Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ninna-ji... The Temple with Two Faces

24th October, 2006 - A brisk walk down the road from Ryōan-ji is Ninna-ji. We had come here with few expectations - and were pleasantly surprised. That and we were well past our lunch time and looking for some nosh.

I've actually shuffled these photos just a little... from Ryōan-ji you're unlikely to come through the big San-mon gate (below), but a rather more unimpressive side-gate right next to the restaurants. The food, whilst ok - was a little too "temple" like for my own taste-buds. Still beggars can't be choosers.

The main entrances is one of the three great gates of Kyōto; and was built around the 1630's.

Standing guard at the gate are the ferocious Niō (sometimes known as Kongōrikishi). The two are the two warriors of the Buddhism tradition; Misshaku Kongō (on the left) has his mouth closed, and Naraen Kongō (on the right). In the same way as we often talk about the alpha and the omega (the beginning and the end); in Buddhism the equivalent is the "a" and the "ūn". Naraen is making the sound ("a") - representing the sound of babies at the beginning of life; Misshaku is making the sound of "ūn", representing the sound of those approaching the end of their life.

I like to think of them as the Sam and Dean Winchester of the Buddhist world.... (for all those Supernatural fans out there...).

Ninna-ji stands on the foothills, so there's a nice walk up to the main shrine, through the vermillion gates of the Chu-mon.

The path to the main shrine must look fantastic just a few weeks later when the leaves have turned completely.

To the right you'll come across the very modest five story pagoda. Every yard should have one.

To the far left down the path lies this dramatic building; which is actually temple belfry... the bells, o the bells!

The famous Buddhist book of reflections by Yoshida KenkoEssays in Idleness, was written in the early 1330's across from the temple complex, and was in part concerned with the goings on there. In a stream of consciousness style, he recorded as in a diary, the moments of despair and delight he experienced as a then retired monk.

The temple had been constructed initially as a palace (known as the Omura Palace) with work starting in 886 by Emperor Koko. In a strange twist on the usual scope-creep phenomenon, his son Emperor Uda had a change of mind and instead building a palace, completed the work as a temple. He retired here at the age of 33, both as the superior of the complex, but also to unofficially reign as a cloistered emperor whilst his sickly son Emperor Daigo held the office. 

From the death of Uda, in 931, until the Meiji revolution – either the first or second son of the reigning emperor would become the superior of the Ninna-ji temple. In fact Uda was the first emperor to abdicate to become monk (and started somewhat of a fashion to do so)... and to this day you can find him behind Ryōan-ji... thankfully still dead.

The temple was destroyed in 1467 during the Onin war, and was not restored for over a century until the intervention of Emperor Go-Mizuno-o and the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1634. Fire once again destroyed much of the temple in 1887. Nowadays the temple belongs to the esoteric form of Shingon Buddhism, the same as in Tō- ji. In this sect, it is very much the form and pattern that conveys meaning - hence the structure of things are able to reflect the entirety in which it exists (such as in the case with mandalas).... ah... this is getting too deep for me...

I mentioned that Ninna-ji had two faces... as mentioned at the beginning it had started it's life as a palace, and indeed you can see the recontruction of that first Heian palace inside Ninna-ji (yes - that's another entry fee).

Almost the entire palace was destroyed in the fire of 1887, and this was reconstructed in 1915 using the Heian style, but using the much more modern layout. 

The gate below is the Imperial Messenger's Gate. I wonder where the tradespersons gate is?

The Omura Palace is a small world within a world. It is a series of small buildings all inter-connected by covered walkways. Each looking out to a little vista of beauty. 

In the mountains above there can be found a scaled down version of the 88 temple pilgrimage path that is famous in Shikoku. It takes 2 hours to do - that's 2 hours we don't have unfortunately.

Yes, the garden is a little extravagant, but beautifully so. There's a story that  Emperor Uda once had a bit of a pining for some snow one hot summer's day, so he ordered a nearby mountainside to be draped with whitest silk cloth to look like the soft blanket of snow. Now that is extravagance at a whole new level!

The renowned author Kamo-no-Chomei wrote a seminal book entitled Hojoki, or Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut. Not the most riveting of titles, but it was written in a period of huge turmoil within Kyōto. In 1177 there had been a huge fire that engulfed much of the city. More disaster befell with a giant whirlwind that forced the capital to temporarily relocate to Settsu in 1180. This was followed by a famine that lasted for two years; and finally the city was rocked by a huge earthquake in 1185. Now that's what you call a run of bad luck... but a good time to be a builder.

Chomei wrote about these events as he sat, in that self-same 10 foot square hut, just above Ninna-ji. It's hard to imagine such a peaceful place being beset by so much calamity. It's also hard to equate this small but beautiful (and opulent) palace with such privation.

Perhaps there is indeed something inspirational about this temple that two such famous Japanese books should be written under it's shadow... like the verandah on the palace buildings itself, some things in the world provide the protection and peace that is necessary for us to sit back, and just take the world in.

T-chan also takes a moment to reflect - perhaps she's wondering what it would be like to be a mother. She's known she's been pregnant now for a little over a month. Or maybe she's just wondering when the day will be over and she can put her feet up.

Bye Bye Ninna-ji!
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  1. Awesome post! One quick question: I read once that the upturned corners of the old traditional roofs had a defense purpose, or something like that. Is it right? Also there was something about the 2 opposite carps (or others sculpture tiles) posing at the top of the roof slopes. Carps usually mean strenght right? Could it be a wish of strength for the house?

    Thank you for your beautiful photographs.

    Gambatte kudasai!

  2. Thnx JJLuke77... Your question is not so simple to answer quickly. I'll try to get back to you soon.

  3. Hi JJLuke77.... first things first -I'll answer your original question about carps. Your almost certaily talking about Shachihoko which are mythical creatures that are a composite of carp and dragon. It seems to come from Chinese tradition (known as Chiwen). An example of the chinese form is shown at (http://japaneseties.blogspot.com/2010/04/day-15-chinatown-yokohama.html)

    When placed on a roof (as an ornament) it's known as a shibi. The roof ornament is thought to protect against fires and typhoons... and this may have some root in fact in terms of lightning strikes (my theory). I'll show some more examples later on.