Mono no aware

Today, sauntering from Nara to Kyoto, was probably my best day in Japan so far.  I saw two of the most beautiful places I’ve seen: one stately and Buddhist, the other natural and Shinto.

I started out heading in light rain along a bikepath that follows the Kizu River from a few kilometers north of Nara to the west side of Kyōto.  Halfway along the bikepath, though, I decided to visit a place called Byōdōin, which was supposed to have a building resembling a phoenix taking flight.  This sounded unbelievable enough that I made the 10km-or-so detour to find it.

My guidebook, published in 1992, recommended this area (Uji city south of Kyōto) as recalling the era of the Tale of Genji.  Of course, what was an off-beat destination 20 years ago is reliably a major tourist trap now: as I neared Uji I saw signs pointing to “Genji-monogatari no machi,” Tale-of-Genji-town.  About 500m before I got to Byōdōin, I chanced upon a statue, supposedly of Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji.  (This isn’t really a name: it means “purple court lady,” just as Genji means “member of the Minamoto clan.”  At the time it was considered impolite for the aristocracy to refer to each other by name, which makes reading the Tale of Genji reportedly bewildering.  I haven’t tried it myself.)  The statue itself was unremarkable; but the puddles of rainwater in the folds of her robe and the surging river behind seemed oddly appropriate, and put me in a mood of mono no aware in which I started photographing any sort of accidental, momentary beauty I came across.  Unfortunately, I can’t upload these photos now.

In this mood I got to Byōdōin, whose name means, oddly, something like “Equality Hall.”  (It started as a palace for the man who was supposed to be the real-life prototype of Genji and was later turned into a temple.  Really, temples and palaces are fairly interchangeable.)  The central Phoenix Hall is situated in the middle of a pond and indeed looks like it’s about to take off from the ground, at least from some angles.  It’s something you have to see to believe, but it’s also an extremely graceful and originally a very colorful building.  The color has worn off, mostly, but you can see how it should have worked.

Inside the hall is another fairly large Buddha, an Amida, the only work we know for sure to be that of the most important sculptor of the Heian period.  What was remarkable, though, was that instead of the usual placid expression, Amida seemed too to be feeling mono no aware, his eyelids drooping, mouth slightly open.

Around him, on the other hand, were a number of very festive and dainty carvings of worshipping bodhisattvas on clouds.  They play instruments and read scrolls and make mystical symbols with their hands, all quite dynamic.  Several of these were on display, better lit, in the associated museum, which was a sort of out-of-place blocky thing in the style in which a lot of museums are built for unclear reasons.  (There was nothing functional about them, since the exhibits were all undeground.)  There were paintings, too; these were a later addition, but they were also there originally.  Originally everything was much more brightly colored; only the gilding on Amida has been restored.  Regardless, though, this was the most satisfying temple visit I’ve had.

After this, I ate lunch and headed along a riverside road north, towards Kyōto, whose name, by the way, is simply “capital city.”  Because it was on the way and wasn’t a temple, I decided to visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the Fushimi Grand Shrine of Inari.  Inari is the god of rice and foxes, and his shrines are characterized by long rows of torii.  This being his most important shrine, the number of torii is astonishing.  Because they never quite match in size or placement, walking through them is like walking in a dense forest.  When I got there, it started raining again, and in the forest of torii and trees the atmosphere was dark and mysterious despite the bright vermillion of the torii.  Gradually what was supposed to be a short visit turned into a one-and-a-half hour hike, most of it through rows of torii which branched confusingly through the forest.  Occasionally the path would open up onto a pond, or a hillside view of the city, or most commonly a group of shrines, generally guarded by stone foxes, though the usual lions appeared occasionally, and containing assemblages of little, but equally vermillion torii.  All this seemed to grow organically out of the hillside, as a massive oak might in an ash forest.  Despite the vast amount of man-made material, nature had not really been disrupted.

That said, I’ve been amazed for a while by the ability of the Japanese people to coexist with nature.  Most of the very densely populated country is still covered in forest, and even where people live, the forest often doesn’t quite end.  (to be continued, since Internet here is also at 100y/15 minutes)

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2 Responses to “Mono no aware”

  1. My Says:

    Wonderful, have been reading aloud and thoroughly enjoying the last three posts! Keep posting. And do upload at least a couple of the mono no aware photos!

  2. sylvia Says:

    yes yes photos please =)

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