A Day in Ohara

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I had read several reports about the beautiful and interesting temples of the small town of Ohara located North of Kyoto and convinced the group to travel with me on our “free day” without any pre-planned activities.   Our hotel is located in an excellent location, near subway and bus lines and we now know the route of City Bus No. 17 from Kyoto Station to Ohara.  From our stop at Sanjo, which is on the way from the Station, it took one hour on a very crowded bus, filled with both school children and mostly Japanese locals, some of us getting seats and some standing the whole time.  Paula always gets the “priority” seats, as her walking stick is seen as an emblem of age.  Although the percentage of young people in the priority seats on both buses and trains actually seems higher than those on our Bay Area BART system.  Some Japanese stood to give Paula a seat both on bus and subway but non-Japanese were more likely to do so.  And sometimes we had to indicate to teenage people that they should cede their seat to an elder.

Once in Ohara, we follow directions onto a small paved road winding up a mountain between a beautiful bubbling brook with green moss and fern and old trees vibrant in today’s sunlight.   The only sounds are the birds and water. It was a day of perfect weather, sunny but cool – almost worth the drizzle of the last few days to see the difference with a clear sky.    

There are some small small interesting shops along the way which we tear ourselves away from to head into the mountain toward the temple Rogoin.   It is totally quiet here and we visit the bell belfry and main hall with the small wooden drum and bells of the priest on the floor.  We are the only ones here, there are no guards or even priests of any sort in evidence and it is so surprising to me that such beautiful old temple articles are left unattended while strangers possibly without reverence for honesty are allowed in.

We walk further uphill on a dirt and stone path, on some uneven rocks, to find a small waterfall, well-known in this area as the waterfall where a famous monk chanted nearby until the sound of the falling water and his voice became one – so it is known as no-sound waterfall, Otonashi.

From this peaceful area we go downhill for lunch at a small soba shop, with us all rather uncomfortably sitting on tatami mats by a low table.  Our joints are getting a little aged for sitting cross legged for any length of time although we recognize this will not be the last time on this trip when we will find ourselves in this situation.  Then we are back to the world with larger groups of people heading for the main attraction in this town — Sanzenin Temple, a leading temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

I understand why people are here.  There is a magnificent moss garden beyond the main hall and then a pond with carefully designed and shaped trees, rocks, stone lanterns and flowers. And spectacular moss under the trees.

We have missed the cherry blossoms, we do see some azalea and wisteria, some iris and other small flowering bushes.  Further up the hill is the temple dedicated to Kannon, goddess of mercy, and nearby thousands of small Kannon statutes which I understand were donated by her followers. 

This is a major theme of all the temples we have visited – donations.  Each temple charges an admission fee ranging from the equivalent of $2-6 and each temple has prayer beads, good luck charms and related items for sale, sometimes In a separate store and sometimes in the temple hall itself with an unmanned donation box.  This is undoubtedly necessary to provide for the maintenance of the temples and I don’t know whether there is much or any government support given.  And the upkeep costs must be tremendous given the gardens and the ancient wooden structures so I recognize this is a good cause.  We were also told that the current priests are aging and retiring and there are not enough replacements coming up through the ranks so that the future of all the temple work is uncertain.

We take a quick look at some of the other smaller temples and then it is time for us to head bak to the bus.   It has been a good day with perfect weather and good company.