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Woman in the Rice Field

Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Sound of Silence
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

“Ise Ryo!” the driver announced to the only passenger as the small bus creaked to a stop at the side of the narrow road. Kuro-e thanked the driver and stepped out onto the roadside. The bus pulled away, leaving her standing next to a big rice field. She looked around. This can’t be right. Where is the temple?

This morning, Kuro-e checked out from the hotel in Kanazawa and took a train to Takaoka, then changed to a local train going north along Toyama Bay to the small town Amabarashi. The tiny one-room station was empty. Kuro-e found two old men outside, sitting on a bench chatting. She asked them for direction to Kokutaiji. The men thought for a moment and discussed between themselves, then gave their consensus: Kuro-e had taken the wrong mode of transportation; she would need to take a bus from there to another small town called Ise Ryo.

Kokutaiji is a 7-cenuty-old Zen temple in Toyama on the western coast of Japan. It was a temple of the Fuke sect, known for the unusual and rather mysterious ceremony of komuso monks playing shakuhachi while wearing bamboo baskets over their heads. Far from big cities, few tourists visit the temple, making it less commercialized and more intriguing.

Walking along the rice field, Kuro-e spotted a local woman farmer in a conical bamboo hat tending the newly planted crop. She called out to the woman asking for the way to the temple. The woman straightened up, shielded her eyes from the sun, then pointed towards a low hill at the far end of the field. Kuro-e thanked her and picked her way across the field along a dirt footpath. The fierce summer sun was beating down on her. She thought about the farmer working under the same sun and stopped grumbling. 45 minutes later, she found the temple.

Kokutaiji turned out to be an impressive temple with multiple buildings on its large premise. It once must have been an important shrine; now it seemed kind of run-down. Kuro-e walked through the main entrance past a pair of fearsome-looking Nio guardian statues into a beautiful garden with a koi pond. No one was in sight. Beyond the garden, she entered a large rectangular courtyard and rock garden, surrounded by long corridors of the main halls and connected buildings. Their wooden walls had aged to a dull gray. The doors of the main hall were open, but Kuro-e did not see any monks or visitors. The most impressive feature of the rock garden were the unusually massive rocks. The biggest one weighing 42 tons was reputed to be the largest rock in any Japanese gardens. Dark moss covered many of the rocks and much of the ground, giving the garden a rather somber feeling.

Behind the rock garden was a small tea-house, not immaculately manicured, just a rustic structure with weathered walls and holes in the paper windowpanes. Kuro-e imagined monks might have used the hut for centuries for tea ceremonies or meditation. Beyond the tea-house, Kuro-e found a flight of stone stairs leading up the hillside. A 3-tier pagoda with a golden pointed finial sat at the top. She ascended the stairs and found another flight of stairs behind that pagoda, leading higher up to a wooden shrine with a massive ornate roof covered with ceramic tiles. The shrine sat on a raised wooden platform supported by pillars, flanked by a pair of stone pagodas. Painted in gold on a plaque over the closed doors were four Chinese characters 天聖寳殿 - Heavenly Scared Hall.

The ground around the shrine was wet and muddy. Kuro-e tip-toed behind the shrine and found a cave dug into the hillside, big enough for a man to crawl into. She walked closer to peek inside. At that instant, a sharp shriek caused her to jump back in surprise. The shriek came not from the cave, but from above. She looked up and saw a Japanese golden eagle taking flight from its nest on a tall Japanese pine. The big bird circled low overhead before flying away. Suddenly, Kuro-e felt afraid and alone in this rather mysterious spot. Sensing that she had intruded into some forbidden territory, she turned around and hurried down the stairs back to the lower part of the temple.

Back in the rock garden, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows off the gigantic rocks. Kuro-e set up her camera to take some photos. She noticed a pair of straw sandals outside the sliding shoji screen door of one of the buildings. Perhaps a monk had entered that building, leaving the sandals outside. It was then she heard the rhythmic sound, faint but unmistakable, like someone playing a mokugyo (Buddhist wooden percussion instrument). That was the first time she heard someone else might be around. The percussion sound came from the back of the building. Quietly, she followed the sound, expecting to find a monk playing the instrument. When she turned the corner, what she saw mystified her. There was no one there; yet the sound continued. She looked up and saw a piece of wood hanging on a string from the eave, swinging against the side of the building in the wind.

Kuro-e stood there transfixed, twilight glow on her face, a breeze in her hair, letting the only sound of the temple seared into her memory.

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Kokutaiji   Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

To be continued