Sunday, September 11, 2011

The valley of shadow of death

We were done earlier than planned and I was over the moon. There we were in Takamatsu, close to Temple 84 of the Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage Route: I didn’t care for lunch, didn’t care for rest. All I wanted to do was to see the 8th century temple and the Heian period Kannon statue. When the map on my iPhone told me that I could reach the temple by cable car, my mouth started watering at the thought of the next temple, Temple 85, built on a neighboring mountain. And yes, the second mountain too had a cable car. How convenient! I could have seen both places in a few hours!
At 1:30 pm the train dropped me at Yashima, a small island now joined to Shikoku. The street leading up to the station of the cable car was up-hill and deserted: a lonely and empty restaurant, a couple of out-of-business Japanese inns, several run down establishments with windows broken or closed by plywood, a few new single family houses, and the ubiquitous vending machines. From a distance the building of the cable car station looked dilapidated, but I still had great hopes in the cable car. “Business mustn’t be good, so they don’t invest in the outside look… Yes, it looks quiet, but I’m sure it’s just because I missed the previous ride. It must have just left… Who in his right mind would attempt this excursion at this time of the day… Well, it’s rural Japan, they don’t care about fancy. That’s why it looks abandoned, but it works, it works… It’s not the season for tourists or pilgrim to climb the mountain…” I reached the padlocked station, and shook the door a couple of times. It is interesting how we choose to believe the little lies we tell ourselves: “They must be out for lunch!” I had to stop kidding myself because no spider could have weaved so big a cobweb during the employees' lunch hour.
With my hopes shattered I started walking back down towards the train station, and then I had this great idea: I should knock on some door and ask how to reach the mountain top. This is not something that I would normally do, not here not in Italy not anywhere else. To my defense I should say that it must have been the sun hitting me over the head that made me do it, or maybe I couldn’t think straight because I hadn’t had lunch, or maybe the fact that I am a henna gaijin, a strange stranger, anyway, so I had nothing to lose. Whatever the motivating factor, I did it. I looked around, and picked a house, walked in the patio, slid the door open and called inside.
A tiny old lady, responding to my “Shitsurei shimasu, excuse me” opened the door. She was bent in two like many old Japanese ladies who have spent their best years huddled over rice pads. And there was the second big disappointment of the day: she did not show any signs of surprise seeing me, as if Japanese speaking foreigners are the norm in this part of the Country. I told her that I wanted to reach Yashimaji (Temple 84) and I was wondering if there was another way to go, as the cable car wasn’t working. “I will show o-gaijin-san (the honorable foreigner, i.e. me) a way to go” she slipped in her outside shoes, left the door open and started walking towards the cable car station. I followed her wobbly walk thinking that I had performed a feat of great luck: I had managed to find the only senile person in the whole neighborhood, someone who hadn’t noticed that the station had been abandoned and was taking me back there. As we walked my mind told me a couple of Japanese folk tales where naïve travelers had been devoured by blood-thirsty monsters disguised as tiny old ladies. Luckily none of those accidents has ever occurred in broad day light.
Instead of going straight to the station we turned left and went to the back of the building where the rusty cable car had been resting for several years now. The lady showed me the mountain and said that I could climb on the emergency steps that ran parallel to the cable car tracks. “Some people go this way. (“Do I want to be some people?”) It is difficult because it gets really steep but o-gaijin-san is strong and can do it, ne (can’t you)? (“I don’t want to find out half way through whether I can or not.”) Be careful. It’s a little dangerous because the wooden steps (“Oh, there’s wooden steps too! Great!”) can be xyzxyz.” “Sorry, I don’t understand.” “The wood can be xyzxyz, ne (can’t it).” “I don’t understand. The wood can be what?” “The wood can be xyzxyz. But, o-gaijin-san, don’t walk on the wood, walk on the tracks ne (won’t you).” (“So I’ll never find out what xyzxyz means?!”) “How long do I have to go?” I asked. “Three hundred, four hundred meters,” said she (in reality according to the map is a little more than 700 m, but she didn’t know and I am not sure this would have stopped me). “How long is the tunnel? Do I have to go inside?” “Hehe! It’s short, o-gaijin-san (“And you’ll be inside to devour o-gaijin-san!”). Don’t go on the right side of the tunnel, when you get out of the tunnel there is jkljkl. Climb it and…” There I stopped listening. “Should I ask what jkljkl is or just go for the surprise factor? Is it worth it? And what if she really devours me inside the tunnel?”  A couple of bows, a recommendation to be careful, and, sweet touch: “I am home until 4 pm, if you need something. 同行二人, Kobo Daishi be with you.”
