It’s just after 7am on a cool, clear November morning. I’m wearing a kimono and sweeping the wooden veranda of a temple up in the mountains. Ah, it hits me. Looks like I found the Japan I always daydreamed about.
It started with the view of the sunrise over Lake Shinji as we were gathering our tools up to the temple–usually I only see the sunset view!
This was my first time serving in a tea ceremony gathering, having only formally attended one for the first time in June. Over the course of 13 successive ceremonies throughout the day of 15 to 35 guests each, I was not preparing tea myself, but serving the tea and sweets to the guests. I was nervous at first, but it soon became automatic. This took place in the tea room overlooking the eastern gardens of Ichibata Yakushi, a temple in the mountains of Izumo between Lake Shinji and the Sea of the Japan. Established in 894, it is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, and has been attributed with miracles of healing throughout the centuries, especially in regard to eye-related health. This is the head temple of the Ichibata Yakushi Kyodan independent school of Buddhism, which has at least thirty other temples throughout Japan.
In my personal experience, I’ve noticed this temple has a very dedicated and faithful following, and they are very enthusiastic to educate foreign travelers about the temple. The head priest is proficient in English (or so I hear, since we were both too busy with other things to have any conversation), and at least based on my observation is concerned, it seems this temple is active in the Izumo Shinbutsu Pilgrimage. You’ll hear of many Buddhist pilgrimages in respective areas of Japan that may focus on a particular school of Buddhism, listing by number all the temples in that particular pilgrimage. Pilgrims are typically spotted wearing white outfits and prayer beads they collect from each temple and hiking with walking sticks. For most famous temples, common visitors will drive most of the way! Either way, it’s common to see a line of shops along the route with specialities to offer pilgrims and common visitors. At Ichibata Yakushi, it’s manju (filled sweet dumplings).
The Izumo Shimbutsu Pilgrimage, however, is somewhat unique in that it combines both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The Izumo area has historically leaned more towards Shintoism than Buddhism and segregated the two, whereas throughout most of the rest of Japan Buddhism has at times held more influence, or in practice there was little distinction between the two (they’ve been formally segregated since Japan started Westernizing). The basic idea behind this pilgrimage is that there is no reason different shrines and temples–different religions–should not bind together in prayer and holiness for the sake of world peace.
That said, each shrine or temple on the pilgrimage has its own unique history and dedication, and it’s own following of sorts. For instance, Mizuki Shigeru‘s Non-Non-Ba—the “religious granny” who taught him about the strange unseen world when he was a child–was an adherent to this temple. As such, there have been a couple recent additions to the statues of Buddhas around the temple.
Anyway, back to the tea ceremony! Or rather, a break I took from it in the afternoon when the crowds were thinning. Every year, Ichibata Yakushi–like a handful of other temples, including Gesshoji Temple in Matsue where tea-loving feudal lord Matsudaira Fumai is buried–performs a ritual to burn old chasen (the bamboo whisks used in the tea ceremony) and thank them for their service. I went out to watch and they were happy to let me take pictures, and happy to let people who had no idea what was going on to come and attend the brief ceremony. Everyone was handed a pray book to follow along with the chanting, and after buring the incense and offering thanks, everyone was invited to toss a few chasen in to be burned.
Immediately after that, I returned as quickly as I could to help out in at least one more ceremony for the day, but as soon as I arrived I was whisked away to the hall by one of the teachers. Oh no, I thought, am I going to get lectured for taking such a long break while everyone else was working so hard? Instead, she led me into a tiny, dimly lit room where the people organizing the tea ceremonies events for the day were sitting in a more intimate space, using another set of tools that hadn’t been shared with the succesive guests, and eating some fluffy wagashi that had been brought from Nara. This teacher had wanted to share with me the quieter side of tea ceremony asthetics and engage in conversation with the tea master and me. They were many sentiments and I heard before and share, at however shallow a level of understanding I may have. This part of the conversation sticks out in my mind, though:
“It’s so nice that we get to use such old works of art like this.”
“Yes, it’s surprises me sometimes that these aren’t kept in museums to preserve them.”
“The chawan tea bowls you see in museums have gone to waste. They’re tools. If they aren’t being used, they’ve lost their purpose.”
For more Ichibata Yakushi blog pages in English with prettier pictures:
Connect Shimane: Ichibata Yakushi Temple
More Glimpes of Unfamiliar Japan: Ichibata Yakushi revisited