Thursday, July 30, 2009

The magic of Mitaki

After nearly two years in Hiroshima, I finally got around to visiting a place that's on the tourist maps but probably a bit too far off the beaten path to be visited by many out-of-towners: Mitaki Temple.

It doesn't take long living in Japan to start feeling like "Seen one temple, seen 'em all." Sure, some of them really are extraordinary, but a lot of temples just look pretty much the same. So I guess that's why I wasn't in a huge rush to see Mitaki. I figured, yeah, I'm sure it's pretty, but what's the rush?

So one recent Sunday while Joe had something else to do, I rode the train 10 minutes from our apartment and hiked up the hill to the temple grounds (have you noticed these things always seem to be uphill?). At the entrance, I was greeted by a line of buddhas and an old stone marker carved with the faces of two children wearing bright red knit caps that contrasted sharply with a light layer of moss.

The world that opened up before me as I climbed the steps into the forest was nothing short of stunning.

There are very few places that have given me the sense of wonderment and the excitement of discovery that I felt wandering the grounds of Mitaki. It was old, peaceful, and meticulously manicured, with Buddhist statues and stone carvings everywhere I looked.

All around me came the sound of rushing water from the three waterfalls after which the temple is named ("Mi" meaning "3", and "Taki" meaning "Waterfall"). Incense lingered in the air. Bits of sunlight streamed through the lush trees that shaded the grounds, giving the whole place a kind of soft green glow.

The last time I can remember feeling this way was during my solo road trip through New England in 2004, when, driving down the freeway surrounded by mountains ablaze in autumn colors like some kind of living Monet painting, I wanted to press the accelerator to the floor and speed through every mile of those mountains, take it all in, discover the beauty over the next crest, around the next bend.

Tucked away in a little clearing was this nearly 500-year-old tahoto built in 1526. It was originally built in Wakayama Prefecture but it was moved to Hiroshima in 1951 to console the souls of victims who died in the atomic bombing.

Inside the tahoto is a seated wooden statue of a Buddha that dates back to the Heian Period (the years 794 to 1192). It's crazy to think about how old these things are, isn't it?

Walking further, there was a large bell beneath a pavilion like the one in Peace Park, and occasionally someone would swing the long wooden hammer and pray as the gong carried through the forest.

I watched a mother with her toddler go through the ritual and nearly cried at how cute the little boy was emulating her, head bowed, palms pressed tightly together under his nose. I wanted so badly to take his picture, but good manners trumped my impulses. I didn't want to be the obnoxious gaijin intruding on a solemn moment.

Further up the path, something I certainly wasn't expecting to find was a memorial to the concentration camp victims of Auschwitz.

"Here lie the souls of the sacrificed at Auschwitz Poland caused by the Nazism Policy against the Jewish people during the World War II. Together with that of Hiroshima, this utterly inhumane tragedy shall never again be repeated. We should ponder over ourselves of the avarice, rage and stupidity that are deeply infiltrated in the hearts of each and all, and cultivate the integrity that human shares."

I love the look of the inscription on the back of the marker.

The largest of the three waterfalls was a tall, slender stream tumbling over a giant cliff, though with all the greenery I couldn't get a clear photograph.

Up a bunch of steps to the temple itself, I was immediately struck by this horrific wooden statue in the entryway.

It was tough to get a good picture due to the darkness inside the temple and the bright daylight outside. But is this thing wild, or what? It's so graphic. I couldn't stop staring at it.

I don't know what this statue is supposed to represent, but the temple is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. So I find it a little puzzling that there's a crazed monster on the front step about to smash out the brains of an infant.

These sights were fascinating, but the best was yet to come. Following the path up the hill past the temple, I found myself in a magnificent bamboo forest. The beauty of this place is just beyond words. It was so peaceful. You can feel the spirit of this place, so palpably alive.

I hadn't planned on climbing Mt. Mitaki, but after making my way through the bamboo trees, my exuberance carried me the rest of the way. Here's me at the top:

Unfortunately, it started to sprinkle once I got to the peak and the visibility was nil, so I missed out on what is supposed to be another incredible view of Hiroshima. But that's OK. I know I will be back to this place at least three more times because I want to see it in each season. There are supposed to be around 500 maple trees on the temple grounds, which means it must be even more gorgeous in fall, and I can only imagine how pretty it will be with a gentle dusting of snow in winter or with the delicate cherry blossoms in spring. I only wish I'd discovered this place sooner.

Mitaki is quite easily my favorite temple in Japan, better even than the treasured ancient temples of Kyoto. And it's just a 20-minute trip from my house.

I don't usually post picture slide shows because I figure people don't really care enough to look through tons of photos, but in this case I'm making an exception because I want to share several more pictures. Enjoy.
Mitaki Temple


Anonymous said...

I've been lurking on your blog for months and really enjoying it. You have taught me a lot of things. I particularly enjoyed this post. I'm sorry I never got to Mitaki while I was in Hiroshima.

I visited the peace museum in 2007 and felt strongly that every world leader should get there. I appreciate what you wrote about Obama.

