Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 5

Kwan-non Temple — Uniformity of Temple Architecture — A Kuruma Expedition — A Perpetual Festival — The Ni-o — The Limbo of Vanity — Heathen Prayers — Binzuru — A Group of Devils — Archery Galleries — New Japan — An Elegante.

H.B.M.‘s LEGATION, YEDO, June 9.

Once for all I will describe a Buddhist temple, and it shall be the popular temple of Asakusa, which keeps fair and festival the whole year round, and is dedicated to the “thousand-armed” Kwan-non, the goddess of mercy. Writing generally, it may be said that in design, roof, and general aspect, Japanese Buddhist temples are all alike. The sacred architectural idea expresses itself in nearly the same form always. There is a single or double-roofed gateway, with highly-coloured figures in niches on either side; the paved temple-court, with more or fewer stone or bronze lanterns; amainu, or heavenly dogs, in stone on stone pedestals; stone sarcophagi, roofed over or not, for holy water; a flight of steps; a portico, continued as a verandah all round the temple; a roof of tremendously disproportionate size and weight, with a peculiar curve; a square or oblong hall divided by a railing from a “chancel” with a high and low altar, and a shrine containing Buddha, or the divinity to whom the chapel is dedicated; an incense-burner, and a few ecclesiastical ornaments. The symbols, idols, and adornments depend upon the sect to which the temple belongs, or the wealth of its votaries, or the fancy of the priests. Some temples are packed full of gods, shrines, banners, bronzes, brasses, tablets, and ornaments, and others, like those of the Monto sect, are so severely simple, that with scarcely an alteration they might be used for Christian worship tomorrow.

The foundations consist of square stones on which the uprights rest. These are of elm, and are united at intervals by longitudinal pieces. The great size and enormous weight of the roofs arise from the trusses being formed of one heavy frame being built upon another in diminishing squares till the top is reached, the main beams being formed of very large timbers put on in their natural state. They are either very heavily and ornamentally tiled, or covered with sheet copper ornamented with gold, or thatched to a depth of from one to three feet, with fine shingles or bark. The casing of the walls on the outside is usually thick elm planking either lacquered or unpainted, and that of the inside is of thin, finely-planed and bevelled planking of the beautiful wood of the Retinospora obtusa. The lining of the roof is in flat panels, and where it is supported by pillars they are invariably circular, and formed of the straight, finely-grained stem of the Retinospora obtusa. The projecting ends of the roof-beams under the eaves are either elaborately carved, lacquered in dull red, or covered with copper, as are the joints of the beams. Very few nails are used, the timbers being very beautifully joined by mortices and dovetails, other methods of junction being unknown.

Mr. Chamberlain and I went in a kuruma hurried along by three liveried coolies, through the three miles of crowded streets which lie between the Legation and Asakusa, once a village, but now incorporated with this monster city, to the broad street leading to the Adzuma Bridge over the Sumida river, one of the few stone bridges in Tokiyo, which connects east Tokiyo, an uninteresting region, containing many canals, storehouses, timber-yards, and inferior yashikis, with the rest of the city. This street, marvellously thronged with pedestrians and kurumas, is the terminus of a number of city “stage lines,” and twenty wretched-looking covered waggons, with still more wretched ponies, were drawn up in the middle, waiting for passengers. Just there plenty of real Tokiyo life is to be seen, for near a shrine of popular pilgrimage there are always numerous places of amusement, innocent and vicious, and the vicinity of this temple is full of restaurants, tea-houses, minor theatres, and the resorts of dancing and singing girls.

