Visiting Nishi Hongan-ji in Kyoto

I arrived last night in Kyoto and managed to grab a quick bite to eat at a family-run restaurant across from my hostel. Then I hit the sack early so I’d be ready to go in the morning.

Many people told me that I’d like either Tokyo or Kyoto but not both (oddly, people said the same about Auckland and Wellington). I guess now I’d finally be able to compare the two great cities and decide for myself.

My first stop for today was Nishi Hongan-ji, headquarters of the Hongwan-ji denomination of Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu Hongan-ji-ha) for more than 10,000 temples throughout Japan and about 200 temples around the world. In fact, ministers from this temple came to Hawaii in 1897 to set up Buddhist temples for the immigrants toiling in the sugarcane fields.

But, before all of its power and prominence, Nishi Hongan-ji was built at the site of Shinran Shonin’s mausoleum. Shinran founded Shin Buddhism and with the help of his successors and followers it became an important belief system in Japan. As always, even small things like a memorial site can grow to huge proportions with the right support for it.

Today, the temple grounds are quite expansive with many buildings scattered throughout the compound. While I was visiting, I saw several ministers in full religious attire going about their daily businesses (I don’t know the proper term to name these religious people – ministers, monks, preachers, etc.). I also saw many people sitting in front of a giant altar praying inside one of the buildings.

For some reason, I felt like I was intruding on something even though there were no official ceremonies going on at the time. As I made my way from one building to the next (sans shoes and in holey socks, by the way, as you must remove your shoes before stepping up to the tatami mat-covered floor), I realized I was truly an observer, an outsider. I wasn’t here for any religious reasons – be it prayers or simple contemplation. I was more like an anthropologist studying a people unfamiliar to me.

Mulling this over, it seems that this is exactly the type of experience I’ve had throughout Japan, even though I’ve managed to interact with some people along the way. I think there are many reasons for this, including my failure to communicate in the native language as well as the overall Japanese culture of minding one’s business and not making any waves.

I’m not sure how I feel about this because, on one hand, I like being on my own and not being forced to make small talk with people. This desperately calls out to the introvert in me who prefers to observe my surroundings instead of being the center of attention. It also helps that I’m Asian-looking (vs. Caucasian-looking) and don’t draw attention to myself as I blend in with the rest of society. Unless I open my mouth, no one would know I wasn’t Japanese (well, my clothes are a dead giveaway, but they might just think I’m trying to rebel against society in some shabby chic sorta way).

But, can I truly get a feel of Japan without social interactions with locals. Many of the hostels I’ve stayed in are smaller and less corporate than the one in Tokyo. I’ve been able to talk with most of the owners because they’ve all logged their hours of English language. Unfortunately, they’re the only locals I’ve been able to interact with and most times it’s very simple conversations. And while I believe the hostel owners in Japan are less driven by sales of tours and activities than in other places I’ve visited, they’re still in the hospitality field and surely promote their country to the best of their abilities. Is that the real Japan? Hmm, what a dilemma.

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Filed under Attraction, Culture, Japan, Personal, Travel

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