Ao Nang Beach, Krabi, Thailand

In the early morning, before the heat has become oppressive,
Ao Nang Beach wakes up in stages.
The Muslim fruit seller is already at her stand down the street from our hotel, offering delicious iced, fresh coconut, ready for us to drink the abundant coconut water, and to use our plastic spoons to scoop out the fresh white coconut meat inside.
At 40 THB for both fruit juice and snack, it is truly a bargain!

As we walk down to the road that parallels Ao Nang Beach, tourists are already taking longboats over to nearby Raily Beach, which is such a popular destination for cliff-diving and rock climbing, that photos we’ve seen of it online suggest that there isn’t even much room available there to relax and enjoy the cool waters of the Andaman.

The T-shirt and souvenir shops are already open, their brightly colored goods beckoning to the passing tourists, while the young owners who tout their wares are at the moment silent, enjoying their breakfasts of rice topped with either an egg, or chili paste, or a few vegetables, packed into white styrofoam containers.

The Indian tailors, perhaps suspecting that their target market of older and more conservative tourists are not yet up and about, haven’t yet bothered to open, while the women of the massage parlors prepare for the long day ahead by eating their own breakfasts, often homemade, scooped from aluminum pots they have brought from home.
Some of the Thai restaurants do serve breakfasts, while the Egyptian, Italian, and fresh seafood places are just beginning to get ready for the lunch and dinner crowds to come.

The sound truck advertising the next Muy Thai boxing match to take place at nearby Krabi stadium – “You haven’t seen Thailand until you’ve seen Muy Thai! Monday night, Monday night, Monday night!!! See the greatest champions compete Monday night, Monday night, Monday night!!! – is silent at this hour, lending a peace and calm to this busy beachfront strip of asphalt, sand and shops.

In both Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, the Muy Thai trucks also tout competitions among great champions, but the posters plastered everywhere feature photos of Aussies, Brits, and other European guys earnestly posed in traditional fighting postures – not a Thai fighter to be seen anywhere! I wonder if it is the same situation here in Krabi…

We find a superb little eatery down an alley off the main drag, with an Indian man running the front of house, all six tables of it, and his Thai wife cooking in the kitchen in the back.

He informs us when we stop by that they are fully equipped to serve vegetarians – they even use a separate set of kitchen ware and dishes for vegetarians – and that we are welcome to sit and order whatever we’d like.

While his wife cooks, the owner tallies yesterday’s receipts, not with a laptop, but with a small battery-operated calculator and the food and drink orders written out on paper. Once he finishes with the tally, he rips up the receipts and tosses them in the trash.

There is time to observe this small family operation, since everything is prepared to order, right down to the rice for the vegetable fried rice we order to go with a vegetable green curry and a papaya salad. The food is excellent, and they smile proudly when we tell them so.

After we relish every bit of our delicious breakfast, we head to a small cafe offering free wifi, coffee, tea, ice cream, and tattoos, courtesy of a tattoo studio at the back of the shop that has huge reclining chairs like you’d see in a dentist’s office in the 70’s.

It’s too hot and sunny to head for the beach yet, so this is a perfect time for a tea and some journal writing.
We sit in the cafe and nurse our teas, undisturbed by the young owners, who yawn and chat with each other, waiting for the next tourist to stop in, for a coffee, or perhaps a large winged dragon on his back.
Ao Nang at this hour manages to be both frenetic and laid back, all at once.



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Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Ao Ling, (Monkey Bay), Koh Phi Phi.

While staying on Phi Phi Island, we took a day-long speed boat tour of nearby Maya Beach, did some good snorkeling on Phi Phi Ley, and visited the amazing Viking caves, where they collect the Swift and Swallow nests to sell as gourmet delicacies in Bangkok, Phuket, and of course, China.

We were then unloaded onto Monkey Island to see the monkeys who lived in the jungle there, and are said to come and eat out of your hands.

Every year some tourists get bitten by those monkeys, which for some bizarre reason, does not seem to deter anyone from trying to get up close and personal with them. They are wild animals and not tame creatures, after all. But if anything, these reports of severe bites and subsequent rabies shots seem to add a certain adventurous cachet to the idea of trying to feed and handle them.

On the day of our visit, there were only two pretty fat and lazy monkeys on the beach.
The rest stayed in the steep jungles above….