A broad-paved avenue, only open to foot passengers, leads from this street to the grand entrance, a colossal two-storied double-roofed mon, or gate, painted a rich dull red. On either side of this avenue are lines of booths — which make a brilliant and lavish display of their contents — toy-shops, shops for smoking apparatus, and shops for the sale of ornamental hair-pins predominating. Nearer the gate are booths for the sale of rosaries for prayer, sleeve and bosom idols of brass and wood in small shrines, amulet bags, representations of the jolly-looking Daikoku, the god of wealth, the most popular of the household gods of Japan, shrines, memorial tablets, cheap ex votos, sacred bells, candlesticks, and incense-burners, and all the endless and various articles connected with Buddhist devotion, public and private. Every day is a festival-day at Asakusa; the temple is dedicated to the most popular of the great divinities; it is the most popular of religious resorts; and whether he be Buddhist, Shintoist, or Christian, no stranger comes to the capital without making a visit to its crowded courts or a purchase at its tempting booths. Not to be an exception, I invested in bouquets of firework flowers, fifty flowers for 2 sen, or 1d., each of which, as it slowly consumes, throws off fiery coruscations, shaped like the most beautiful of snow crystals. I was also tempted by small boxes at 2 sen each, containing what look like little slips of withered pith, but which, on being dropped into water, expand into trees and flowers.

Down a paved passage on the right there is an artificial river, not over clean, with a bridge formed of one curved stone, from which a flight of steps leads up to a small temple with a magnificent bronze bell. At the entrance several women were praying. In the same direction are two fine bronze Buddhas, seated figures, one with clasped hands, the other holding a lotus, both with “The light of the world” upon their brows. The grand red gateway into the actual temple courts has an extremely imposing effect, and besides, it is the portal to the first great heathen temple that I have seen, and it made me think of another temple whose courts were equally crowded with buyers and sellers, and of a “whip of small cords” in the hand of One who claimed both the temple and its courts as His “Father’s House.” Not with less righteous wrath would the gentle founder of Buddhism purify the unsanctified courts of Asakusa. Hundreds of men, women, and children passed to and fro through the gateway in incessant streams, and so they are passing through every daylight hour of every day in the year, thousands becoming tens of thousands on the great matsuri days, when the mikoshi, or sacred car, containing certain symbols of the god, is exhibited, and after sacred mimes and dances have been performed, is carried in a magnificent, antique procession to the shore and back again. Under the gateway on either side are the Ni-o, or two kings, gigantic figures in flowing robes, one red and with an open mouth, representing the Yo, or male principle of Chinese philosophy, the other green and with the mouth firmly closed, representing the In, or female principle. They are hideous creatures, with protruding eyes, and faces and figures distorted and corrupted into a high degree of exaggerated and convulsive action. These figures guard the gates of most of the larger temples, and small prints of them are pasted over the doors of houses to protect them against burglars. Attached to the grating in front were a number of straw sandals, hung up by people who pray that their limbs may be as muscular as those of the Ni-o.

Passing through this gate we were in the temple court proper, and in front of the temple itself, a building of imposing height and size, of a dull red colour, with a grand roof of heavy iron grey tiles, with a sweeping curve which gives grace as well as grandeur. The timbers and supports are solid and of great size, but, in common with all Japanese temples, whether Buddhist or Shinto, the edifice is entirely of wood. A broad flight of narrow, steep, brass-bound steps lead up to the porch, which is formed by a number of circular pillars supporting a very lofty roof, from which paper lanterns ten feet long are hanging. A gallery runs from this round the temple, under cover of the eaves. There is an outer temple, unmatted, and an inner one behind a grating, into which those who choose to pay for the privilege of praying in comparative privacy, or of having prayers said for them by the priests, can pass.

