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Yada Tenmangu, Kameoka-shi, Kyoto Prefecture

Series: Japan Insight

The jewel box of nature and the world of Edgar Allan Poe as seen from an old shrineAlex Arthur Kerr (USA)

400 years ago, the Yada Tenmangu shrine in Kameoka on the outskirts of Kyoto was orginally a buddhist nunnery. It was in the late 1970s that I started living in the former priest’s house, which stands on the grounds.
At the time, like many of my friends from abroad, I wanted to live in an imagined world of ancient “Japan” and the dark, time-worn atmosphere of the Tenmangu shrine was very appealing to me. For quite a while I didn’t even bother to repair the tattered storm shutters. Around the house, I naturally wore a kimono. All the sliding partitions and windows that are standard in a Japanese-style building were left wide open, so that I could gaze out over the garden from inside. At night, when countless mosquitoes would swarm into the room, I would hang up a traditional mosquito net known as a kaya from the ceiling, and sleep inside it.
As my night light, I used a paper floor-lamp called an andon. A 18-year-old English girl named Diane who was living with me used to sit inside the kaya reading books with an old-fashioned Japanese pipe in her mouth. The deep red silken hem of the green kaya floating in the darkness of the shrine and Diane’s silhouette cast against the kaya by the lantern light were like something right out of the world of Edgar Allan Poe.
Before going to sleep, we would light a single candle and sit on the veranda-like porch, watch the spiders weave their webs among the weeds in the garden, listen to music, and talk about life and love. It may sound like something out of a cheap Japanese costume drama, but it felt like a refined way of living where time had stopped.
With the 80s, kimonos and candles went the way of the wind, and the familiar Kameoka scenery changed dramatically, like so many other traditional customs and landscapes in Japan. Still, that view lingers in my mind. Of course, a particular atmosphere remains in Kameoka even today. Something quite simple: “nature.”

The seasons of Tenmangu, colored by the jewelry of nature
Whenever I return to Tenmangu and Kameoka from a trip abroad or to Tokyo, the seasonal cycle will have turned a bit, and there is always some new, interesting natural phenomenon waiting for me. From ancient times, the Japanese have loved and enjoyed the variations in nature with the seasons, and here at Tenmangu is a place where you can really appreciate each of them.
In spring, the plum trees are blooming in the shrine grounds, as the enshrined deity, Sugawara no Michizane, the God of Scholarship, was particularly fond of these blossoms. Then follow cherry blossoms, peach blossoms, azaleas, etc. until we come to my own favorite season at the end of May and beginning of June.
One evening when early summer is just around the corner, the year’s first firefly comes soaring into the garden. Then, I usually go down to the nearby river with my friends. As we stand waiting in the total darkness, suddenly countless fireflies emerge from the thickets in the valley and the frogs in the surrounding rice paddies strike up their concerto. In June, at the beginning of the rainy season, you can see tiny green frogs jumping like little emeralds, and the trees and leaves are garnished with jewels. The lotus blooms and the rain drips with a comforting sound on the bedroom roof. Sleep never gets better.
In summer, you can sit inside and watch the children who come to swim naked in the pool by the nearby waterfall like in the Garden of Eden, while the breeze blows through the surrounding trees and kites spread their wings and glide leisurely across the blue sky.
The end of summer brings storms, and then the turning leaves and yellow gingko nuts of fall, not to mention the ruby-red nandina berries. The orange persimmons remain until late in the fall. In winter, the trees are sometimes covered with hoarfrost, and every single blade of grass sparkles like a diamond in the morning sun.
Filled with the emeralds, rubies and diamonds of nature, Tenmangu is like a natural jewel box.

Yada Tenmangu is currently the private home of Alex Kerr, and is normally closed to the public. However, various events are held regularly when the house is open, and applications are accepted for study tours of the refurbishing of traditional houses.

Related sites:
http://www.alex-kerr.com/www_index.html (English)
http://www.chiiori.org/jp/ (Japanese)

Alex Arthur Kerr
Born in Maryland, U.S.A. in 1952; Majored in Japanese Studies in Yale University; Studied in Keio University; Did Chinese Studies in the University of Oxford; Published Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo, pub: Shinchosha, Japan, 1993 (its English version Lost Japan, pub: Lonely Planet Co., Australia, 1996); The book became popular and was awarded with the Shincho Literature Prize. Besides writing books and articles such as “Inu to Oni” Shirarezaru Nihon no Shozo (“Dog and Demons” Portrait of an Unknown Japan), Kodansha; he is now actively involved in consulting business as a scholar in Eastern culture for public projects such as machiya (Japanese traditional wooden houses) restoration project in Kyoto.