Gondo Now & Then…

While I was in sub-zero Nagano, I managed to fend off cold. Then back in unseasonably mild London, I’ve succumbed to the pesky germ! How could this happen?! Anyway, I am confined to bed right now and feeling rather betrayed…

Apart from a mass congregation during the New Year holidays in & around the Zenkō-ji compound,the street scene of Nagano in general was a rather sparsely populated one, I must say…

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The town was quiet and looked even deserted for the eyes which got used to see the sea of people in London 24/7.
An arcade called Gondo used to be brimful with shops and shoppers three decades ago…

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However, the shops and their clients ebbed away as the fringe of the city which used to be rice fields and apple orchards were developed and offered as new residential areas. For young families with children, the lure of being able to afford a house with a garden was irresistible and an exodus out of the city centre to the suburb followed as a result. This kind of demographic change was a death-blow to any traditional town centre and Gondo did not escape the repercussion.

Upon entering the roofed arcade from Chuo-dori, there was a temple named Oujo-in…

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The temple was founded in the 9th century by Kūkai (空海), also known posthumously as Kōbō-Daishi (弘法大師), the founder of the Shingon-shū (真言宗 True Word School).
In the 12th century, during a power struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans in the late-Heian period of Japan known as Genpei War, Zenkō-ji was razed to the ground by fire. After two decades, Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝), the founder and the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan vowed to rebuild Zenkō-ji and its Hibutsu – the most important icon of temple, was temporarily moved to Oujo-in. A word “Gondo” means “a temporary shrine”. It explains why the place earned the name, Gondo (権堂).

The present Gondo arcade housed some shops, bars and eateries. The roofed promenade was dotted with a few clothing & accessories shops…

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A tree decorated as a Christmas tree in front of the building occupied by bars and restaurants…

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This stall was selling ornaments for the New Year…

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They were to be hung on the front doors as an invitation to gods to walk into each household and bring prosperity and luck to its receiver.

By the east end of Gondo arcade, there was Akiba-jinja shrine. And in front of it, there was a statue of Kioi-jishi (勢獅子)…

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This fierce looking mask was used for Lion Dance (獅子舞) which was to be performed during the New Year celebration.
It was a cold day and the snow clung to the base of the statue refused to melt away. Brrr…

From the arcade, there were narrow alleyways spreading out like small veins…

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On one of the alleyways, I noticed a tricoloured canopy standing out of the greyish hue of urban wintry scene…

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It was a small cake shop, Patisserie Aux Suga.
I fancied a break from cold with hot coffee & cake so opened a sliding door and walked in.
The dining area was empty and a soft tune of Simon & Garfunkel was filling the space…

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I ogled the showcase and after a long pondering, opted for a slice of Creme Marron – Chestnuts cake.
Ta-dah! It was my very first cake in Japan…

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However for the tongue which had been exposed to more sugary food in the UK, the cake was flavoured rather too delicately. Still, it was very well made…

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While a patisserie owner blew my coffee, he explained that the shop opened in the mid October last year therefore it was a new comer to Gondo…

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As I munched through the treat, a trickle of customers came and went with boxes of Mr.Suga’s creation. It was heartwarming to witness how local independent businesses like his were not only surviving but also thriving in the local community. Instead of running the path of boom & bust by relying on big money investor or franchises, they chose to nourish the ground they took roots in a more personal way. I sincerely hoped that their service would one day lure back people to Gondo and the place would be overflowing with laughter and excitement again. I must come back here every time I visit Nagano and I shall bring my mum with me next time, I thought…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

The Smell Of Zenkō-ji

My mum & I’s escapade in Tokyo was truly amazing. I was so lucky to have a super mum like her and hopefully she enjoyed the time we spent together as much as I did.
There are still so many things I want to write about my trip to Japan. My iPhone & iPod touch are a brimful of photos I took in Nagano & Tokyo. Therefore. you have to suffer my rambling about the time in Japan a little longer even though I’ve been back in London physically.

Anyone who has visited Japanese temples would agree with me that we can sniff out the location of a main hall…

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The scent was originated from a giant incense burner placed in the middle of the promenade of Zenkō-ji…

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All day long, the brass burner would emit bluish grey smoke laced with unmistakable smell of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense), letting visitors knew that their were in a divine territory of Buddha…

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Worshipper would buy a bundle of incense each and throw them into the burner through a slot and sprinkle themselves with the smoke coming out from the opening, believing the gesture would help curing ailments by cleansing their bodies & souls.

