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  • Shelley Dark

9. we meet a maiko

Today was truly the epitome of chi-go ichi-e (once in a lifetime). I can't wait to tell you all about it! Get a cup of coffee. It's a long one!

We set off in a taxi from the hotel at 9am with our guide Kana for Fushimi Inari Taisha. She was waiting in the lobby for us, petite and pretty with an animated face. And, we were to find out, a head full of knowledge which she was incredibly generous in sharing.

There are over 30,000 Inari shrines in Japan but Fushimi Inari is the head shrine, the one whose iconic photo you may remember as a series of orange Japanese torii 'gates'. It's set on Mount Inari, criss-crossed with trails in the south-east of the city.

Most of what I'll tell you about today is my version of what Kana told us. So my apologies if I misquote or misinterpret what she said. Mea culpa! Here goes!

First we visited Tofukuji, a 500 year old Zen Buddhist temple where monks trained for centuries. This is its main 'gate'. The symmetry of design and the craftsmanship of the architectural work is simply breath-taking. All of the original buildings have been destroyed in one way or another and replaced over time. Few nails are used in these cypress wood temples, because that improves their chance of surviving an earthquake. The dragon god of rain and water is only seen at Zen temples to guard the buildings against fire.

Both of these symbols help protect the building against fire: a fish tail on the left, and 3 rain clouds on the roof tile on the right.

Immaculately trimmed pine trees like this have their needles individually removed by hand to create their unique shape. Can you believe it?

This is the angry fierce manifestation of Buddha, called myoō. There are three other more benevolent types. With flames behind him, this buddha has a sword to cut off the excessive attachments we all develop in life, the cause of all our problems. The rope is to save us from drowning in a sea of them. John was nodding vigorously as Kana explained this: yes yes yes, he was saying, I know what Buddha means! He was thinking of material attachments, a message for me! I think John's a Zen Buddhist from way back.

These are tiny azaleas trimmed around the rocks. They're in full bud and will look stunning when they're out soon.

A student of Zen studying his notes perhaps? It's a happy fact that Buddhism co-exists with the much older Japanese Shinto religion, which is based on the worship of the spirits or gods or kami which take the form of wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers. Humans become kami after they die. The emperor of Japan is head of the Shinto religion.

Most people approach Fushimi Inari from the main shrine side and climb many many steps up to the top, but Kana took us this very quiet back way.

We walked through a bamboo grove and climbed the hill along sloping dirt paths.

Past a group of mossy shrines, where local people come to pray.

Fushimi Inari was established in 711, as a place for people to pray for bountiful rice harvests.

The fox is the friend of the farmer because it kills the rabbits which eat the crops, so this is the emblem associated with the rice harvest and Inari. The fox is the messenger. You ask him to intercede with the deity on your behalf.

Over time people have begun to pray here for business prosperity too, the safety of their home and family and the fulfilment of all kinds of other wishes. Donors buy the orange gates, which are replaced every twenty years, as by then the wood has begun to rot. On the right is printed the year of the donation, on the left, the name of the donor.

Before you enter a Shinto shrine there is a prescribed purification ritual. Firstly, fill the ladle. Holding your hand over the drain outside the tub (not over the tub!), tip some water on to your left hand to wash it, then change hands and tip water over your right hand. Then tip some into the left hand again to rinse your mouth. Spit out the water in the drain around the tub. Then with the water remaining, tip the ladle up so that the water drains down the handle to clean it for the next person!

When you visit a shrine, you can have your fortune told. First you shake a wooden box with sticks in it, then tip it over and allow one stick to drop out of the hole in the base. It has a number on it, and you pay for the corresponding forecast, printed on a slip of paper. If you like it, you keep it in your wallet. If you don't like it, you tie it like this at the shrine!

When Kana saw mine, she squealed with delight. That's the best one, she said. Those two kanji top left mean twice times good. That's simply the best there is! She was so happy for me. We both jumped up and down on the spot.

You can see what a beautiful person Kana is, inside and out.

We walked along pathways seeing few people until we reached the top where we could look over the city. Here there were hordes of people, most having climbed the hard way up the steps from way way below.

On our way down we passed shrines dedicated to all sorts of things: eyesight and the ability to see opportunity and one for backs and knees. John and I needed one which did the whole body.

This is fortune telling for pessimists.

A single rhododenron along the path.

The shrine for match-making was fun to see. People buy these little fox statues: a matchmaker in the middle, a girl on the left and a boy on the right. You take your statue home and pray that you will be successful in finding your mate. When you do, you bring it back to the shrine and put it here. So these all represent happy marriages! Sigh.

We stopped to speak to this darling tiny old lady, who couldn't believe it when Kana told her that we have come all the way from Australia. Surely not possible, she is saying.

We wanted to take her home with us.