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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Kim Piera Dai Gong Gen


I’d struggled with the veracity of my past encounter with an old woodland sprite (not a midsummer night species). It was one of those ‘Lost Horizon’ moments at a temple somewhere in the mountains north of Kyoto. Given the name Kim Piera Dai Gong Gen, Japanese for ‘Sublime Place where Spirits Take Form’, the temple hadn’t been designated on any map. And her? I’d gone back to confirm.

Two thin lines on the Guide to Kyoto map marked the narrow road. It was just about where the dust and dump trucks issued from the quarry, like years before, I felt the soundless swarm of invisible prickling. Orbiting clockwise about a foot above my head, the ring-like swarm never alighted even as it descended, circling my neck, shoulders, waist, my still-peddling legs. When it dissolved, I‘d seemingly passed into a perfectly bucolic landscape: a broad grassy meadow of spring flowers, fields of recently planted rice, a small tile-roofed village, and a narrow stone bridge over a stream serviced by spring runoff. – Transporter to Spirits: Initiate successfully flung into next dimension.

Winding with the river through the clear air of the ravine cloaked by the scent of wild white azaleas and cherry blossoms, the almost new lightweight silver eighteen-speed Miyata road bicycle I’d found in the trash flew me fast on the wind. One steep curve snaked after the next, where climbing forced me onto the pedals, shifting to low gears, straining.

Finally, near the ridge, across the road at the forest edge, like years before, I saw the stone torii, the Japanese gateway marking the entrance to sacred space. – Sweet! I locked the Miyata to a tree, and touched the torii to assure that memory wasn’t unjustly tainted by fantasy. I threw a small stone onto its upper beam. Next to a standing stone carved with Japanese hiragana script, there on the ground an issue of Playboy unsoiled by last night’s rain. – An anomaly, or a guise from the spiritual realm?

A stone path led me beside a streambed through an enchanting narrow valley under pungent needles of cryptomeria trees. The wind joined me in chanting – OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA – the mantra of wisdom. Damp gave way to dry, and the cryptomeria made way to robust forest-sized Japanese maple trees. Through the canopy, I saw a large rock outcrop of the mountain protrude like an exclamation mark; and seemingly in response to the chanting, there in the outcrop appeared an image of Fudo Myo-o, a wrathful emanation of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom surrounded by fire. With a sword in his right hand held upright to cut through ignorance; fire burned it away. The trail headed there, into the heart of sacred space.

I crossed a small stone bridge, a prefix to the inner precinct. Under a stately Japanese maple to my right, fresh flowers had been placed on the altar of a small wooden shrine, a gift to the mountain protector. Shinto shrines, the home of kami, deities of nature, are constructed in landscapes of natural significance: under grandparent trees, in clefts of rocks, where springs birth from mountains, and topographic and ecologic thresholds. Buddhist temples often are built in the same places.

In front of a shrine on my left was a level moss-covered clearing with a stone circle for fire offerings. These were transactional grounds with the spirits. I bowed. Precisely laid stone steps bordered by wild red azaleas guided me uphill. Hearing voices, I truly felt like Ronald Coleman returning to Shangri-la.

Two stone lions nobly guarded the upper terrace from six feet high columns. Three open pavilions made of timber, each about ten feet square, lined the terrace. The centre pavilion aligned with the stone circle below; and the west pavilion, along with a small residence or temple, graced a crevasse where spring waters emerged from the rocks. A statue of Fudo Myo-o stood on the stone ledge. The rock outcrop of the mountain rose behind. Like years before.

An old woman dressed completely in red stepped from the temple. Red pants, red shirt, bells strung from a red jacket, red sneakers and red backpack. – Woodland sprite? She seemed more like spirit than sprite, like an emanation of Fudo Myo-o herself. I gasped! – Kon-nichi wa! Her eyes curiously probed, as if saying, – only Japanese people knew this place, – smiled and returned inside.

I removed my shoes at the base of the centre pavilion, stepped onto two large stones and sat upon the wood platform. Closing my eyes, watching my breath, I had remembered from years before the tatami mats, candles and incense burning on the altar. And I remembered there were two women: one was the old spirit/sprite, I think well into her seventies, rotating a rosary in her hand and reciting prayers; and a younger version of her sweeping leaves from the tatami into a plastic scoop with a whisk made of bamboo. I mostly remembered the radiance of the old woman’s face and her noble stature. I’d seen such clarity in Buddhist nuns but the woman’s attire didn’t suggest ordination. Both of them had spoken to me in Japanese, which I couldn’t understand. The younger woman then sat in front of her elder, both facing the altar, and the old woman’s hands commenced a massaging ritual on the other’s back.

I remembered silently entreating her to work on me next, however, making such a direct request would have been impolite. Yet, when the old woman had finished, the younger moved aside and pointed to the space in front of her elder, indicating I should sit there. – Gosh! – Resuming her incantation, hands hovered just above my head and when they descended like the still familiar ring-like swarm, I thought, – This was spooky! – felt my breath lighten, and seemed to slide into a subtle trance, acutely aware of a mutual harmony with the landscape.

A respectful summons from the temple caused me to slip out of my reverie. Opening my eyes I saw the woman in red motion for me to come inside. We bowed to each other three times, bending from our waists. She directed me to a cushion on the tatami. She’d set a tray with two cups of hot tea and packages of sweets that looked like caramel corn.

O-mi-y-age [colourful box of local sweets portioned for sharing] – she said once and louder a second time, as if I’d understand. My Japanese was minimal and she spoke no English. She held a current calendar. – How long in Japan? I indicated the dates I’d arrived and planned to depart. I then wrote ‘1993’, pointed to the floor, then to me. – Here in this temple eight years ago. She grinned as if she’d already known.

Then she handed me three yellow envelopes, each containing a red handkerchief imprinted with flying cranes, two blue and white purses in which to put the handkerchiefs, one zippered powder case and a box of cookies. She’d also prepared noodle soup for lunch, ladled from a richly glazed red terrine. Also, much sake.

Intoxicated with it all, I pointed to the statue at the crevasse. – Is that Fudo myo-o?
She nodded. – Yes.
I nodded my head to her. – Fudo myo-o?
Her mirthful glint divulged little. – What do you think?

On the floor next to my cushion was a slatted wood box for offerings. I slid a 1000-yen note, about ten U.S. dollars, through the slats. – No! You mustn’t! She retrieved my note and gave it back to me, left and returned, firmly installing a 2000-yen note in my hand. – It’s not fair, I said. No longer printed, 2000-yen notes were worth more than face value. She giggled. We both giggled. Time to leave.

She led me down the stone path, stopping at the shrines to refresh the flowers. I turned to point at the rock outcrop. – Fudo myo-o? She nodded. At the torii, she took my writing book, copied the name of this place, and we said good-bye. Somewhat delirious, I had to make sure the Miyata was on the correct side of the road before waving. Coasting like the wind back to my own dimension. Indeed, this time, I was sure I’d returned from Shangri-la. Once again.