And so today I begin the virtual pilgrimage with temple #1:
Temple 1 - Shimabu-ji
Arigataya hitomaki naranu nori no hana kazu ha shimabu no tera no inishi he
By the time the cab dropped us off outside the side gate of Shimabu-ji the rain was just beginning. We climbed the paved path up a short hill to what is the first temple of the Chichibu 34 Kannon pilgrimage, coming up next to the Hondo. The first temple is filled with nervous excitement -- the start of the journey. A time to remember one's commitment and why one is doing this. But also a time of nervousness, trying to remember the correct protocols, the right order of things. When to bow, how to hold the prayer beads. When to toss the offering money and when to ring the gong -- or does the gong get rung at all? Oh, and we forgot to wash our hands... Though we hadn't seen a basin where we could? It is difficult to really feel the peace and calm, to feel appropriately prepared for communion with the Infinite in all the bustle of beginning.
We are there early, not long after the temple opened. There were no other pilgrims in sight, and no incense burned yet in the burner. A lady -- clearly affiliated with the temple -- was sweeping, but she didn't pause to take much note of us.
Outside the hondo there is a pole with Sanskrit characters running down it. A rope in rainbow colors leads out from the Hondo, hanging from the roof and draping down to the top of the pillar which is several times my height. Two tassle-eneded ropes hang down from the top. I don't know enough Sanskrit to even take a guess at the pillar's purpose or significance.
The hondo itself is a smallish building of old, dark wood, made even darker by the wet. It has a simple, peaked roof, tapering off into points at the corners, triangularly geometric. The doors, slightly ajar, have signs of old, scarlet paint on them, mostly pealed off by now. It speaks of age and endurance. It is not grand like so many of the temples in Kyoto are. Yet somehow it managed to carry with it a feeling of dignity that the giant imposing structures do not themselves carry off. It is simple, yet enduring, and seems an appropriate place to begin a pilgrimage. Do not expect imposing sites on your journey, it seems to say, but persevere and endure and you will gain more than you expect. There's a feeling that there is more than meets the eye to this unprepossessing building.
After finishing our prayers we look around the temple. I'd held off taking pictures until after paying our respects. I want to be taken seriously as a pilgrim, not brushed off as an eccentric foreign tourist, so I make sure the camera stays tucked away until the devotions are complete. The prayer beads go away before the camera comes out. The temple grounds are small and crowded, and not at all what I would have expected for the first temple on such a prestigious pilgrimage. A path leads from the main gate (which we did not enter by) to the main hall. To either side of the path are a pairs of stone lanterns at various points. The courtyard is covered with gravel, giving the whole place a feeling of being made of stone. The grey on the ground mirrors the leaden sky. To one side of the hondo is a gorgeous plum tree in full bloom. As is common with modern Japanese temples, wires hang in the way, ruining any chance of a clean picture of the tree. A Coke vending machine lurks in the background, blending in between red banners with white characters written down them.
Beyond the tree, to one side is the temple office. This being the start of a popular pilgrimage, the office contains a store filled with books on pilgrimages, prayer beads, staffs, and various other paraphernalia one would need on one's trip. We peruse the shop, picking out books on other pilgrimages and locating the book we were hoping to find: A goshuin-chou specific for the Chichibu pilgrimage. This book has pages dedicated to each temple on the route, with one page having the goeika for the temple, the temple name and address and other useful information and the other page being blank where the goshuin will be inscribed as proof of devotion at the temple.
The monk behind the counter is delighted when we ask for the books and the goshuin to go with them. He's even more impressed when Jan presents the books she wants to purchase. He chats happily with us as he writes in our books, a font of information. The year we were there, it turns out, was the 1100 anniversary of the founding of the pilgrimage, and they were celebrating in style. With the pilgrimage stamp the temples usually give out a piece of paper in the shape of a lotus blossom. This year they had special lotus blossom papers, each different for the various temples depicting something characteristic of the temple. On the goshuin a special commemorative stamp was added. And he explained the purpose of the pole outside the hondo: The rope was tied to the hand of the main image of Kannon enshrined in the hall. Worshipers at the temple were encouraged to grab ahold of one of the tassled ends of the rope, and by doing so would have a connection to the statue within -- a long distance handshake, as it were. He also was very excited over one of the books Jan was buying -- the author was at that temple on that very day! He insisted on taking us to meet the gentleman after he finished with our books. We were delighted to accept, since he was the author of not only that one book, but also of the main reference we were using for making our way around the Chichibu pilgrimage. The author was amazed (as was everyone else) that two foreigners were here to walk the pilgrimage -- just the two of us on our own. He offered to sign our books for us, adding in "Dougyou ninin" -- "we two, pilgrims together" -- a phrase popularized on the Shikoku pilgrimage but now in common usage throughout all pilgrimages. Originally it meant that the pilgrim does not walk their journey alone -- they are accompanied by the spirit of Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shikoku pilgrimage. It's generalized out to mean the pilgrim walks with divinity accompanying. It's a sweet gesture, and a thoroughly appropriate phrase from the one who, through his book, will guide us through our journey.
Before leaving the monk also gave us each a watercolor drawing of the plum tree outside the office. He'd painted them himself, just the other day. He made sure we knew the route to the next temple and warned us it was going to be a bit of a walk. Then he, the other staff of the temple, and the author of our book bid us good luck and farewell. We proceeded out the front gate and onward to the next temple.