Friday, 1 January 2016

Money and Religion

Date: Friday 1st January 2016

Weather: Another beautiful day with the sun shinning giving the sky a lovely light blue colour. Small fluffy white clouds helped breakup the monotony of the blue. The temperature was a lot higher than yesterday meaning that I regretted wearing my jumper under my coat.

MP3 track of the day: Money, money, money - Abba

At 10:45pm, on the 31st December 2015, I turned my PC off and went out into the night. Those of you who know me, will know that I am in no way a night person. At night, groups of people decent on the world and, fairly polite 'day people', turn into 'yobs' under the cover of darkness. Even so, I did up my coat and marched east in the direction of the shrine I was planning to visit tonight. Having been within Nara's park during the day, I knew where I needed to go without any help from a map. I proceeded east, ignoring the few people that were gathering in groups around me. I had been told that hundreds of people would be entering Nara's park tonight however, for now at least, there were only a handful of small groups. As I got closer to the shrine, things started to get livelier. Stores were open, selling over-priced food and low-quality goods, all of which I ignored. Though smaller in number, the deer were still roaming around wondering what all of the fuss was about. Still they didn't seem to mind; the people selling the 'deer biscuits' may have 'shut up shop', but that didn't stop the jolly Japanese crowd from giving the deer a selection of the over-priced food from the food stands.

Finally I was on the uphill approach to Kasgua Taisha shrine. The time was 11:15pm and the temple was still shut. I therefore joined a queue – I had no choice; the queue took over the whole pathway – which by now was a good thirty rows deep with me at the back.

After ten minutes the crowds had swelled so much that, even thirty rows back, I was now considered to be 'at the front of the queue'. A policeman on a loud speaker broadcast some safety announcements and told everyone that the temple would open on the stroke of twelve. Being a 'worrier', I moved to the edge of the queue which, though slower, meant that I was next to the rope barrier and, once past that, an embankment which I could climb up to save myself from any potential stampede or if a panicked deer got caught in the crowds. I did think about leaving the queue however, like I said, I was now considered to be at the front and therefore, it would probably be quicker to follow the process through than fight my way through a hundred or so lines deep of people.

With a minute to go lights illuminated the pathway and I, for the first time, could see the entirety of the crowd gathered. '5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1, hurray', a few Japanese people said. At this point most people wished each other a happy new year before returning to whatever they were doing in the queue before the new year struck. No fireworks could be seen, no explosion of light; a rather mundane opening to the new year, I thought.

Huge groups of a hundred or so people were allowed into the shrine at a time. I must have been part of the third or forth group to enter. You have to give the organisers their dues; the system in place had been well thought through. When it was my groups turn to enter the shrine, the people before us had cleared the area in which people threw money into a large trough before clapping their hands and praying for a happy new year. Once done the Japanese people then proceeded into the shrine's grounds and to the many shops selling all manner of charms and religious 'mumbo jumbo'. I was fascinated as I watched people moving from one shop to another buying these artefacts that, though nice, would have little bearing on whether they have a good 2016 or not. They then placed these artefacts within the temple grounds at certain locations before praying, and then leaving. I too decided that it was time to leave. I left following the organisers 'one-way system' without spending a single Yen.

