Posts tagged ‘religion’
When you tell a traveller in Kyoto that you spent your day at the temples they look at you sympathetically, as if you have just said that you recently had your tonsils out. Much like having your tonsils out, temple-hopping in Japan’s cultural capital is good for you, and you know it’s good for you but its exhausting and painful and by the end of the day you just need a big bowl of ice cream.
There are 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, all but one of which are either a temple or a shrine. They have a temple with a bell it takes 17 monks to ring, a temple covered in gold foil, a temple with 5km of torii and a temple with the biggest gate you have ever seen in your life. They are the biggest temples, the most sacred temples, the best temples but at the end of the day, they are all just temples.
You know what it will look like before you arrive – it will be big and wooden and impressive. There will be a sheltered iron pot out front with incense burning and people will be gathered around grabbing at whisps of smoke and rubbing it into their hair and clothes. There will be the sound of coins bouncing off of wood as worshippers throw their money into a box, ring a bell and clap twice to get Buddha’s attention. You will have to take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag. So you go, knowing what is in store and wearing shoes with no laces and you ‘oooh’ over this Buddha statue and ‘ah’ that beautiful carving. Then you put back on your shoes, trek 100m up a ferociously steep hill and express amazement over this beautiful carving and that Buddha statue.
It wasn’t surprising then that Giles and Anne (our fearless new travel buddies) gave us that ‘Oh no, you have to have your tonsils removed’ look when we told them that we were heading to Nara to see, you got it, more temples. And it was with heavy, slip-on-shoe-clad feet that we dragged ourselves out there at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, expecting to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and wish we had stayed in bed.
What we didn’t know however, and what made the whole trip worthwhile, scratch that, a highlight of Japan, was that Nara is not only a UNESCO-holding, temple-filled tourist mecca, but also a deer park. The park is home to thousands of tame deer who wander around footpaths, chase children with ice cream and lounge on top of sacred Buddha. It made for a lot of fun.
The streets of the park are lined with stalls selling deer crackers and, after realizing that the deer want nothing to do with you unless you have a little something to give back, we bought a pack from the first vendor with thoughts to carrying them with us for the day in case we ran into any super cute fawns. Big mistake. The deer were on to us immediately and, the second the vendor handed them over, they rushed me, nudging my hip, licking my bag and sucking on my coat buttons until I handed over the goods. Terrified, I dropped them and ran (before Gary could even get a picture, much to his dismay.)
Eventually we worked out our own crafty plan and Gary distracted them while I quickly threw correct change at the little old man at the stall and dropped the crackers into my bag before hightailing it. We got away safely but as we made our way through the park, we got a little bored and started to leave trails of cracker crumbs behind us, collecting our very own assembly line of deer.
Oh yeah, and we saw some big temples and pretty stone lanterns. Who knew temple-hopping could be so much fun? Nara – highly recommended for the temple weary.
More pictures of Nara are available in the gallery
When we got to Japan we were devastated to hear that sumo season was over. Between that and only spotting one geisha, our to do list was looking pretty meager. Luckily Giles and Anne , in their infinite wisdom, informed us that the sumo tournament was only just beginning in Fukuoka so, ignoring Lonely Planet’s advice that people start queueing at dawn for the special (and cheap) ‘on the day’ tickets, we picked up our Japanese Rail passes and massive backpacks and headed straight for Japan’s second city.
We managed to blag the cheap seats for that day for 2,100 yen (around 16 euro) but it being only 11am, the stadium was pretty empty so we had someone else’s ringside (sweat splatter) seats until around 2.30pm. The tournament runs from 8.30am until 6pm every day for the duration of the festival, starting with the lower level sumos and moving onto the world’s best in the afternoon. Surprisingly, there are only around 800 sumo wrestlers currently competing, as Japanese boys move towards the country’s latest craze – baseball.
I had always imagined sumo to be an epic battle between two massive forces of nature so when the first few competitors came into the ring, weighing little over 14 stone, I was a bit disappointed. Fortunately as the day progressed, they got bigger, until they weight around 1 kilo less than a fully grown sperm whale. I was also surprised by the amount of ceremony involved (apparently sumo was originally part of a religious ritual).
The first person to enter the stage is a man in traditional dress (looking a little like a medieval squire) who sings/chants the competitor’s name. The sumo then hauls himself into the ring, a circle with a diameter of around 15ft on a sand platform. They stretch, lifting one swollen foot over their head before stomping it down on the ground and repeating with the other foot. Then they square up, squatting down, before standing up and walking out of the ring. The referee (also in traditional dress) dances about a bit and the sumos return, squat and sometimes, leave again.
After around 10 minutes of this the fat (or sometimes not so fat) men finally get to it. The referee starts yelping like an injured seal (apparently shouting encouragement) and they rush at each other, colliding and sending all their rolls of fat (and in one sumos case four boobs) quivering towards their rear in fear.
Oftentimes this is all it takes. One puts his shoulder down lower and the other, defying the law of gravity, soars over his back, suspended gracefully mid-air in a backflip for one terrifying moment, before he hits the floor/judge/closest audience member. And that’s it. After all the ceremony, chanting and prancing, they hobble back to the stage, bow and exit the room demurely. Sumo wrestlers, unlike Irish football fans, are not permitted to show emotion after winning or losing a bout.
The best fights are the ones where the wrestlers weigh about the same and have similar strength. When their shoulders meet, neither gives way and they wrap their free arm around each other. This leads to a standoff which, after a few minutes, starts to look a bit more like the world’s fleshiest cuddle.
You would think that seven and a half hours of watching a foreign sport in an unintelligible language with a seemingly endless routine of unrecognizable religious rituals, would be too much of a good thing. But its not. As the day went on it got more and more exciting and, as the more successful sumos arrived, the crowd got more and more excited. A queue of people waiting to greet the world champions formed outside the stadium and with all the screaming teenagers and swooning women, you would have been excused for thinking that you were at a Take That concert.
We left feeling like kids who had spent the day at Disney, practicing our squats and splits and stamping on the bus, just daring people twice our size to take us on. And why not? Sumo has it all – morbidly obese men, thongs, long flowing locks, bear hugs, elaborate costumes, injured sea creatures, gravity defying belly flops and the ever present fear that the next time they fall, it could be on you. What more could you want from a sport?
More photos of sumo in Fukuoka are available in the gallery.