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Happy Holidays everybody.  I took a break for the winter break, but now I’m back.  It’s really not that I was doing anything interesting or fun that kept me away, but simply that I decided I was just going to be a giant leech for a week and do absolutely nothing productive outside learn to snowboard.  So, that’s what I did. 

I did spend some of that time thinking about the blog.  I’ve come close to deciding I’m going to split up my blog.  I’m thinking of creating a new blog dealing solely with ju jitsu related posts.  I haven’t fully committed to the idea yet but it does seem likely.

I had a quiet and mostly uneventful holiday season.  My sole christmas present was a giant bar of chocolate (think 2 feet by 1 foot) that I ate in 2 days.  I also spent some time at my boss/friend’s house playing wii games with his kids and drinking sake with him and his wife.

Traditionally Japanese people visit a temple on New Years.  They use this time to pray for good luck and such in the coming year.  Mostly, for me the season is notable for being the one time of year that Japanese people aren’t stressed out beyond belief over the crazy amount of work they force upon themselves.  The 2 days leading up to new year and new year itself is very similar to Christmas back home.  Everyone is in a good mood, festive, and generally there’s that warm feeling in the air.  Really, if I could travel back home for Christmas then return to Japan around Dec. 29th it would be the greatest week ever.

Since I like to try to participate in the Japanese customs I had wanted to go to Nagano city for New Year.  In Nagano, there is a pretty important buddhist temple called Zenkou-ji.  It’s a giant pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Japan.  Also, it’s notable that it was established before the split of Buddhism into separate schools within Japan, meaning it’s sacred to all Buddhists.  Also, it’s supposed to house the first ever Buddha statue ever brought to Japan, although it’s called the “hidden Buddha” since no one is allowed to see it.  This makes it something like St. Peter’s tomb and bones beneath the basilica bearing his name and the church in Ethiopia that claims to hold the Holy Grail.  This secrecy also includes the chief priest of the temple, essentially meaning that no one on earth is allowed to look at the thing.  Oh, and did I mention that they have a replica of this thing that they allow to be shown every 6 years.  Yes, that’s right: the super secret can’t-be-seen-by-anyone statue has a replica.  I needn’t say more.

Anyway, unseen Buddha statue aside there are other neat things about the temple.  Daily rituals are still held there for healing the sick.  In some temples around Japan (older ones such as in Kyoto) there are passages underneath that are meant for the devout to walk-through and contemplate existence, life, the universe, and other reflections.  The idea is that it’s completely dark and noiseless, simulating the ideal state of mind for meditation.  Upon coming out the other side one should have a more clear understanding of existence.  At Zenkou-ji there is one of these, with a twist.  In a small cubby in one of the walls sits a key that, if touched, is supposed to bestow enlightenment upon whomever touches it.  I’m fairly certain I touched it when I went there and I feel no different.  Sadly.

This all comes to something that gives me great sadness about Japan:  There are many places with deeply rich cultural aspects and significance, but they’ve been commercialized beyond belief.  In days of old the temple was for Buddhists priests to contemplate the meaning of life and for pilgrims from Japan to attempt to find some enlightenment after a strenuous journey (war headquarters usage aside).  So, the whole tunnel under the temple thing was 1) a pretty big deal, 2) likely reserved only for those that actually underwent a whole bunch of training, meditation, preparation and cleansing, 3) allowed only to a select few and 4) probably really did give the person a sense of enlightenment if they followed the steps of clearing their mind etc.  Now, hundreds of people go through the tunnel every day and each one has to pay money to do it.  Sad, isn’t it?

It’s one of the most important religious sites in Japan, so I was really looking forward to visiting it for New Years.  I did not go, however.  Instead, since we were at my apartment in the sticks, we visited a temple near my apartment:  Kozen-ji, a temple important in its own right.  I don’t need to tell you how many times I have confused these two temples’ names with one another.

Kozen-ji is a temple located in Komagane, Nagano.  It’s one of the bigger temples in Nagano prefecture and one of the more important.  Today it’s notable mainly for the size and overall beauty of its gardens.  The original temple compound once comprised a ton of smaller temples that were all either destroyed by the Meiji government or fire.  So, today all that land is what we might consider a national park.  It’s a serene temple, tucked back in the middle of a forest.  It’s only 17 acres, but in Japan that’s huge.  Traditionally, Kozen-ji was a training temple for aspiring Buddhist priests.  I believe it was one of the primary feeder temples for central Japan, which is actually pretty cool.

So, we went to Kozen-ji.  We didn’t get to take part in the ringing of the bell, but we did arrive in time to listen to the last 40 or so chimes.  The tradition is that the bell is rung 108 times, a sacred number to Buddhists.  There was still a line, and it was still cold.  Then we had some really delicious drink from a communal bowl (dipper used) that I forget the name of. 

The other part of all this is that new year time is the big cleaning time of the year.  I guess this is a Shinto thing.  However, like all things in Japan it has its certain time, place, order and tradition that can not be disturbed or all hell will break lose.  I did not do cleaning on the traditional cleaning day but instead tried to get in cleaning on the following day, which sprung a giant argument with the girlfriend.

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