Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Amongst Spiders and Wizards

The weather report throughout the week had proved schizophrenic, but the clouds Saturday seemed encouraging. So it was that I met up with Ojisan Jake and Aurelio for the long ride down south to Gojo where we'd start walking the Katsuragi Kaidō. I'd long been interested in this walk, as this was reportedly the birthplace of En-no-Gyoja, the legendary founder of Shugendo.

The first traces of history we found were from much later, in the form of a well-preserved Edo period residence of the Fujioka family. The painted fusuma within were well kept, including one room that had a wrap-around view of Lake Biwa. Nearby was Goryō Jinja, whose grounds seemed much younger than the buildings it contained. The paint on the main shrine was well-faded but hinted at images previously bright and alive with color. It reminded me somewhat of the temples of Korea, no real surprise since this region was the traditional home of the Kamo artisans who'd settled here during Japan's early history. I tried to ask the caretaker about this history, but he'd proven surly and unwilling to talk. ( In hindsight, I feel somewhat guilty about interrupting his sweeping, and certainly hope I didn't make him lose his place.)

We moved into out into country, between rice fields late in their flooding. Tractor tire marks looked like kanji traced in the soft muddy beds. A couple of old-timers were just putting the rice shoots in, as one young boy ran about catching frogs. He placed a small one in a bucket beside a massive bullfrog staring off into space and no doubt wondering how he'd gotten into this predicament. The younger of the two old men told us how after the war, they'd often eaten these giant frogs, and they were tasty when prepared with certain herbs. His older friend, toothless and wearing a hearing aide, merely repeated a single question, four or five times saying, "I'll bet you've never seen such a thing, have you?"

We continued along the ambiguously marked trail, inadvertently exploring a few side roads in the process. When even the postman couldn't help us, we bushwhacked along a berm, arriving at the highway below, where some police where hoisting a broke down truck onto a wrecker. We found the true Katsuragi Kaidō now, which led us to Takagamo Jinja and a lunch break. Jake shared some of his homegrown potatoes, along with bread he'd baked. I swapped some of my trailmix. Aurelio seemed happy with his corn on the cob. We sat beneath the eaves of a resthouse, talking about revisionist Shinto and the Kojiki, until a couple of rather persistent bees encouraged us to get on with our walk.

The rest of the day we quietly explored the shrines and temples, and talked through the spaces between, alternating between discussions about folk religion and teasing Aurelio about his dislike of mariachis and Mexican food. We climbed up a road past the corpse of a viper cooking in the sun that was now beginning to come out. Atop this rise was Takamahiko Jinja, looking old and magical with its tree-lined approach and the play of light in the valley above. Our map showed the curiously named "Ground Spider's Nest," which was a reference to the Nihon Shoki story of the powerful and long-legged tribe who'd given the early Yamato settlers a good fight. My brain was awash with Tolkienesque imagery as we entered the forest down a cobbled path, startling the longest snake I've ever seen in Japan. We missed the site at first, surprised to see a bicycle at the middle of a long flight of steps. We then back-tracked to find what we'd been seeking; a handful of stones and graves marking where the ground spiders had been defeated, in this grove of high grass beneath big trees.

We meandered down to a small Shingon temple (all the temples around here were Shingon, hinting at the Shugendo connection). An old woman worked her veggie garden, beside two sleeping cats tied to the rail of a small bell-tower. A mother and her child were in the well-groomed open space below, which was marked with a lotus and the words, "Meditation garden." It was peaceful to sit here awhile, but the day was getting away from us. We moved down through the forest then followed the Kaido through a series of interlinked villages. They in turn seeped into the towns further down, which stretched away to become a semi-urban cluster. One of these villages, Nagara, still preserved an Edo feel, despite the best efforts of a few pre-fab homes. The telephone office at the far end was pure Meiji, the wood faded to a grey that was nearly turquoise, the lettering on the windows thick and tactile.

We moved toward the mountains again, up to Hitokotonushi Shrine. You were supposed to make your request to the gods using a single word. The ema hanging about bore the character, "Nagau." Please. At this late hour, we saw only one other person, who spent at least 10 minutes bowing before the shrine. Either he was a Shinto linguist reformist, or he was in the midst of pronouncing the longest word known to human language. We left behind both him and the high peak of Kongozan, which had been above us through the day. Its sibling, Mount Katsuragi, rose above our left shoulders and took the sun from our faces. We decided to call it a day at Kuhonji, where a friendly priest was welcoming a few dozen kids to a session of zazen. We wandered above them to a countless number of Jizo spread out among a half-dozen groves along the mountainside. In the fading light there was a sense of peace up here, sharing the quiet with multiple generations of the village's dead.

It was near dark as we made our way down, past a some guys breaking glass and throwing loads of trash on a fire. The last bus was hours gone, and as I called a cab, there was a flash and a boom, as these geniuses got a first hand lesson in combustibility. I looked above them toward the peaks outlined by the lights of Osaka behind. I'd come here to Katsuragi looking for traces of En-no-Gyoja, but it was up there that I'd find them, up above the meditation gardens and tethered cats and painted screens. Where things no longer needed were not incinerated by a fire in a drum, but were instead purged by the internal heat of tantra.

(Jake posted some photos of the walk here. More to follow...)

On the turntable: Herbie Hancock, "Maiden Voyage"

On the nighttable: Alan Booth, "The Roads to Sata"


Ojisanjake said...

Interested in the background to this "Korea, no real surprise since this region was the traditional home of the Kamo artisans who'd settled here during Japan's early history"

ted said...

Hi Jake,

It was something I read in that "Sacred Texts' book, about how an early Yamato emperor brought Korean artisans over, and they took the name Kamo. (It's somewhere in the first half of the book. I tried to find it, but don't have much time right now.)

It is also pretty common knowledge that En-no_gyoja is from the Kamo clan, and his former name, En-no-Ozunu, means "Horned En," a slander that the Yamato used in referring to Korean immigrants.

By the way, I came across this page, which gives additional info about the Katsuragi region: