Different Strokes for Buddhist Folks

In Japan, Buddhist and Shinto sacred spaces are so interwoven throughout the city, that you can be forgiven for confusing the two. While the two initially conflicted, they have since found a way to “co-exist and even complement each other,” according to Japan-Guide. The Shinto shrines were all new to me, which is why I posted on them first. They provide the people with both hope and comfort, thanks to their ever-present world of spirits.

Buddhism is more familiar to me. I began studying the teachings of the Buddha while an exchange student in Thailand, continued to meditate at Wat Thai in Washington, D.C., and have since taught 9th graders about the origins and practices of Buddhism for almost twenty years.

Buddhism Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.
Koyasu Pagoda at the Kiyomizudera Temple (780 CE). A visit here is said to guarantee an easy and safe childbirth—but don’t get any ideas about me having kids because that’s not why I went. However, I am picking up my puppy this weekend, so maybe that counts?

One of our favorite temples was one that most guidebooks overlooked. This was especially surprising since it sits only blocks from the Kyoto train station: Higashi Honganji Temple. We kept passing it in the bus, though, and I finally broke down and said, “It’s too big to ignore. Let’s go in.”

Buddhism Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.
The Higashi Honganji Temple, a five-minute walk from the Kyoto train station. Temple icon from Vexels.com.

The temple was magnificent. It was made of grand beams that had been hauled down the mountains by the faithful. Inside, entire rooms were gilded in gold leaf, and the rows tatami mats were the biggest I’ve ever seen.

Higashi Honganji is part of the Pure Land Buddhism sect, the one my students find the most perplexing. After we learn all about how the Buddha instructs us to break our fetters to the material world, here comes Pure Land that offers a beautiful, sensuous nirvana with trees made out of diamonds and pearls. How do you get there? By chanting the name of the heavenly Amitabha Buddha enough times, paying to have sutras copied, or other mystical rituals. The BBC says of Pure Land: “Pure Land Buddhism offers a way to enlightenment for people who can’t handle the subtleties of meditation, endure long rituals, or just live especially good lives.”

The other extreme is Zen Buddhism, which eschews the otherworldly and tells you to look inside yourself for the answers. Any activity can provide you with the opportunity for meditation, and even a simple lesson or riddle (called a koan) might spontaneously propel you to enlightenment. For example, Chinese Zen master Linji Yixuan said: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Wait, really? Well, no, not really, because murder is against the Five Precepts, but you must kill your attachment to the Buddha, and, in fact, not see him as the Buddha but as a mortal man like the rest of us. Any and all attachment causes dissatisfaction and disappointment in life (dukkha).

Buddhism Zen Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.
The Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavillion, Zen Buddhism Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

Zen gardens serve this purpose. You spend all your time building a cone of sand, like at the Ginkakuji temple above, but the real point is to destroy it once it’s finished. This is the only way to prove your detachment. Yeah, it’s really hard.

My biggest attachment while traveling is to my camera. My husband had to regularly remind me not to see Japan from behind a lens. (I use a Fuji X20, in case you were wondering. It’s awesome.) Many temples ask you not to take photos inside, which I understand because flash can cause damage over time to antiquities, and people taking selfies are annoying. However, I was not using flash, nor taking a selfie, and my camera can be totally silent, so…

Buddhism Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.
A stealth photo inside the Eikando Temple. I was shooting from the hip—literally—so please excuse the angle.

I broke the rules. Sorry. The Buddha would be very disappointed in me. But there was just so much to photograph. I will finish this post with the gorgeous Kinkakuji Temple, northwest of Kyoto center. Go in peace, my friend.

Buddhism Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

Shinto in Kyoto: Good Wishes and Safe Travels

Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan since the 8th century, teaches us about spirits, or kami, who inhabit inanimate objects and the landscape in general.

Shinto Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

One way that we can communicate with these spirits is through inscribed wooden wishing plaques, or ema, that adherents leave at shrines. There were hundreds of miniature wooden gates (below) that mimicked the thousands of life-sized vermillion portals at Fushimi Inari (top), a huge shrine which reaches all the way up the side of a mountain southeast of Kyoto.

Shinto Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

Since the white fox is the messenger animal of the spirit Inari, he has his own special wooden wishing plaques, too.

Shinto Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

Making wishes sounds like fun, doesn’t it? But Shinto has a maudlin side, too. For example, jizo rocks represent the god who helps deceased children into the next world. Jizo gods can be found everywhere, each donated by a family who had lost a son or daughter. (And, yes, the bibs keep the god warm!) This particular collection was found in the middle of a strip mall in the Sanjo Dori area near our hotel.

Shinto Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

If I remember correctly, there was a Starbucks across the walkway from this shrine—and by the end of our week there, that kind of contrast no longer surprised me at all. Stay tuned for more on Kyoto’s mix of tradition and modernity.

Shinto Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. History ever after.

Japan’s Warm Welcome: Suzuki-San

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Our warmest welcome—and our biggest find—was the Kyoto Suzuki Furudouguten. Welcome to Mr. Hallock’s childhood in 1970s Japan.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Mr. H grew up in toy stores—not the mall kind, nor the department store kind, but the small neighborhood kind with action figures and trading cards and stuff. The whole time we were in Kyoto, he complained that they didn’t exist anymore.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Guess what we found? Suzuki-san! We met the nicest man who owned a great store with everything Mr. H wanted. Man, I did not know so many action figures existed! Well, the scantily-clad women, I knew they existed.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

We left with some very special souvenirs, too. See those two signs in the middle picture below? One is of chocolate cigarettes and the other shows a Japanese housewife preparing fast food. We checked both in repurposed cardboard boxes as our luggage allowance because that’s how we roll.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

And didn’t we find just the place for both signs? From a corner store in Kyoto to a country kitchen in New England.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

I do not think the model for this beautiful woman would really have poured mystery meat out of a package, but I gotta say she looks good on our pantry door.