While the rest of the tourists offered the two lethargic monkeys bananas and packets of fruit juice, I found my own mind wondering about what was REALLY going on here:

It was the day of the annual meeting between the Associated Phi Phi Tour Boat Operators (APPTBO) and the representatives of the Union of Monkey Entertainers, Phi Phi Division (UMEPPD).

A long table made of bamboo is decorated with tasty bowls of bananas, pitchers of Coconut water, and plentiful ash trays. The APPTBO executives sit on chairs at their assigned side of the table, nervously strumming their fingers, waiting for the UME reps to arrive. The executives don’t know quite what to expect, as this year’s visitor numbers have been down recently, because of the political unrest in Bangkok that has made worldwide news headlines, and tourists’ inability to distinguish between Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi in making (or canceling) their vacation plans.

The senior monkey negotiators enter, wearing dark glasses, smoking cigars. They are not smiling as they sit at their side of the table. They immediately adopt a hard line attitude.

“You must know we’re not happy. Numbers are down. We’re not getting the bananas we expect. If you want our best monkeys, you’re going to have to raise your guarantees.”

The TBO executives try a conciliatory approach.

“You know, we’ve had a long and fruitful relationship. You provide the monkeys, guarantee a few bites of juicy tourists, just to make it interesting, and we provide the bananas. It’s worked to our mutual benefit for years… Surely you can’t blame us for those crazy government protestors driving down our numbers…”

The UME monkeys are in no mood for conciliation.

“Listen, relationship, shrelationship,” (sometimes the monkeys spoke in gibberish, especially when they got excited), it all comes down to the bananas. You guarantee enough bananas, we provide our best boys…the ones who know how to bite, who can put on a good show for your tourists…Do you want our best boys, or not? You know, we can always find a few of our retired music box dancers instead of our young acrobats. The old guys will work for less…”

Beads of sweat are visible on the foreheads of the TBO execs.

“Of course we do, you know we do, and that’s why we’re prepared to make you a very generous offer. How does 3,000 bananas and twelve bites sound?”

The monkeys snort in amazement and disgust.

“You can’t expect our best boys for those kind of numbers. Like we said before, it all comes down to the bananas…you want our best boys, our good biters, you’re going to have to do better than that…”

The TBO execs huddle and confer in nervous whispers.

“How does 4,000 bananas and eight guaranteed bites sound to you fellas?”

The monkeys light fresh cigars and permit themselves a smile.

“Now you’re talking. For 4,200, we’ll even bite a few extra tourists for no additional charge.”

“Friends, monkeys, fellow labor leaders, I think we have a deal!”

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A Relaxed Day in Tendo City

After our climb up to The Yamadera Temple Complex yesterday, and before we start two days of climbing the three sacred Mountains of Dewa in Yamagata prefecture, we took a very low-key rest day today.  Our decision to take it easy today was made even easier by the weather – hot and humid, with periods of rain.  

So we took a walk to the downtown of Tendo City, about twenty minutes from our ryokan, and visited first the Tendo City Museum of Art, which had a very good collection of oil paintings by Chuichi Konno, a Japanese style painter, and Morikazu Kumagai, a Western style painter, both of whom had ties to the Tendo area.  The colors were vibrant in both artists’ work, and reminded me the rivers and forests that we’ve walked through in Tohuku.  

Next we walked over to the Tendo Municipal Shogi Museum.  Shogi is a board game similar to chess, which has been played in much of Japan since the Heian Period (1100A.D.).  Its origin is thought to go back to the 6th century in India, to the ancient board game of “Chaturanga.”  The enduring popularity of Shogi might be because of its ‘drop rule’; it was the first chess variant wherein captured pieces could be returned to the board to be used as one’s own. The origin of the drop rule might date back to the practice of 16th century mercenaries who switched loyalties when captured—no doubt as an alternative to execution.

Tendo City is a center for Shogi playing and for the production of Shogi pieces and boards – 95% of all Shogi sets used in Japan are made in Tendo!  The process for making the wooden set pieces, all handcrafted by master artisans, is long and exacting, and the sets that result look like art pieces, rather than just a simple game.

Thinking that my knowledge of chess would be of some help, I tried to play a game versus a smiling, bowing virtual opponent on a computer in the Museum, but the guy slaughtered me in no time flat!