The history of incense in Japan started around the 6th century. Aromatic woods were brought to the island by Korean Buddhist monks who also introduced Buddhism to the Japanese society. The aroma was used for purification rites at temples as well as became a source of chic amusement and entertainment amongst nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.
During the 14th century, samurai warriors started to scent their armour and helmets with incense before battle in order to convince themselves of invincibility aided by divine power of Buddha.
However, the use of the incense was exclusive to the noble and ruling class. Therefore, the culture of appreciating incense – 香道 (Kōdō) did not infiltrate to the Japanese middle class until more than 900 years later since the original incense was brought to the shore of Japan.
Nowadays, the use of Koh in modern domestic scenes is not that prevalent. Unless one attends funeral ceremonies in Buddhist style, the smell of Koh is limited to temple compounds.

Some westerners may find it rather incomprehensible when it comes to the Japanese attitude towards religion. For example, they hop between a few different religions, depending on occasions – celebrating Christmas in the style of Christian, getting married in Shinto shrine, giving funeral in Buddhist temple, etc. Yet, it doesn’t mean they are non-believers…

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They are 絵馬 (Ema).
Worshippers donate those wooden pieces with their wishes, hoping Buddha will grant it.
Ema means “painted horse”. In the 8th century, there was a custom of donating a horse to shrine or temple when one was making a wish. However, a horse was an expensive gift and the shrine / temple which received the donated steed also found it difficult to keep it. The solution was an Ema, a board with an image of horse painted on.
Nowadays, an Ema comes in all shapes and styles…

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As well as in a traditional pentagonal shape, the temple kiosk provides Hello Kitty, Rirakkuma (teddy bear) and a heart shape versions.
A culture of worshipping divine power amongst the Japanese is stronger than ever, especially during a decades long economic recession. The people find comfort and hope by visiting temples and shrines…

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These religious establishments, such as Zenkō-ji, maybe the only one of the few who benefitted from the recent setbacks Japan had experienced, I thought when I was walking on their promenade…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

Daruma Dolls @ Zenkō-ji

One late afternoon, I was walking through Zenkō-ji compound, carrying daily grocery shopping. The sun was fading first and the temperature was plunging accordingly…

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As I followed a footpath tracing the east side of the main hall, a tiny timber hut with Daruma dolls came in sight…

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The hut was a collection point for spent Daruma dolls. Collecting spent/unwanted Daruma dolls at temples and shrines at the beginning of every year is an old Japanese custom. The invitation is open to anyone…

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Despite its humorous and colourful look, the Daruma doll is not a plaything but a talisman. When a Daruma is bought at the temple for the first time, the eyes of the doll are blank. Then, only the right eye is painted in by a wish-bearer with a wish – wishes such as passing exams, finding a good job, etc. The remaining left eye is painted in only when the original wish has come true.

Daruma dolls are made from layers of paper stretched over bamboo framing, therefore, they are hollow & light. Traditionally, they used to be painted red or occasionally white, however nowadays, a modern Daruma doll comes in all colours and sizes…

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Originally, a Daruma is modelled after Darumataishi (Bodhidharma), the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. The figure, which depicting Darumataishi deep in meditation, also epitomises the virtue of patience and perseverance. There is a Japanese proverb related to Daruma – “七転び八起き”, nanakorobiyaoki – even if one falls 7 times, it is okay if one picks itself up 8 times. The round shape of Daruma doll is prone to be knocked over but also easy to rise, a metaphor for human resilience.

I noticed that one of the Daruma dolls deposited at the hut didn’t have any eye at all…

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Was it an unwanted gift given by an overzealous parent / friend / colleague? Looking at it at home may be a depressing reminder for him/her.

