Barbaric rituals and Zen mathematics

So, yesterday and today I saw a lot of things in Kyōto.  A lot.  I won’t bother trying to describe all of them, but here are two highlights.

One of the major yearly events in Kyōto is the Gion Festival.  The ultimate point is to purify something, but this is mostly irrelevant as far as I can tell–it’s just a festival that spans most of July.  I found out that yesterday was a minor event in the festival and decided to watch it.  It was supposed to pass a certain bridge at 7PM, so that’s where I went and waited.  And waited.  It was enjoyable waiting, but still.

At 7:15, some people dressed in white came from the direction of the shrine with two huge torches, rotated them for a while chanting something, and turned around.  I couldn’t believe that was the whole thing, and people were hanging around the bridge for longer, so I hung around too.  Then I got bored and headed towards the shrine.  As I approached, I crossed paths with the actual procession, all in white clothes with symbols on the back.  They were carrying several of the giant torches (probably 3m or so in length, 20cm in width) as well as what I could only think of as a “shrine thingy,” a gold-and-black hexagonal box which I later found out was called a mikoshi.  It was set on long wooden blocks with cymbals on the end, so when the people carrying it jumped up and down (chanting haitō, haitō, although someone always set the tempo first by chanting yoi yoi yoi yoi) it sounded like an enormous tambourine.  This procession got to the bridge, whereupon the mikoshi rotated several times, something complicated which I couldn’t quite see behind the other spectators happened and the crowd got sprayed with water using a leafy branch.  Then the procession left for the shrine again, this time chanting yonyassaja, yonyassaja.  At the shrine, more complicated things happened and the mikoshi got put back into something that looked a little like a garage.  At 9, finally, everything ended.

Somehow I imagined the festival to be more colorful, more of a show and less of a simple march with chanting and clapping.  Perhaps the major events are more like that.  Still, it was sort of a disappointment.

On the other end of some sort of spectrum, today I visited Ryōanji, a Zen temple that contains one of the most famous rock gardens.  This garden is famous for two properties.  First, it is supposed to look like a tiger swimming with her cub.  (The authors of my guidebook didn’t see the connection, but their four-year-old son did without prompting.)  Secondly, from whatever angle you look at it, you cannot see all fifteen of the rocks.

So I sat looking at the garden and thinking about these two things.  The tiger thing I could sort of see, but the cub was sideways with respect to the mother, about to get lost or drawn away by the current.  The second property, though, after a little thinking struck me as banal: you could do that with four rocks assuming you could only be positioned in the plane of the Earth, five otherwise.  It would be more interesting if the property vanished if you took away any one of the rocks.  In this garden there were only four such indispensable rocks, since two were mostly buried and hidden behind fairly large rocks so that you could only see one of them at a time.  (That said, the viewing area was actually only on one side of the rectangle; I think maybe you could see both of the low rocks from the other side, but there was a wall there.)  So the question is, can one design a garden of fifteen rocks, all of which are indispensable?  I haven’t thought about it much, yet.

After today, I’m heading into a region of Japan called Chūgoku, Middle Country, which confusingly is also the name for China.  Actually, Chūgoku is more properly two regions, San’in and Sanyō, respectively Yin and Yang of the Mountains, since the two coasts are fairly effectively separated by a central mountain range.  I’m planning to head along the San’in coast, because it seems to have as many attractions but, being wilder, probably fewer cars and more scenic beauty.  Tomorrow I may or may not reach Kinosaki of family memories.  In any case, I’m probably going to be cut of from the Internet for at least a couple days.  Regardless, though, I need to get biking again, otherwise I’ll get all mushy and homesick.

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One Response to “Barbaric rituals and Zen mathematics”

  1. My Says:

    What you say about 15 rocks is just what I always was thinking about it, too. That is, I imagined the configuration to be sensitive to removing any rock and wondered how possible or difficult it might be. But it’s hardly possible to think about it while biking. And if possible, certainly not safe. Have a good time. Hugs and kisses.

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