As I finally made it back to the path where I'd been queuing to get in, the crowds were getting larger, not smaller. I went away trying to calculate just how much money the temple would be making on this night; it must run into the tens of millions of Yen. This is one of my biggest problems with all major religions of the world. When it comes down to it, most of them put emphasis on the fact that their 'savour', or God(s), is a poor man from a normal background, trying to put the message across that doing good deeds is what gets you to paradise / heaven and yet, though this 'humble background' is important, the major religions of the world are some of the richest businesses within the world – and they are businesses. The Vatican City is one of the richest countries / principalities on earth. Why is all this money needed? Why, when our 'savour' came to earth with nothing, do these religions have more money deposited in their banks than some of the poorest countries create in ten years. Why, if helping the poor and needy is so detrimental to most of the biggest religions core beliefs, is more money spent on their buildings, fine garments and 'things' than is directed to the people who truly need it. Religious organisations have a huge workforce which only require 'expenses'. They pressurise people into parting with their money in return for salvation and yet, going to a temple / church / mosque and praying is helping no one at all apart from making the person doing the act feel good about themselves. I read an interesting quote on Facebook the other day about the planet in which inhabit; “... I wish people would spend more time thinking about how to save our planet than arguing how it was created...” If all the people here followed through with their festival but, instead of purchasing talismans and charms, put their money towards helping the environment, I wonder how much money could have been raised in Japan alone, on one night. I don't have a problem with people who practice in religion; I don't have a problem with people who believe in God. Where my problem lies is with the money generated by these businesses, for no other reason than to try and show the world that 'our little group (be it Catholic, Muslim or Buddhist) is best because of all of our impressive buildings'. The money generated for religious businesses is to show how powerful they are and nothing else … and don't get me started on how many lives the main religions have taken through conflict.

As you can probably tell, this trail of thought lasted for quite some time; so much so that by the time I'd decided that the world would be a much better place without any kind of religion (oh and I want to make clear that I believe 'religion' and 'God' are two totally separate things. Religion is a set of rules CREATED BY MAN on how he thinks God should be worshipped), I'd made it back to my hotel. The time was 1am and so I went straight to bed. As I was only planning on seeing four temples tomorrow – in two different locations – an early start was not needed.


My double bed, though comfortable, was quite weird. I'm not sure if it's meant to be this way however, half of the bed seemed to have a firm mattress whereas, the other half seems to be as soft as tissue. Preferring a hard mattress, I slept on the right-hand side of the bed however, when I rolled to my left during the night, it was as if I'd rolled off the edge of a cliff as my body started to sink into the soft half of the mattress. At 8:20am my alarm went off. I had a quick shower before I got on with reading about where I would be going today. The four temples I wanted to visit today all had astronomical entry costs (ranging from £5 to £9) therefore, I decided that I would only actually enter one of the temples, and peer through the entry gates of the other three. The temple I would be paying to enter would be 'Horyu-ji'; an UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the oldest wooden building on Earth. With that decided I left my hotel but I didn't got to 'Vieda France' for breakfast. Yesterday I'd managed to find a 'Mr Donuts' close to my apartment and, due to being cheaper, I headed there instead. Once I'd consumed three doughnuts I went to the train station and boarded a 'rapid' train to Horyu-ji.

Horyu-ji is located six kilometres out of Nara's city centre therefore, it didn't take long to get there. Whilst waiting for my train at Nara's main JR train station, I popped into the local tourist information shop where I was presented with a very handy A4 map of Horyu-ji and it's surrounding town. Whilst on the train I noticed that the town, not only held Horyu-ji temple, but it also had one of the other temples I wanted to 'peer into' today – Chugu-ji – plus another two temple sites and four small ponds. I designed a circular walking route which allow me to see all of these 'attractions', ending up at Horyu-ji. Once off the train I had a twenty minute walk towards the town in beautiful sunshine and blazing heat, which I'd never experienced in December before. After a good four kilometres or so I'd made it to the first temple where I took a photo of it's outer walls, with it's inner buildings leering over the top. I did the same at the next temple before I walked past all four of the 'ponds'. The word 'pond' is not how I'd describe them. Man-made holes filled with, what can only be described as sewage and stagnant water, half filled a few of these 'ponds' with the others bone dry. I therefore by-passed these without stopping to take a photograph.

