Takayama, Japan is an ancient (even by Japanese standards) city perched high in the mountains. Distant from Tokyo and Kyoto, for most of its history it has been an isolated castle town, developing a distinct cuisine and style through mountain summers and deep snowy winters. These days, Takayama is popular for cherry blossoms, as a summer tourism spot, and for fabulously detailed wood working. So it would only be reasonable that our school group would stay in an a gloriously carved Buddhist temple while visiting the city!
Now, staying at a Buddhist temple is not as unusual as it may seem. There are many tiny temples in Japan, run by a few or even one priest. They seem to struggle along in odd corners where neighborhoods have crowded in, or out in the woods as the farmlands have melted away. They make ends meet with odd jobs, selling lumber, conducting funerals and myriad other minor services. Others, like the one we stayed in, offer themselves as hostels. The faithful on pilgrimages and random tourists pay a small fee, get up early, attend services if they wish and make friends with their hosts.
Our hosts were a cheerful, easy going elderly priest and his smiling wife. (He is the only priest I’ve ever heard yell as an aside in the MIDDLE of a prayer, “Just come on in!”) They spoke no English, but my Japanese is good enough that I didn’t see that as any issue at all. After weeks in the country, I was growing confident I could communicate anywhere. Truly, pride does come before a fall….
We arrived in Takayama in the late afternoon after most of the day spent on a train that had twisted and rattled its way unnervingly along cliffs and gorges. The ride was beautiful, the geology incredible, and the modern train had puffed and squealed like a steam engine as it tried to climb the grades…. I think everyone was relieved when we pulled up at the station without incident. We had a quick taxi ride to the temple to drop off our bags and then headed out into the cobbled streets to hunt for dinner. After dinner we settled in to our rooms (one men’s, one women’s) and relaxed. The priest issued an open invitation to attend the prayers in the morning and we collapsed into futons for the night.
The next morning, about half of us attended the prayer, a chanted litany of syllables originally Sanskrit, praising Buddha and instructing us in the correct way to reach Paradise. (That is, if we understood ancient Sanskrit!) I sat in polite style and listened to the prayer and admired the sanctuary: in true Takayama form it was carved into Buddhist symbols and long delicate landscapes, all lacquered in bright colors and embellished with gold leaf and hanging censers. As the priest trailed off on the chant, he rang a bell marking the end of the prayer. Everyone stood, stretched and began a fast walk back through the sanctuary door and down the halls to where breakfast would be served.
I asked the priest, would it be okay to take photos of the sanctuary?
He responded that he would be honored and admonished me to make sure to get good pictures of the carved wood murals: obviously the temple’s pride and joy.
And with that we both bowed and he trotted out the door on the heels of my classmates. I took my time, took photos and admired the art.
When I was done I left the sanctuary, sliding the carved shoji (or traditional Japanese door) shut behind me, and strolling off down the shoji hallways towards the dining room. My breakfast had been delayed enough.
Traditional Japanese buildings are a built a little differently than Western style buildings. The whole building is created as one giant room. The roof is held up by pillars along the edges of the outermost walls and divisions on the interior are created by sliding shoji, large paper and wood doors, on rails. A house built in this style can be completely re-arranged by whim of the occupants and easily becomes a maze where rooms and halls, doors and walls are completely interchangeable. Now, most homeowners don’t bother to change the floorplan of their houses (probably in the interests of ever finding their bedrooms again). They place all the furnishings of modern life (cabinets, beds, TVs, wardrobes) and decide which wall will be the door.
I walked down the hallway of doors, turned left, walked past more doors, turned left, walked past more doors and abruptly discovered myself at a dead end of the porch and outside. Mystified, I retraced my steps and ended up back at the ornate shoji marking the entrance to the temple sanctuary. Reversing my course, I ended up outside again….
Belatedly realizing that my classmates were inside the room I was walking around in the hall, I started looking for the door. Every panel in all of the halls had a door knob, and all had the slightly scuffed look of regular use. Steeling myself, I selected the most likely option, yanked the door open and discovered the back of a cabinet. My next effort, two doors down found the reverse side of a bookshelf, and the next the non-viewable side of a TV.
By now though, my futile efforts had attracted the attention of the room’s occupants.
“Try a little over!” a classmate shouted.
“No, the other way!” another added. (Useful advice if only I had been able to see through walls….)
“This way! This way!” called the priest’s wife.
I yelled back in Japanese, “Which way was it?”
She replied, “Right here! Just go through the door!”
I tried to follow the sound of her voice and found yet another cupboard. “No, it’s THIS one!” she cried.
Eventually, my classmates took pity and opened the door. I walked in to my breakfast to laughter and the vague thought that Japanese language skill wasn’t good enough: I need X-ray vision.