Well the new year has started and I am still struggling with an achy hamstring. My yoga practice has been drastically cut back and I am becoming a bit frustrated. I have decided to take the focus off my legs and put it in my back and arms. So backbends and inversions it is- I am trying spend at least 10 minutes a day on “the chair” trying to open up my back and working on long handstands and headstands.
The chair I use is a basic folding chair that I put on a mat and push up to the wall with the back of the chair facing the wall. I then thread myself through it so my feet on on the floor close to the wall and my bum is on the chair seat and I can bend back over the seat to touch the floor. I often like to thread my arms through to the back cross brace of the chair to really work on the front of my shoulders-especially my deltoids. I have about a month to get myself into a good working form as John is in Seattle on Feb1st and the White Rock kula is going down for the weekend. There is nothing worse than not being able to fully participate in such a fun event.
I spent New Years eve day walking though Kyoto. I was so tired that morning. After a few minutes of yoga, I suddenly felt inexplicably pulled out the door of my hotel. I had talked to some of my crew about going to Kyoto but had been mostly talked out of it by the cold local weather and the deep desire to rest after 10 days of continuous flying. Before I knew it I had a book in hand and was sitting on a train to Kyoto. I swear I looked up at one point and said to myself ” How did I get here??” It was like something had literally put me on that train before I had time to think. I have never gone to Kyoto on a 24 hour layover so why now? Then it came to me- it was December 31st. It was the anniversary of my father’s death. Apparently Dad wanted me to take him to Kyoto.
How can I describe such a perfect day? When I got of the train it was cold and crisp with the bluest sky. My scarf and gloves made it very comfortable and the sun warmed off the worst of the cold. I had a tin of hot coffee from the vending machine in my pocket as a hot water bottle and I set off on my walk.
Japan in the winter is clear and fresh- not raining and dark like Vancouver. The willow trees still had leaves and the red and pink camellias were in bloom. I started my walk at Yasaka Shrine in the Gion District. Its bright red and green colours are like a beacon at the end of road. I stopped there to pray to the Shinto gods- the animistic gods of Japan that are said to reside in every living thing. It relates well to the idea in Anusara that everything has a pulsation- and we are all connected to that same greater pulsation- a divine current. You feel it when you look at the gardens surrounding the shrine- every tree and rock radiates a life force- a beauty.
As I exited Yasaka Shrine I started to head towards the Buddhist temples. There are a multiple of them on the climb up Higashiyama – the most proliferous and popular temple area in all of Japan. Giant paving stones and hundreds of year old pines mark some of the pathways and entrances to these places- you can feel the ancient wisdom that pervades this area. Even though the area is crowded visitors, there is a stillness to the place. After making offerings and praying at these shrines I move further up the mountain. The cobblestone street is lined on either side by small shops and teahouses selling trinkets and food of every variety- old style umbrellas, fans, pottery, masks, dolls, bamboo toys, incense and prayer beads. Whole shops are dedicated to pickles- you wouldn’t believe how many types of pickles there are in Japan!- and Kyoto sweets made with sticky rice and sweet beans. I am not much of a shopper and I think in my years in Japan have bought most of the knickknacks that they have to offer but I still marvel at the variety and colour. I think of all my friends I have yet to bring here and how much I want to share this with them. I somehow have to get a yoga retreat happening in Japan in the next couple of years just to share this with everyone.
As I pass another curve and hill in the winding stone road I caught the most delicious smell- the slightly burnt sugary fragrance of baked soy sauce. One of the small sweet shops was making yaki-mochi- a special New years treat. Sweet rice is pounded and molded into little balls that are then basted in a soysauce and wrapped with a small piece of seaweed. The little balls are then toasted on an open grill until the rice becomes soft and warm and the seaweed is toasted and crisp. It is not everyones thing but it is mine! The shop owner placed the little rice place in a small triangle of paper and for about 50 cents I had the most delicious treat. It is salty and sweet at the same time and delectably warm and soft on the inside and a little crisp on the outside. Oishiikata!! ( I had to buy another on the way down the mountain and take a picture of him….lol)
When I got all the way to top of the hill one of the most amazing temples in Japan was waiting for me – Kiyomizudera.
The temple dates back to 798 but the present buildings were constructed in 1633. The temple takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu (清水) literally means pure water. I have always felt a deep connection to this particular temple. The first time I went there I was 15 and it has never failed to impress and humble me.
Before I enter the main part of the temple I go through the ritual cleansing. I step to the fountain at the entrance and fill the ladle with water rushing from the dragon statue’s mouth. I first wash my hands and then I drink and rinse my mouth. After this I then enter the main part of the temple. The veranda on Kiyomizu is famous- from this raised platform you can see most of Kyoto. I have seen that panorama in the cherries of spring, the humidity of summer and the fire colours of fall. This was the first time I had seen it in winter. It was so clean and bright- refreshing to the eye and body. Breathtaking.
I made my way to the various temples inside the complex of Kiyomizu and made offerings and prayed. When one prays in Japan you usually approach the shrine and bow. You then throw an offering of money, usually a 100 yen coin, into the large box in front of the shrine. You then approach the shrine and ring a large bell by shaking a woven silk rope. After the bell rings you step back and clap twice and then hold your hands in front of you to pray with a bowed head. After praying you step back and bow once again. So after about 800 yen I had finished my rounds of offering and prayer. It is then traditional to buy yourself a fortune and an amulet when you are done. I bought an omamori ( amulet) for both of my suitcases and then proceeded to get my fortune – omikuji. All temples have different ways of getting your fortune but Kiyomizu’s is fairly traditional. You take a large octagon box which contains hundreds of marked bamboo sticks inside and shake it and roll it and then you tip it upside down so one bamboo stick slides out. On that stick will be a number. The priest then takes the matching rice paper fortune from a large set of shelves behind him and presents it to you. This year I received ” Dai-kichi”- great blessing- the best fortune. I placed the fortune in my wallet to carry it with me for the rest of the year. If they are not so good you fold it into a little fan and tie it to a marked place in the temple to help reverse it. There are a lot of different blessings:
Great blessing (dai-kichi, 大吉) ,,Middle blessing (chū-kichi, 中吉) ,Small blessing (shō-kichi, 小吉) ,Blessing (kichi, 吉), Half-blessing (han-kichi, 半吉) , Near-blessing (sue-kichi, 末吉) Near-small-blessing (sue-shō-kichi, 末小吉) , Curse (kyō, 凶) , Small curse (shō-kyō, 小凶) Half-curse (han-kyō, 半凶) ,Near-curse (sue-kyō, 末凶) Great curse (dai-kyō, 大凶)
I have never seen anything worse than “curse” but who knows- they must exist!
After a few final wanderings I made my way back down the mountain for lunch and the ride home. I didn’t practice yoga that day like I had planned to but I practiced it deeper than I thought possible. I noticed every colour, smell, and sound around me. I was so aware- so present. I was so full that day- my senses were so completely satisfied and my heart was so calm and peaceful. I hope my dad enjoyed Kyoto as much as I did- I thank him for pushing me out the door.