In the outer temple the noise, confusion, and perpetual motion, are bewildering. Crowds on clattering clogs pass in and out; pigeons, of which hundreds live in the porch, fly over your head, and the whirring of their wings mingles with the tinkling of bells, the beating of drums and gongs, the high-pitched drone of the priests, the low murmur of prayers, the rippling laughter of girls, the harsh voices of men, and the general buzz of a multitude. There is very much that is highly grotesque at first sight. Men squat on the floor selling amulets, rosaries, printed prayers, incense sticks, and other wares. Ex votos of all kinds hang on the wall and on the great round pillars. Many of these are rude Japanese pictures. The subject of one is the blowing-up of a steamer in the Sumidagawa with the loss of 100 lives, when the donor was saved by the grace of Kwan-non. Numbers of memorials are from people who offered up prayers here, and have been restored to health or wealth. Others are from junk men whose lives have been in peril. There are scores of men’s queues and a few dusty braids of women’s hair offered on account of vows or prayers, usually for sick relatives, and among them all, on the left hand, are a large mirror in a gaudily gilt frame and a framed picture of the P. M. S. China! Above this incongruous collection are splendid wood carvings and frescoes of angels, among which the pigeons find a home free from molestation.

Near the entrance there is a superb incense-burner in the most massive style of the older bronzes, with a mythical beast rampant upon it, and in high relief round it the Japanese signs of the zodiac — the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, serpent, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and hog. Clouds of incense rise continually from the perforations round the edge, and a black-toothed woman who keeps it burning is perpetually receiving small coins from the worshippers, who then pass on to the front of the altar to pray. The high altar, and indeed all that I should regard as properly the temple, are protected by a screen of coarsely-netted iron wire. This holy of holies is full of shrines and gods, gigantic candlesticks, colossal lotuses of gilded silver, offerings, lamps, lacquer, litany books, gongs, drums, bells, and all the mysterious symbols of a faith which is a system of morals and metaphysics to the educated and initiated, and an idolatrous superstition to the masses. In this interior the light was dim, the lamps burned low, the atmosphere was heavy with incense, and amidst its fumes shaven priests in chasubles and stoles moved noiselessly over the soft matting round the high altar on which Kwan-non is enshrined, lighting candles, striking bells, and murmuring prayers. In front of the screen is the treasury, a wooden chest 14 feet by 10, with a deep slit, into which all the worshippers cast copper coins with a ceaseless clinking sound.

There, too, they pray, if that can be called prayer which frequently consists only in the repetition of an uncomprehended phrase in a foreign tongue, bowing the head, raising the hands and rubbing them, murmuring a few words, telling beads, clapping the hands, bowing again, and then passing out or on to another shrine to repeat the same form. Merchants in silk clothing, soldiers in shabby French uniforms, farmers, coolies in “vile raiment,” mothers, maidens, swells in European clothes, even the samurai policemen, bow before the goddess of mercy. Most of the prayers were offered rapidly, a mere momentary interlude in the gurgle of careless talk, and without a pretence of reverence; but some of the petitioners obviously brought real woes in simple “faith.”

In one shrine there is a large idol, spotted all over with pellets of paper, and hundreds of these are sticking to the wire netting which protects him. A worshipper writes his petition on paper, or, better still, has it written for him by the priest, chews it to a pulp, and spits it at the divinity. If, having been well aimed, it passes through the wire and sticks, it is a good omen, if it lodges in the netting the prayer has probably been unheard. The Ni-o and some of the gods outside the temple are similarly disfigured. On the left there is a shrine with a screen, to the bars of which innumerable prayers have been tied. On the right, accessible to all, sits Binzuru, one of Buddha’s original sixteen disciples. His face and appearance have been calm and amiable, with something of the quiet dignity of an elderly country gentleman of the reign of George III.; but he is now worn and defaced, and has not much more of eyes, nose, and mouth than the Sphinx; and the polished, red lacquer has disappeared from his hands and feet, for Binzuru is a great medicine god, and centuries of sick people have rubbed his face and limbs, and then have rubbed their own. A young woman went up to him, rubbed the back of his neck, and then rubbed her own. Then a modest-looking girl, leading an ancient woman with badly inflamed eyelids and paralysed arms, rubbed his eyelids, and then gently stroked the closed eyelids of the crone. Then a coolie, with a swelled knee, applied himself vigorously to Binzuru’s knee, and more gently to his own. Remember, this is the great temple of the populace, and “not many rich, not many noble, not many mighty,” enter its dim, dirty, crowded halls. 5

