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Splendour beyond belief

In translation, to travel along the Rekishi Kaido means to journey down the road from which one can view beautiful historic sights. This was something that TISHANI DOSHI did.


Byodoin ... a claim to fame. Has survived calamity too.

ANYONE who has travelled in Japan will tell you it's a country of reconciliations: bull-headed stubborn about preserving its past while simultaneously moving bullet train-speed from under its weighty shadow into a realm of hi-tech gadgetry and mechanisation that aims to annihilate all forms of human contact whatsoever. It's a country where sumo and baseball are patronised with equal fervour, where bar-tenders wax eloquent about the writings of Haruki Murakami, where traditional ramen noodle stalls stand side by side with MOS burger stands (Japan's home-grown version of MacDonald's, which it also houses in plentiful supply), where fan-followings and idolisation run to dizzying heights especially if your name is David Beckham. It's the country with the highest life expectancy of an astounding 81, which is hampered only slightly by disturbing rates of suicide — over 30,000 a year, a statistic that outnumbers traffic deaths by three times. It 's a country of marvellous contradiction and unparalleled natural beauty whose inhabitants nurture a dubious passion for karaoke, and can more or less impressively list in chronological order, the country's historical periods from the Yamato to the current Heisei without batting an eyelid.

This is a country well aware of historical implications.

Rekishi in Japanese means "history" and Kaido means "road", so in translation, to travel along the Rekishi Kaido means to travel along the road from which we can view beautiful historic sights. The cities included in this road are Ise, Asuka, Nara, Uji, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Together they house approximately 60 per cent of Japan's national treasures — Kyoto alone is home to a whopping 17 world heritage sites. But like most discerning travellers, looking for the place off the beaten kaido, I travelled south of Kyoto to the overlooked city of Uji which is the setting for the last 10 chapters of the Tale of Genji, the world's first novel and Japan's most famous love story written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th Century. Uji was also the first place in Japan where tea was cultivated at the end of the 12th Century, making it the matcha or green tea capital of the nation. Other claims to fame include the two world heritage sites, the Ujigami shrine and the Byodoin temple, the second of which not only graces the back of the 10 yen coin, but has also firmly entrenched itself in my traveller's notebook as one of the top 10 temples to visit in Japan.

The Byodoin temple was actually a villa, converted in 1052 by a man named Fujiwara Yorimichi who was kampaku, or chief advisor to the Emperor. After the transfer of the capital to Kyoto in 749 A.D., Uji, because of its proximity and beautiful location, soon developed as the nobility's villa city. Byodoin is one of the few temples built in true Heian style having withstood earthquakes, floods, fires, and civil wars. In the temple's compound is the Amitabha Hall, popularly known as the Hoodhdo (Phoenix Hall), the Ajiike Pond, a 200-year-old wisteria arbour, and two bridges linking the structure to a garden. All of this is supposed to represent the Buddhist "Western Paradise" or Pure Land. Pure Land is a sect of Mahayana Buddhism that has now almost vanished. The basis of this sect was that people should work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings, not just themselves. There is great emphasis on Boddhisattvas, enlightened beings who have vowed not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings are saved from the world of suffering, or samsara. One of the most famous Boddhisattvas is Amida, and the belief was that at the instant of death, Amida would descend to earth and carry the soul to the "Western Paradise", a Buddhist heaven of eternal bliss.

The Phoenix here is not to be confused with the Egyptian or Greek phoenix, the solitary bird which dies in flames and resurrects itself from ashes. In Japan, this mythical Chinese bird was adopted as a symbol of the imperial household and was meant to represent fire, sun, justice, obedience and fidelity. It was also one of the four celestial guardians of the four directions (south). The phoenix was also considered to be the protector of Buddha, and the pair of phoenixes (national treasures) atop the central hall of the Byodoin may well have served this purpose well enough to warrant naming the temple after them, but because this is a country famed for its love affair with symbolism, it's more likely that the name was given because the entire structure looks like a phoenix alighting on the lake with its wings outspread.

The central hall houses an image of Amida Buddha (also a national treasure) carved by the famous artist Jocho who was said to have been the most skilled sculptor during the Fujiwara years. The statue is his only surviving piece of work and is about three metres high, too big to have been carved from a single piece of wood as was normally the case. Jocho is credited with having perfected a wood technique of sculpting which involved carving one layer of wood and then another, which then joined to make a statue. It's a stunning piece of work, which when looked at from across the lake, appears to be floating, suspended in the air.

Inside the hall are colourfully painted doors and Buddhist images on enormously high ceilings. The central hall has two outspread wing corridors which seem to have no purpose at all. The entrances are so small that it would have been hard for people to enter. It may be that they served an artistic function, releasing the visual weight of the central hall and giving the whole structure balance. It may also be that it was used for musicians and orchestras who sat in the wings playing their stringed instruments and flutes while the aristocracy partied and dreamed themselves getting closer to the pure land.

My personal favourite are the flying Bodhisattvas. There used to be 52 worshipping Bodhisattvas suspended on the frieze inside the hall, all floating on clouds, with circular halos behind their heads; singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Today you can view them in the fantastic museum which adjoins the Byodoin and where you can also view, what else? A computer-graphically reproduced interior of the Hall in its heyday with all its parts complete. Each of the Bodhisattvas was carved from a single piece of cypress and then coated in lacquer in a variety of colours. They were carved by the pupils of Jocho and styled differently, right from the mudras they make with their fingers to the angle at which their eyes are lowered.

Some are dancing while others meditating, but one can imagine how it used to look with the whole wall like a sky full of music, grace and flying Bodhisattvas. The Ajiike Pond in front of the Hall is modelled after the Treasure Pond in the Pure Land and its role as a firebreak has been very important in maintaining the Byodoin through all the various disasters. The two bridges that link the Hall to the gardens are the Soribashi (arched bridge) and the Hirabashi (flat bridge). The garden itself is considered a masterpiece and is a historic place of scenic beauty. Pure Land gardens were original to the Heian period and it is believed that they spread throughout Japan from the influence of the garden at Byodoin. Just inside the garden is a fan lawn where Minamoto Yorisama, a warrior-poet, and one of the heroes of "The Tales of Heike", is said to have committed suicide (seppuku).

Watching all this certainly brings the mind to a pure state, what with the levitating Buddha and the Uji river and mountains stretching behind it like a famous Japanese scroll painting. So it's with great difficulty that a traveller leaves this magical enclave to wander into the narrow streets of another heaven below: tea heaven, where vendors sell everything from green tea ice cream, to soba noodles made with green tea, ice shavings with green tea syrup covered in a mound of red beans (the local favourite), or just plain green matcha with sugary sweets — a different approach to moksha altogether.

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