After we left the Museum, we met a real Shogi player outside, who offered himself as a live opponent, but I don’t understand the rules at all, certainly not well enough to be any kind of proper player (the moves are not at all the same as that of chess).  Besides, it had started raining harder, so we grabbed a taxi, and went back to our ryokan.  

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Yamadera Mountain Temple Day

I have felt excited about today’s journey up Yamadera Mountain since we arrived here in Tendo City, even without knowing what to expect!  The morning was sunny and already very warm, above 30 degrees, so when the front desk clerk at the lovely Azumaso Ryokan offered to drive us to the JR Station when we mentioned where we were going, I was happy to accept!  

Because we arrived in Tendo along the same train route, and we had had a glimpse of Yamadera Mountain then,  it was just a matter of retracing our steps to get back to Yamadera, on two local trains.  When we arrived, it was still early in the day, so we had plenty of time to have a leisurely and prayer-filled walk up the Mountain.  The JR Station is located very close to the base of the Mountain, so it was a few minutes’ walk through tiny Yamadera town, filled with tourist shops featuring local crafts and Temple souvenirs, to get to the entranceway steps, the first one hundred of the eleven hundred steps that lead through the old-growth trees, rocky stone outcroppings, monuments, temples and shrines to the top of the Mountain.

Yamadera was founded more than eleven hundred years ago in 860, the early part of the Heian period, as a temple of the Tendai Buddhist sect, under its official name of Rissyakuji. Its popular name, Yamadera, literally means “mountain temple” in Japanese.  To found the Temple, the Kyoto Emperor Seiwa sent one of his most important Buddhist priests, Jikaku Daishi,  to what was then the country’s frontier region, in the Yamagata area of Tohoku (Northern Honshu).  Daishi, who was responsible for the founding of many of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples, has a sculpture honoring him at the base of the mountain.  

Also located around the base of the mountain are several temple buildings, including Konponchudo Hall, Yamadera’s main hall, which is constructed entirely of beech wood, a rare building material.  This building is the temple’s oldest and stores Buddhist statues and a flame that has  been burning since Yamadera’s foundation. The flame had been brought from Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, the head temple of the Tendai sect, to which Yamadera belongs.  We are keeping a spiritual journey book that has recorded our visits to Chusonji and Motsuji, and at Konponchudo Hall, we asked a monk to inscribe our visit here as well.  

All along the thousand plus steps of Yamadera are ancient halls, shrines and sculptures dedicated to the Amita Buddha, or Amitabha, lanterns,and monuments, some carved into the many stone boulders that line the route.  The effect is breathtaking.  

Through his efforts, Amitābha created the “Pure Land,” which is situated in the far west, beyond the bounds of our own world. By the power of his vows, Amitābha has made it possible for all who call upon him to be reborn into this Pure Land, to be taught the dharma by him, and ultimately to become bodhisattvas and buddhas in their turn. These same bodhisattvas and buddhas then return to our world to help yet more people.

Amitabha is the Buddha of comprehensive love, whose most important enlightenment technique is the visualization of the surrounding world as a paradise. Whoever sees his world as a paradise, awakens his enlightenment energy. The world can be seen as a paradise by a corresponding positive thought, or by sending light to all beings (wishing all beings to be happy). 

Yamadera, in the far north and west of old Japan, has metaphorically the same location as the paradise of the Pure Land, located in the farthest west, beyond the bounds of our world.  And walking up to the top of this temple complex truly felt like walking through a paradise of the natural beauty of rocks, trees and flowers, combined with deepest spirituality and the man made beauty of shrines of painstakingly crafted wood, copper roofs, and stone steps.  

Many of the monuments along the way up the Mountain are dedicated by families to their children who died early in life.  At one of these shrines, we met a Japanese couple who explained that the figures we were looking at helped ease the passage of souls from this life to the next, by taking off their worldly clothes, and giving them instead pure temple robes to wear.  

Yamadera is also known for a visit by the famous poet Basho, who composed one of his most enduring haiku there. During Basho’s journey into northern Japan in the late 1600s he stopped at Yamadera and composed a haiku about the stillness and silence of this area. We saw a statue of Basho and a rock inscription of this famous haiku in the lower area of the temple grounds, but the museum dedicated to him across the hillside from the JR Station was closed on the day we were there.  

