Big Zen

London may have Big Ben, but it has nothing on Japan’s Big Zen.

My first trip to the capital of Yamaguchi Prefecture – Yamaguchi City – was on business. All of the ‘Guch JETs had a two-day, Thursday and Friday, “kenchou” (means both meeting and capitol prefectural building). A few friends and I stayed in the city Friday and Saturday nights to explore.

An hour and a half from me by train, Yamaguchi City is the smallest prefectural capital in Japan. The prefecture as a whole is known as “the inaka one” (rural). It is filled with mountains, surrounded by oceans and covered with rice patties. But under that benign surface lies a history rich in feudal wars, dynasty imperialism and a mosaic culture.

Yamaguchi City was not officially founded until 1929. Regardless of its late-blooming title, the region blossomed as one of Japan’s economic and cultural strongholds during the 11th and 12th centuries. After nearly two centuries of feudal territorial wars, marked by a lack of direction and leadership, the Ouchi family took power in Yamaguchi.  The Ouchis rallied their feudal powers and gradually expanded their territory. At the peak of their power, the Yamaguchi region included cities as far as Hiroshima in the north and Kitakyushu in the south. The Ouchi dynasty ruled for over 190 years in the area, and during that time brought about a reign of economic, cultural and spiritual prosperity.

Their immense military strength demanded cooperation, and they easily established open trade relationships with China and Korea, among other Asian nations. They became known for their unique lacquer and Ouchi Family Crest, both of which still prevail in the Yamaguchi City area. Today, natives and visitors alike can purchase Ouchi lacquered bowls, tea sets and even make personalized chopsticks. Pottery, poetry and architecture stamped with their diverse cultural interests spread across the region, as well, and remnants of the Ouchi style can be seen through the prefecture. Their city design, for instance, imitates a grid-system used in Kyoto. That, coupled with the immense prosperity the region brought to Japan, gave Yamaguchi City the nickname “Kyoto of the West.” During their rule, they also allowed St. Xavier, a Catholic missionary, to preach in the region, bringing Western culture and religion to the area. St. Xaviers Church is a brilliant landmark and must-see in the city still today.

Of particular interest to me with regards to Ouchi history in Yamaguchi City is a specific temple, built in the 14th century, that still stands strong. The Ruriko Temple is situated five minutes from the prefectural capitol building. These five minutes take you from the hectic city life to the immense calm of a secluded, yet wildly accessible and open treasure cove of nature. Situated on a hill, the temple overlooks the city and mountains beyond. Ruriko Temple is a Soto Zen temple and is quite famous for its five-story pagoda, which is (of course) one of Japan’s “top 3 pagodas.” (Bet you didn’t see that coming!)

The pagoda, according to history articles online and my very educated opinion, is the masterpiece of the Ouchi reign. Situated north of the temple, behind a well-kept lake, in front of a jungle of lush trees and beside a cemetery housing the ashes of monks (we think), this pagoda lights up the day, the night sky and the visitors who seek it out or stumble upon it. It is scenic, yes, and worthy of the world’s best photographers, but it is more: it claims your presence and attention without needing to demand it. It’s understated and all the more beautiful for it.

Ouchi Moriharu built the temple in 1442 in remembrance of his brother Ouchi Yoshihiro – the 31st leader of the Ouchi dynasty who died in battle. It’s hardly ornate, built with simplicity in mind. I’ve read that its strength isn’t solely from its zazen attainment of enlightenment (form of meditation with focus on “oneness of self”) but perhaps at least partially from a single wooden beam that runs from the center of the base through the top of the structure. Having never been rebuilt, the pagoda has weathered many storms but never withered in them.

My experience at the pagoda, which was the first pagoda I have seen, was perhaps spiritual… but primarily it was respectful. I stood in awe of its humble majesty. I have seen the great Catholic churches in history books and tourist books, spread all over Italy and Europe, and I have dreamed of seeing them, but I can’t imagine that the divinity stored in their ornate design can match the profundity of something as simple as a building built like a tree, called a pagoda, encased in mountains and trees. There’s something about Buddhism that I can’t get enough of – it seems to be less about the religion and the God than the path to it all. They build and think and feel with seemingly simplisitic aims – to know oneself, and through knowing oneself, to know the universe and God. I stood looking at the pagoda and thought that maybe they have it right… maybe God is the universe. It’s certainly that 5-story pagoda in an inaka city called Yamaguchi.

5-story pagoda in Yamaguchi City

5-story pagoda in Yamaguchi City

The pagoda and me - BFFs.

The pagoda and me - BFFs.

I was at a Buddhist temple and pagoda - I couldn't resist!! (Pose totally stolen from my South Africa Potholes day!)

I was at a Buddhist temple and pagoda - I couldn't resist!! (Pose totally stolen from my South Africa Potholes day!)

Meet Callie! The two of us look superimposed like in one of those photobooths where you pick the famous background - but i swear it, we were there!

Meet Callie! The two of us look superimposed like in one of those photobooths where you pick the famous background - but i swear it, we were there!

The gang - from the left - Christina, Callie, me, Tiffany. It was a great weekend!

The gang - from the left - Christina, Callie, me, Tiffany. It was a great weekend!

After spending time at the pagoda, we walked around the temple and then hiked up through the cemetery. This is the view at the top.

After spending time at the pagoda, we walked around the temple and then hiked up through the cemetery. This is the view at the top.

Then we hiked up another path lined on both sides with these statues. As I'm told, they represent the souls of dead children. They often have bibs and hats on them (you can see all the red hats) to protect the children's souls and keep them warm. I took this thinking it'd be a nice picture in the woods, but it turns out that it looks kind of creepy with me smiling next to the guardians of the dead children's souls... I swear I don't TRY to be disrespectful!

Then we hiked up another path lined on both sides with these statues. As I'm told, they represent the souls of dead children. They often have bibs and hats on them (you can see all the red hats) to protect the children's souls and keep them warm. I took this thinking it'd be a nice picture in the woods, but it turns out that it looks kind of creepy with me smiling next to the guardians of the dead children's souls... I swear I don't TRY to be disrespectful!

After all the seriousness of the day we skipped (we really skipped!) over to the smallest playground you have ever seen to play! (Tiffany and me)

After all the seriousness of the day we skipped (we really skipped!) over to the smallest playground you have ever seen to play! (Tiffany and me)

...and I ended the morning with a salute :)

...and I ended the morning with a salute 🙂

**Fun Trivia: Did you know that “pagoda” is not a Japanese word?! We didn’t! We found out when we got in a cab and told the driver “to the 5-story pagoda, please,” in what we thought was all Japanese. He got confused, and we had to air draw him pictures of the most famous place in Yamaguchi City! “Pagoda” is actually an English word. I felt like a fraud!

Next post: Chopsticks, lanters and fireworks: The rest of my ‘guch City weekend

I’m off to Yamaguchi City again tomorrow for another kenchou and then Shimonoseki (southernmost city in Yamaguchi) on Saturday with Callie and Tiffany to go to Space World – a space-themed amusement park. After that, I’m at an English camp on an island near me until Tuesday… so I won’t be updating for a few days. No worries – I’ll be back and blabbing soon!

—–

Sources:

Ruriko Temple

Brief overview of Ouchi Culture

Ouchi Culture – Yamaguchi Prefecture Newsletter

Brief Overview of Yamaguchi Prefecture

Yamaguchi City history – AJET

and, of course…

The Wikipedia Article on Yamaguchi

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~ by C on August 21, 2009.

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