10. Religious Yokohama
From Patchwork Yokohama by Pencil Louis

Vince often expounded on the religious tolerance in Japan. Apart from the Jehovah Witnesses who were pests at the railway stations and the immediate assumption that he must be a Christian because of his European good looks, he discovered that the Japanese, on the whole, didn't talk much about their religious beliefs or expect anyone else to share them. While he found it interesting to regard Shinto and Zen from afar and even applaud their basic tenets, he realised that he was a complete alien when it came to the real faith of the average Japanese man or woman.

Upon reflection, he realised that he was probably alien to the real faith of the average Australian man and woman, but there were certain things that had rubbed off. It took him over a year to get used to the sight of souvenir shops in the compounds of even the most moderately sized temple. The idea of the money changers in the temple was almost more than the average atheist could stand. It soon dawned on Vince that religion was a business in Japan as clearly as education or medicine, and that, in many cases, the monetary side of the dealings was clearly more significant than the spiritual side.

Vince realised that he had always considered Christianity a business in his own country and there was little doubt that they made money out of birth, death and marriage in much the same way as the Shintoists and Buddhists did. They had their fund raising fairs too. Vince wondered if the shrines and temples were exempt from tax in Japan in the same way that churches were in Australia.

For all their lack of religious fervour, the Japanese, as far as Vince could see, were obsessed with their own temples and shrines. Although it was far cheaper to travel overseas, especially in Asia, than it was in Japan, most preferred to tour their own country. A lot of this seemed to involve visiting temples and shrines, clapping their hands, ringing a bell, buying a wish and posing for a photograph.

Undoubtedly, if you asked a local resident of just about anywhere in Japan to show you the local sights, you would find yourself on a tour of the local religious establishments. While Vince was well aware that his friends meant well enough, he found himself stifling a yawn after the third shrine just as his host was announcing that this was a very famous shrine indeed. Such tours had about as much interest for Vince as a trip around the churches of Geelong.

Vince often wondered why there was such a fascination for something he found so completely dull. It was during a walk down part of the old Kamakura road that he suddenly felt that he had hit upon the answer. With a group of acquaintances, he stepped off the No. 138 bus at Kaminobananairobatakekosu, which as well as being one hell of a mouthful meant the seven coloured fields of Kaminoba. Vince did ask why it was called that, but no one seemed to know. Perhaps, they suggested, it was because of the different crops grown in the fields, which gave them different colours and textures.

It was in this area that Vince came across his first sekibutsu. He was well aware that he had probably passed hundreds of these little stone relief statuettes, but paid them little or no mind. He was soon to discover that these effigies carved from local rock held a wealth of historical and religious significance.

Sekibutsu, he was told, were stone Buddhas that had been crafted not by stone masons but by ordinary folk to show their religious devotion during the stringent Tokugawa regime of the Edo era. And they were often the scenes for small festivals during the farm workers one day off in the year. Back in the good old days, Vince thought, before unions and workers' rights. These sekibutsu were also positioned near crossroads or temples or at the entrances to towns. Pilgrims encouraged common folk to carve these Buddhas as a sign of their religious devotion and the practice was tolerated by the Shogunate, no doubt because religion was the opiate of the people.

The first sekibutsu Vince's party came across was also a sign post showing the direction and distances to the towns of Kamakura and Ryoji for the convenience of the pilgrims and other travellers. It had been carved in 1716 and was set in a hedge row of myrtle and boxwood. Vince was mildly impressed at the facts that his Japanese friends reeled off from a local guide book that seemed to be solely about the sekibutsu of the district.

Along the way, they stopped in at a Korean Buddhist temple called Ankokuji. Its centrepiece was a huge four-ton bell, two metres high and 145 centimetres in diameter around the base. Vince was assured that it was rung daily at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. to purify any bad feelings in those who heard it. They were thrice purified on that day as Vince heaved the wooden pole at it. He had actually been trying to find out the dimension of the swing of the pole and hadn't really meant to strike it. There was no mistaking that it had been struck. It resounded for a full three minutes afterwards.

After offending the 700,000 Koreans in Japan, the party was off to their next sekibutsu. If Vince had been interested in the first one, he wasn't prepared for the heat of the debate over the second. Firstly, it was the exact meaning of the characters below the actual Buddha and then, they discovered the figures of the three monkeys - see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. In Japanese, they were referred to as mizaru, kikazaru and iwazaru. Vince had actually noticed them before anyone else, but had consciously refrained from mentioning them lest he cause further consternation. It was all to no avail as one of the eagle-eyed kanji interpreters remarked on them and another hot debate began over whether they had been carved before or after the colourful three monkeys transom at Nikko. There was a point where Vince feared that the party might come to blows and he was torn between whether to steer well clear of any such dispute or to choose the most logical side.

To make matters worse, the third sekibutsu also had the three monkeys on it and this one was dated at 1680, a fact that both sides of the argument claimed proved their very point. They did manage to come to some agreement over the meaning of the kanji. This sekibutsu was clearly a totem devoted to safety at night and a good harvest. Vince had, however, realised that there were more to these small monuments than he had at first thought. How much more so must that have been true of the larger shrines and temples.