But the great temple to Kwan-non is not the only sight of Asakusa. Outside it are countless shrines and temples, huge stone Amainu, or heavenly dogs, on rude blocks of stone, large cisterns of stone and bronze with and without canopies, containing water for the ablutions of the worshippers, cast iron Amainu on hewn stone pedestals — a recent gift — bronze and stone lanterns, a stone prayer-wheel in a stone post, figures of Buddha with the serene countenance of one who rests from his labours, stone idols, on which devotees have pasted slips of paper inscribed with prayers, with sticks of incense rising out of the ashes of hundreds of former sticks smouldering before them, blocks of hewn stone with Chinese and Sanskrit inscriptions, an eight-sided temple in which are figures of the “Five Hundred Disciples” of Buddha, a temple with the roof and upper part of the walls richly coloured, the circular Shinto mirror in an inner shrine, a bronze treasury outside with a bell, which is rung to attract the god’s attention, a striking, five-storied pagoda, with much red lacquer, and the ends of the roof-beams very boldly carved, its heavy eaves fringed with wind bells, and its uppermost roof terminating in a graceful copper spiral of great height, with the “sacred pearl” surrounded by flames for its finial. Near it, as near most temples, is an upright frame of plain wood with tablets, on which are inscribed the names of donors to the temple, and the amount of their gifts.

There is a handsome stone-floored temple to the south-east of the main building, to which we were the sole visitors. It is lofty and very richly decorated. In the centre is an octagonal revolving room, or rather shrine, of rich red lacquer most gorgeously ornamented. It rests on a frame of carved black lacquer, and has a lacquer gallery running round it, on which several richly decorated doors open. On the application of several shoulders to this gallery the shrine rotates. It is, in fact, a revolving library of the Buddhist Scriptures, and a single turn is equivalent to a single pious perusal of them. It is an exceedingly beautiful specimen of ancient decorative lacquer work. At the back part of the temple is a draped brass figure of Buddha, with one hand raised — a dignified piece of casting. All the Buddhas have Hindoo features, and the graceful drapery and oriental repose which have been imported from India contrast singularly with the grotesque extravagances of the indigenous Japanese conceptions. In the same temple are four monstrously extravagant figures carved in wood, life-size, with clawed toes on their feet, and two great fangs in addition to the teeth in each mouth. The heads of all are surrounded with flames, and are backed by golden circlets. They are extravagantly clothed in garments which look as if they were agitated by a violent wind; they wear helmets and partial suits of armour, and hold in their right hands something between a monarch’s sceptre and a priest’s staff. They have goggle eyes and open mouths, and their faces are in distorted and exaggerated action. One, painted bright red, tramples on a writhing devil painted bright pink; another, painted emerald green, tramples on a sea-green devil, an indigo blue monster tramples on a sky-blue fiend, and a bright pink monster treads under his clawed feet a flesh-coloured demon. I cannot give you any idea of the hideousness of their aspect, and was much inclined to sympathise with the more innocent-looking fiends whom they were maltreating. They occur very frequently in Buddhist temples, and are said by some to be assistant-torturers to Yemma, the lord of hell, and are called by others “The gods of the Four Quarters.”

The temple grounds are a most extraordinary sight. No English fair in the palmiest days of fairs ever presented such an array of attractions. Behind the temple are archery galleries in numbers, where girls, hardly so modest-looking as usual, smile and smirk, and bring straw-coloured tea in dainty cups, and tasteless sweetmeats on lacquer trays, and smoke their tiny pipes, and offer you bows of slender bamboo strips, two feet long, with rests for the arrows, and tiny cherry-wood arrows, bone-tipped, and feathered red, blue, and white, and smilingly, but quite unobtrusively, ask you to try your skill or luck at a target hanging in front of a square drum, flanked by red cushions. A click, a boom, or a hardly audible “thud,” indicate the result. Nearly all the archers were grown-up men, and many of them spend hours at a time in this childish sport.