When I returned home to Pittsburgh David Bear, in the Post Gazette, wrote about my visit to Hiroshima and I received an interesting email from a Japanese doctor working here in Pittsburgh. You can see his email and my comments here:

Thanks for a great blog.
Ruthe Karlin

Gail said...

Hi Ruthe,
I'm so glad you enjoy my blog. Thanks for letting me know! It's always a pleasure to hear from readers and know that people are enjoying what I write. I'll be sure to check out your blog as well. How great that the Post Gazette featured it!

Al said...

These kinds of excursions are always best when done alone.

Just wait until you have kids. Try having a "nirvana moment" when kids are begging you for ice cream or to be somewhere else.

No, the magic of these places are not in the places themselves but in your mind frame upon entry. And the best way to enter them is by yourself, without anything to do the rest of the day.

michaelpanda said...

Wow, look at all that lush greenery! It's always a joy to find hidden gems like that in the countryside :) I'm surprised that there didn't seem to be another soul around in most of your pictures! Lucky!

Not to geek out on the photography, but you mentioned a couple of things that I wanted to comment on. The first was how you wished you could take a picture of the boy praying but didn't want to intrude on the scene. I totally understand that feeling! Actually, that's what telephoto/zoom lenses were invented for :) (well, that and photographing lions in Africa haha) It looks like you're shooting with a Panasonic DMC-TZ3, right? If I'm not mistaken, that camera has a pretty high quality Leica lens that zooms up to the equivalent of 280mm - that's pretty telephoto in my book! Was there any chance you could have taken his picture from far off to the side with the camera fully zoomed up? With a DSLR and a gigantic telephoto lens it still probably would have been obvious, but with a tiny point and shoot like the Panasonic, they would never have been any the wiser :P (as to whether it's okay to take photos of people without their knowledge in public settings like this, well, that's up to you to decide)

The other is the issue of trying to get good shots when the scene contains a huge dynamic range (like the bright outdoor sky and the dark indoor rooms of the temple in the same shot). Usually what people say to do (at least with DSLRs) is to shoot in RAW (not JPG), expose for the highlights (i.e. meter so that the sky is correctly exposed, but the dark areas are under exposed and too dark), and then bring up the exposure in the dark areas in post processing. It's a lot easier to recover good detail from underexposed areas by bringing it up than it is to get anything out of blown highlights (once the sky goes to all white, the sensor doesn't record anything and there's no data left to recover no matter what you do in post processing).

Unfortunately I don't think any of the panasonic point-n-shoots can shoot in RAW, which takes that option off the table, and also the small physical size of the sensors in tiny cameras like this produce a ton of noise which will only get worse when you try and recover underexposures. But you can still try to expose for the sky (there should be a button to adjust the exposure compensation which will darken/brighten the shot displayed on your LCD until the sky appears "right", even if the rest of the shot is too dark) and then bring up the darker parts of the image in photoshop using the "shadows/highlights" tool (does basically the same thing as "fill light" in RAW processing programs). Otherwise, you could try the auto-exposure bracketing function if your camera has it, and then combine the three shots to make a mildly HDR-photo or something like that.

Haha, okay sorry I geeked out there, but I remember feeling the same frustration back when I used to shoot a point and shoot camera and couldn't get my shots to capture the full dynamic range of what my eyes saw.

I can't wait to see this temple in the autumn - you must go back and take more pics!! :)

Geotacs said...

you take some really great pictures!

i was on the JET programme too... stayed for 3 full years... what an adventure and experience! Nagano Japan is like a 2nd home to me now!

two years already... staying for the third? another year will give you more time to explore more...

ja ne!

Gail said...

Thanks, Geotacs! Yeah, we are staying for our third and probably final year. So much to see, so little time!

Anonymous said...

Need some advice and guidance!

My Japanese/American daughter just arrived in Hiroshima to join her Japanese mom. She 14 and having an incredibly difficult time transitioning (she neither speaks nor reads Japanese). I am on the phone with her talking her through arrival, the first day of school (international high school but only six kids in her class who speak conversational Japanese with each other), I won't be able to join them for a couple of months. Can I rely on you from time to time for some insight and advice?

PS: is there a natural food store or health food store in the city?

Thank you in advance for your consideration. I love your blog and will check in often.

Jeffrey Reel
Omega Center for Holistic Studies
Rhinebeck, New York

Gail said...

Sure, I'd be happy to help you in any way I can. Would you mind leaving your email address for me? We can chat more through email.

Your daughter may be interested in attending the free Japanese classes offered at the Hiroshima International Center on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They really helped me with learning Japanese in my first year here, and she could meet some new friends there who also are new learners of Japanese.

As for a natural food store, I'm not sure, but there are a handful of imported food stores.

Moving to Japan can be a shock to the system, but I'm sure she will adapt quickly with the help of her mother and new friends at the international school. Best of luck to you!

Dan Spira said...

Gail, thank you for taking the time to put together this wonderful photo essay, as well as the December follow-up post. Beautifully written, and fantastic photos... I'm sold... will be visiting Hiroshima in 2 weeks and Mitaki is now near the top of my list of "must go to" places!

Keep up the great work!