Alex Kerr tells the story of how he arrived late one afternoon at Kongo Sanmai-in, a temple that offers rooms to pilgrims and travellers and he was asked by one of the monks if he would like to see the Buddha in the main hall, but he said he was too tired. Later that evening, on the way to the bath, he passed a monk who remarked pleasantly how fortunate he had been to be able to see their Buddha of divine power. “Well, actually, we were planning to see it tomorrow”, he replied. The monk shook his head. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Sanmai-in’s Buddha is a hibutsu. Mt Koya’s other statues are sometimes put on display, or even lent to other temples, but this one has never left the mountain. This is the first time it has ever been shown to the general public. It’s called a five-hundred-year hibutsu. The doors closed at five o’clock today and you’ll have to wait another five hundred years if you want to see it.”
The “five-hundred year hibutsu” is good rule for travellers and today, finding myself in Tokyo on one of the very rare days that the Emperor opened the inner garden of the Imperial Palace to the public there was no way I was going to miss the chance to stroll in the Emperor’s garden. The word stroll implies a quiet contemplative walk, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the fact that the Emperor himself would be there with his family so I had to share the walk with 100,000 Japanese who didn’t want to miss the chance to see their Royal family. And so the fascination of the visit turned out not to be the Emperor’s garden (which didn’t amount to much after all) but the sight of his Palace, surprisingly made of concrete and steel, and the Emperor and his family waving at us from a balcony behind bullet proof glass and the enthusiasm of a multitude of Japanese, waving their national flag.