Joya No Kane @ Zenkō-ji

My nose is like a time bomb. A bout of sneezing assaults me without warning, giving Mr.B on my bed a shockwave. *SIGH*
I requested Hubbie to bring back a famed Cronut from NYC as a souvenir but was being told it wouldn’t be happening. He explained that the Cronut wouldn’t last very long as it was meant to be eaten fresh. Therefore, I will have to wait until Dominique Ansel Bakery opens another branch in London. Oh, dammit…

On the 31st of December, I was walking through the Zenkō-ji compound. It was a cold day and some snowfall was expected…


The temple was strangely quiet. The stillness floating around the forecourt of the main hall was imbued with silent excitement. After all, the temple was facing one of the biggest event of the year, a New Year’s Eve – thousands of worshippers would descend upon the temple.
The Hondō (本堂) – main hall sat serenely under the wintry afternoon sky like a monk in meditation…


Next to the Zenkō-ji’s main hall, there was a timber-structured belfry with a large bronze bell…


This six-pillared belfry was rebuilt in 1853 and the bronze bell was cast in 1667.
On New Year’s Eve, the bell is to be rung 108 times.
Why 108 times? There are a few theories. But the most popular belief goes like this…
There are 36 kinds of Bonno (煩悩) – a human vice, such as temptation, laziness, lust, resentment, etc. Each 36 vices for past-life, present-life and future-life equal 108. Therefore, the bell is rung 108 times in order to cleanse those vices. The bell is to be rung 107 times during the last night of the passing year and the last 108th to be rung when the new year arrives…


The manner in which the arrival of new year is announced, varies depending on where you are. In Britain for example, it is greeted with the sound of popping champagne corks, a chorus of Auld Lang Syne and a barrage of fireworks. It’s all merry & exciting. And I love it. However, I am also very fond of the much less raucous way in which the Japanese new year arrives.

My mum went to bed around 11 o’clock. I tidied up the kitchen and made myself a mug of hot milk. Then, I heard the first strike of the bell in the distance. The resonating sound followed by a deliberate pause repeatedly traveled over the deathly quiet night sky. I opened the window and inhaled icy cold air, savouring my first breath of 2014. Then, I visited mum’s bedroom and whispered ‘A happy new year to you, mum’. She returned the greeting sleepily. That was how my 2014 arrived.
How did yours come by?…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

Mujina-Jizo @ Byakuren-bo

Since last Thursday, I can’t stop sneezing. An ordinary head cold, I thought, so carried on as normal. And it got worse. Now, I feel shivery and hot in turns and the bridge of my nose hurts. Is this a second cold I’ve had since I came back from Japan? What happened to my immune system which was hard at work in freezing Nagano? Have I exhausted it already?! When I just want to shut myself in with a duvet and mugs of Lemsip, Nurse Hubbie is in NYC on a business trip. Oh, how typical…

First time I realised the animal we called in Japan as Tanuki (狸) – badger, didn’t look like the European’s same namesake, I was very surprised.
While European badgers sport white stripes on their black fur, Japanese cousins have no such markings and instead, they resemble overweight foxes…


Because of their humorous appearance, Japanese “Tanuki” badgers are adored by the Japanese and they have inspired numerous items to be made, honouring their popularity…


These potteries are another common objects to be found at the doorsteps of ordinary Japanese homes, greeting visitors with their adorable gaze…


One occasion, my dad was offered “Tanuki Nabe” – a hotpot with badger meat, traditional delicacies only available in a deep mountainous area, by his client. Dad recounted how a stuffed Tanuki with an old-fashioned braided straw hat on its back and a flask of sake held by its claws was on display at the client’s dining room. He thought this pudgy object resembled our then pet Yorkshire Terrier and lost his appetite. ‘it was a dead ringer!’, he insisted afterward. Oh dad, Minnie wasn’t that fat…

Between the Niō-mon and the south end of Zenkō-ji promenade, there was a row of Shukubos (宿坊) – lodging houses for pilgrims at Japanese Buddhist temple compounds. In front of one of the inns, Byakuren-bo (白蓮坊), there stood a pair of statues, a bold cherub-like figure with a bright yellow bib and a Tanuki badger on a small dais…


Next to the statues, a wooden sign stated as “Mujina-jizo” (むじな地蔵). Jizo is a shortened name of Jizo-bosatsu (地蔵菩薩) and is a god whose position is subordinate to Nyorai (如来). But why Mujina, alias Tanuki was celebrated as a Jizo???


