Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Below the exact same ridge that we hiked last week are a series of temples that intrigue me. They are scattered along the foothills of Ponpon-yama, interlacing the villages there. I'm solo today, Miki preparing for a month abroad. I'll miss my usual hiking companion, but am admittedly a little excited to have some time to say farewell to Japan on my own terms. I follow the same route as last week, riding the train with the gamblers and heading toward our own buses. I find I have a ridiculously long wait for mine, so decide to hitch. I walk through town thumb out, in the direction of the far-off hills. It's a tough place to get a ride and I'm not sure whether this is the right road. So I turn back to the station.

Arriving in the hills finally. I walk over to Shoboji, a collection of small buildings on a hill above a creek. Each of the buildings houses a single figure of Fudo, which surprises me despite being a temple of the esoteric Shingon sect. Only after poking around awhile do I find a less wrathful Buddha. Most of these buildings are old, but one newer hall stands out, with it's blond wood and fusuma panels painted with the surrounding landscape as it probably looked a couple hundred years back. There's also a stone garden here, each of the rocks chosen by its resemblance to an animal from the Chinese zodiac. There's a weeping sakura tree overhead, which drops petals onto the carefully raked gravel and even across the tatami inside. The surface of the pond beside us is covered in white flakes. This whole area is famous for sakura, which has of course brought out the daytrippers. Walking beneath the shedding trees is like having your own ticket tape parade.

The trees eventually give way to bamboo. I am looking for a small trail that looks to be a shortcut over to Yoshiminedera. I of course take the wrong trail, which descends quickly to a creek, then climbs into high grass beyond. Bamboo forests are the favorite habitat of vipers, and this winter wasn't cold enough to decompose all the fallen leaves, which offer abundant camouflage for them. I grab a piece of fallen bamboo and smack the ground with it as I walk, hoping to scare off any snakes that may be enjoying the fine weather. The trail climbs and I find it bisected by electric fencing designed to keep out the boars. Dead end. There are two fences side by side, with enough space to walk between easily. The problem is that one of them is nearly as tall as I am. I follow it awhile, looking for a tree that I can climb in order to jump over. No luck. There is about 50cm of space between two of the wires, just enough to pass through safely, yet there is of course the chance that a body part might make contact. I think a long while. This fence can't carry enough current to kill, can it? I lightly touch my bamboo staff to the wire. No shock. I flick it with my hand. Again, same result. Then, I touch it and decide it's safe. I push through the gap and make my way to the road just beyond the pillars of bamboo rising from the well-excavated forest floor.

It takes me a moment to figure out where I am, and I climb again, up a long series of switchbacks. A really old man is resting on his cane part way up. We exchange greetings, then I keep on, up to the rear gate of Sanko-ji. I sit winded and break out lunch. This temple is unusual in that it is shared by four different sects of Buddhism. It is small place, of four altars housed in a single structure. The view is spectacular, of a single purple line of mountains, stretching from the north of Hiei and nearly all the way to Osaka. I am told this is the best place in the city to see the moonrise. I eat my sandwiches and take in the silence and the view. I seem to have finally escaped the crowds.

Unfortunately I find them again next door at Yoshiminedera, after passing through their ridiculously fortified iron gate. Stepping off trail to look at a fallen tree, I lose my balance and grab hold of a fence to stop my fall, slamming my palm onto a piece of rusty metal that is sticking up for some reason. There's a nice red hole in the center of my palm. Multiple layers of irony here. It's Easter, and earlier this morning, I posted an obnoxious, evocative comment about it on Facebook. Here, a few hours later, I've given myself my own stigmata. I walk into the crowds, trying not to think about tetanus. This temple simply sprawls all over the mountain, and all the crowds and superfluous signage create too much a carnival atmosphere for me. I don't get any sense of peace here and wish to flee quickly. Making my way down, I'm impressed by one section, with a couple of usually shaped halls and nearby, a really long extension of pine, supposedly the longest in Japan. It is genetic freak science at its worst; the trunk of the tree purposefully stunted and dwarfed, with this massive appendage arrogantly jutting out. The adjoining photo shows that there were once two limbs, looking to me like a pair of bat's wings. There's no explanation as to why or when the other was lopped off. It's only as I'm making my way down the front steps that I realize that I've been here before, during my 33 Kannon Temple pilgrimage back in 2002.

I am alone again soon once past the parking area. I arrive next at Jurinji, a beautiful little place that I have to myself. The woman at the front office talks with me a long while about the history of the place. This is one of the best reasons to travel alone as a foreigner in Japan, the ease with which people strike up conversations. She tells me that a monk here used smoke signals to send messages of love to a woman who was cloistered at nearly Oharano Jinja. The roof of the main hall is curved like an elephant's back, and a pair of Buddhist statues look remarkably Thai. The way things were displayed here also remind me more of Southeast Asia, the odd diaramas and skinny gold statuary. Entering the next wing I soon figure it out. The priest here had trained for two years in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He is unmistakable in the photos here, being larger and whiter than the rest of his Sangha. I climb the hill in back to see where the smoke signals had come from, sitting peacefully by the stones in this quite patch of grove.

I follow the road again. A circular house on stilts overlooks the creek. A motorcyclist sits next to a lonely vending machine, having a private moment with coffee and a smoke. Four surprisingly well-dressed young women stand in a field. After passing through a few more villages, signs of suburb begin to push in. I make my way up the broad path to Komyoji. There is much going on here, with dozens of men in suits breaking down what had been some kind of conference. A long red carpet covers the stone path leading to the Hondo. I remove my shoes and go inside to ogle all the gold bling that is typical to Jodo temples. A wooden corridor leads me to a series of steps extending down the hill toward more buildings. Beside the steps is a motion-activated escalator, which makes me assume this place must have good liability insuance if they allow people to ride it without shoes. At the bottom is a rock garden, and one suited guy staring at it with a sad expression. Beyond him comes the distinctive sounds of a party. So far no one has questioned why I'm here, but I decide not to linger. I wander toward the main gate again, below all those signs for "JCI." I want to ask somebody what it stands for, but decide not to, preferring to think it means, "Jesus Christ, Inc." in keeping with my post of last Sunday.

I walk deeper into suburbia, past all the usual paraphanalia. The station seems far off, and i try to thumb again. I nearly always have good and quick success at hitchhiking, though it has become a little more difficult in these days of media terrorism. Kyoto in particular is a tough place to get rides. It's doubtful there'd be enough space in the car for me anyway, what with the hearts of Kyotoites so overflowing with love and goodwill. But it doesn't bring me down, and I walk on, doing that thing I do when traveling solo, singing aloud and making up lyrics about what is in eyeshot, today trying to come up with rhymes for words like "Pseudo" and "America" and "Faux" and "Middle-class." Finally, quite near the station, a woman in her 50s picks me up. It is almost always an older woman who will stop, never these young hipsters and their tricked out sci-fi cars. Turns out she's from rural Hyogo and has a daughter teaching Japanese in Australia. I say farewell and make my way to the train that will take me to an Irish music gig, by which I'll celebrate my Easter...

On the turntable: Jim O'Roarke, "Hagyou"

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