese cedars) to a large clearing that looked like it was being prepared as a building site. Around two sides of the clearing were thin stands of sugi marking cliffs. I parked the bike and walked toward the edge of the bluff.

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Through the trees I looked down upon the rice fields, route 51, Lake Kitaura, the bridge which crosses it and Mt. Tsukuba.

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After taking several pictures from different vantage points I headed home once more.

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A large cumulus cloud was misting "virga". Virga is a light rain which evaporates before hitting the ground. It looks like wisps of white hair or a veil as it is blown by the wind. When this happens at altitude, novice pilots are sometimes tempted by the thought of a free "plane wash" to fly into it. They do get the plane wet, but also find themselves in a severe downdraft.

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My last picture is of a hawk that was soaring with the clouds over the rice paddies. You may need to click on the picture to get the larger version in order to spot the hawk.

Mammatus Clouds Over Kashima!

Were it not for a post by my friend FH2O on his blog Kuching Kayaking earlier this month I would not have recognized these clouds.

Today has been stormy with big thundershowers passing through and lots of sunshine in between. This afternoon, after one storm, the sky brightened, and as I've been hoping to go out on the bicycle I went outside to check the weather. To the west, the sun was shining and the sky was blue with scattered cumulus, but to the east it was dark and full of WHAT?! mammatus clouds! I've never seen them before except in pictures on FH2O's blog. They can occur with turbulant weather when warm moist air is sitting on top of cooler air, but they are not a well understood phenominon.

These were not as uniform as those pictures, but fascinating none the less. Do follow the link above as the pics in FH2O's post are remarkable. Anyway, I ran back in the house and grabbed the camera. This is what I got....



Afternoon at Lake Kitaura

The late afternoon sun over Lake Kitaura partially blinds my camera, but the image captures the feeling of the moment anyway. An airliner in the upper left of the picture heads for the airport in Narita. The clouds spread across the sky like the wings of a giant eagle soaring over the water. My camera batteries lose their charge after this shot. All telling me it's time for me to turn my bicycle for home.

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2006/04/11

Sakura Saturation Point? Nah....

My last posts concerning Mito City were about the Ume festival and prefectural museum of modern art. At that time the apricot trees were a main attraction (and dare I mention the Ume Abassadors?). The cherry trees that surround Lake Senba were still bare.

Sunday, after leaving Rokujizo Temple, we headed for the lake. Unfortunately, everyone else in Ibaraki Prefecture had the same idea and the two-lane road along the south shore of the lake turned into a trap with bumper to bumper cars just inching along. Ah well, nothing to be done but wait it out. As we were sitting in traffic, a turquoise 1960 Chevrolet Impala passed going the opposite direction.

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1960 Impala

An odd looking beast, it has fins as many Detroit Irons (American cars) did back then, but on the Impala they were horizontal instead of verticle. The car looked nicely restored, though it was modified to ride low, and was occupied by four young men trying to look as "cool" as possible. Just as they passed, the rear suspension of their car collapsed, dropping the back end to the ground and causing it to come to a slow, grinding, gut wrenching stop! You can imagine the effect this had on the already stagnant flow of traffic for the next hour and a half that it took for a tow tuck to arrive. Poor guys. So much for looking cool. I would not have been so sympathetic had we been behind them in line.

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Lake Senba

Once parked we decided to go for lunch. It was already getting close to 2 PM. We walked along the lake shore path toward the museum, which has a restaurant with a nice view of the lake. (The view is a better value than the food.) The cherry trees along the way were well worth the traffic jam we endured in order to see them.

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"K" and sakura.

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The Lake is lined with various kinds of cherry trees. This white one was really full.

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Looking across the lake from Ibaraki Museum of Modern Art. The titanium tower is Mito Art Tower - at the City Museum of Contemporary Art. Built in 1989 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mito City, it is 100 meters (328 ft) high and has an elevator that goes to a viewing level with porthole style windows.


After lunch we elected to follow the path around the other side of the lake on foot, circumnavigating it to return to the car. It is 7 km (4 1/3 miles) around the lake and one burns about 145 calories by walking around it. Perhaps we'd burn off some of the mango pie desert we had. Ha! Actually, we were also eating caramels at about 27 calories a pop as we walked. Oh well, this wasn't a day for dieting.