Once upon a time, there was a Tanuki living in the mountain of Ibaragi. He was a pious Buddhist and feeling extremely ashamed of his way of living – being carnivorous, he had to kill other animals in order to survive. So one day, he decided to visit Zenkō-ji and to dedicate a stone lantern so that his troubled soul maybe saved.
In Japanese folklore, a Tanuki was believed to possess a power to transform itself. A well-trained one could fool unsuspecting humans as long as he/she didn’t display a tail – the only body part which couldn’t be disguised. Mr.Mujina transformed himself to a human and managed to reach the Byakuren-bo at Zenkō-ji. He was so pleased with his adventure and opted for a well-earned hot bath at the inn. A big mistake! His bushy tail was seen by other guest and his cover was blown. Instead of dedicating a lantern, he had to flee back to the mountain of Ibaragi…


When a chief priest heard the story of the pious Tanuki, he took pity on him and built a stone lantern on his behalf. And the lantern still stands by the north side of the Zenkō-ji main hall.

I didn’t have a chance to see the lantern myself but found the story really charming.
A visit to the lantern will be definitely on my itinerary next time I visit Nagano…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

Antiques In Nagano

When it comes to vintage-hunting, I must admit London is much better than Nagano. Weekly vintage markets in & around London are teeming with people and a craze for anything vintage & antique is palpable. Apart from the actual markets, more than a few TV programmes related to bygone times and artefacts are on-aired on a daily basis whereby it indicates how much the Brits are into all things vintage & antique.
In Japan, however, that level of enthusiasm towards Japanese antique is non-existent. As the reflection of the fact, there are only a few vintage shops around the Zenkō-ji compound.

I came across this shop a few blocks away from the temple entrance…


The shop front was inconspicuous and looked rather private. The items on display consisted of ceramic plates, dishes, cups, pitchers as well as old dolls and roof tiles (瓦).
By the entrance, there was a bargain basket…


They were priced as ¥1,000, approximately £6.00.
The basket was stuffed with wooden bowls, a champagne cooler(?), a metal horse and some tools.

Then, I found this shop which seemed to be specialised in vintage ceramics a few minutes walk away…


The plate on the upper right looks like a delft blue plate, don’t you think? And I loved a Persian blue glassware in front of it….


It would not be strictly true to say that the Japanese are not interested in antiques. A few years ago, I visited the Sunbury Antiques Market at Kempton Park and encountered a few coach-loads of Japanese housewives shopping for European vintage kitchen ware and chests. They do like vintage as long as their origins are western. I suppose it is related to the fact that the majority of contemporary Japanese houses are built and decorated in a western style, and non-eastern vintages fit better to it. Also a lack of variety in Japanese vintage in general keeps its audience number very small.

Next door to the antique shop, I found lots of cats…


If some of them ever manage to survive the passing of time, they may be cherished as “Kawaii” vintages? I sincerely hope so.

By the way, there is a really fun weekly TV programme featuring antiques in Japan. The show is called “Nandemo Kanteidan” (何でも鑑定団) – The Troop of Appraisers.
Participants bring their treasures to a live show and experts appraise them on spot. It sounds like the BBC’s popular “Antique Roadshow”, doesn’t it? Non, non, NON. On the stage with the venue full of gleeful audiences, each participant presents his /her (most of them are men) treasure, recounts the item’s history (how it comes to their possession) and estimates a monetary value of the item.
Then, the experts who sit on the tiered seating on the stage examine the item and give it their evaluation. The treasures the participants bring are worthless more often than not. And it is a kind of guilty pleasure to see how they fall flat on their face.
I am sure there are a plenty of fake and rubbish brought to be appraised in the BBC show too. Why don’t they show the moment when the expert says “Ohhhh, I am so sorry to tell you”? Wouldn’t it be more entertaining, don’t you agree?

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

Buddha Of Fire

The last afternoon of 2013 was spent at the temple, walking off my mum’s hearty lunch.
A celebratory sign was up on the San-mon (山門)…


Gasho (賀正) means “New Year Celebration”, by the way.
After walking through the San-mon, on my left was Chouzu-ya (手水舎)…


A water-filled basin, called chōzubachi, are used by worshipers for washing their left hands, right hands, mouth and finally the handle of the water ladle to purify themselves before approaching the main hall.
Next to the water ablution pavilion, there was a statue of Buddha called Enmei-jizo (延命地蔵)…


This statue was erected by voluntary donations gathered from all over Japan in the early 18th century.
The jizo is also known as Yaoya Oahichi no Nure-botoke (八百屋お七のぬれ仏). It is alleged that the statue was dedicated for the repose of the soul of Yaoya Oshichi – Greengrocer Oshichi, a daughter of the greengrocer Tarobei in Edo in the 17th century. She started a fire in order to be reunited with the man she had a crush on – her tale goes like this. She met this guy who she fell in love with at the temple where her family evacuated during a fire in her neighbourhood. After the fire was put out, everyone went home and she lost touch with him. So infatuated she was, she decided to set a fire to her parent’s house so she could see him again at the temple. She did carried out arson and as the result she was burned at the stake. The story became the subject of plays and her love story became a legend.

Oh well, a puppy love with a lethal consequence. Love should hot but shouldn’t burn down a town…

Kaori by Kaori Okumura

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