Monday, 6 May 2013

Temple of death

Saturday 4th May 2013

MP3 track of the day: Hells Bells – ACDC

Weather: Extremely changeable. First of all dry but very windy. Midday saw many darkened clouds with intermittent hail and rain showers. As the day drew to a close the weather got better and the first blue skies, of the day, could be seen however, it was still very windy.


Once again an early start occurred. This, however, wasn't my plan but it came to pass for two reasons. Firstly the walls are pretty thin here and secondly the sun was beaming through my 'fogged' glass window and right onto my face. The first issue wasn't really a problem however, as it was 6am, the latter had to be sorted. I had a choice of shutting the blind or putting on my face mask. As my face mask was within my bag (which was closer to my bed than the window) I went for the 'less labour intensive' option and put on my face mask. This allowed for another hour of sleep before I finally got up and got ready.

I had written half of my 'first days' blog the previous night; now feeling awake I kicked off where I had finished last night and completed it by 8:45am. What I didn't realise at this point was that the shower room had a sign on the door stating '6am – 9am', and then something in Japanese. I presumed the worst and thought that I had missed the 'showering times'. As I left the hostel for the day - putting on more body spray than normal - the lady in charge inquired into my use of the shower to which I replied, with my finger, showing her the times. For the next two minutes and twenty-eight seconds I had no idea what she said; all I managed to work out was that having a shower seemed 'okay'.

I went in to find five showers within the same room (with the guest house only having one shower room, maybe that '6am – 9am' time was for women). I took my shower quickly and got re-dressed. It's a bit odd having only one shower room, I thought to myself. Then I realised that this wasn't the only thing odd about this guest house. For the women to get to their toilets they have to pass through the men's toilets; bizarre to say the least.

I finally left my guest house and drove into town to find a Mr Donuts. The closest was situated within a big 'out-of-town' shopping complex with lots of car parking but few cars. I ate my fill before heading to a local Lawson convenience store (for a bottle of water, a pen, and some tissues as I have forgotten all my hankies and a pen … not doing so well on remembering stuff). With my shopping done I finally set off on a 30km drive to Ozore-san; a mountain to do with death.

The main focus of Osore-san, an extinct volcano consisting of seven peaks, lies about halfway up it's eastern slopes, where Osorezan-Bodaiji sits on the shore of a silvery crater lake. Though the temple was founded in the ninth century, Osore-zan was already revered in ancient fork religion as a place where dead souls gather, and it's easy to see why – the desolate volcanic landscape, with its yellow and red stained soil, multicoloured pools and bubbling malodorous streams, makes for an unearthly scene.

From Mutsu the road to Osorezan-Bodaiji winds through pine forests, past a succession of stone monuments and a spring where it is customary to stop for a sip of purifying water. At the top you emerge by a large lake beside which a small humped bridge represents the journey souls make between this world and the next; it's said that those who led an evil life find it impossible to cross over.

After a quick look around the temple, take any path leading over the hummock towards the lake's barren foreshore. The little heaps of stones all around are said to be the work of children who died before their parents. They have to wait here, building stupas, which demons gleefully knock over during the night – most people add a pebble or two in passing. Jizo, the guardian deity of children and the Bodhisattva charged with leading people to the Buddhist Western Paradise, also come along to scare away the demons, though it seems with little success. Sad little statues touchingly wrapped in towels and bibs, add an even more melancholy note to the scene. Many have offerings piled in front of them: bunches of flowers, furry toys – faded and ran-sodden by the end of summer – and plastic windmills whispering to each other in the wind.

You can stay at Osorezan-Bodaiji overnight; however for most visitors, it's something of a relief to be heading back into Mustu, leaving Osore-zan to it's wandering souls.

And my guidebook wasn't wrong. Even before arriving at the shrine the mountain pass was a little scary. Same trees, rocks, tarmac and road signs as before and yet, it all felt wrong and had a strong hint of death. Continuing further I saw a few stone carvings lining the road with hoods and offerings laid out. I made it to the fountain where I parked up and took a few photos. The surrounding woodland felt as though it was looking back at me and I didn't stay long.

After a short drive I came down the mountain and found myself driving a long the side of a lake. In front of me was the 'small humped bridge'; and so I stopped and walked over it to prove that I was worthy (though it was a little difficult). As the wind was picking up I didn't wait around; I got back in my car and drove to the temple sight.

That scary feeling you get when you watch a horror film was apparent in this place. The dark clouds didn't help but I think it was more to do with the fact that the place reminded me of 'Sleepy Hollow' and that a strong stench of sulphur was all around. Geologically speaking, this place was very far from death however the different coloured rocks, and smell, made the place more eerie. I paid the 500 yen entrance fee and walked into the site of the shrine.