This was a day of feeling the stillness and beauty of Yamadera Temple Complex, one of the most moving experiences on our trip so far.  

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From Hiraizumi to Tendo City

Today was the most elaborate day of train travel of our entire journey – we had to take four trains, one Shinkansen and three locals, to travel from Hiraizumi to Tendo City.  Even though the distance is only 165 km in a southwesterly direction, the remote and mountainous terrain, and the many stops the local trains made, totaled up to a four hour trip.  The entire production, including waiting time between trains, went very smoothly, though, just as our other days of train travel have gone here.  

The last leg of our trip had us passing right by the Yamadera train station, on our way to Tendo City, where we are staying.  The huge rock face of Yamadera Mountain Temple Complex, called Tenga Iwa, was in full sight from our seats on the train.  I felt a surge of awe and excitement at seeing this hint of our walk tomorrow up the Mountain Temple to the summit, even higher than Tenga Iwa, looming over the entire village of Yamadera.

After we arrived in Tendo City, we got oriented and took a taxi to the Azumaso Ryokan, which is located at the opposite end of the main street running through Tendo’s CBD from the JR Station.  It’s not a long walk, perhaps a half hour or less, but with a day’s hike coming tomorrow, we decided to take a taxi instead. 

 Azumaso is in a fairly new building, located in a district full of hotels, other ryokans, and wedding venues, but once we walked indoors, the atmosphere and service felt just like being in a centuries-old guesthouse – there are two beautiful onsens, one indoors and one outdoors, yukatas are worn by all the guests, and both breakfasts and dinners are served in our room, with an attendant who brings all the artfully presented dishes, and arranges them just so on our table.  Even more to our liking (especially Tali’s, though I’m a big fan, too), fresh matcha (whisked Japanese green tea) is served every afternoon, whenever we return to the ryokan!

After we settled in our room and enjoyed our matcha, we had just enough time to go to a coin operated laundry (btw, the washers in these laundries come with their own detergent dispensers, so you never have to go and buy laundry soap first!) and get all of our wash done, and to find an excellent neighborhood barber for me.  With clean clothes in hand, and my newly shaved face and head), we had just enough time to hit the onsens at Azumaso before enjoying an excellent, and beautiful-to-look-at dinner. 

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Our Last Day in Morioka

Compared with the disastrous rains and torrential flooding in Kyushu Province, which we originally were going to travel through for two weeks on this trip, before we decided that we didn’t have enough time to cover so much of Japan in the six weeks we’d allotted, another day of rain here in Morioka is nothing much to complain about.  There, in Kyushu, twenty people have lost their lives, more than a quarter million have been evacuated, and there have been helicopter food drops to whole communities isolated by the floods, with rain that has been falling at the rate of more than three and a half inches per hour (that’s rain so intense that it compares to being under a waterfall; it’s literally impossible to see in front of you!).  

Yes, compared to that, today was just a very humid day, alternating with rain – over the time that we’ve been here, the rain has caused the three rivers running through Morioka to race under their bridges very swiftly, and to rise very high up their banks…but they haven’t overflowed those banks, and the town has continued, business as usual, these past three days.  Not quite business as usual, actually, because today is a national holiday in Japan, called “Marine Day,” which is traditionally celebrated by people taking the weekend off and going to the beach – not likely this year, since the only part of Japan where it is not raining is all the way south, in Okinawa – but many businesses are closed today, regardless of the weather.  

Communications Minister Shozo Murata designated the third Monday in July as a holiday in 1942 to commemorate the Meiji Emperor and his 1876 voyage in the Meiji-Maru, an iron steamship constructed in England in 1874. The voyage included a trip around the Ou district, embarking on a lighthouse boat in Aomori, and a brief stop in Hakodate before returning to Yokohama on July 20 of that year. “Marine Day” was declared a national holiday in 1995 as a day of gratitude for the blessings of the oceans and to hope for the economic prosperity of maritime Japan.  

