June 21st, 2009


The temple gift store

In Bali, the beaches and sea are traditionally considered the realm of chthonian forces, whereas the stratovolcano Gunung Agung is the seat of the gods. I thought of this as Hisae and I left the tourist-thronged beaches of Aegina behind on Friday afternoon and our Yamaha climbed the pined slopes of the small mountain (the "Mountain of Pan-Greek Zeus") topped by the Temple of Aphaia. Nobody was there; as soon as I cut the motorbike engine the only sounds on the mountaintop were doves, cicadas, crows, chickens, the keening wind in the pines, and perhaps the odd light plane flying overhead.

We didn't leave commerce entirely behind, though. Before heading up to the sacred site on the summit, Hisae and I made for the temple gift shop and cafe and ordered two iced coffees. An old man mixed up Nescafe with ice and foamed milk, serving it with two glasses of water. Hanging beside the bar was a Japanese calendar.

This calendar threw me into an interesting state of gestalt confusion. Was I in Greece, or Japan? Was it a Shinto temple we were about to visit, or a temple to an ancient Greek nymph? I'd already seen this juxtaposition from the other side: in Scratch Japan, find ancient Greece I documented an Osaka exhibition dedicated to the idea that Alexander the Great and the traders of the Silk Road brought a Greek influence to early Mahayana Buddhism.

Something about the Aphaia temple cafe reminded me of the Buddhist gift stores I love so much around Japanese temples. They're usually surrounded by the same pine trees, lit by the same fluorescent lights, enchanted by the same sense of fusty neglect, and offering the same odd commercial spin-off products from arcane and archaic religious artifacts and symbols.

These stores aspire, in a half-hearted way, to be museums; the Greek one boasted reproduction masks and busts, painted plates, statuettes, costumes and other "treasures", some displayed in glass vitrines. In Japan, the stores feature similarly didactic, eccentric wares. Imagine a house furnished entirely with this stuff!

Like the gift store at the Kōtoku-in temple in Kamakura, the gift shop at the Temple of Aphaia offers refreshment as well as trinkets, confectionary and snacks themed around the temple experience.

In Kamakura this takes the form of "spiritually-themed food" in attractively-restrained packaging depicting the daibutsu, the Great Buddha, a hollow bronze statue of the Amida Buddha you can climb inside for the princely sum of 10 yen.

At Aphaia the food of choice is locally-grown pistachio nuts. Or how about some sponges, caught in the sea nearby? Or some "precious" earthenware pots that might date from 500BC (the date of the extant Temple of Aphaia) or from yesterday (does it really matter)?

It's important that the cafe be somewhat stark and monastic, be staffed by someone very ancient and relaxed, and offer very little. In Japan, you should order a matcha green tea and some warabi mochi -- sweet things are allowed, but they should be traditional, and not wrapped too gaudily. In Greece, you might want honey-soaked or sugar-sprinkled melomakarona or loukoumia.

Around the temple gift store great peace should reign, and a sense that things haven't changed, in their essentials, for thousands of years. Old gods haunt this place, but they are not serious ones, not evangelistic or scary or monopolistic or omniscient, like the mushroom-cloud-shaped deity of the Christian religion.

No, these deities are sexy nymphs like Aphaia herself -- her Shinto-like cult goes back more than twelve centuries before Christ (she's a local Aegina deity "associated with fertility and the agricultural cycle") -- or relaxed, kindly philosophers like the Buddha. They lay no claim to your eternal soul, but might have some good advice about life -- or how to use your cock.