Chugu-ji was next on my list. This was one of the three temples on today's 'peer into' list. It was famous because it held artwork showing a Buddha entering Nirvana … so, just like every other temple though, apparently, this artwork was 'special'. After a couple of photos I left the ticket lady standing and proceeded onto Horyu-ji where I stopped, open mouthed, at the entrance. 1,500 Yen! £9 to enter a stupid old UESCO temple! I couldn't believe it. I wasn't the only one stood looking at the women within the ticket office, wondering how they could call themselves 'religious people'. I sat down and quickly scanned my guidebook; this was the temple with the oldest wooden building on the planet. I did really want to see that. I therefore paid the ridiculous entry cost but I wasn't happy about it. I don't think a place like this should be free however, I don't think it should be making a huge profit either. I therefore used the most minimum amount of Japanese possible – and choose words which weren't in their most polite form – and at some points I choose not to speak at all; all in order to show my disgust.

Once inside the temple grounds I did something I haven't done that often before and, honestly, I don't know why. Usually, when walking around an attraction, I would have read my guidebook beforehand, and then put it away favouring having my camera in my hands at all times. This time I had my guidebook open and read it as I toured the site. It was like I had my own personal tour guide and do you know what; it was fantastic. My guidebook had just enough information to allow me to see all of the important things, but not too much information so that I would get bored. Due to my guidebook's age, certain exhibits had been rearranged meaning that the monks on patrol probably witnessed the strangest route, around their temple grounds, taken by any foreigner who had entered. There were signs restricting access and asking for no photos within certain areas; I ignored these requests to some degree given the colossal entry fee.

My guidebook allowed me to pick out a few interesting details in some of the temple's artwork. Actually, by now I was starting to enjoy myself. The oldest wooden building in the world was pretty spectacular. Though it looked like most other wooden temple buildings, knowing that it was built in the late seventh century gave it a special feel. The five-storey pagoda next to it was different to most other pagodas I've seen due to the fact that you could actually see into it and behold it's carvings – what the carvings showed, I wasn't 100% sure.

I'd spent over an hour within Horyu-ji, and just over two within it's surrounding area. Would I say that the temple was worth it's entry cost? I certainly would not however, it is nice to say that I've now seen the world's oldest wooden building – it had better not catch fire any time soon.

Once Horyu-ji had been seen, I went back to the train station and caught the next train bound for Nara however, I got off two stops earlier at Koriyama. My final two temples – Yakushi-ji and Toshodai-ji – were just under a two kilometre walk away to the north. Once there the hefty entry costs kept me out, though one of the temples was scheduled to have a painting of Kissho-ten - the goddess of peace, happiness and beauty - on display (it only goes on display for four weeks in the year). Once again I peered through the entry gates; the crowds of Japanese people entering to pray for a good new year bought me ample time to take a few photos.

After these last two temples had been visited, I decided to forget the train and to walk a further two kilometres back into the heart of Nara. The sun was starting to set though it was still pretty hot. By this time my feet were aching and my mind was just on a continual loop of 'what I would order tonight from the same restaurant I'd visited yesterday'. It isn't the distance which had crushed my feet and my energy, it's the surface in which I've had to walk over today. I hate paved roads as there is little 'give' as your foot smashes down onto it.

Finally, heroically, I stumbled into the restaurant I'd visited yesterday and sat at the first empty table I could find. This time I ordered a pizza with a side of chips and, once again, unlimited drinks. I must have been more tired than I thought as I also, for some unknown reason, ordered a salad as a side dish. Once everything had been consumed I ordered a strawberry parfait for dessert before leaving the restaurant. I then bought breakfast for tomorrow before returning to my hotel where the owner provided me with yet more useful information for my 'day trip' tomorrow.

So tomorrow I will be getting up early and taking a train – with two changes – to Ise; a national park at the bottom of Mie prefecture and, according to Shinto beliefs, is where Japan actually started. Within this park are two temples – oh goodie; both are free though – and a huge forested area. Once there I have no idea what I am going to do. There is a train line which runs all the way through the park so that sounds like a good way of seeing a lot in the little time I have. One things is for sure though; even though I'll be going to a national park, I will be trying to give my feet a well earned rest.

Toodle Pip!

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