The Lotus: Symbol of beauty and transformation

Lotus pod; Your Japan Private Tours
Lotus seed pod

The lotus (hasu) flower springs forth out of muddy pond waters to show large pink or white flowers that survive for only four days through the intense heat of July.  The intoxicating flowers pop open at dawn and are ready for a nap by mid-afternoon.  With its short-lived blossom springing from durable roots, the lotus suggests reincarnation: the wheel-like leaves and the spike-shaped petals imply the perpetual cycle of existence, while the pure flowers arising from mud symbolize the enlightenment any person is capable of achieving.  Lotus seeds are often used as Buddhist rosary beads; some of the seeds having been made to germinate as many as 2,000 years later.

The association of the lotus plant with Buddhism originated in India where the popular Lotus Sutra (Hokke-kyo) was employed to try to unify the contending Greater and Lesser Vehicles of Indian Buddhism by emphasizing that simple devotion will lead any person to salvation.

In Japan, Pure Land, Shingon, Tendai, and Nichiren Buddhism were among the sects to adopt this sutra and the ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’ chanted by adherents of the Soka Gakkai ‘new religion’ today also comes from this Lotus Sutra.  Many Buddhist images, especially of Amida Buddha (Lord of the Western Paradise), rest on a fully-opened lotus.  Examples can be seen at Uji’s Byodo-in Temple or Nara’s Todai-ji Temple.  The Bodhisattva Kannon (The God of Compassion) is often depicted standing on a lotus flower and holding them in his hand.  Visit Sanjusangen-do to see an example of this.  In Buddhism, entry to Paradise allowed one to repose upon a lotus throne, so star-crossed lovers always dreamed of being reunited on the same lotus after death.

Even after blooming, the lotus is beautiful–the seed pod has a distinctive, honeycomb shape while the large leaves retain their deep green.  The roots (renkon) are edible and turn up in many traditional Japanese dishes, obento lunch boxes, and as tempura.

In July, it isn’t hard to catch a glimpse of these quintessential Oriental plants as almost every temple pond has some hiding in it.

From mid-July, about 60 kinds of lotus from India, China, US, and Japan will be in bloom at Hokongo-in in Ukyo-ku (Daily 6:30 am – 4 pm. ¥400, JR Hanazono Station. Tel: 461-9428).  The pond at the south end of the Old Imperial Palace and the Kyoto’s Botanical Gardens are also an excellent place to take in the beauty of the lotus.

‘It is a life in which we cannot be sure of lasting as long as the dew upon the lotus.’

(from The Tale of Genji, translated by Edward Seidensticker)

Popping open at dawn and napping in mid-afternoon, the lotus (hasu) blooms, each large pink or white flower surviving only four days in the intense heat of late July.  This beautiful flower’s association with Buddhism originated in India where the popular Lotus Sutra (Hokkekyo) attempted to unify the contending Greater and Lesser Vehicles of Indian Buddhism by stressing simple devotion as a means of salvation.  Pure Land, Shingon, Tendai, and Nichiren Buddhism were among those sects in Japan which adopted the Lotus Sutra.  Today the ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’ chanted by adherents of the ‘new religion’, Soka Gakkai, comes from the same Lotus Sutra.

Many Buddhist images, especially of Amida Buddha (Lord of the Western Paradise), rest on a fully-opened lotus.  Examples can be seen at Uji’s Byodo-in temple or Nara’s Todai-ji temple.  The Bodhisattva Kannon (The God of Compassion) is often depicted standing on and holding lotus flowers.  A good example exists at Sanjusangen-do.  Since admission to Paradise allowed one to repose upon a lotus throne, star-crossed lovers always dreamed of being reunited on the same one after death.

With its short-lived blossoms springing from durable roots, the lotus suggests reincarnation: the wheel-like leaves and the spoke-shaped petals imply the perpetual cycle of existence, while the pure flowers arising from mud symbolize the enlightenment anyone can achieve.  As beads for rosaries, lotus seeds were a perfect choice.  (Some of these seeds have been made to germinate 2,000 years later!).

Even after blooming, the lotus is beautiful–the seed pod has a distinctive, honeycomb shape while the large leaves retain their deep green.  The roots are edible and turn up as renkon in many dishes.

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Japanese Noren Curtains and the Worlds Behind Them . . .

