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Crows, Death and a Holy Mountain: Ian Astley (2000-11-22)

The seminar 'Crows, Death and a Holy Mountain,' presented by Dr Astley (Head of Japanese Studies at the University of Edinburgh), was a highly interesting discussion of the holy mountain of Koyasan in Southern Japan. Drawing on Dr Astley's extensive research and many visits to Koyasan, the talk looked at its place within the Shingon sect of Buddhism and within Japanese society in general. Catching all the finer points discussed in the seminar demanded full attention and some background knowledge from the audience, but ultimately the evidence it presented of the changing role of the temple complex within Japanese society, pointing to wider changes in Japan, was of interest and relevance even to those without prior knowledge of the topic.

In his brief summary of the history of the temple at Koyashan, Dr Astley discussed its founding by Kobo Daishi. Deified as the founder of the Shingon sect, Kobo Daishi was a powerful political force in his time, and it was this that enable him to secure the land for his temple. Since that time Koyashan has remained a household name in Japan, its political influence may have waned, but it remains an important part of Japan's heritage.

Discussion of contemporary Koyashan was illustrated with slides taken by Dr Astley himself. Description of the rites of the temple and its continued importance as a destination for religious pilgrimage were made more vivid by these images. Some of the slides also helped to emphasise the sense of dissonance between Japan's traditional culture and super-modern lifestyles, so striking to the outside observer, which were the underlying theme of the talk. One picture in particular captured this contrast, showing a middle aged lady in newly cleaned and ironed pilgrim clothing in the traditional all white style, fresh from the journey by luxury coach to the mountain.

The final discussion of the extensive graveyards on the mountain further highlighted the different attitudes of different generations to religion, and the changing attitude of society to family. The amount of money it takes to buy a plot for a single grave at Koyasan would be enough for many families to seriously consider buying property for a entire living family. This can cause tensions within families as to how best to use money, and conflict as to were authority within a family on such matters lies.

These three topic areas introduced the audience, through the particular case of Koyasan, to modern day Japanese society and some areas in which change is bringing divisions within society and possibly even within individual families. As such the talk was highly entertaining, but also provoked thought and discussion, encouraging the audience to find out more about Japan.

summary by Phil Dorman