The Miyasako Magaibutsu of Bungo Ono

Japanese History in Stone Relief

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Not far from lovely Harajiri Falls, in the Bungo Ono district of Oita, Japan, are the infrequently visited Miyasako Magaibutsu (Miyasako Stone reliefs), which are more often referred to by the people nearby as the Ogata sekibutsu (the latter being the common word for ‘stone buddha,’ while ‘Ogata’ is the historical place name.)  There are actually two sites, the West and East reliefs, both with carvings in hollowed-out volcanic rock outcroppings. The East relief is in somewhat better condition. (And is the only site shown in these photos.)

From the parking turnout (where there are men’s and women’s restrooms) a paved walk of several hundred meters leads past terraced rice paddies up to the East reliefs.  (In fact, there are two paths, with no sign indicating which to take. Use the one on the right as you face the hillside; it goes directly to the site.  The left will also get you there, so long as you follow the faded “Miyasako East Sekibutsu” sign pointing right a few hundred meters up the trail.)

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There is no temple or shrine at these reliefs, and no indication there ever was any.  The carvings are estimated to be over 800 years old, and were purportedly commissioned by Ogata Koreyoshi, a local samurai who won fame in the Gempei War, the final conflict of the Heian Period (794-1185.)  The central statue of the East relief is of the seated Dainichi Nyorai.  Though the overall condition is quite deteriorated, the expression of this figure is very distinctive, not at all typical of the style of the period, but clearly one of wonderment and human-like imperfection.

The Nyorai is guarded on his left by the sword-carrying Immovable One (Fudou Myou-oo), and on his right by the God of Wealth and Warriors (Bishamonten), as well as a Nio-oo warrior (depicted, as always, with hand on hip) on the far right.  With this entirely martial retinue, it seems possible that the face of the central Nyorai might actually have been modeled on the heroic samurai himself, Lord Oogata.

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I should add that these reliefs are a five minute drive from the ruins of Oka-jou Castle.  Work on the castle started in 1185, at about the same time as the Miyasako carvings.  Nothing remains of the castle’s keep, or any other buildings, but it was a very large fortress with extensive battlements.  It offers commanding views of the lush hills and valleys of Bungo Ono.

 

The Creations of Yamakatsu

A seminar on Kuromontsuki dyeing

Nagoya and the surrounding environs, which lay rightful claim to the birthplace of modern Japanese culture, offer the visitor to Japan unlimited potential for historical and cultural exploration. If one is fascinated by traditional Japanese apparel, for instance, there is no better place to study the art of silk kimono dyeing than Nagoya’s Yamakatsu (Nakamura Shoten); as for the very unique practice of kuromontsuki (black and white crested dyes), it might be the only place.

The people at Yamakatsu specialize in hand-crafted dyeing of kimono and other traditional Japanese apparel. All of the methods used at Yamakatsu are labor intensive, involving a great amount of specialized knowledge, materials and equipment. The beautiful patterns of bokashi-zome (seen below) found on an authentic, hand-made kimono are a pure form of art, a labor of love in the truest sense. Sadly, with the exception of a few dedicated artisans, very few places in Japan still create genuine hand-dyed kimono fabrics.

 

 

Yamakatsu also prides itself on its lovely kuromonstuki creations. These stylish patterns are traditional, yet boldly eye-catching and seriously modern. Achieving an evenly-graded blend of black and white is the challenge in this method, and much more difficult than one might expect. By using any of the lovely, multitudinous Japanese crests – which is only possible with the use of original patterns and materials – one has the opportunity to create a design that is fashionable, striking and personal all at once.

 

 

Yamakatsu offers the occasional workshop in traditional dyeing techniques. On March 17 a kuromonstsuki class will be held at the Nagoya Castle Hotel. Here’s an opportunity to visit beautiful Nagoya, take in the castle as the first cherry blossoms are emerging, and even create your own kuromonstuki design.  Lunch is included.

For more information, or to make a reservation, go to:

http://www.castle.co.jp/hnc/event/detail.php?id=471

Kodo – the Way of Incense

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In a Kodo workshop, there are more challenges than simply identifying different scents. You must grind your own india ink, take notes with a calligraphy brush, and listen very carefully.  On the other hand,  you will not be asked to sit seiza – though you may do so if you wish.

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Ask your Japanese passerbye on the street about the practice of Kodo, and you’re likely to get a blank stare, or a slow shake of the head.  Kodo, which can be translated as the Way of Incense, or the Way of Fragrance, is not nearly so well-known as some of the other Japanese arts.  Yet it is akin to the Tea Ceremony (Sado), and utilizes the accouterments of Japanese calligraphy (Shodo), having emerged along with these more popular disciplines from the same historical milieu, the artistic and spiritual renaissance of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, over four hundred years ago.

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While the enjoyment of incense, in particular the rare “sinking woods” of Southeast Asia, was first recorded in Japan more than a thousand years ago, Kodo in its modern form is a meditative practice that focuses on the individual’s connection with the natural world. Perhaps more than any other Japanese art, it adheres to its Zen roots, offering an antidote to that “blank stare” sense of isolation that pervades our preoccupied, over-stimulated lives

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Performed in a group, in a quiet tatami room, a Kodo workshop often begins with the sensei’s comments on the natural world, followed by a “game” of kumikoh, in which practitioners attempt to identify several subtlety different scents.  In this test of olfactory acuity the student is advised to listen (rather than smell) the fragrance of tiny chips of heated wood.  Whether due to the focus of the discussion, or to the intense concentration required to differentiate the scents during the contest, the practitioner will achieve a clarity of consciousness – a mindfulness, if you will – that can continue for hours after.

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For centuries known only to the families of samurai lords and Edo merchants, Kodo is today gaining a greater following in Japan and abroad.  But there are only two schools, the Shino and the Oie, and unless you speak Japanese fluently, you will need to find a workshop with a good interpreter to fully enjoy the experience.   [The Shino school offers bilingual workshops periodically.  See  www.shinoryu.jp]

It would be worth your time to take a listen.

 

 

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