At this time of year, there are black swans and white swans are nesting along the shore. No comments about omlets please.

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Black swan checking on her two eggs.

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This couple of Mute Swans take turns at guard duty and egg sitting.

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A black swan takes a nap while standing under a pink cherry tree.

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Returning to where we started before lunch, we take a long final look at the scenery.

The Impala had finally been picked up by a truck, but the traffic was still bumper to bumper in both directions. K chose her exit strategy, but it didn't matter much either way - it took over an hour just to get out of the parking lot. Really. At times like this I view the invention of the automobile with disdain. What joke. I literally could have walked to the train station in less time.

Were we at the SSP - "Sakura Saturation Point"- yet? Not on your life! We next headed for our final stop for the day, a three block stretch of a river called....(drum roll please)...the Sakura River. You'll never guess what you find growing on its banks.

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Families, friends, and businesses have sakura viewing parties here. There are lights for night viewing as well.


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As we walked along, I looked up and saw the moon (look closely). How beautiful it must be here at night with the moonlight and blossoms.


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Had enough cherry blossoms for now? Are you at the SSP?


Quite a day. As we headed for the Ibaraki coast and the 50 km trip home, our heads were full of visions of sakura and thoughts of the experiences and surprises the day had held, as well as the lonesome and hungry little dog that was waiting patiently for our return.

2006/04/10

Hanamatsuri

Hanamatsuri means flower festival, but for Buddhists it is much more than appreciating sakura. April 8th is day we celebrate the birth of the historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gotama, who became Shakyamuni Buddha.

In Hawaii's temples, this is always a happy time when the temple altar is decorated with special embroidered silk cloths and flower arrangements. Fun activities are planned for the sanga (members) after the service. On Maui, an extra service and party is held bringing together all the Buddhist temples of every sect, with lots of food, entertainment, games, and children's choirs singing Hanamatsuri songs. I was interested to see it celebrated in Japan.

Sunday, K drove us the 50 km to Mito City to see the Hanamatsuri celebration at Rokujizo Temple. Roku means "six" and Jizo is a Bodhisattva who vowed to protect the weak (particularly children). In Christian terms, he is sort of a "patron saint" of mothers and children.

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This temple, founded in 891, is named for its six statues of Jizo Bosatsu.


Another attraction of this temple is its trees. It has several ancient cedars, one of which is said to be 1,100 years old. It also has a ginko tree that dates back some 800 years. But at this time of year, everyone's eyes are on the very special cherry trees. They are "weeping" cherries with branches that arch and droop like a weeping willow.

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Weeping cherry.


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Weeping cherry branch laden with ephemerel blossoms contrasts with a 300 year old cedar tree.


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Sakura heaven.

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Preparing tea.

As one would expect on this day, the temple had a lot of visitors. There were booths set up for food and guests could partake in a tea ceremony. Due to the number of people, the tea was served to eight guests at a time who were seated at a long table. While K waited for tea, I roamed about with my camera.

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The trees were in full bloom and as she prepared the tea a gentle breeze stirred little flurries of petals like snow flakes - "sakura fubuki". As they fluttered to the ground, children played a game to see who could catch the most. (As Happysurfer tells us she used to do with ansanga blossoms in Malaysia).

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Hanamido

On the steps of the temple was the traditional flowered pavillion (Hanamido) with a small Buddha statue set in a tray of sweet tea.

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People offering sweet tea.

A laddle rests by the statue, which one uses to pour the sweet tea over the statue as a form of offering, just as one might offer flowers or incense. In Buddhist mythology, it is said that when the Buddha was born, sweet tea rained from the sky.

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Looking up at this cedar, I was in awe of a living thing that has been around about 1,045 years longer than me!

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The trees, blossoms, temple, tea ceremony, swirling sakura petals, and scent of incense combined to make a perfect atmosphere for the occassion.


As we left Rokujizo Temple, the experience had been so beautiful and fulfilling that
our day felt complete. But there was more to come.

To be continued....