America warm welcome Kyoto Japan by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Now I have a reminder of our amazing trip every time I walk into the kitchen. I judge my voyages by my souvenirs, and this trip was a winner.

Japan for History Geeks

It has been a while since I’ve taught a world history survey course, but I do remember that one of my favorite lessons was about the Meiji Restoration in Japan.

What was that? Let’s start at the beginning. In medieval times, the emperor of Japan was a prisoner in his own palace in Kyoto. Though he was still considered a god in the Shinto religion, and though he was too holy to touch the ground, his divinity meant nothing politically and economically for 675 years. From 1192 to 1867, the military dictator who collected taxes, made treaties, and governed was called the shogun. And it benefitted the shogun to keep the emperor holed up in his palace. Now, it is a nice palace, as you can see below. Maybe a little cold in winter, but nice. Still, it was still a prison.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The photo on the left is the throne room of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. In the shadows, you can still see the thrones, which will be moved to Tokyo soon because the emperor is stepping down in favor of his son. On the right is the emperor’s privacy tent in his living quarters. Does that tatami mat look super thick? Why, yes, because it’s for the emperor!

The shogun was meant to keep peace amongst all the daimyo, or feudal lords, each who had their own stable of knights, or samurai. But battles still happened. Fortified homes were still needed, like the one at Himeji, Japan’s most beautiful surviving castle.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

(Note: Though most people focus on just the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the United States Army Air Corps actually destroyed an additional 64 cities in this war, killing 333,000 people and making 15 million homeless. According to the Himeji tour, about 2/3 of the city itself was destroyed, but the single firebomb that landed on the roof of the castle failed to detonate. Luck? Check out the fish below to find out.)

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Inside Himeji Castle’s wooden interior. On the right, see one of the double doors, a key piece of protection for when you are fighting in feudal times. You can open the door to let a few warriors out without getting a whole slew of attackers coming in. Hey, that’s useful. Maybe I’ll install one here in New Hampshire.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
At the corner of each portion of the roof, you will see a flying fish (left picture). This one is several hundred years old and has been preserved for visitors to see close up. These were meant to protect the castle from fire. Was that the reason the incendiary bomb did not go off in World War II? Being traditionally-clad courtiers, Stephen and I (on the right) think so.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A view of the main castle from the expanded quarters of Princess Sen and her family.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
On the left is a hole in the defensive wall tall enough for archers to maneuver and aim. They can lean left or right to follow their targets. There are also square, triangle, and circle holes that serve the same purpose, but for guns. On the right, the visitor can see roof tiles dedicated to the ruling family. Himeji changed hands several times, and each family added a new symbol to the roof.

The shogun was best when he kept the daimyo from fighting each other, but the farther away he lived, the harder it was for him to keep the peace. Where did he live? It depended upon where the home base of the shogun’s clan and was. For the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, this meant Edo, or Tokyo. He did have to visit Kyoto on occasion, though, so he needed a private residence here: Nijo Castle.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The beautiful copper and wood roof of Nijo Castle.

When you visit Nijo Castle, ironically, you can see the end of the shogun’s power. When Commodore Perry of the US Navy forcibly opened Japan to unconstrainted Western trade and exploration, it could have spelled an end to the country’s independence. China was carved into spheres of influence, and some in Japan feared the same for them. The European powers were taking rival sides at court, some backing the emperor and others backing the shogun and daimyo.

Unlike other countries in world history, though, the Japanese realized that a civil war would only benefit foreigners. The emperor (who was only 17), his advisors, and the shogun worked out a compromise, restoring political and military power to the emperor. The edict of the Meiji Restoration (1867) was proclaimed from this very room in Nijo Castle. Today you can see models of the shogun, his bodyguard, and his loyal supporters, all ready to welcome the emperor. Yay, the emperor can leave his house now!

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This was the moment that changed everything for Japan. Soon education became universal, Western (“Dutch”) science and technology were accepted, and the military was modernized. Within a few decades, Japan became an imperial power itself. Now, that did not go so well for lots of people, especially after the military rose to power again: the defeat of Russia in 1905 (which led to a revolution there), the colonization of Korea and Taiwan, the invasion of China, the Nanking Massacre, the invasion of Southeast Asia, the Pacific War, and so on. Hence the firebombing mentioned above. But I digress…

The point is that we saw lots of history. It was great.

Young Love in Japan

If you believe Mr. Hallock, the Japanese celebrate Christmas like Valentine’s Day. You still have to go to work, but you get to eat chocolate—and celebrate young love! As a romance author, I felt right at home.

young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Couples making a wish at Yasaka Koshin-Do in Kyoto, Japan. Sewn pouches called “good faith monkeys” have their hands and feet bound together outside a statue of the guardian warrior, Shomen Kongo. This restraint reflects the binding of a single desire in order to have the guardian grant your other wishes. On Christmas Eve, the temple was full of couples binding their desires together. It may not be your idea of a romantic date, but there are plenty of Japanese who would disagree with you.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A couple getting a photo in underneath Himeji Castle in the Kokoen Garden.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Carriages take lovers through the Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama on Christmas Day.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
On the streets in Gion, tradition mixes with modernity. I did not want to be that person foisting my camera lens in people’s faces, but I could not help it.

A few years ago, it was reported that record numbers of Japanese are forgoing marriage for career and lifestyle. They may have chosen “happy for now” over “happily ever after,” but they are still living and loving.