Japanese noren curtain; Your Japan Private Tours

Noren curtains or sun shades are a wonderful Japanese handicraft made of cloth and dyed in the traditional Japanese manner.  They have played an important role culturally and historically in Japan.  Noren have been hanging around Japan for a long time, with a history that goes back to the Heian period (794 – 1185).  Picture scrolls from the era show houses with noren used as curtains or sun shades.  However, since the early Edo period (1603 – 1867) when numerous trading houses were established and dying techniques developed dramatically, shops and businesses also started hanging noren out front.

Frequently imprinted with the shop’s name and/or crest, noren can be used as an indication of a shop’s reputation.  “The Noren has been injured (noren ni kizu ga tsuku),” means the store’s (or company’s) reputation or reliability has been damaged.  In short, noren can be seen to symbolize the Japanese merchant’s spirit.  Therefore, customers have always considered noren as a major criterion for selecting a store.

These days, noren can be seen in use at traditional Japanese shops, restaurants, and public baths (sento), etc.  As many modern establishments do not have noren at their entrances anymore, you can assume the truly Japanese ones are those that continue to use noren.  In a sense, noren act, both literally and figuratively, as a form of separation between the inside and outside worlds of Japan.  Noren also means tatemae, the surface attitude and feeling shown to the public for which the Japanese, especially Kyoto people, are infamous.

There are many different kinds of noren.  Kimono fabric stores are often marked with long noren that almost reach the ground.  Traditional drinking houses (ippai nomiya) are recognized by their nawa(twisted rice rope) noren.  These days, nawa noren and ippai nomiya have become synonymous with the earthly atmosphere of the traditional Japanese bar.  Sento, or a public baths, can be recognized by their colorful noren: one for the women’s side, one for the men’s.

Look for noren on your next trip to Japan.  For personalized travel services of all kinds in Japan visit Your Japan Private Tours (

Buddhism Day & Night: Mount Hiei’s marathon monks & Ikkyu’s wild ways

Closeup of Taoist symbol on a Japanese textile
Closeup of Taoist symbol on a Japanese textile

The world of Buddhism is full of stories of amazing human feats achieved through meditation and power of the mind.  In Tibet there are especially powerful monks who travel so fast that they appear to fly; they can travel non-stop for 48 hours and cover over 320 km a day!  There are also stories of diamond-like crystalline substances found amongst the ashes of cremated super meditation monks (male and female).  In Japan there were monks that mummified themselves by eating nothing but a lacquer paste between meditation sessions.  And then there are the so-called spiritual athletes of Mount Hiei, which rises huge and majestic on the horizon at the northeast corner of the city of Kyoto, and the wild ways of the Zen monk, poet, love Ikkyu.

Mount Hiei’s marathon monks

The marathon monks live in a small mountain monastery below the fabled world of Enryaku-ji Temple, the Tendai sect of Esoteric Buddhism.  They worship a diety known as Fudo Myo-o (the Wrathful King of Mystic Knowledge in Shingon Buddhism).  Their spiritual Olympic feats began in 1787 when a monk named So-o had a powerful religious experience in a waterfall on the mountain.  After his vision he carved a wooden statue of Fudo Myo-o from a log he found under the falls.  So-o was the first to complete the marathon course.  He believed that everything was a manifestation of Buddha and was a great lover of the pure and simple natural world versus the world of man (not pure and generally not simple).

By now the reader is probably beginning to wonder, what did these monks have to do in order to complete the “marathon”?  They had to complete three cycles of intense chanting, and worship requiring them to run a spiral course of locations spread out all over the endless slopes of Mount Hiei.  The first cycle was 100 days, the second 300 days and the last one 1,000 days.  Since the late 19th century, less than 50 monks have actually completed all three cycles.

The gyoja (training marathon monk) wear a pure white robe and hat and straw sandals.  The basic rules of the kaihogyo (for any of the cycles) are pretty straightforward: 1) when running, the robe and hat may not be taken off; 2) one can not leave the designated course; 3) one can not stop for rest or refreshment during the run; 4) everything (prayers, chants, etc.) must be completed properly; 3) no smoking or drinking is allowed.

