Tuesday, July 06, 2010

To the High Wild Mountains

We get on a train before seven and spend the morning revisiting the songlines we'd made over the past two weeks. It was like watching a slide show at high speed. We have the "View Car" to ourselves. For some reason, no one else chooses to sit in this wide open, spacious car with glass running from floor to ceiling. It's a long journey, one that won't get us to Koya until early afternoon. The final approach on a cable car inches us up a slope at nearly 45 degrees.

We spend the afternoon walking the temples on this quiet mountain. We follow a saffron monk with billowy sleeves to Nyonindō, where until 100 years ago women would have had to finish their ascent of this sacred mountain. It stands just outside the town's gate, so seems a good place to begin our rambling. Inside the temple hall is a statue of En-no-Gyoja, with fierce glowing eyes that bring life to the darkness. In front of neighboring Benten is an ihai for the comfort women of WWII. The main priest here answers all our questions, his effeminate nature perfect for his position. Like the Hijira of India, or the transgender shaman of many cultures, I wonder if this role is chosen by the community.

We make another stop next door at Naninji, with its picture of Namikiri Fudo, cutting through tempestuous seas so that dharma-laden Kukai could return home safely from his studies in China. A well behaved dog sleeps on the 'front porch.' I toss pebbles to a kitten, which chases them around spasmodically as they bounce. Behind the hall is a circular pool ringed by at least a dozen Jizo. It looks remarkably like a rotemburo. A small mausoleum to the Tokugawa is just over the wall, like a mini Toshogu, yet unlike the busy bigger shrine, this one stands quietly among the trees. The trees on Koya deserve special mention, huge and majestic and old. Japanese forests are at their most beautiful when left alone. One of the smaller groves hides a small temple that looks to be one of the oldest in town, and the Thai script over the main gate hints at international connections.

Beyond it, the Kongobuji too is nearly hidden, the forest thick around this simply massive structure. There are huge buckets on the roof, with long ladders extending toward them. We take our time wandering the rooms and long corridors, many lit with oil lamps from centuries ago. We take tea in a large hall, which contains a painting of the character of "Shin," stylized to look like a mustacheo'd figure with a doughnut. A nun walks past the hall and down the corridor. Walking behind her, I note how she has retained her femininity despite the shaved head and baggy robes. We follow past the rock garden, two dragons swirling together amidst white sand. Most impressive is the kitchen, everything familiar but built to an awesome scale. The blackened beams have seen thousands of meals, as have the clay rice cookers that can serve 200.

We move down the town's single street, past shops whose architecture goes back over a century. Some of them have lofts that now serve as cafes. It's refreshing, the lack of chain shops, flashy neon signs, or powerlines. The clouds are moving in and cooling the day, so we duck into the modern International Cafe run by a guy who speaks English and French. The cappucino I order from him gives me an intense rush, my body not having had strong caffeine for weeks. I had a similar equilibrium problem as I went cold turkey earlier in the walk, listing strongly left for three or four steps. It is a wonderful day, one where we don't have to get anywhere, and can let the hours fall away quietly, slowly...

On the turntable: Ricki Lee Jones, "Balm in Gilead"
On the nighttable: Edward Abbey, "Resist Much, Obey Little"

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