As a nomadic gentleman, I'm happiest exploring the world's most remote places, watching the sun rise through the bottom of my whiskey glass. I shall insert a link to my cleanest blog shortly. Cheerio!
Published February 22nd 2015
Flying plum trees -good gracious
Fifteen minutes drive from glorious, green-drenched seaside Fukuoka City, lies Dazaifu Tenman-gu, one of Japan's most lovely Shinto shrines. But don't flee -this isn't your typical dreary shrine review! No, this exquisite site crackles with courtly intrigue, spiritual revenge, and an aeronautical fruit tree -hardly typical of your average temple.
In 900 A.D Sugawara no Michizane, a learned poet and advisor to the emperor, was exiled to Japan's south island of Kyushu in his last years, as a result of court intrigues. So, after writing a poem to his his plum tree, he departed for this spot. It worked wonders, for his plum tree allegedly uprooted itself and flew after him, an uncommon action for a plum tree. Spoilsports have claimed he brought the tree himself, but we know better, don't we?
Sugawara spent his declining years being melancholy and writing poetry. After his death in 903, Japan was assailed by floods, storms, and the Imperial palace was struck numerous times by lightning. Fearing this was the wrathful spirit of Sugawara, officials built this shrine to honour him. Seventy years later, they granted him the status of a deity, Tenjin, the god of learning. And dash it all if it isn't a glorious sight!
You'll find the shrine in one of the most charming parts of Dazaifu City, with pretty narrow streets selling squid dishes and other local delicacies. The paved alley leading to the shrine is gloriously old fashioned, with tiny exotic tea houses with delicately manicured garden hidden out the back. Shops sell omiyage (souvenirs), as well as rice cakes and hot mochi, colourful buns of blue, pink, red, orange, purple, and green made of rice flour filled with red bean paste, white bean paste, strawberries, or other fillings, prepared and cooked over an open fire. They are universally superb in taste, as is the plum ice cream.
You'll pass under a grey stone tori, which represents leaving the confusion and doubt of the profane world behind, and entering the cleansing wisdom and restoring energy of the spirit world.
Before you lies Taiko bridge, a lengthy stone structure over Shinji pond, composed of two picturesque arches with a flat island section in the centre. Ascending the first arch, you're among the mighty branches and endless dancing green leaves of the trees surrounding the lake. This first arch represents the past.
The flat central section, from where you may glimpse the languid koi fish drifting through the dark silent waters, represents the present, and the last arch, rising once again into the refreshing breeze and the heavenly green canopies, represents the future. It's actually a Buddhist concept, that one should hold only one thought in mind at any one time, in order to have peace. Crossing the red bridge represents growth on the path to salvation. Furthermore, lovely Shinji pond is shaped to resemble the ideogram for heart. It's all jolly uplifting.
A long path lies before you, dotted with stone lanterns, edged by mighty trees and cheerful gardens, culminating in the mighty entrance gate. But stop before it to wash your grubby hands in this serene pond, with its carved tortoise on the bottom, before entering this holy place!
Near the entrance, you'll find a bronze statue of an ox, wearing a white and red headband: it was alleged that the ox pulling Sugawara's hearse stopped at this point, refusing all commands to continue, so his body was buried at this spot. The headband is a hajimaki, it represents perseverance, and these were worn by pilots in WW2 -usually bearing the ideogram for kamikaze (divine wind). This is to further honour this shrine, for when Kublai Khan's Mongols invaded Kyushu in 1279 with 140,000 troops, they were defeated by a typhoon -sent by Sugawara, naturally.
Enter the vast courtyard, you'll see miniature trees, ponds with koi swimming beneath tiny footbridges, statues, and manicured shrubs - a scene to delight the most dour of visitors.
Take your time strolling across the mighty courtyard, the blue stone beneath your feet and the fathomless sky overhead may give you the impression you've already reached heaven.
To the right of the altar you'll find tobiume, the famous plum tree, and in Autumn the purple blossoms are a sight to melt the heart and lift the spirits.
The shrine spans 12 square km, with many auxiliary shrines, 6000 plum trees of 167 varieties, and a treasure house, containing priceless tenth century historical documents, various swords, and other historical artifacts. At exam times hordes of students come here to write their wishes on wooden tablets called ema and hang them at the temple for luck.