The remarkable thing is that the 40 km daily run is done at night!  After meditation and chanting, they have a small meal at 1:30 and then they start running the course.  They finish in the morning between 7 and 9.  Then, they pray more, have a bath and eat lunch.  The rest of the day is devoted to other services and work around the temple.  They are only allowed to sleep about 4 hours a night (between 8 and midnight).  They must do this amazing course for 100 days in a row.  It takes the average monk about 70 days to get used to everything and get their “second wind.”

If one has completed the first 100 day cycle, only then can one petition to undertake the 1,000-day cycle.  This takes a total of seven years to complete (less than 50 have ever completed this cycle).  Near the end of the 1,000-day cycle, comes one of the biggest challenges: the doiri: no food, water or sleep or rest of any kind for 7 days straight.  In the old days it used to be 10 days, but since hardly any monks at all survived, it was shortened to 7 days.  Water is obtained through the skin by being in the moist air on the mountain.  The really hard part of these nine days is not food or water but staying awake and in the proper posture.  It is said that after surviving the doiri the monk has really overcome death and they return to life with a level of sensitivity that goes far beyond what wild animals are able to sense.  Indeed, physical examinations after the seventh day indicated that many of the symptoms of death were present.

In the final year of the 1000-day cycle, the gyoja must complete two 100-day cycles during which they run 84 kilometers each day.  To run or jog this distance takes about 16 hours.  During the run it is also their duty to bless the people who line the route.  The final initiation is a 100,000 prayer fast and fire ceremony which takes place two or three years after the finish of the 1000-day marathon.

Ikkyu: another view of spiritual life

Ikkyu was a Zen monk who was famous for burning the candle of life at both ends.  By day, he was devout and extremely accomplished monk and scholar.  By night, he reveled in the so-called “floating world” of drink and women.  He lived in tumultuous 15th century Japan at a time when most of the country was ruined by civil war.

Ikkyu was born the illegitimate son of an emperor and a court lady.  As a boy he already displayed remarkable abilities and intelligence.  He was particularly attracted to Chinese culture which he absorbed and used for the rest of his life in his poetic imagery.  He was not good looking.  His Zen apprenticeship began at age 13 at Kennin-ji Temple, Kyoto’s oldest Zen temple, located, ironically, just south of the first-class world of wine and women: Gion.  From a young age, he took naturally to criticizing the world of hypocrisy he saw around him in temples and in the ruling families of his day.

His first spiritual master, Keno, lived in an old rundown temple on Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake (in Shiga Prefecture, just east of Kyoto).  He spent much of his life on the shores of the lake.  When Keno died, he moved in the Daitoku-ji branch temple headed by the monk Kaso.  To support the temple, which also had little money, he crafted dolls which he sold in Kyoto.  From this time onwards he also began to spend much of his free time in the local taverns, brothels and fishing huts.

He achieved enlightenment while listening to a band of blind singers performing a tragic love ballad on the shores of the lake.  From that time, he took the name Ikkyu, which literally translated means One Pause.  He wrote this poem just after reaching enlightenment the first time.

From the world of passions,
returning to the world of passions.
There is a moment’s pause —
if it rains, let it rain,
If the wind blows let it blow.

Apparently in the summer of 1424, he experienced enlightenment a second time while meditating in a fishing boat when he heard the call of lone crow at twilight.  His master issued him a certificate of enlightment the second time and this caused Ikkyu to storm out of the temple in disgust.  Nevertheless, Kaso hoped to make Ikkyu his heir when he died.  Ikkyu cared for him in his dying days, going as far as to clean the old man’s excrement with nothing but his hands.  Another monk was given the position of heir and Ikkyu began a long period of wandering.  He wandered around for 30 years until he was nearly 60.  During this time, he saw himself as a crazy cloud and increasingly identified with the philosophy of the monk Rinzai, founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and Daito (founder of the Daitoku-ji monastery Ikkyu would one day be the head abbot of).  He married and had a son, who went on to become of the Japan’s most respected tea masters.  Indeed, Daitoku-ji Temple is closely connected with the Japanese tea ceremony even today.

Like Rinzai he had long hair and beard.  However, unlike Rinzai and much of the monk and samurai establishment, Ikkyu rejected the traditional life of the men of his day.  He took female students and considered them his equal.  He also drank wine, ate animal flesh and had many female lovers.  In his late years, he became a prominent practitioner and patron of the arts, including calligraphy, painting, poetry, which he practiced as a way to transmit Zen.

In 1474, when Ikkyu was in his late seventies and had a 30-year-old blind composer musician mistress, the emperor ordered him to become the head abbot of prestigious Daitoku-ji Temple.  The temple had nearly been destroyed by the Onin Wars that raged across Kyoto for more than 15 years.  It was a tough task, but he succeeded.  Seven years later, the temple had nearly been restored and Ikkyu died.

Natural, reckless, correct skill;
Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity
The universe has dark and light, entrust oneself to change
One time, shade the eyes and gaze afar at the road of heaven.

Both the Daitoku-ji Temple Zen complex and Mount Hiei are among Kyoto’s richest attractions.  For a great time in Japan visit Your Japan Private Tours @ . Everything from private day tours of Kyoto and Tokyo to restaurant advice/reservations, virtual PDF bilingual tours and private airport transportation.

Daruma or the Bodhidaruma: patient founder of Zen Buddhism


One of Japan’s more familiar icons is a wobbly black, red and white doll, called a Daruma. Most Daruma are made from papiermache in Takasaki City, Gumma Prefecture, and have large, empty circles where their eyes should be. When a Japanese makes a wish or resolution, one eye is filled in. When the wish comes true or the resolution is fulfilled, the other eye is painted in. One-eyed Daruma dolls are thus a standard feature of election offices. Large dolls are also often seen at police stations, factories, and even taxi companies where they display the serious intentions of the organization. One block north from Enmachi, at the intersection of Nishioji and Marutamachi Streets, you will find a Daruma doll fixed to the wall on your right. Turn right (east) there along Shimodachiuri Street; 50 meters further on you will see, on your right the entrance to Horinji Temple, popularly known as “Daruma Dera”, the Temple of Daruma. Founded in 1718, Horinji houses an international collection of over 8,000 Daruma dolls in all shapes and sizes, and is the headquarters of the Japan Daruma Group. Daruma is the local name for Bodhidarma, founder of Zen Buddhism. Born into a Indian family of high caste in 470 A.D., legend has it that, at well over a hundred years old, he spent three years journeying to China on a leaf “for no reason.”


In China, Bodhidarma was received by the Liang Dynasty Emperor, Wu Ti, who asked him to define the chief principle of Buddhism. Bodhidharma’s reply was “Vast emptiness.” Bodhidarma retired to the Shaolin Temple on Wu Tai mountain, Hunan Province, where he sat nine years staring at a wall. From this he lost the use of his arms and legs (hence the shape of the dolls) and came to be known as “The Wall-Gazing Buddha”. Every Kung Fu movie fan knows that Shaolin priests practiced a unique form of martial arts. According to legend Bodhidarma, despite considerable disabilities, taught Kung Fu at the temple on Wu Tai mountain. Bodhidarma died in China in 543 at the age of 73, but many years later a Chinese court official on his way to India reported seeing him walking along the road, a sandal slung over his shoulder. But back to Horinji: In the center of the temple grounds there is a tearoom with a notice inside telling you all about the bunbuku chagama, a tea cauldron famous for the pleasing sound it made when steam lifted its lid. There was no James Watt around at the time, or the steam engine might have been invented centuries earlier! The type of tea ceremony taught at Horinji, by the way, differs from the traditional Japanese one in that sen cha leaf tea, and not the usual powdered tea (known as matcha) is used. Opposite the tearoom is a stone statue of Daruma sitting atop a sculptural representation of the Japanese cosmos, with the Gods of the Eight Directions inscribed in the base behind the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Between the statues and the tearoom is a small temple with a large wooden Bodhidarma on either side of the entrance. The characters above the door read “Nanakorobi Yaoki”, a well known Daruma proverb literally meaning “Fall over seven times, get up eight”. Inside the building there is the collection of Daruma dolls. A large picture of Daruma, painted  by Kido Chutaro at 83 years-old, covers the ceiling. Because it’s said that if you teach zen incorrectly, your eyebrows will fall out, the Daruma is always depicted with extra-huge eyebrows. The two large characters in the painting read “Fu To” (“Don’t fall over”). Facing you as you leave this interesting little building is the Shuseido, a red and white temple which houses a 400 year-old statue of a reclining Buddha as well as the spirits of some 600 movie stars on its second floor. If you pray while touching the statue, you will gain long life and intelligence–that is, if you don’t already have them! By the way, if you walk around the neighborhood of the temple, you might notice that a number of houses have small swastika signs. They indicate that a member of the household practises the martial art taught by the school in the temple–the Japanese version of Shaolin Kung Fu, known as Shorinji Kempo.

