Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Fate Accompli

OK, let's start with the strange part. For nearly twelve years, every time I've taken the bus south on the Yonago Expressway, I always look out the window at the same spot. It doesn't matter what I'm doing--reading a book, napping, talking to a friend--I always seem to look up at the same place, this small tea-growing village in Okayama-ken. When it happened last Saturday, for the Nth time, I decide a visit was in order.

It seems I'm fated to go there. But the notion of fate is a bit scary, since fate plays by its own rules. What if I die in a car wreck on the way down? Or get bitten by a snake or stung by bees? Or return seemingly unharmed, only to find my house has burned down? I ponder these things as I pull out my maps, seeking the best way into that remote valley. Into the hands of fate, I think, yet have ever I drawn a single breathe beyond its far reach?

Monday. It was the perfect day for a potentially spooky trip, with gusty winds, and a sky hazy from those yellow sands which frequently visit from China. The road south was familiar, along rivers and over the passes of the Chugoku mountain range. Since destiny was my navigator, I decided to stop and check out whatever drew my attention. A slightly bizarre grove of trees. A shrine with no name. A jizo marking a pine tree with two trunks. (The only thing that I purposely sought out was ice cream. Mission Accomplished.) At Yubara, the road passed beneath the highway, then became a narrow track barely wide enough for my truck. Into the forest we went, Ry Cooder's slide guitar playing an eerie soundtrack. Winding up along narrowing rows with no guardrails, then dropping once more into the dark shade of high trees. There seemed to be no logging done in here, though many sections of forest had fallen in the typhoons of '04. Repeatedly, I'd pass between the severed sections of a massive trunk. Then the sunlight began to seep in, down through the clear water of fast streams which fed the rice paddies of an elderly couple pulling weeds not far from their run-down house. Then the forest closed once more, leaving them behind, dozens of kilometers from any neighbor.

And the forest stopped. I came around a bend and there was the village, coming up quicker than I'd expected. It was a small place, eight or nine homes wrapped around a hill whose shape is best described as a Hershey's kiss, its southern slope striated by the straight lines of tea bushes. A fast moving river ran alongside the road where a very old man wielded a fishing rod far longer, but not much thicker than his arms. In fact, everyone I saw that day was really old, easily in their eighties, bending over in their gardens, or squatting to sell vegetables in a converted carport. I greeted everyone heartily, hoping that curiousity would draw someone into conversation, allowing me find out why this nondescript place would have such a pull on me. But my greetings were answered only with polite nods. These remote mountain villages are infamous for their suspicion of outsiders, especially if that outsider is a foreigner wandering around for no real reason. (Despite this, there were multiple signs saying that proper greetings--or a even simple smile--makes for good neighbors. This neighborly feeling extended across national lines in the form of a poster supporting the anti-war clause in the National Constitution.)

Wander I did, along narrow stone paths between the houses and along the base of the tea covered hill. The scenery reminded me of the Himalaya. At one edge of the village was a small hut built to contain a statue of Buddha, as this village was too small to have a real temple of its own. The sound of a bee drew my gaze from Amida's face to the tombstones beyond. That's where my answer lies. The key to this mystery must lie in the past. The village's name, 伏ヶ茅, Fushi ga Kaya, resonates with the meaning of a long gone mountain ascetic who once hung around here. One day in the near future, the district office will receive a mysterious call from a person asking strange questions about local history and names.

So the mystery remains. Was it the village, or its past that's been drawing my attention. Or perhaps the place was a McGuffin, tricking me into making this journey, and the thing I was supposed to find was the shrine or the jizo or the person working at the ice cream shop. Or perhaps this was the way I was destined to spend June 5, 2006.

On the turntable: Patti Smith, "Land"

No comments: