Thursday, 11 October 2012


For some reason, it seems like every time I plan to leave the house it turns into a goddamn adventure. I really can't complain, I just wish it weren't so consistently a result of my own incompetence. Today, Cologne and I started things off right by both oversleeping.

“Rude's 9 o'clock.”
“I know.”
“We were supposed to be downtown to catch the bus at 9 o'clock.”
“I know.”
It was far. I had another class I could be attending instead of going on this stupid field trip. I lay motionless for several more minutes, until Cologne's impatience got the better of him.
“Come on!”

Getting downtown was easy, but we spent over an hour and a half trying to decipher the map the teacher had provided. A Torontonian with an insatiable urge to overpronounce every single Japanese word that passes through her lips, she had pieced it together from several different online maps of different scales that displayed different information, then added to it in her own hand. It was an abomination of cartography.

We gathered that we were first to take the bus to Ginkakuji, adjacent to the main entrance of Hieisan. As it turns out, Ginkakuji is actually over 6 kilometres away from Hieisan. We debated boarding another bus, but decided we could probably walk. After all, monks in the Heian Jidai didn't have cars, right? Ok, so maybe they did have horses, but halfway up the mountain, we got the next best thing: A pony-tailed, shrewd-eyed, 32-year-old Japanese man who stopped to offer us a lift.

If he were ever called upon to add, say, a toothpick to the ensemble of stuff in his van, I am not sure where he would have fit it. Every available inch was filled from floor to ceiling with plastic tubing, industrial strength extension cords, books, seat covers, a disassembled bicycle, flattened cardboard boxes, broken home appliances and other garbage. Clearing a space for us in the back took some doing, but he managed to seat us atop a couple of coolers, which lurched alarmingly around every turn.

“There's my house,” he said, pointing. That didn't make us feel great, because now he wasn't just being friendly, he was going way out of his way. “Three of us live there.”
“With your girlfriend?” I asked, because Japanese people certainly enjoy asking me about my relationship status.
“No,” he said, and then looked at me very seriously. “Thing is. If you live with your girlfriend, you can't have fun with other women.” A slight pause. “That's what I'm doing now.”

He was able to take us as far as the main gates, past which, it turns out, we weren not allowed to proceed on our feet, and had to wait for the same bus we had earlier decided not to take. We rode to the very top of the mountain, which has a beautiful view of Biwako.

But it turned out to be way too far, so we rode back down to the Enryakuji area, where, at 14:00, we finally caught up with our classmates and the teacher.

They were just wrapping up.

Well. We've come this far, right? We headed on in...

...and I realised I've been here before. In another life, really. Four years ago, in the first few days of my high school ryuugaku, when my interim host family took me. But at 17, I really couldn't appreciate it, because at the time, I had yet to discover Taira no Kiyomori.

Hieisan or Mt Hiei is basically a Japanese Angkor Wat. It's on a much smaller scale, but as mentioned, it's still big enough that there are shuttles to take you from one part of it to another. It's also, as far as I know, the most important Buddhist site in all of Japan. None of that by itself makes it especially exciting, because if you ever visit or live in Japan, you will absolutely at some point be subjected to what I like to call the Hundred Temple Tour. It's understandable that our Japanese hosts want to show us their culture even when we'd rather be shopping, but the thing is, for most people, once you've seen one Buddhist temple and one Shinto shrine, you've kind of seen them all.

Hieisan sets itself apart by being a complex, so although the individual buildings generally aren't as large as, say, Byoudouin (which is pictured on the ten-yen coin and which I used to live fifteen minutes away from), there are tons of them, and you can have hours of fun just exploring the paths that snake through the forest between them. More importantly, the monks who lived there required protection from the political instability and dangerous elements that saturated the region for much of history, so they contracted soldiers to defend them and their relics. The term “warrior-monks” (souhei) is misleading, because you didn't have to be a monk or even Buddhist to work as a security guard at Hieisan. But they were pretty cool:

This guy was called Benkei. He was one of the more famous souhei, and the one who has the strongest presence in modern remembrance; he was even the subject of a Kurosawa film. He supposedly duelled 1000 samurai, collecting their swords, and later died standing up as he covered for his buddy, who was busy committing suicide. You can see that he's wielding a naginata, the preferred weapon of the souhei, a type of polearm with a more sophisticated blade than a mere spear or what have you.

The souhei steadily gathered power, and in the Heian Jidai they decided that they were pretty hot stuff, and started meddling with politics in the capital. Eventually Taira no Kiyomori, principal character of Heike Monogatari and at this point a rising star, got sufficiently pissed off and, armed with nothing but a bow, rode to Hieisan and started yelling at everybody. They came out and told him he had best be on his way, because anybody who so much as looked at their sacred ground the wrong way would be struck dead instantly.

They'd been using this threat as leverage against anybody who challenged them for a while now, and Kiyomori had come to put a stop to that. He notched an arrow, sent a bolt straight into one of the temples, and continued living. After a few seconds of shocked silence, the assembled souhei all ran at him waving their naginata. “Shit,” thought Kiyomori, and then he decided it was time to leave.

Annoyingly, the problems between Heiankyou and Hieisan went on for a while, so they aren't resolved in Heike Monogatari, but they cause problems for Kiyomori and the Taira for the rest of his life.

Revisiting Hieisan with this new knowledge was like visiting Jerusalem. Somewhere on this mountain, Kiyomori kicked some ass and took some names; hell, at some point I may well have been standing on the exact spot that Kiyomori once passed through. I was unable to read much of the signage and we didn't have the benefit of the tour so some of the historical significance of each exact location was lost on us, but that didn't keep us from enjoying it.

Seriously, there's a lot to see.

This is Kaidan-in. I'm getting a few conflicting sources of information about this one, but it seems to have been originally established in Nara during the Nara Jidai as one of Buddhism's Big Three, then reestablished in Hieisan during the Heian Jidai following the death of the Tendai sect prelate.

I threw in a petty ten yen, sounded a fairly reserved gong, and made a bit of a scattered and nonsensical prayer. I'm pretty sure that basically ensures it won't come true, so I'm not going to hurt my chances further by telling you what I prayed for, though I think that might be ok in Buddhism.

Since the complex is still in use, kind of, there's a lot of modern stuff mixed in with all the history. Personally, I think this is the way to go - I mean really, stuff has been added to Hieisan continually, so what is it that you're ultimately trying to preserve? There's a really interesting discussion in there about whether or not declaring something protected as a tradition is tantamount to admitting that it's no longer relevant, but I don't feel the urge to get into it just right now.

This is what I mean - this funeral hall, Amidadou, was built in 1937.

Directly next to it is the Hokke Sojiin, originally built 400 years ago, burnt down, and then rebuilt in 1987. Dude - 1987. The cars in this shot are kind of a fun contrast. I assume they belong to the monks who were inside the building to the right, just outside the frame - they were chanting a sutra of some sort. I wanted to get a picture of some monks but that seemed a little inappropriate.

Basically you make a wish and hang this on the wall in the hopes that it comes true. I've done it many times with paper at Tanabata, and also at the school's Open for some reason, but I've never used one of these fancy wooden plates. I didn't do it today, either.

This one was moved here on the orders of Toyotomi literally just because he felt like it.

There are many many effigies of Buddha, as you would expect. People like to give him clothes to keep him warm, kind of disregarding the fact that it's currently summer.

I thought the whole Enryakuji area was pretty cool as well, but as far as Cologne was concerned this was the centrepiece of the Hieisan collection. Unfortunately, I can't find any information about it, although the sand reminds me of Byoudouin. Whatever that's worth.

If one of the words occurring to you right now is "samey" or something like it, believe me I agree. But it stays interesting when you anchor the various stories to the stuff you're looking at.

