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"A penny for your thoughts"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Mt. Takao Fire Walk Ceremony 高尾山 火渡りまつり 

Buddhists at the Yakuoin temple in Hachioji city in western Tokyo walk barefoot on embers during a ceremony held in March festival at the foot of Mt. Takao. Hundreds of people followed the monks and participated in the ceremony to purify their mind and body, also to play for good health and safety.

Mt. Takao Fire Walk Ceremony 高尾山 火渡りまつり 

Dai-hiwatari Festival, Mt. Takao. (Fire-walking ceremony )

Salt Cooler

Yakuoin Temple at the top of Takao

At one of the taikais, a yamabushi’s costume was displayed in the tea room of the Tokyo Budokan. At Takao, yamabushi, practioners of 修験道, shugendo, have been doing ascetic rites for over 1000 years. Enshrined in Yakuoin Temple at the top of Takao is Izuna Gongen, a fierce-looking, beaked man wearing the shugensha’s costume and bearing a sword. His cult originated at Togakushi.

So many expressions of Japanese religiousity and esoteric practices are deeply syncretic; the mountain asceticism combines old Shinto practice, Shingon Buddhism, and Taoism. At Yakuoin Temple, if you have the time to take in the tapestry of symbolism and sacred words decorating the statuary, temple buildings and the mountain itself, there are so many messages from these traditions.

In the Shinto vein, the Shugendo practioners honor the natural cycle, and in the Buddhist practice of letting go of things that hinder you on the path, they mark the early spring with a ritual to burn away attachments and evil in the form of 火渡り, fire walking.

The ritual, attended by thousands of people, priests, monks and nuns, weekend shugensha in white ritual garb, young people, old ladies, lasted a few hours. The chanting of the Heart Sutra (I like Alan Ginsberg’s translation of the Japanese version) and various mantra, including the Fudomyo mantra, continued as the fire burned, and the monks crossed on the glowing embers barefoot, followed by the throng. When we took our turn, the monks and nuns were chanting as fervently as at the beginning, and the ashes were still warm. Guided and protected by the monks, we stood in salt before and after the crossing, and then knelt to be invested with fire from the head priest.

So many symbols and meanings came to me as we were participating. Salt is used to ritually purify in many cultures, but especially in Japan, it’s used to negate bad luck that might follow after a death or funeral, and little piles of salt are placed at the doors of businesses and houses to keep evil out. To my mind, we died a bit there, crossing the fire. I think some of the baggage got sloughed off. I feel lighter now. And I felt really cared for by the monks. They are present for each person as they emerge from that Fudo-fire.

I’ve been looking for an explanation of the meaning of the Fudomyo mantra, “Noomakusaa mandabaa zaradansen damaka roshada sowataya untara takanman,” for some time, but as yet have not found an English translation of the orginal Sanskrit. So for now, I’m satisfied to chant it and as I do so, think about all that Fudomyo embodies.

Getting to Yakuoin Temple
In March and April, Takao is a great place to take in the plum and cherry blossoms that breathe life back into the city after a chilly winter; in mid-March, a fire-walking festival has revelers walking barefoot on hot embers. One of the city's more elegant and evocative restaurants, Ukai Toriyama, nestled in a small valley near the foot of the mountain, also draws day-trippers. Diners sit in huts with thatched roofs and are doted on by kimono-clad waitresses who provide hot coals to prepare sumptuous robatayaki, or grilled, lunch or dinner.

For visitors staying in central Tokyo, the easiest way to get to Takao is from the Keio train terminal on the west side of Shinjuku Station. Tickets to the end of the line, Takao-san Guchi Station, cost 370 yen (about $3.10 at 124 yen to the U.S. dollar) and can be bought near the ticket gates. You can save up to 20 percent by buying a round-trip ticket that includes rides on the cable car up Takao. Since there is no difference in fare, you may as well take an express train with an orange, blue or green sign in front. They leave about every 20 minutes from Platform 3.

Less ambitious hikers, or travelers in a rush, can ride the cable car or chair lift that takes passengers about halfway to the peak. Cars leave about every 15 minutes from Kiyotaki Station and Sanroku Station (for the chair lift), which are a three-minute walk from the train. The cars and lift operate from 8 a.m. until late afternoon or early evening depending on the season; one-way tickets for adults cost 470 yen, or 900 yen for a round trip. The five-minute ride in the cable car has a pitch of 31 degrees, one of the steepest rides of its kind in Japan.

After alighting, visit the monkey park on the mountain's south slope (400 yen for adults, 200 yen for children; 81-42-661-2381). Here, there are dozens of Japanese monkeys as well as guides who can explain how they socialize. Or start marching up through the forest thick with oak and evergreen trees. Trail No. 1 is quite scenic as you pass through Joshin Gate, past maples and cedars, to Yakuoin Temple, about 20 minutes from the cable car. Built in 744 to commemorate the Buddhist saint Gyoki, the graceful yet imposing temple is dedicated to the Buddha of healing, and its waters are used by worshipers in their meditations.

A child touches the tako sugi, a 450-year-old cedar in Takao, Japan.

The peak is often crowded with picnickers and photo buffs, and understandably so. On clear days, central Tokyo to the east seems to levitate in the distance, while the mountains to the west give a taste of Japan's rugged interior and the majestic Mount Fuji.

Descending on trail No. 6, you pass Biwa-taki, a delightful waterfall.

When you return to the train station, stop at one of the several soba shops near the station. Takahashi-ya, a two-minute walk from the station, offers filling dishes at reasonable prices.
The minibus from the restaurant picks up diners at the train station three times an hour. After a short drive, you are whisked to a private or semiprivate room. Then things slow down. Sitting on tatami mats, you'll hear the sounds of babbling streams, chirping birds and rustling bamboo.

The waiters and waitresses then appear and, in hushed tones, bring the moist towels called oshibori and then hearths filled with hot coals. A round of beers is a good way to start, followed by sake served in bamboo stalks. The specialty of the house is free-range chicken and is included on most of the set menus, which start at 4,730 yen (not including drinks and tax). The course that substitutes beef for chicken costs 8,930 yen.

The elaborate kaiseki meals start with a few seasonal appetizers. This past spring, lunches included grilled takenoko, or young bamboo, from Kyushu, and a large hamaguri, or clam, that was heated on the hearth. That was followed with small slices of raw chicken with a savory sesame sauce. Despite health concerns in some other countries, tori-sashi is considered safe and delectable at places like Ukai Toriyama that get regular supplies of fresh chicken. The squeamish, of course, could skip to the clear broth with quail meatballs that came next.

The service was unobtrusive, yet so well timed that each dish could be enjoyed before a new treat arrived. The next round, accompanied by a fresh order of sake, included skewers of negi (scallion), shiitake mushrooms and big chunks of chicken, which we grilled ourselves.

Another round of skewers arrived, this time with iwana, a small river fish that was already roasted. The entire fish is edible except for the head, which had sharp edges.

The meal was rounded out with miso soup, pickles and a bowl of barley and rice with sticky mountain potato, a staple at dinner tables around Japan. Diners will insist they are full until the dessert arrives: grape sherbet on shards of ice, accompanied by green tea.

The meal and peaceful surroundings are enough to lull you to sleep, but consider strolling through the garden behind the restaurant, particularly on a moonlit evening when the fireflies are out, before taking the minibus back to the station, and the train back to the big city.

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