Through the trees, a giant stone face smiles serenely down on the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. The few people walking the rain-slicked cobbled streets pay it little mind. The statue doesn’t seem to care. Arms folded, eyes closed, face restful, it seemed to wish compassion to all who walked past. As I spotted her through the trees I wondered to myself: ‘ I’ve wandered these streets many times, why hadn’t I noticed her before?’.
It feels odd to call a temple with statue of buddha over twenty metres high a ‘hidden gem’, but it’s nestled away behind tall trees, obscured by the prominent reputation of neighbouring tourist spots (I had never seen this temple in an online article or on social media prior to our chance visit). Upon closer inspection, the statue looked clean. No weather-beaten facade, or aged stone. The buildings, though in-keeping with traditional Kyoto architecture, looked like they had recently been erected, not stood for centuries like most temples in the city. This one looked new, in Kyoto terms, and may be why it seemed overlooked: a relatively new addition to Kyoto’s centuries old historical district.
It was just before 9a.m, and Kodai-ji, our intended destination, was not yet open. Giving into curiosity, we ventured across the large gravel carpark to the entrance. Upon paying the standard 300 yen entrance fee, we were handed a stick of incense, and a leaflet, where we discovered this temple’s name: Ryozen Kannon, ‘a tribute to the unknown soldiers of World War Two’.
Upon entering the grounds, we passed the gently rippling image of Kannon in the reflecting pool and placed our incense into the joukouro, the large incense burning urn, in respect for the fallen. Redolent wisps of smoke caught the wind and drifted across water, and moving downwind, we let the smoke waft over us as it is believed to cleanse the body and mind. We turned, and our eyes drifted up from the water to see the large statue of Kannon smiling down over the grounds.
Kannon (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara), is the ‘buddhist saint’ – to put it in simple terms – embodying the compassion of all buddhas. The statue, atop the temple’s Kannon-do (Kannon hall), is constructed of concrete and steel, and was unveiled on 8 June 1955, confirming my suspicions that this place was a baby amongst Japanese temples. Inside this hall, monks hold services for the dead four times a day, remembering those who died in the Pacific War – the Pacific theatre of World War II, to those in the West – and while the memorial tablets list the names of fallen Japanese soldiers, it is also dedicated to all soldiers who perished in the conflict, regardless of which side they fought for.
War memorials can be a sensitive issue, particularly those in Japan. Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, springs to mind. Whenever the prime minister, or a member of parliament, visits the largest War Memorial in the country their Asian neighbours take issue, given the atrocities their countries suffered at the hands of the Japanese military, and the over one thousand convicted war criminals enshrined there. As someone with South-East Asian heritage, I can sympathise with this sentiment; Yasukuni is never on my list of places to visit when I am in Tokyo, and whilst walking around the grounds of Ryozen Kannon, I was worried I had stumbled upon a similar site. So, I was glad to see that Ryozen Kannon pays respect to those on all sides of conflict, free of the political leanings or nationalist sentiment of Yasukuni, and encourages people to follow Kannon’s wish for compassion to all.
We toured the grounds. Autumn colours had not yet tinged the trees surrounding the grounds, but their less than verdant appearance signalled it would be soon. Every now and then, a bald monk wearing grey robes would shuffle around, or sweep fallen leaves with a wooden broom. To the North East, a Western-style chapel houses drawers containing the names of the Allied soldiers and prisoners of War (POWs) who died in World War II, in territory under the control of the Japan. Near the Kannon-do lay a large sculpture with the large footprints of Kannon, in scale with the statue. Behind the hall, there was a staircase leading into the statue, and housed figures of the twelve zodiac signs in the image of Kannon.
On the left of the grounds stood a giant brass ball under an orange gazebo, and surround by ema hung on strings, small placards with which visitors write their wishes and prayers. Those who touch the orb while circling it are said to have their wishes granted.Figuring it couldn’t hurt to try, Jen had a go, while I canned the ema. Many were written in English, and wished for typical things, such as good health and long life. Others were more specific and interesting.
One woman wished for a divorce from their husband so they could spend their life with a man called Hirohisa. A child, I assumed, wished for all dead ‘hamstrs’ to come back to ‘liv’. Many people simply wrote their name and country, not quite understanding the concept. Whilst another had more simple desires: ‘strawberries, and a good poop’.
Upon reading that last one, my eyes rolled so far back into my head I almost didn’t register the monk who had engaged us in conversation. His face was round and friendly, with a smile as soothing as the statue of Kannon, and it seemed he had seen Jen circling the orb and came over to give her advice. Jen, unable to speak Japanese, looked from him to me, searching for help. Myself, able to speak basic Nihongo, thought this could be a good opportunity to practice.
“Hello”, he greeted us.
“Good Morning”, I replied, dipping my head in a shallow bow.
“Where are you from?, he asked in English, smiling. It seemed like he wanted to practice a second language as well.
“We’re from England”.
(London seems to be the only city in England people abroad are aware of).
“No, not London. We’re from Bristol”.
“No, London is in the East”, I explained, indicating with my right hand. “Bristol is in the West.” I had to use the English words for the compass points.
“We had visitors from Edinburgh”, he said, pointing to an ema.
“Is that so? That’s far North, in Scotland”.
“And Liverpool? That’s where The Beatles are from, right?”.
“Yes. Do you like The Beatles?”, I asked, slightly surprised.
“Yes! Very much.”
So, even Buddhist monks listen to The Beatles?.
The monk turned to Jen.
“Where are your parents from?”
Jen looked at me for help.
“She’s Filipino”, I answered. “I am too. Half-English, half-Filipino”.
“Ah, no wonder you guys have Asian faces.” He said, pointing at his own. “That island… What was it?… Manila! That’s it”.
“That’s the capital city”.
I could tell he had been scanning his brain, searching for anything he knew about the country in an effort to relate to us, as many of us do when there are communication difficulties. “Interesting”, he said, after a moment of silence.
“Can you read kanji?”, he asked me.
“A little”, I replied. “Kanji is very difficult.”
“It is”, he agreed. He pointed to an ema. “They are wishing for a…”.
He trailed off, making a semi-circle with both hands in front of his belly miming pregnancy.
‘Ah, I understand…”
An awkward silence followed, in which I wondered whether I’d used an impolite phrase – Japanese has a lot of politeness principles. In any case, I seemed to have reached the limits of my Japanese, and with a bow, he bade us farewell. I thanked him, and turned to Jen.
“I couldn’t follow that at all. I just had to stand and nod”, she said with a shy smile.
I knew the feeling well, from a lifetime of staring vacantly as my family or Jen spoke Tagalog, quietly scanning the conversation for words I understand to piece together meaning. It was nice to be on the other side, for once.