Friday, April 24, 2009

Circles and Squares

This is apparently the weekend when Shiga floods the paddies. There is water everywhere, laid out and arranged in perfect squares across the landscape. There is water in the air too; the rain falls yet again. I begin to wish I could stay on the bus. It lets me off at one of those random bus shelters that appear occasionally on the side of the highway. I descend some stairs and turn right, trying to find a way under the expressway. After 15 minutes, I decide that was the wrong choice. Retracing my steps, I see that a car is parked perfectly in front of a sign telling the way to Hyakusaiji, the first of the three temples I plan to visit today. These aren't part of the Kannon Pilgrimage, but are linked by what's know as the Koto Sanzan Shizen Hodo, running midway up Biwa's eastern shore.

Making my way toward the hills, I'm happy that it isn't raining as hard as I had thought. Just after I reach the tree line at the mountain's foot, I come across my first monkeys of the season. One of them, who I take to be female, is running across the road on her hind legs, holding some unidentifiable white veggie in her hands. The rest of the group is making a boisterous raid on the field just above me. A few minutes later I meet an old woman walking down the hill, who tells me that last fall there'd been a raid by a group of around 30. I climb onward. With all the rain of yesterday, the hillsides are a brilliant collection of green. The young maples seem especially proud, eager to show of the results of their primping. I arrive at the temple and make my way up the stairs to the Hondo, happy to have the place to myself. It's always a delight to find one of these mountains temples, to rest in its stillness. I decide to break it by ringing the large iron bell housed in the corner of the courtyard. The vibration shakes some buds off a nearby mountain cherry tree, and they flutter around me as I pass. I drop back down to the lower temple and become part of the shakkei in my stroll though the carefully groomed garden. In the higher reaches are a few large rocks that look ideal as places to meditate. The biggest stone of all sits amidst the stream, bearing the monicker, "The Unmovable Stone." The view from the top of the garden is of those newly flooded rice fields stacked up toward Biwa, their water taking on the gray of the sky.

I follow the Hodo as it weaves back down under the expressway, up again to a dam, back down and up yet again. It's bizarrely laid out, the path takes me past many small shrines sitting at the edge of the forest. Most of them have small stone altars in front of the bigger trees, looking very pagan. There are also large stones piled like cairns beside many of the rice paddies. The juvenile frogs love all the new water, and they pop and click merrily like those weird forest sprites in Mononokehime. The watery surface has muddy swirls like sumi-e. There is a collection of small burial mounds out here amidst the fields, protecting the pots buried underneath. They were made by the Koreans who originally settled here, back in the 5th Century. Again, the prevailance of shrines gives the area's age away. In the center of all the fields is a grove of trees that doesn't contain a shrine or temple, but there are some graves visible through the trees. The trail carefully avoids it, and there are a few signs warning us against trespassing. There must a good reason this has never been converted to fields, why it is honored by the locals. I walk on and ponder the mystery of it. Luckily, this trail is well marked, the way it zigzags about. But that's no real comfort. Japan is so visually cluttered, if the eye is pulled away by something, it's easy to miss the signs. I move along the concrete, my ears perking at the sound of every oncoming car. My recent return to hitching has brought back my Pavlovian response to engines. Overhead, the wires stretched between towering aerials crackle in the rain. Far across the fields, a pack of schoolkids on bikes look like migrating birds. In the next village, an old granny rides by on her Supercub moped in mompe and bonnet. Like most people who commute a short way to their fields, she doesn't have a helmet. With her advanced age, I am worried about her ability to balance, and she soon afterward demonstrates by using the bike's forward momentum to curl slowly around the next corner.

I come to the next temple, Kongorinji. It's a ten minute walk from the gate to the Hondo. The cobblestone path is outlined by the white of fallen cherries. I detour into the garden and warm myself with tea, then wander out a long path to find some old graves standing in the rain. I follow another trail into the forest, meet the flight of stone again, and climb toward the Hondo. On each and every step is a small Jizo, each with a bib and a small pinwheel before it as an offering. In addition to the ones on the steps, there are other Jizo in clusters and grids at random places in the forest. Each of these is in memory of a dead child. And there are so many. In a lonely section of woods, a single pinwheel turns. I go over to it and pray to the soul of this child. Then continue to climb the hill. The Hondo is big and impressive, with a well- kept pagoda off to the side. I poke around awhile looking at the statues. They don't move me half as much as the Jizo outside, so I go back out. On the way down, the occasional pinwheels turns. I bow each time. Finally toward the bottom, they all begin to turn, as if acknowledging my prayers. My heart is breaking now, tears welling up. I'm not ready for this sudden message, this reminder of the place where my son now is. I quickly hurry out.

I'm back out in the fields, beside a solar powered fence that keeps the boars out. The road I've been on narrows and becomes a forest path. I hadn't expect a trail; I'd have worn different shoes. I walk up steps made from tree limbs laid horizontally in the earth. Each is the thickness of Popeye's forearm. I don't think much of these, as they don't aid the hiker much, and erosion will eventually make each step a bit higher than a comfortable stride. Someone has made some playful signs, encouraging hikers to introduce ourselves to the trees, and to give them a name. They all seem to be done up with blue tape, so I call them the zebra trees. Amidst them , it dawns on me that this is the first time all day I'm not hearing the buzz of the expressway. The final temple, Saimyoji is smaller than the others, but the statuary is incredible. An elderly man takes it upon himself to acquaint me with their features. It is time well spent. I think of how quickly I sometimes move through temples, giving their treasures a mere glance. As with people, when introduced, they become much richer, more magical in their details. These ones in particular had been hidden during Nobunaga's decimation of Tendai temples around Hiei, which attests to their advanced age. I knew old Oda had some issues with Hiei-zan, but never realized his wrath spread so far. I'm grateful this handful of carved beauty survives to impress 400 years on.

It's only mid-afternoon but I'm satisfied. Down at the road again, I notice that the guardrail has been torn away for dozens of meters. There must have been a horrific crash recently, here in the shadow of a shrine. I walk in a steady rain, and thumb a ride from a dentist making his rounds of the villages on this increasingly wet Sunday. I doubt he'd approve the chocolate and sugary coffee I warm myself with as I wait for the train...

On the turntable: Magestic Circus, "Strange Trip on the Train"
On the nighttable: Walter Weston, "Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps"

1 comment:

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Reading your posts is almost as real an experience as walking along a Japanese road onself ...

Good to see you've obtained a copy of "Mountaineering & Exploration in the Japanese Alps". Weston too had that gift of summoning the scene up before the reader's eyes .....