A national holiday that began to commemorate a steamship voyage by the emperor…even more so, on a boat not even built in Japan!  And there’s no commercialism (that I could see, anyway) connected to this holiday…at most, it’s a reason for people to take off and go the beach, while reminding them to be grateful for the many gifts the oceans have given Japan.  No greeting cards, no presents exchanged, no extended store hours to allow for special one-day-only sales…just a day off…

Since Tali and I have started to recover quickly from the flu-like symptoms we’ve had while here in Morioka, we were feeling well enough by late this morning to head out to cover a few of the walks suggested on the TIC map of Morioka that we picked up when we arrived.  As we walked around town, I was struck by the sheer number of monuments, museums, plaques and special displays devoted to one native son of Morioka, author Kenji Miyazawa.  

Miyazawa san was born in 1896, and suffering from pleurisy for many years, lived only until he was 37, until 1933.  He was a poet and author of children’s books, but he had a full, expansive life, a life far greater than his lack of commercial success during his lifetime would indicate – he was a social activist, a vegetarian, a Buddhist who sat Zazen at Hoonji Temple (which we visited yesterday), a high school teacher of agricultural science who believed so strongly in his art, and in helping the poor farmers of Iwate Province to improve their lot, that he turned down his father’s offer to join the family pawnshop business, thus forfeiting a substantial inheritance to his younger brother.  

Miyazawa saved some of his meager teacher’s salary to self-publish the only book of his work that was released during his lifetime, which did not meet with any commercial success.  In the 79 years since his death, however, the world has caught on to his genius…he has been widely published internationally, his children’s works have been made into two anime films, and there are memorials to him all over Morioka.  

I was so moved by the little I’ve managed to learn today about Kenji Miyazawa.  The life of an artist can be so much more than the sum of his commercial successes…it can lie in making life itself into art, not commerce, to express devotion in daily activities, to take the long view of what we are doing here, in this world of illusions. Miyazawa san has managed in his way to serve as a reminder of what is possible to accomplish regardless of circumstances.  

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From Aomori to Morioka on a “Sick Day,” and Exploring Morioka (still sick!)

We both woke up today feeling sick – for Tali, it’s the second day in a row she’s been under the weather, and for me, the first – my nose is running, and my throat is also a bit sore.  But of course, we do want to move on, so we took a taxi to the JR Station from the Richmond Hotel, and caught the 10:12am Shinkansen train to Morioka, where we will spend the next three days.  

We walked over to the Kumagai Ryokan, perhaps a five or ten minute walk from the Morioka Train Station, and met the owner, who very kindly checked us in early, at noon, as our room was available.   After we had tea and chatted with her, a little in Japanese, a little in English, about our travels in Japan, we went upstairs to our room, and then both of us took naps, until almost 4:00pm.    

We’ve read on the Internet, and seen on the tourist map we were given at the TIC at the Train Station, that Morioka has a lot to offer the visitor, so we’ll take one day of our stay here to visit the Samurai town of Kakunodate, and one day to explore Morioka.  We don’t have any expectations at all for the rest of the day today, except to take it easy and rebuild our strength a bit.  

We’re going to try and get out before the dinner we’ve arranged for tonight here at the Ryokan (dinners and breakfasts are not included in the rate of 4000 yen per person per night), to take one of the six walking tours recommended in the TIC map, or, more realistically, to wander around the downtown area for a few hours, to get a feel for this charming city.  Our first stop, I guess not surprisingly, was the Morioka Starbucks, located just a few blocks from the Ryokan, where we had tea and began writing on our iPads.  Before we knew it, it was already time to head back to Kumagai for dinner.  It was very good, although there was too much fish for our current tastes – we’ll try to find more vegetarian food for tomorrow’s meals.  

The new day found me still getting sicker, and Tali now improving a little.  We had breakfast at the Kumagai, and changed rooms to a much larger one that had became available. This new room comes complete with a couch for comfortable relaxing, and a separate Japanese-style sleeping area – perfect for two sick people who might be spending more time than usual in their room!   Besides, it has been raining all night long and into the morning, so we are in no hurry to go outside too quickly.  

When we had finished our spiritual study and morning meditation, we discovered that the rain had mostly stopped, and so we left for our walk around Morioka.  Our first stop was for hot tea and a chat at the Starbucks, but along the way there, we also used an ATM, and we spied two possible vegetarian candidates for dinner tonight, one Nepalese and the other Korean.  

