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Full Circle

Day 37: Tokyo to Fukuyama

Fukuyama, Japan 
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Buttsuji Temple.
Michael Palin - Full CircleLeave Tokyo on the Hikari super express, heading south-west at a furious but almost imperceptible pace on a specially constructed high-speed track. Pass the austere, perfectly formed icon of Mount Fuji, reduced to an indistinct blur by clouds of pollution. The Japanese may wear face masks to avoid spreading germs when they have a cold, but still seem happy to allow industrial chimneys to belch away.

Disembark at Fukuyama, a small city on the shores of the Inland Sea, and make our way out into the countryside, dotted with buildings more attractive and distinctive than any we've glimpsed on the 400-mile journey from Tokyo. The most attractive of all are those of the Zen temple of Buttsuji where we are to spend the night.

Set in meticulously ordered grounds with each piece of gravel in its right place (not an exaggeration, for in Zen Buddhist belief a piece of gravel is as important as a mountain), the temple is approached from a humpback wooden footbridge over a rocky stream. Inside the compound are a number of solid wooden buildings topped with decorated wide-eaved roofs, tiled with heavy, high-glazed, gun metal grey tiles. Inside are chilly, sparsely furnished passageways. It's austere and timeless, though I did catch a tell-tale glimpse of computer screens behind a half-open rice-paper door.

Zen is about living, being and becoming. It seeks true awareness by bringing man back to the centre of his original experience. This I'm told by Almon, a novice from Holland in his first year here, who has been charged with looking after me at the evening meditation. I am required to wear a black robe and bare feet as I enter the Zendo - the meditation hall, which is dark and old and woody, like a mediaeval barn. Even for an overnight guest like myself there is plenty of ritual to deal with. I must make a fist of my right hand and cover it with the left. I must count from one to ten on every out breath and I must know the right places to bow - gasho - at the entrance to the hall. I must know when and where to dispense with my slippers and how to mount the prayer platform which extends around the perimeter of the hall at a height of some two feet. Once on the platform I can either assume the lotus position or kneel back on my legs (I choose the latter), but I must keep my back absolutely straight. Each period of meditation lasts 45 minutes (the length of time it takes an incense candle to burn down).
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 37
  • Country/sea: Japan
  • Place: Fukuyama
  • Book page no: 62

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