Tōhoku

The bus did come, on time as everything has, and we drove south along what I guess one could call a Pacific coast highway. On our right was a cliff of forest, its steepest barren parts covered in cement lace, a hard shell that seemed to have been made to flow onto the hillside to keep the hillside in place. At Mutsu, around 1:30, I dropped my bag in my room and headed right back to the bus station to get a ride through the misty forest (in Aomori [Blue Forest] Prefecture) to Osorezan, one of Japan’s “Three Holiest Places.” (There are many such lists–three most scenic views, five most famous shrines, etc. Somehow the lists seem older than tourism but scrutiny…has not been applied by me to this, and shan’t be, perhaps. Well a bit just was and ah ha!: The Three Views of Japan (日本三景 Nihon Sankei?) is the canonical list of Japan‘s three most celebrated scenic sights, attributed to 1643 and scholar Hayashi Gahō.) Osorezan houses a temple founded in 900 A.D. by a monk who’d been commanded in a dream to carve a statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo when he found a lake with certain qualities. Here it was. It’s a site of extreme volcanism–sulfurous burbles abound in the sharp light tumble, the aquamarine lake is poisonous, small mountains ring it round. The monk found 108 puddles of toxic mineral water and cleverly noticed that there are 108 realms of hell each with a corresponding earthly divergence-from-the-path. As a result the place came to assume a purgatorial symbolism and now families who lose children come to mourn. All over are little shrines of sweets and toys. That morning on the ferry I’d opened the packet of four pancakes I’d bought at the 7/11 near the terminal to learn that in fact they were two butter-and-syrup pancake sandwiches. An open packet of the same was beside two plastic flowers staked in the sand at the shore of the lake. There is a band of blind women who perform trials for three months before a festival that is happening soon, when they commune with the dead of those who come to speak to them. The monks at the temple disavow these women but allow them little tents on the property. I suspect the place will hold court in the shadows of memory for a very long and variable time, but I didn’t feel altogether comfortable there, and I didn’t stay long. I had mismanaged the eating thing and was starving, so I went back to Mutsu and found an Indian restaurant at which to refuel, with a big salad, ginger chicken curry, and a great oar of naan.

Yesterday I took three trains–the local off the Shimokita Peninsula, then two short rides on two shinkansen (bullet trains)–to a small town, Kakunodate, with a well-preserved Samurai district. About five of the buildings were open to public viewing, while the rest seemed still to be lived in. One has been turned into a quite-wonderful museum, housing farm tools, clothing, and a little record collection, as it seemed the family had something to do with early recorded music (all was in Japanese). It’s very difficult to get a handle on these things here but Kakunodate seems broadly affluent, as though it had an easy transition out of the Shogunate and into modernity, into and out of the war, into and out of the bubble, etc. Rising sharply above the town to the north and east are two small, forested mountains. I couldn’t find a real way into them but all along their fenced bases were lovely little houses, every 8th or so of which stood beside a stone staircase that winded some 30 steps into the hillside to a shrine or a graveyard. I don’t remember where Spirited Away is supposed to be set but the beginning of that film, with its mossy stone statues and its green, cicada-shrieking fecundity, seems inspired by this part of Japan. That cicada-shrieking fecundity of course recalls summers on the wet and deciduous east coast but the scenery also reminds me in its way of northern California, with conifers (these cedar and spruce instead of redwoods) towering over ferns and other broadleafed and scrubby undergrowth. Finally I found a route to one of the peaks and enjoyed a wonderful view of the town. On my way back to the hotel (no hostel in Kakunodate, $70 for some privacy and a bath tub) I ducked into a ramen shop that had me remove my shoes and put on slippers before climbing the stairs to the second story. There a man with a cane stood when he saw me and ushered me in. I sat, the only person in a meticulously decorated room, and ordered from a woman I took to be the man’s wife. The ramen was delicious, I ate in silence with straight back. Towards the end of my soup the woman and I got to chatting. She’s lived in Kakunodate for eight years, was somewhere in the middle of Japan for thirty years before that, and is from Kyuushu, in the south, originally. She joked about making her way dan dan dan dan up to Tohoku (the top third of the big island). I told her about my trip, where I was from, what I do. We had a happy time talking and when I paid her the 600 yen for the ramen she gave me 100 back as “saabisu,” or service. I tried politely to refuse, and she wrapped it in my hand. It’s about the nicest thing a stranger has done for me in a long time. I’d just that day described to myself this trip’s sitting a bit uneasily in me as primarily the result of my being of service to no one during it. On the way out I told her how much I’d enjoyed meeting her. She followed me out the door and gave me directions to the hotel. We bowed and said thank you very much about five times, then sort of did so again, then finally I spun on my heel and walked down the narrow road.

Today I took the shinkansen one stop before riding three different ワンマンカー (wanmankaa [one man car]) commuter trains through farmland and cedar-forest mountains to Tsuruoka. Japanese has two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, in addition to the kanji, or Chinese characters. The katakana, seen above, are used for sounds (like the dan dan dan dan further above), loanwords, and, oddly enough, many plants (Japanese cedar, sugi, is often spelled with katakana, for instance). Saabisu above is another example of an English loanword, of which there are very many–オフィスofisu (office), コーヒーkoohii (coffee), パワーpawaa (power), etc. Wanmankaa is an example of wasei eigo, or Japanese-made English, in that it uses English words to coin a word or phrase that doesn’t itself exist in English. Bebii kaa–baby car–stroller–etc. I’m in Tsuruoka to summit three sacred mountains (hills, really). I walked one today, Hagurosan, and will leave its description up to photos, but know that I got to seem some big old trees. Back in town I found what seems like the hoppingest restaurant in Tsuruoka, a small city of 120000 that is difficult for me to make sense of, and ate lots of fish. The food in this country is consistently delicious but there’s this hidden sense of whoops I got 2/3 of my calories from rice today. Soft drinks in vending machines advertising their Vitamin-C content seem to hint at malnutrition says the fool whose own city’s corner stores hawk Emergen-C, Vitamin Water, etc. I was planning to hike Gassan and Yudonosan tomorrow, as Hagurosan is supposed to represent birth, Gassan death, and Yudonosan rebirth, but a long bus ride seems anathema, Hagurosan appears to be the grandest, I’m deeply unattuned to Shinto, so I may just bum around town, wash my clothing, buy some trinkets at a dollar store, or see if I can find a beach (here I am about 10 miles from the Sea of Japan). Lots of love to you my people, awake in the morning or about to be.

Patrick

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2 thoughts on “Tōhoku

  1. struck by your experience with the ramen lady. such a lovely kindness! the opposite of meeting charming youngsters that scam you.

    Like

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