Sunday, November 20, 2011

Item From the Past: Ishiyama-dera

November 30, 1991

"Warm and sunny day, flawless weather to visit the exquisite Ishiyama-dera. I went with Ed and Lynn, two former fellow teachers, and Americans as it happens, to the temple, which is in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. It's near the shores of unscenic Lake Biwa, the sludgepot that provides greater Osaka with its drinking water.

'No, that's not the best way to begin to describe Ishiyama-dera, which is set in the forested hills not far from the lake. You forget about Biwa while visiting the fine old wooden structures, which manage to convey their great age through their smell, somehow, maybe redolent of centuries of incense. This time of year, the temple also has the aesthetic advantage of seasonal reds and yellow. It augments the aura of esoteric objects honoring esoteric gods on remote shores."

Not much of a description, but I can fortify it with more information. "Ishiyama Dera was established in 749 by a Kegon priest named Ryôben at the request of Emperor Shômu (701-756; reigned 724-749) to enshrine an image of Nyoirin Kannon," says the Yamasa Institute's Japan Travel Guide. "At the time, the Emperor was praying for the discovery of gold to assist in his undertaking of the construction of the great Buddha of Tôdai-ji Temple in Nara.

"The Hondo, or Main Hall, designated a National Treasure, was built upon a great megalith, which contributes to the temple’s fame as one of the eight scenic views of Ômi, the Autumn Moon from Ishiyama-dera. The Hondo was built architecturally in a veranda construction style called 'Butai Zukuri'. The Tahoto Pagoda (treasure tower) was built by Minamoto Yoritomo in 1194 in the Kamakura period, and is the oldest of its type in Japan.

"Inside the Hondo is the Room of Genji, where Shikibu Murasaki created the plot of the
Genji Monogatari or the The Tale of Genji, a famous court story of the Heian period and believed by many to be the world's first novel. Murasaki is said to have begun writing The Tale of Genji, at Ishiyama on the night of the full moon in August 1004. The temple is mentioned in the Ukifune chapter of the story. A life-size figure of the author at work is displayed in this room."

I remember seeing the Lady Murasaki mannequin, looking pale and mannequin-like. Years ago I read the first few chapters of The Tale of Genji, a Charles E. Tuttle Co. publication (Tuttle Publishing these days) of a translation by British orientialist Arthur David Waley. My copy, a two-volume paperback boxed set, resides in one of the bookshelves near the desk, quietly reminding my that I'll never get around to reading everything I'd like to.

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