Thursday, July 23, 2015

Knowing Tranquility II (Shodoshima)

Much as it had with the feathers of yesterday, my day begins with an encounter with an angel.  Not only is my first stop a place called 'Angel Road,' but the car itself has been rented from 'Angel Rent-a-car.  And not only is Angel Road not much of a road (merely a narrow strip of sand that can only be walked at low tide), but the Angel car isn't much of a car, with an engine that makes a racket as noisy as a bosozoku, Japan's version of the Hell's Angels, only with one third the body mass and the guts within. 

I had intended to bicycle around the island, a leisurely attempt to take in Shōdoshima's sights, but the weather turned out absolutely horrible.  The manager of my hotel said that electric bicycles were useless in this weather, and I in turn knew that without one, my legs were useless against the island's 53.30 km2.   So I let him talk me into hiring the car, which turned out to be a good idea in the end. 

I watch a few young couples stroll the belt of sand where devils fear to tread.  The idea here is that in doing so, they will forever stay together.  But there are far more pairs composed of female friends posing and giggling as they wobble on their high heels, insensible in this terrain.  Equally insensible is the tourist slogan I spy near my car.  "Show!  Do!  Island."  I pray that the local JET teacher hadn't been bullied into coming up with that one.  

I had intended to begin my day with a hike through the island's Kankakei Gorge, but the clouds sat heavily upon the mountains, bringing doubt as to whether they were there at all.  I think that I'll give the weather a chance to clear, and begin to drive clockwise along the island's shoreline, to see what I might come across. Shōdoshima is in fact two islands, separated by Dobuchi Strait, whose mere 9.93 meter width has garnered it a World Record by Guinness for being the world's narrowest.  The middle section is covered by a series of white arches beneath which people can stroll and admire the waters. As I wheel past however I'm thinking it looks nothing less than the ribs of Jonah's dyspeptic whale.

I head to the extreme west of the island, wending my way through little fishing villages along the way.   My road takes me inland next, up a very narrow and steep forest road.  When traveling around the more rural parts of this country, I often find myself on roads like this, so inevitably prefer a small 'kei' car so as to better negotiate the tight turns.  The road saves me 300 meters of walking, but once at the carpark, I face the same distance, at first up an incredibly steep flight of steps, then later I have to pull myself up chains that are a godsend on such rapidly eroding terrain.  I am amazed to see a young couple near the top, the woman in very dangerous high-heeled cork shoes.  I pass them and have the summit to myself, with its lone weathered torii facing the incredible balancing act of Kasaneiwa.  The locals don't seem to know whether these massive stones are natural or were placed here, but this monolith certainly inspires, and like it would be anywhere else in the world, it has been deified.  My amazement wanes as soon as the heavens open above me, dropping a hot earnest rain, which pushes the humidity to its maximum index once I'm back into the low scrub further down.

I continue my circumnavigation, thinking how in decades past I would have done this journey by thumb.  In one small village, facing the water, they have created a high pyramid of old graves, its base lined with old Jizo, and a large Kannon statue atop.  These graves have been stacked here to make room to the new.  Even in a country with such limited space, the dead keep coming.  And in fishing communities like these, it is to the sea that they return, out in the direction of Kannon's benevolent gaze.   

I pass an old and intact brick sake distillery, all but the smokestack disappearing into the forest.  Not far along is where the large stones that once made the foundation of Osaka castle had been loaded onto ships to be taken across the waters toward the northeast.  They have built a nice little museum here.  Inside are remnants not from that four-hundred year old project, but from more recent centuries, mainly iron tools and chisels, rubbed etchings of names carved upon exported rock, and a century old photo of workmen in whiteface, most likely as protection against the sun.  It reminds me of Burmese thanaka.  There is no sun to speak of foe me to worry about as I step back outside, noting that the same sort of stone work found in the foundations of old castles can also be found along the coast here, a source of protection of its own, against the typhoons that often thrash their way past year after year.  

As I drive on I begin to wonder if the island's quarries are still being used, as the mountains in this corner have all been badly eviscerated, the rain running down the jagged face of the rock in a dozen waterfalls. Not far off is a flat bottomed boat being laden by a crane with stone.  After passing a couple of scenic turn outs which tease with views that I cannot see, I come to the actual quarry site for Osaka Castle, including the infamous hachininiwa, under which eight men were supposedly crushed.

The rain had been steadily falling for awhile, but is beginning to clear.  Just outside Kusakabe, I pass through a tunnel, and it is like I am suddenly on a different island altogether.  I reach the Olive-en garden right at lunch time.  I have a plate of surprisingly good spaghetti, flavored of course by the local specialty, which I polish off quickly as the skies continue to clear.  The views have finally opened up, and I take them in while strolling the groves, catching glimpses of the sea between branches.  You might think that olives were introduced as an ironic tourist gimmick considering that the Inland Sea is often referred to as Japan's Aegean, and this island has a sister island in Milos.  But it was for the fishing industry below that olives were introduced, primarily for the oil with which to pack the fish.  The tree from which these all began still stands on the hillside, not far from the Greek windmill beneath which tourists queue for pictures.  The bark of the tree is twisted and deeply wrinkled, but still bears fruit.  It gazes across the waters toward the narrow peninsula beyond, where a popular film was shot sixty-one years ago.  

Donald Richie had very little to say about Shōdoshima in his book, but he does mention the old film location for 24 Eyes, talking mainly of the irony of the statue standing here, depicting film star Takamine Hideko rather than the historic person upon whom her character was based. (Richie probably knew Takamine personally, as he was already writing on Japanese film when the movie was released.) The statue remains, but aside from the school building in which the film was shot, all the other buildings would be new to Richie.  A narrow canal runs through a hodgepodge of galleries, cafes, and shops.  It is certainly an attractive place, attractive in a way that nostalgia-invoking artifice inevitably is.  I too am hooked, due to my love of film from the period.  The small museum has exhibits of daily life as it would have been lived in those first couple of decades after the war,  everything flanked by posters representing the films in which these archaic items continue to move and live.  In the building across the grounds the film itself most certainly moves, its 156-minute length repeated three times a day, year round.

The film set has received the TLC it needs to look as good as it does today.  There is much else that is old here, and isn't faring quite as well.  But there are exceptions.  One is the school on which the film was based.  Closed in 1971, it has all the character of the nearby film set, and even more considering that it is a greater source of pride for the locals.  Not too far up the road is the Marukin Soy Sauce Factory.  There seems to be a competition between the black of oil and the green of vines in which will cover the structure first, but the combination of the two is almost breathtaking in its beauty, the notion of mono-no-aware at its most profound.  I wish the museum too had been, and though far from dull, doesn't have enough to hold interest.  The highlight here is of course the soy sauce ice cream, which I would never have imagined to be as tasty as it is.  

The sky has cleared, though the highest peaks still hide themselves.  With a sigh I point the front of my car toward them, weaving my way into the white.   And it is as futile as I expected.  No hike today, and no reason to take the cable car through the gorge since there will be little to see.  It appears not to running anyway, due to the weather.  I ask the bored looking staff a few questions about the hike, then return to my car. 

I weave along Skyline road, lined with cloud and mist.  I do get a consolation prize in the kites.  One after another they lift into the air at my approach, but are unable to burst skyward due to the dense branches overhead.  I slow my speed to theirs, drifting just behind and beneath a powerful wingspan nearly as broad as my car.  This is repeated at least a dozen times, and up here in the white, I may as well be soaring with them, along the top of a road that is, for all intents and purposes, running along the top of a mountain extending straight out of the sea.

On the turntable: "Asian Groove"

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