Seven fun-loving, adventurous women, including our Japanese tour guide, Ayako-San boarded the train heading for the town of Hino and the Takahata Fudo Temple. It was a beautiful day with the temperatures in the high 60’s to low 70’s, a cloudless sunny sky and cherry blossoms in almost-full bloom. We rode the train to Tachikawa with a group of precious school children (kindergarten-first grade is my best guess) wearing their yellow, orange or blue caps going on some sort of field trip. One little girl in particular caught my eye She was asleep on the shoulder of her brother/friend!
At Tachikawa we disembarked and made our way through the crowded station to the platform to catch the monorail to Hino. There didn’t seem to be much difference between riding the train and the monorail except that perhaps the monorail ride was a bit smoother. We arrived at our destination, got off the monorail and headed down a narrow, straight street. The temple complex was hard to miss as the street pointed straight to the gate outside the temple. This particular temple was originally built about 1100 years ago, destroyed in a storm and rebuilt in 1342.
Buddhists come to this particular temple as an alternative to participating in the Shikoku Island pilgrimage, in which participants walk 40-50 days to visit 88 temples. The Takahata Fudo temple has a mini-pilgrimage walking trail with 88 different stops to represent the 88 temples. We didn’t walk the entire trail, but we did walk up a wooden staircase into the woods, among the cherry blossoms and learned that the temple grounds contain 200 different types of hydrangeas!
The temple grounds contained many different buildings, including a beautiful pagoda and serene, wooded walking trails between and among the buildings. As I walked from building to building I couldn’t help but soak up the peaceful quiet of this lovely place. There were various structures along the trail where people stopped to pray, sit alone for a minute or meditate. One statue was predominant near the entrance of the temple grounds. Hijikata Toshizo became a Samurai in 1867 and was from the town of Hino.
This temple, designated as a National Treasure, is one of only a few which allows non-Buddhists to attend their daily Goma Ceremony. During this ceremony, the wishes of believers, written on wooden planks are burned sending the particular prayer/wish up to heaven. The fire of Goma is also believed to rid your mind of 88 bad ideas that all possess. Pictures are not allowed in the building during the ceremony.
Before entering the building each person took off their shoes and put them in a plastic (shopping) bag. Entering the room, we found a spot on the floor to sit. The room was very dark, so the first thing I noticed was the strong smell of incense. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I tried to take it all in. This building was built entirely of wood, with 2 huge wooden poles (probably about 18″ in diameter) on each side of the altar area. Behind railings in the altar area were small flames burning the wooden “wish-planks.” It seemed kind of risky having fire burning openly in a building made entirely of wood…very old wood. I quickly forgot about the fire issue because there was so much to see. The altar area itself was as big or possibly bigger than the seating area. An ornate orange, gold and green tapestry stretched from one side of the room to the other above the altar area. Above the tapestry was a rich looking purple cloth with gold embellishment also stretching all the way across the room.
The ceremony began almost immediately after we were seated. Wearing a bright orange robe, the high priest/monk was seated in the middle of the altar area, just inside a railing which separated the altar area from the rest of the room. Along the side of the area, perpendicular to the high priests position were priests dressed in emerald green robes. The high priest began chanting, the monks joined in and tinkling bells were rung periodically. While I felt no misgivings about being there as an observer, I did take the opportunity to say my own prayers, in the manner of my own faith. As I finished my prayers, a monk, striking a large barrel sized drum positioned on its side, pounded out a slow, low-pitched rhythm. Soon afterward, one of the monks standing along the side stood up, bowed and disappeared behind the back of the altar. He soon re-appeared in the middle of the altar area just behind the railing and made an announcement.
Soon a door to the right of the altar area opened and one of the monks wearing green motioned for us to come through the door. We lined up and as each of us went through the door, the monk touched the contents of a container and then with his finger, touched the center of each person’s palm. I observed people rubbing their hands together, I assume to spread the balm/liquid(?) on the other hand. They then continued to the back of the altar area and slowly proceeded across the area in front of the altar itself in front of a huge Buddha statue, at which point, people of the Buddhist faith put their hands together as if in prayer and bowed. The rest of us respectfully proceeded across the area, and I took the opportunity to observe all the gold/brass bells, candelabra, statues and various kinds of ornamentation that was so bright it seemed to make everything around us glow. We walked through a similar door back into the main seating area, where Buddhist worshippers sat down, apparently to hear a lecture. The rest of us continued out the door.
The experience was so unlike anything I have ever seen before it almost seemed surreal. It is something I will never forget and feel very grateful to have witnessed the ceremony. We then went into a gift shop where various kinds of talismans could be purchased to bring good luck in various aspects of one’s life (marriage, child-bearing, academics, etc). We then left the temple grounds and headed to our next stop – lunch at a Yakiniku restaurant.
A yakiniku restaurant provides the opportunity for diners to grill their meal, specifically the meat portion. As non-Japanese, we selected from pictures (with interpretation from Ayako-san) of pork, beef, intestine and some other kind of organ meat. I selected the pork! The grills were recessed burners maybe fueled by propane (not sure about this). When our plates arrive, they were sectioned off into parts, reminding me of plates at a school cafeteria. In the largest section was very thinly sliced raw pork, other sections containing salad, two different vegetables and the Korean dish Kim-chi. Because the meat was raw we of course used tongs to place our meat on the grill as we concocted various types of “dipping sauces.” We then used our chopsticks to retrieve and eat the cooked meat from the grill. The food was delicious and we enjoyed our conversation as well as the food. We ate leisurely, and the slow process of it all reminded me of the atmosphere of a Louisiana crawfish boil.
Strolling back down the side streets of Hino we enjoyed potted plants and flowers displayed in front of houses along the way. We came to a storefront where a worker was diligently cooking near the front window. We saw round balls of some type of fried food and we stopped to watch. Near the fried balls was a long tray of yellow-ish semi liquid which reminded me of omelets with vegetables. The worker then used chopsticks to began forming balls from the liquid. The chopsticks moved so quickly, up, down and all around forming the little spheres. I learned later that little spheres were held together with a mixture much like pancake batter. The worker then turned around and picked up something from behind him. When he turned back around he was holding a piece of octopus with the chopsticks and indicated that octopus was the main ingredient of the round balls. We all looked surprised, “ooohed” and “aaahed” a bit, laughed and then he, in turn, laughed at us. I think we entertained him almost as much as he entertained us!
We took the monorail back to Tachikawa and in the train station (which is a mall in itself) we were treated to a special tasting event in a department store there. There were all kinds of breads, fish, desserts, fresh fruits, meats, etc. So much to eat we could have eaten an entire meal there. After sampling our favorite foods and further stuffing ourselves, we gathered to leave, when a man dressed in white wearing the distinctive chef hat, ran up to us and said “you people that look like me!” We all sort of looked at one another and he explained that he was from France, works in Japan in a rather exclusive restaurant and very rarely sees “westerners.” We all laughed and we talked and visited for a few minutes. He was so animated and so funny that he kept us entertained for a while. I just had to take a picture of this wonderful group of women and our French friend! And no…he didn’t claim to be a French model and we didn’t find him on the internet!