This stall by Zenkō-ji was selling Daruma dolls…

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Since annual exam season in Japan is reaching fever pitch towards the middle of February, I am certain they will make brisk trade…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

Two Kings @ Niō-Mon

The first gate, where visitors to Zenkō-ji pass, is Niō-mon.
This all timber gate is 14m high, 13m wide and 7m deep.
Niō means “two kings”, and at the gate, giant wooden statues of two angry looking kings are on display. They are warrior guardians of the temple which protect the compound from enemies of Buddhism…

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The original gate was built in the mid 18th century and it was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1847. 17 years later, the replacing statues were curved in Edo (present Tokyo) and carried on a wheel cart over a distance of 230km. In 1891, the gate was again destroyed by fire – one major drawback of timber structure, and it was restored in 1918 to the present form. This time, the figures, 5m in height, were created by Takamura Kouun and his protégé, Yonehara Unkai…

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The statue on the left is called Naraen Kongō – 那羅延金剛 and has his mouth open to utter the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced “a”…

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The right statue is called Misshaku Kongō – 密迹金剛 and has his mouth closed, representing the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced “um”…

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These two letters (a-un in Japanese) together symbolize the birth and death of all things.
By the way, the figures at Zenkō-ji’s Niō-mon are rather unconventional. For some reason unknown to me (I did google about the subject but so far found nothing about this mystery), their positions are placed reversed right to left – normally, Naraen Kongō is placed on the right and Misshaku Kongō on the left.

Above the opening of the gate, there is a frame “Jougakusan”, dedicated by one of the imperial princes…

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Straw sandals, “waraji”, tied to the wooden fences around the statues…

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They represent wishes of the worshippers, praying for safe journeys.

The side-view of the gate…

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Behind the Niō warriors, there are two additional figures. One is a statue of Sanpoukoujin – 三法嵐神, the protector of three treasures of Buddhism, Buddha, the teaching of Buddhism and priests and another one is Sanmendaikokuten – 三面大黒天, a god of war with three faces, to ward off evil spirits…

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The sight of the statues inspires wonderment to anyone beholds them. How master sculptors breathed life into mere timber? Especially the two warrior kings, their rippling torsos are so beautifully curved, they look as if they are about to move!

After admiring Niō-Mon, I headed towards Higashinomon-cho…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

New Year Day @ Zenkō-ji

On the afternoon of New Year’s Day, Mum & I agreed that we were in need of some fresh air, therefore, we donned warm clothing and sauntered to Zenkō-ji.
On the way, I saw a pair of huge trees standing, assisted by steel supports at Yubuku Shrine. Mum explained to me how the trees were struck by lightning one summer and the impact was felt even by her at home 10 minutes walk away from the shrine. The trees had to be trimmed in order to make them safe. Just imagining from the size of the remaining trunks, they must have been gigantic trees…

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We arrived at Zenkō-ji and found the promenade choking with worshippers…

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The orderly crowd was waiting in queue to enter Hondō shrine. However the queue was stretched as far as Sanmon Gate and beyond…

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Within the temple compound, kiosks selling talismans and fortune slips were everywhere…

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They came in various forms. Arrows for warding off evil spirit and bamboo rakes for gathering fortune…

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The staffs seemed very busy, being called up from all directions…

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Next to the kiosk, I came across this dog looking thoroughly bored. He / she stood there with the air of resignation while its owners hotly disputing what charm they should buy in order to improve fortune this year…

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The area around the promenade closer to Hondō shrine was all blocked off as a part of crowd managements. So we were forced to walk around the boundary and join the Sando Promenade at the intersection…

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Though not as packed as around Hondō, the pavement was brimful of visitors…

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“Goheimochi” on sale…

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Goheimochi is made of mashed steamed sticky rice and miso paste. Mashed and hand-formed rice is skewered with a bamboo stick and grilled over the flame. Once cooked, sweetened miso paste is spread over the rice ball lollipop and sold as Japanese street food.
Mum & I wanted to try them but there was a long queue in front of the shop front so we gave up and walked on.

A couple in kimono…

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We reached Niōmon Gate and found crowds of people still pouring in towards Hondō…

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We realised that there would be no chance of finding any cafe for a mid-afternoon snack. So we headed back home.
On our way home, we came across this sight…

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A row of cars were queuing for a pay car park near the temple. How long did they would have to wait in their cars, we had no idea. From the amount of the visitors we saw at the temple, they would probably have to wait more than an hour. We hoped if they could make it to Hondō before it closed at 5 pm…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

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