Because neither of us feels very well, the idea of participating in a famous tradition of Morioka – eating wanko soba – hasn’t even occurred to us!  Since I haven’t experienced it personally, thanks to the Iwate district tourism website for its excellent description, which I have edited, and am including here just for fun:  

“Wanko soba means that all-you-can eat portions of Buckwheat noodles (soba) are served in special restaurants as a fun eating contest that began almost 400 years ago.  Count your bite-sized bowls as you down them, but beware! Slide the lid on your bowl quickly when you’re done, or one of the servers will slide in a new portion for you to eat.

Wanko Soba Noodles are served with various condiments, such as: tuna sashimi; nameko, mushrooms with a slightly gelatinous coating, simmered in soy sauce; daikon radish pickled in miso with crushed walnuts; and harako, or salmon roe. In Morioka, there are many soba restaurants, each with its own version of soba, condiments, and dipping sauces. 

Wanko Soba Noodles is said to have begun when Nambu Toshinao (1599-1632), lord of the Nambu domain that encompassed Morioka,  visited the nearby town of Hanamaki around 380 years ago. Soba was a local specialty, but afraid that Toshinao might consider it too rustic, his retainers served an elegantly arranged bite-sized bowl of noodles first. Toshinao was delighted, and ordered seconds. Then thirds. And so on. This style of serving small portions until guests were satisfied became the accepted etiquette for hosts in the region, and evolved into the Wanko Soba Noodles we know today. The spirited calls of the servers and the element of competition were later additions, but have become irreplaceable parts of this unique experience.

Wanko Soba Noodles is now mainly served in the cities of Hanamaki, Morioka, and Ichinoseki. Additionally, Hanamaki and Morioka host annual timed Wanko Soba Noodles competitions, the former in February and the latter in November. The 2009 Hanamaki champion downed 218 bowls in just five minutes, while Morioka saw an amazing “three-peat” by 2007-2008’s defending champion, who put away 383 bowls in just ten minutes!”

Next we walked to Morioka’s municipal symbol of forbearance in the face of all obstacles, and a national treasure of Japan – the 400 year old cherry tree that took root under a massive granite boulder, and has split this rock in two!  The tree (“Ishiwarizakura,” meaning, “Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree”), fittingly located in front of the district courthouse, still bursts into bloom with gorgeous flowers every spring.  How petty are our worldly obstacles, compared to what this tree has overcome over the centuries, including the destruction of the courthouse, just a few meters away, by fire in 1932!

We then began the temple walk that was on our TIC map, by visiting the  “Hands of the Demons” rocks.  During the Edo Period, demons committed an outrage against Morioka villagers, who then prayed to the god of the Mitsuishi Shrine to get rid of the demons. Their request was granted. 
The god caught the demons and forced them to make prints of their hands in the three large rocks grouped one next to the other on the grounds of the shrine.  Local people pray for good fortune here by jamming coins into the cracks in these boulders.  Because the passage of time has erased the original demons’ handprints, the town has helpfully placed a plaster cast of two very large handprints on the wall of the small building next to the three boulders, so that visitors can compare the size of their hands to that of the demons!

Our final stop of the day, just twenty minutes before its 4:00pm closing time, and just before the rain returned with a vengeance, was by far the most moving, and more than ample reason by itself to have visited Morioka – we are very grateful to have been guided, just in time, to Hoonji, a Zen temple that was built in 1394, and moved to this site about 400 years ago.  

Hoonji is the family temple for about a thousand local families, and is also both a Zen Training temple for monks, and a place for the public to come and practice Zazen (sitting zen meditation).  It is a huge place, with many buildings and large grounds, but the most important is the Rakando, the home of the wood sculptures of about 500 holy enlightened priests, arranged on floor to ceiling shelves running the length of the left and right sides of the Rakando building.  The 500 sculptures were completed by ten master craftsmen in Kyoto in just four years, and then shipped here in time for the consecration of the Temple.  

The sculptures are incredibly lifelike, with gestures that are quite human  – some are laughing, some sleeping, some drinking sake, some are stretching, and so on.  This is a profoundly spiritual Temple, and this hall 
reinforces the idea that enlightenment is the final state for all of us, not just the province of the most devout priests.  And the beautiful carvings of each of these sculptures – Amazing!  Well worth the walk back to town in the steady rain….

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