We have guests: Playing Host

Words by Sam George-Allen

Published on October 5, 2012

Senjuuin is a Buddhist temple on top of a mountain between Nara and Osaka in the southern part of Honshu, Japan. Its name means ‘a thousand hands,’ and it has been there for a long time. We stay there, my mother, my sister, and me, in early autumn when the leaves are just starting to turn. By now I have lived in Japan for more than a year, long enough to play at being a host.

On the second morning, we are woken at 5:30 by the deep bells calling us to ceremony. We wash our faces in the communal bathroom down the corridor. It is still dark, and outside the glass sliding doors that panel the hallway, there is a garden. The night before we’d eaten the meal prepared for us by the only monk who is also a woman, and my mother had talked with her about the man who made the garden. My mother is a landscape gardener. She’d learned her trade in Fukuoka, hours south of here, before I was born, before my twelve-year-old sister was born. I’d listened to my mother translate her conversation in her genteel Japanese for the other guests, a quiet New Zealand family. My mouth was full of marigold petals and konnyaku.

In the dark, we shuffle up to the courtyard and the other family joins us. The dawn ceremony has been performed every day for 1100 years. It’s all fire and cleansing, held in an open room filled with gold statues and chrysanthemums and oranges, and a pile of fragile slivers of wood with characters written on their surfaces stacked in a tower. For the whole ceremony we kneel on thin cushions in seiza, sitting on our heels. The fire blows smoke into my warming face, and my knees start to cramp. The monk closest to me is booming along, each syllable measured out evenly, the correctness of Japanese with its unstressed phonemes falling into place in the chant. I struggle to follow the katakana in my own worn booklet. When the time comes for the guests to participate, the monks call on me, and I turn beseechingly to my mother. Together we translate for the others: come by the fire, clap twice, bow your head, pray for luck and safe travels. I pray for my mother and my sister to be happy. I pray that my thick, dumb tongue will grow nimble behind my teeth and my ears will be sharp and clever.

After the ceremony, a monk leads us up the stairs, through the stone lanterns that line each side of the path, to the temple on top of the hill. Four hundred years ago, it came to a priest in a vision, in the year of the tiger, in the month of the tiger, on the day of the tiger, in the hour of the tiger, and now there are stone and wooden tigers everywhere. We go into the temple without pausing at the statues and friezes, and the monk leads us to a doorway, and a set of stairs going down into darkness. Again, my mother and I translate: it will be dark in the labyrinth, pitch-black, because it represents the womb, and rebirth. There is a handle on the right side some way in; feel along the wall to find it and knock it three times, for luck.

We descend in single file. My mother is in front of me, my sister behind me, the mild New Zealand family treading on her heels. The corridor turns and the light is gone. I feel my eyes open wide into the dark. We run our fingers along the goosepimpled walls and I feel the press of darkness against me. I feel trickles of panic. I feel rather than hear my mother and my sister’s breaths. When we have been walking in the dark forever and I am sure I will be lost in here-a dry hand reaches for mine and the monk guides my rigid fingers to the handle. It’s smooth, worn down by generations of tourists before me, but I hold onto it like an anchor and I knock, three times, then fumble for my sister. She knocks, and before she puts her small hand back in mine I wonder what she’s praying for.

After the handle, it’s not long before the floor begins to slope upwards and my flutters of panic become anticipation. The texture of the walls have worn down my fingertips and Billie is holding my hand hard and my eyes are still wide open when the ground’s grey shape lifts into view, then the silhouette of the monk, and then we round the corner and emerge into the white milky morning, the mist rising off the rust-coloured valley, and my mother turning, smiling, waiting for us both.

This October our monthly series is all about guests and, accordingly, we’ve invited guest writers to fill in for us as we take a break to drink mojitos. Our first guest, Sam George-Allen got some kind of Arts degree and went away for two years. Now she’s doing Honours in Creative Writing.