Closing my eyes and clasping my hands together, I took small, careful steps forward.
The instructions were simple, really: From a large stone placed on the floor, walk with your eyes closed until you reach another stone.
It was only 20m, but when you can’t see anything, it can feel like 2km.
Some people giggled softly as I walked past.
“Oh, no. I’m about to bump into something, aren’t I?” I thought to myself, as curiosity drove me to sneak a peek … and see that I wasn’t even halfway there!
Love and blind stones
The strange ritual I was attempting was at the Jishu-jinja shrine, steeped in myth and mystery, and tucked away atop Mount Kiyomizu in Kyoto, Japan.
And if you did what I was supposed to do – complete the walk (minus the peeking) – you will find true love. Or so says the legend behind the mekura-ishi, or blind stones, placed in an open space along this bright orange shrine.
Feeling like I just stepped into an Indiana Jones movie, this temple of love is also guarded by Japan’s own version of Cupid – a god known as Okuninushino-mikoto, whom believers turn to for love and good matches. Holding up a mallet in his right hand, this mighty statue stands watch near the entrance of the shrine, together with a magical rabbit which serves as his messenger.
At another corner of this mystical temple, people can make their problems “disappear” by writing them on a piece of doll-shaped paper and dipping it into a pail of water.
When the paper dissolves, so will your troubles, reads a sign next to the pail filled with paper confessions.
Or simply, one can just buy lucky charms off the counter. But no magical items needed, I was already charmed. With the place, that is.
I was spending a week in Japan, on a programme sponsored by its government to savour a taste of its culture. The trip couldn’t have come at a more meaningful time, with this year being the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Japan.
And in the thick of it all, I found myself captivated by one of its many wondrous temples.
Just a few steps away from the Jishu-jinja shrine is the main Kiyomizu Temple, whose history dates back to the year 778 CE.
The main hall of the Kiyomizu Temple houses an image of an 11-faced Goddess of Mercy, or Kannon, as she is known in Japan. Many visitors come to pay homage to the goddess and have their fortunes told, while others linger around to enjoy the calm, scenic view.
And while those in search of love go to the Jishu-jinja, many are also drawn to another fascinating feature at the temple – three fountains said to bring blessings to those who drink the water.
I waited in line as I watched other people literally “hope to” drink their way to good health, longevity and wisdom from the three fountains, using long poles with cups attached at the end.
The water, from the Otowa no Taki waterfall, is believed to contain therapeutic properties. As it cascaded down in three separate streams, we used the long poles to catch the water for a quick sip while some tourists also used the water to wash their face and hands to soak in the blessings.
At first, I was apprehensive about the cleanliness of the shared cups but I remembered I was in high-tech, hygienic Japan. Impressed, I saw that the used cups were placed into compartments containing ultra-violet rays to be sterilised.
And while I wasn’t sure if the water was truly magical, it somehow felt that way since I was thirsty.
A big bowl of tea
But it was my thirst for more adventure that led me to the Saidaiji Temple in Nara where I drank some green tea. Only that it wasn’t just any green tea nor was it served in an ordinary cup.
In an unusual ceremony called the Ochamori Shiki, I was served the tea in a cup measuring 40cm in diameter. Because of its sheer size and weight of 7kg, you had to hold it with both hands.
The 750-year-old ceremony was first held by a monk known as Eison who served tea to devotees on the last day of new year prayers.
Tea was deemed an expensive form of medicine at that time, and it was believed that many drank tea for the first time then and used rice bowls since there were no tea cups.
The unique tradition stuck and, today, such tea parties are held in January, spring and fall.
Holding the cup like a flower pot in my hands, I tasted the slightly bitter but refreshing green liquid.
Laughter filled the room as the cup was passed around until everyone managed to take a sip.
While the Saidaiji is known as the Great Western Temple of Nara, my temple-hopping continued to its eastern counterpart – the Todaiji Temple, also in Nara, which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha.
At the temple gate, I was greeted by two fierce-looking divine guardians called Ungyo and Agyo who, together, symbolise the birth and death of all things. And because Nara is home to wild sika deer, I was thrilled to see the cute, gentle creatures – once deemed sacred by locals – roaming freely on the temple grounds.
After side-stepping a deer on the pathway, I reached the enormous wooden temple, which reminded me of an ancient Japanese palace. Entering the shrine, my eyes were immediately drawn to the majestic figure of the great teacher, sitting serenely in the centre of the hall.
Meditating on top of a lotus flower, the bronze statue is almost 15m tall and the Buddha’s calm expression evoked a sense of peace within me.
The giant Buddha, or daibutsu in Japanese, is also accompanied by a gold statue of Kannon and the imposing figures of Tamonten and Koumoku-ten, two of the Four Heavenly Kings who protectively watch over the directions of the world.
Praying for cures
A more friendly-looking statue sat outside the hall – a smiling figure of one of Buddha’s disciples, called Pindola or Binzuru in Japanese, known to have mastered occult powers. Locals believe that when someone rubs a part of the Binzuru’s image and then rubs the corresponding part on his own body, the ailment there will be cured.
As I made my way out of the temple, there was no pain in my body but just a mere tug in my heart that this whole adventure would soon come to an end.