I was thinking I should get myself a little Hieisan souvenir, something to add to the Shinsengumi haori and Hanshin Tigers something-or-other I intend to buy. But I bitched about the price for a while before deciding to let it be. Twenty minutes later I was already hating I walked away. By the time we made our way back, the store was closed. Who knows when I'll ever be back?

We took so long because we ended up spending a lot of time seeking out Ruridou. The truth is, the Hieisan complex actually used to be even more massive. But then the fearsome and intimidating Oda Nobunaga

one-upped Kiyomori by deciding he'd about had enough of these uppity souhei by besieging the place and - or so I'm led to understand - burning the entire thing to the ground. All of it. (Many structures were rebuilt and are certainly very old, but they aren't original.) Which does raise some questions, mainly: Did he truly not see this as an overreaction, and just how long did it take him exactly?

Towards the end, his guys got interrupted and somehow Ruridou alone survived, and I badly wanted to check it out. I have Cologne to thank, because he was the one who actually located it. We had to walk down the road – like, the road, for cars – and push our way down an unkept path that announced nothing in particular. As Cologne put it, “No wonder Nobunaga never found this place.”

I'll admit it's not much to look at, but for the heritage alone it was also one of the coolest things we got to see. I guarantee you not many have. Its establishment was still a few hundred years removed from Kiyomori's time, but it's the closest you're gonna get.

We finally made our way back to the entrance, only to find our fears had come true: The last bus had long since left. So we started walking, thumbs out. Startlingly, within minutes of our setting out an energetic old man had stopped for us.

I jump shotgun so we can chat. Cologne sits in the back, listening. I thank him profusely for helping us out.
“God saves the people he's going to save,” he tells me. Then he sings a few bars of a song. “Do you know it?” I don't. “Ah, then you're not Christian. I'm Christian.”
This is a revelation, because for the next several minutes he amuses himself by asking us how to say various dirty words in English and German, going into some detail on the multitude of equivalent terms in Japanese, and their particular nuances. Then, for seemingly no reason, he sings the entirety of The Star-Spangled Banner. Cologne wants to take a picture of Biwako and the old man tells him to hurry, because he's on the job.

“Do you work on Hieisan?” I ask him.
“Yes, I'm an official photographer.” I figure that I've probably seen his work.
“Ah, that must be nice!”
“Well...well yeah. Because Hieisan is so beautiful and interesting, right?”
He laughs.
“I guess I thought so at first, too. But it gets boring eventually. And I wonder sometimes if it's really worthwhile work. Actually, my father was a soldier. Fighting for Japan in the Philippines. 'For the Emperor, BANZAAAAAI!!' maybe how he died, I don't know. But in any case he lived in service to his country and his people. Although the truth is, although Japan was hurt by losing the war, I think it's better that we did.”
He means World War II, not what happened in the Philippines. I'm interested to hear his perspective, especially as he's from a more classical generation, so I gently press him. It doesn't take much; he certainly hasn't been shy about sharing so far.
“Yes, the Japanese way of thinking at that time was really quite bad. It's better that it was cut off. It was definitely a very difficult time following the war, but people worked through it and rebuilt Japan to make it better. Now we're a country of peace. So although it's tragic, you could say that the people of one small stretch of time had to be sacrificed in order to ensure the happiness of Japanese people living today.”
It's a pretty Christian sentiment; I wonder if he's conscious of it.

It's around this time that I realise: Hitchhiking my way down from Hieisan and speaking on random topics with Japanese people? I don't just admire Will Ferguson – author of the best Japan book everI've become him.

I want to ask the old man what he thinks would have happened with the rest of Asia if Japan hadn't been defeated, but he's started telling Cologne that he looks like Jesus.


  1. Keep doing what you're doing, people reading it appreciate it whether you know it or not.

    That sense of humor helps too.