Horinji Temple (“Daruma Dera”) is located on Shimodachiuri, west of Nishioji, Kamigyo-ku. Open 9:00-16:30 daily, Entry: Yen 300; Tel: (075) 841-7878. Posted by Your Japan Private Tours (

Tanuki Goodluck badgers


What is that animal standing on its hind legs, holding a bottle of sake and wearing that funny hat doing you see so often at the entrance to restaurants in Japan?  Does it mean something?  Yes it does!  The tanuki, an ancient, popular luck charm, promises a life of prosperity, success, happiness, and health.

The hat guards against unpleasant incidents; the eyes ensure accuracy and attention; the face shows truthful communication.  The sake bottle stands for the health and happiness that comes with the enjoyment of food and drink.  The account ledger he carries symbolizes the importance of gaining and maintaining trust.  The extended belly, or hara, is for making correct, clear, intuitive decisions.  The exaggerated testicles are said to represent the ability to widen one’s possibilities and capacities through financial satisfaction.  And the tail is for ending things with completion.

Ceramic tanuki were first created by a Shigaraki potter, who began his pottery apprenticeship in a Kiyomizuyaki studio.  One night, as he walked along the Otowa River in Kyoto, he heard a strange drumming sound.  Creeping up to the sound, he found several badgers drumming on their big, rounded bellies.  The potter really thought he was lucky to have seen such a thing.  Soon after he moved to Shigaraki and created the ceramic badger that has become so common, and so very popular, throughout Japan today.

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Jizo Bodhisattva: Guardian of Deceased Children, Expectant Mothers, Firemen, Travelers, and Pilgrims.


One of the most beloved of all Japanese divinities, Jizo works to ease the suffering and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell.  In particular, Jizo is the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried, and stillborn babies, as well as expectant mothers, firemen, travelers, and pilgrims. Jizo statues can be found everywhere in Japan: in a small shrine in every neighborhood  and in graveyards.  Though of India origin, Jizo is most common worshipped in daily life in Japan, Korea, and China.

According to tradition, children who die prematurely are sent to the underworld as punishment for causing great sorrow to their parents (their death caused grief to their folks). They are sent to Sai no Kawara, the dry bed of the river of souls in purgatory, where they pray for Buddha’s compassion by building small stone towers, piling stone upon stone. But an underworld demon soon arrives and scatters their stones and beats them with an iron club.

But, no need to worry, for Jizo comes to the rescue to help the children. Because of this traditional story, children who die prematurely in Japan are called “mizuko children,” or water children, and the saddened parents pray to “Mizuko Jizo.”

Even today, you will invariably find little heaps of stones around Jizo statues, as many believe that a stone offered in faith will shorten the time their child suffers in the underworld.

You will also notice that Jizo statues are often wearing tiny garments. Since Jizo is the guardian of dead children, sorrowing mothers bring the little garments of their lost ones and dress the Jizo statue in hopes the kindly god will specially protect their child.

A little hat or bib is often seen as well, the gift of a rejoicing parent whose child has been cured of dangerous sickness thanks to Jizo’s intervention.

Roku Jizo (Groupings of Six Jizo)

In Japan, legend also says that there are six paths to hell, and Jizo groupings of six are quite common, one each to protect people from taking the wrong path. Jizo also carries a staff with six rings, which he shakes to awaken us from our delusions. But more accurately, the six forms of Jizo reflect the Six Paths of Transmigration (hell, hungry ghosts, beasts, demons, human beings, and heavenly beings). I’m not sure, but this grouping of six is probably closely related to the symbolic six worlds shown in the traditional Wheel of Life.  There are six types of Jizo:  Enmei (Long Life), Hosho (Treasure Place), Hoshu (Treasure Hand), Jichi (Land Possession), Hoin (Treasure Seal), and Kengoi (Strong Determination).

 Jizo are something that you will see in every neighborhood in Japan, old or new. Look for them on your next Japan stroll.  For backstreet, off-the-beaten track private tour options visit