All over the grounds booths with the usual charcoal fire, copper boiler, iron kettle of curious workmanship, tiny cups, fragrant aroma of tea, and winsome, graceful girls, invite you to drink and rest, and more solid but less inviting refreshments are also to be had. Rows of pretty paper lanterns decorate all the stalls. Then there are photograph galleries, mimic tea-gardens, tableaux in which a large number of groups of life-size figures with appropriate scenery are put into motion by a creaking wheel of great size, matted lounges for rest, stands with saucers of rice, beans and peas for offerings to the gods, the pigeons, and the two sacred horses, Albino ponies, with pink eyes and noses, revoltingly greedy creatures, eating all day long and still craving for more. There are booths for singing and dancing, and under one a professional story-teller was reciting to a densely packed crowd one of the old, popular stories of crime. There are booths where for a few rin you may have the pleasure of feeding some very ugly and greedy apes, or of watching mangy monkeys which have been taught to prostrate themselves Japanese fashion.

This letter is far too long, but to pass over Asakusa and its novelties when the impression of them is fresh would be to omit one of the most interesting sights in Japan. On the way back we passed red mail carts like those in London, a squadron of cavalry in European uniforms and with European saddles, and the carriage of the Minister of Marine, an English brougham with a pair of horses in English harness, and an escort of six troopers — a painful precaution adopted since the political assassination of Okubo, the Home Minister, three weeks ago. So the old and the new in this great city contrast with and jostle each other. The Mikado and his ministers, naval and military officers and men, the whole of the civil officials and the police, wear European clothes, as well as a number of dissipated-looking young men who aspire to represent “young Japan.” Carriages and houses in English style, with carpets, chairs, and tables, are becoming increasingly numerous, and the bad taste which regulates the purchase of foreign furnishings is as marked as the good taste which everywhere presides over the adornment of the houses in purely Japanese style. Happily these expensive and unbecoming innovations have scarcely affected female dress, and some ladies who adopted our fashions have given them up because of their discomfort and manifold difficulties and complications.

The Empress on State occasions appears in scarlet satin hakama, and flowing robes, and she and the Court ladies invariably wear the national costume. I have only seen two ladies in European dress; and this was at a dinner-party here, and they were the wives of Mr. Mori, the go-ahead Vice–Minister for Foreign Affairs, and of the Japanese Consul at Hong Kong; and both by long residence abroad have learned to wear it with ease. The wife of Saigo, the Minister of Education, called one day in an exquisite Japanese dress of dove-coloured silk crepe, with a pale pink under-dress of the same material, which showed a little at the neck and sleeves. Her girdle was of rich dove-coloured silk, with a ghost of a pale pink blossom hovering upon it here and there. She had no frills or fripperies of any description, or ornaments, except a single pin in her chignon, and, with a sweet and charming face, she looked as graceful and dignified in her Japanese costume as she would have looked exactly the reverse in ours. Their costume has one striking advantage over ours. A woman is perfectly CLOTHED if she has one garment and a girdle on, and perfectly DRESSED if she has two. There is a difference in features and expression — much exaggerated, however, by Japanese artists — between the faces of high-born women and those of the middle and lower classes. I decline to admire fat-faces, pug noses, thick lips, long eyes, turned up at the outer corners, and complexions which owe much to powder and paint. The habit of painting the lips with a reddish-yellow pigment, and of heavily powdering the face and throat with pearl powder, is a repulsive one. But it is hard to pronounce any unfavourable criticism on women who have so much kindly grace of manner.

I. L. B.

5 I visited this temple alone many times afterwards, and each visit deepened the interest of my first impressions. There is always enough of change and novelty to prevent the interest from flagging, and the mild, but profoundly superstitious, form of heathenism which prevails in Japan is nowhere better represented.

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