The Healing Place
I want to tell you about a place I used to visit. A place I'd go sometimes as much as once a week when I lived in Japan over a decade ago. This place was set upon a small mountain. A place atop a great hill. To get there from Kiyoshi Koshi station, named for the temple it services, you had to make the gentle climb. What started as a narrow, cobblestone-like road would eventually give way to path as the small stores selling flowers or religious trinkets, halfway up to the temple, gave way to forest. I timed my visits carefully. It was important to me to start the climb at dusk or close to. By then the locals making their mini pilgrimages would be done praying and I'd have the temple grounds almost entirely to myself, which, after so many months of navigating Japanese crowds was a very big part of the whole deal.
By sunset the small shops selling dried fish and bulk nuts, the grain and spice stall and the random store just before the forest that sold furniture would be closed or closing, families in the apartments above the shops already preparing dinners and baths I could hear behind the closed curtains of their private lives.
As the road became path and the shops were replaced by trees, the odd cat would cross your path like some unlikely bit of whimsy straight out of a Haruki Murakami story.
By the time I was atop that big hill, dusk would be almost done. Soon darkness would replace the peach and pink remnants of a dropped sun clinging to the clouds and that last band of horizon-level sky. The idea was to be in nature and breathe the air so clean and clear up there. To come upon a place in one of the most densely populated countries on earth where I could be alone or mostly alone. To enter and remain for a time in a place of serenity and spirituality, a peaceful place on a still mountaintop surrounded by the green of the Japanese forests that cover the hill-like mountains ever-present through much of that wondrous country.
The grand entrance gates to the temple [pictured above] would be closed shut by the time I arrived so that I'd have to go under the little side entrance so low I had to duck my way through. Up the few steps and onto those temple grounds, two grand trees to my right. Across from them two vending machines and the ashtrays beside them that I wish I could edit even from my memory of the otherwise awe-inspiring place. Just past those lit-up vending grotesqueries you'd find the trough of water under its teeny slanted roof where you were to go and cleanse first. With the long bamboo(?) ladle I poured water on one hand then the other and then vigorously rubbed them in an effort to get them dry. Japanese temples like most all public bathrooms in Japan offer no paper or dryers for one' wet hands.
And then it would be to just wander. Not to walk. Not run. Just move as the spirit takes one. Like swimming the way you swim in an ocean or on vacation, not counting laps or clocking pace, just swimming, just for the glory of feeling fish-like, wandering just for the ponder of seeing where on these vast temple grounds your legs may choose to go. Toward the massive Buddha up ahead, perhaps, following in the tradition where one takes a ladle of water and pulls back to slingshot water up at the buddha, hard as one can. The statue is so large you rarely splash higher than the Buddha's knees, maybe his waist. And believe me I would try. The Buddha first? Or maybe up the steps beyond the Buddha, get to the very highest point in the temple grounds first. Or why not off up a different shallow set of steps left of the trough of water and up the ramp to the section of temple grounds where incense is lit and stuck in little boxes of sand. Or as likely as not it was to go beyond these to the teeny stone bridge, arched and beautiful and not six foot long, To stop here, and watch a thin stream below, or the trees, the forest all around you, right there every time you step toward an edge of the temple border.
Inevitably after wandering past all the various spots, the different temple buildings with the big thick ropes hanging down that you were to shake so the bells on them would ring to call on the Gods, eventually I would end up sitting at the top of the few steps before the ramp that led from the higher level of temple ground down to the main one where the Buddha stands to one side across from a man-made pond, the low tree-covered mountains beyond. The trough of water down there in the temple centre and past that a set of buildings off limits where I imagine some of the priests might sleep, if they slept on these grounds at all. Beyond that and probably central to the whole purpose of my sit, the sky above, the stars clear, the handful you can see from a mountaintop not far enough from the big city, but enough that you can enjoy the moon on a clear night and where I could sit and not rush and not need to look at my phone. I could sit with my thoughts and feel comfortable enough, alone enough to talk them aloud. And, as became the purpose, address some words to God. Words of thanks or words of woe. Words of soul-ache, or wonder, but always, ultimately, words of gratitude.
Thank you, God, for this special place. For Kiyoshi Kojin. A place I still return each time I visit Japan. Just a single pilgrimage at dusk to honour this place and take from it, to dip my hands first in its waters and then up to the stars above. Thank you.