First off all I was met by the usual outer and inner gates which most temples have. Next up was a perfectly normal temple. These two things, I'd hoped, would have calmed my nerves however they did not. I knew that, just to my right, was a sulphuric field of different coloured rocks where individual piles of stone were scattered around in no logical order. As I proceeded through this barren landscape hairs, on the back of my head, stood on end.

The area was also very sad; within these piles of stones were placed toys, drinks and clothing which, I presume, parents and relatives of the deceased children had lovingly brought to help their children within the world in which they found themselves. There were many paths within this area too, but they all meandered, like a collection of streams, towards the lake front. There stood a Buddhist sculpture enclosed within a flower. As I walked past people were ringing the bell, located in front of the sculpture, before bowing. Not wanting to interrupt their prayers I moved on and, as the rain was falling pretty hard, I headed back to the car.

Reflecting on what I'd seen, I would say that it must be one of the most powerful religious spots I have ever visited. Especially visiting at this time of year, I could feel the sadness, loneliness and the utter unfairness of having your children taken away that this place, to me, represented. I could see why people came here to pray for lost love ones; the site had been well chosen.

It was now getting close to midday and the thought of lunch crossed my mind. I wasn't particularly hungry however, as I'd planned on driving within the central area of the peninsular this afternoon, I decided to make a quick pit stop back within Mutsu. I stopped for petrol before dropping by Moss Burger. After a 'spicy double burger with onion rings and chips' I left the town heading west.

If we imagine the Shimokita peninsula as a clock-face, Mutsu is roughly located where the 'six' is. I was heading clockwise, around the edge of the peninsula, to where the 'nine' is on a clock (before taking a road through the central part of the peninsular back to Mutsu). The peninsular is pretty big and so I estimated that it would take about 2hrs 30mins to complete my chosen circuit. However, in reality, I hadn't taken into account just how many 'photo stops' I was going to make.

There is only one, single-lane road, around the edge of the peninsular. This is good as it means that it's hard for me to go the wrong way. However it's also bad as all traffic uses that one road, including buses. I was therefore stuck behind one for quite a way. Once round the bus I tried to put as much space between me, and it, as possible. First of all I went through a heavy Japanese military area; there were fenced off areas on either side with planes, a lot of buildings and a military vessel in the water. Once through I stopped at a 'lay-by' to take a couple of photos of the coast. I had thought I'd put enough distance between me and the bus but, annoyingly, the bus trundled past me as I was about to pull out onto the road.

For the next 30 minutes the road stuck to the coast and I stopped occasionally to take photos of the sea and the coastline. The sky was overcast but it didn't matter; the view was still pretty good and, distance wise, you could make out a lot. I continued driving until the road headed inland and north. The winding road just climbed and climbed and climbed until I was up on top of the mountains with clouds all around me and many mountain tops below. It was a glorious site that, with better weather, would have been excellent. I stopped at many 'photo stops' however none of them were in the best positions (I'm not sure who in Japan chooses these 'photo spots' because most, on all off my trips so far, have not been in the best locations).

It wasn't long before I was descending down the huge mountain I had just climbed moments ago. Soon a road presented itself changing my course onto an easterly heading and back towards Mutsu.

The inland areas couldn't have been more different to the coastal roads. The mountains had receded, the roads had straightened and the trees had thinned to allow for many grass fields. There were a few farm buildings but it was mostly farmland (though no animals could be seen). I made my way through, what appeared like, the agricultural heartland of the peninsular until the all familiar forests came back with force. However, even though the trees were back the mountains were still a little way into the distance. What filled the foreground now was a beautiful lake with alpine trees running around it's edges and the mountains forming a barrier preserving the, almost Nordic, scene. Once again I stopped as often as I could to take photos of the lake and it's idyllic location.

Once the lake had subsided I went around a few more corners until I found a familiar site; the road I had taken out of Mutsu. I followed it back into the city however, before reaching the outskirts of Mutsu, the road offered me one final site. Just past the army barracks I saw a small deer – native only to this region – running a long the side of the road. I found the closest parking area, grabbed my camera and back-tracked but I was too late; the deer had gone.

I finally made it back to my guest house at around 5pm. I worked on my blog until 7pm when I went out to find food. Earlier in the day I had discovered a Pizza Hut. Just like the Indian last night I haven't had a pizza from Pizza Hut since I was in the UK. When I arrived I, sadly, discovered that it was a 'take-away only' place and so I turned around and went to a 'western family chain restaurant' (which I have seen many around Japan, but I've never been in one) to try it out. After a satisfactory meal I returned to my guest house where I found the owner warming to me. We had a conversation about the surrounding area and she helped me plan my 'days activities' for tomorrow (which involves driving around the whole peninsula before either heading to a light house or an onsen – depending on the weather). After this a guest joined in the conversation and we chatted until 9pm where I made my excuses and retired to my room.

So with a plan sorted for tomorrow there's nothing left for me to do tonight. I must, however, remember to close that blind.

Toodle Pip!

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