The party moved onto a shrine which celebrated the bushi war god, Yamatotakkeirunomikoto. The bushi had evidently fought an eight-headed dragon and defeated it by chopping off each of its head. If this latter day Saint George wasn't enough, they were led to the site where the Buddhist monk, Genyubo, had buried himself alive in order to cure sufferers of sore throats and colds, a noble gesture in the days before antibiotics and menthol throat lozenges. Vince's guide explained that this was a good way for a Buddhist to purify himself and die. Other good ways included living for a hundred days within a cave or walking 50 kilometres a day for a hundred days. However, he assured Vince that Buddhism was a very user friendly religion and that only a handful of fanatical believers undertook such ventures.

If Vince had offended all Japanese Koreans earlier in the day, he now succeeded in offending all non-Korean Japanese. At the fourth and final sekibutsu, which had been most recently carved in 1906 although it looked older and more dilapidated than any of the others, one of the women on the tour had asked him what had been the most interesting thing he had seen that morning. Vince thought for a moment and then replied that the bell at the Korean temple had caught his imagination. It had after all been the only hands-on experience of the day, even if it hadn't been intended as such. The woman's face was crestfallen and Vince, always wishing to please others, realised that he had just been on a pilgrimage and had valued most highly not the ancient religious artifacts but a newly imported bell from Korea. She would never understand why he hadn't said the three monkeys on the second sekibutsu or the place where Genyubo had buried himself.

Vince's favourite Japanese temple was in Kamakura and called Zeniarai Benten. It was set in a grotto in the hillside and had a large number of otorii gates which had been presented to the temple by grateful businesses which had presumably become successful after prayers had been said on their behalf. It was said that if you washed some money in a little basket with water from the stream and dried it over a small and smoky incense fire that you would become rich. Vince had tried it and it had never worked for him. Maybe, it was because he only washed and dried a handful of coins while he saw others drenching bundles of 10,000 yen notes. It gave him one of his many insights into the extent to which money and spirituality were linked in Japan. Maybe, success was clearly a sign of the beneficence of God as it clearly had been in Old Testament times.

On another occasion, Vince had visited Shinmei Shrine in Hodogaya Ward. It had been established some thousand years before, in 970 A.D., when the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu of Ise, appeared in the mountains of Hangayai in the province of Musasi. In 1225, it was moved to Miyabashi and was finally constructed on its present site in 1619 or so Vince had read on the English information pamphlet.

The priest was Mr. Mitsuru Izuka, who seemed very busy, that afternoon, taking new born babies to the shrine to introduce them to various incarnations that could help them along until they reached an age when they could be blessed in the Shichi Go San Festival. This was on 15th. November and was a celebration for girls of seven or three and boys of five.

Mr. Mitsuri was a calm-mannered man who seemed particularly adept at handling babies. Over a cup of green tea, he explained to Vince that, in the west, architecture was more important than in Japan.

"In Japan, temples and shrines represent sacred places and it is the place, the natural surroundings that are most important not the buildings."

It took Vince some minutes to digest this thought, but he realised immediately the truth of Mr. Izuka's statement. How often had he visited a shrine which was reputedly over a thousand years old, only to discover that the buildings had been constructed two years earlier. This was certainly true of Shinmei Shrine. It also explained the Japanese disregard for contemporary architecture. A building was old after seven years and it was likely that many quite tall buildings wouldn't even reach that age.

"In olden days," Mr. Izuka continued, "the Japanese islands were completely covered in forest. Cutting back the trees was a way to the sky and therefore to heaven and God. The temple forest is a very important concept in Japan. People move from place to place and the shrines or temples go with them."

Mr. Izuka was not just a priest. He was trained in electronics and had his own computer business on the side. Vince gradually became aware that Mr. Izuka had not prostrated himself before any divinity, that he had not wrestled with his soul to see if he was worthy of the priesthood.

No, the shrine was the family business that had been run by his father and grandfather before him and now it was his turn. Vince would come to know several priests just like Mr. Izuka, who knew other trades or had lucrative business opportunities outside the shrine, but who had returned to the priesthood when it became their turn. He knew that many first sons had turned down the opportunity to become farmers and he could only assume from the personalities of these priests that there was a sizable income in religion in Japan.

Over the road from Shinmei Shrine was the Nomura Business Park, a shrine of a different kind, a grand sky scraper towering over the rest of the neighbourhood as part of Yokohama's plan for the 21st. Century. It housed companies like Sony, Omron and Digital Equipment Corporation (Japan), but had a series of show rooms with art exhibits on the bottom floor. The centre piece was a shallow pool called "Water Gallery" surrounded by pergolas with plastic vines until the real ones grew tall enough and a Colloseumesque amphitheatre.

This was the brain child of Mario Bellini and the sculptures reflected the surrealistic nature of the place - an enormous rock with wings, another rock held tied by a vertical chain, a huge red iron segment of cheese and a gigantic door bolt set in concrete. Connie loved the safari jungle best with Klaus Kammerich's tiger, Izumi Ando's rhinoceros and Nobuyuki Akechi's elephants. Her favourite was a line of bronze dogs running in and out of a wall called "Every Dog Has His Day" by Satoshi Yabuuchi.

Such was the attention to detail in the Business Park that Vince found himself wondering if the Japanese, contrary to Mr. Izuka's words, had not decided to take up the Western love of Art and Architecture. It may have been hard to find a building in Yokohama between 25 and 100 years old, but it was also impossible to conceive that the Business Park would be committed to rubble as quickly as most of the tall buildings around the extended Tokyo area.