A few steps in the march I felt a cobweb all over my face. I sputtered as best as I could, and kept going. New sputtering several meters later, and then again.  And as I sputtered and cleaned the third cobweb off my face, there he was, on my white shirt: an orange spider, as big as an elephant (well, that’s what it felt anyway). I am sure my shriek deafened it. Did you know that one of the possible usages of iPhones is spider-removal? Then and there I understood why pilgrims wear a henro hat. The henro hat, a conical, wide hat made of straw, one of the accoutrements of pilgrims (henro), doubles as a shade, as umbrella, and probably as cobwebs catcher. After the third cobweb I could have turned back and call it a day but, stubborn me, I didn’t.
I couldn’t risk any more close encounters of this kind, so I had to proceed really slowly and alertly. From that moment the path revealed itself for what it was: an insidious labyrinth of cobwebs, and since I did not want to destroy them intentionally I found myself making all sort of somersaults: zigzagging, putting my feet on the rails, stopping to look where they ended and circumventing them. A couple of those cobwebs obstructed the way from one side to the other and I had no choice than breaking them in order to move forward, not with my hands, of course, not even with my iPhone (there’s a limit to what an iPhone can do) but with a little dried branch I had picked from the ground. Then and there I understood why henro carry a walking stick.
My tiny old lady was right, the climb was steep, and it became steeper. At the time I started climbing 20 minutes had gone by since my arrival to Yashima, and it was a scorching hot afternoon. No shade, no place to sit down and relax a little. I am not squeamish (some people might disagree), but two things I cannot stand: the sight of bloody bodily organs, and insects. Those steps were full of the latter. Why didn’t my tiny old lady tell me about the crawling little creeping creatures? This would have stopped me. Or not. To make things worse I realized my sandals, which would have been the perfect footwear for the cable car, were not suitable for that environment swarming with hostile beasts, but what the heck, too late. Since sitting down on those steps was not an option, lest some undesired guests decided to get a lift on my pants, I had to push through. Why didn’t you turn around and go back, you ask. I wish I had an answer. I was climbing, turning back every now and to see my progress, not as fast as I would have wished it, and to look at the city vibrating in the afternoon light that seemed to melt everything around me.
What really freaked me out was the moment I reached out for the water bottle supposedly in my backpack, but in reality I had put it down somewhere in the tiny old lady’s property. For the first time in my life I felt lost. It was 2:29 pm, I was past the middle point of the route, exhausted, limbs aching and shaking, shirt drenched in sweat, dry mouth, nothing to drink, the sun is hitting, and no phone signal to call and inform someone of my whereabouts. I had the absolute certainty I would not be able to reach the mountain top, and I did not feel the strength to go back. Panic. I knew none was around but I still cried for help. Silence. I shouted out to God. Silence. Then a verse from a famous Psalm: “גם כי אלך בגיא צלמות לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי שבטך ומשענתך המה ינהגוני, Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your walking stick will lead me.” A walking stick was all I needed that moment. I repeated the verse a few times, and I suddenly I got my second wind and felt I could make it. So I pushed, past those wooden steps, inside the tunnel and finally climbing over the jkljkl, 5 pieces of bent metal embedded in a concrete wall, functioning as emergency ladder.
The tunnel was cool and pleasant. No oni or obake (ogres or monsters) in sight, no wild animals, no spiders: the perfect place to catch my breath before the end of the excursion.
The temple, like every other 8th century temple in Japan, had been reconstructed and restored several times, the last of which 60 years ago. Its front, however, was graced by beautiful vermillion beams, and polychromous wooden lions and dragon heads, where birds had nested. The Kannon statue carved by Kobo Daishi himself (or so the story goes) was, oddly enough, on display in a small museum adjacent to the temple. And it was so beautiful that after a couple of bottles of water, out of joy and gratitude, I decided to go down the same way instead of catching the bus. Ah, yeah, because there is a shuttle bus that connects the clearing behind Temple 84, where the ubiquitous vending machines stand, to the Yashima Station near the house of the tiny old lady.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Hope to share similar journey with you when we are there one day. Patrick