Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Hiding from a monk

Date: Monday 12th August 2013

Weather: Not bad; there was still a lot of cloud around but no rain. It was still very hot.

MP3 track of the day: Silence – Delerium

Today, I should have stayed in bed.


Though not as early as yesterday, today required another early start. I was up at 5am and, having written my blog entry for yesterday, I left the hotel at 8am looking for breakfast. Even though 'Vieda France' is quite expensive, it is also very tasty and so I walked past my usual breakfast 'joint' (Mr Donuts) and into Vieda France for a tasty hot wrap, a cinnamon roll and an orange juice. Once consumed I went straight to my car and sat there, planning today’s route. Mike showed up, bang on time, and off we went.

After a brief stop for petrol and 'goodies' we left Yamagata in a north-westerly direction towards Dewa-sanzan, one of Japan's most sacred mountains. Pilgrims have been trekking up the slopes of Dewa-sanzan for over a thousand years and now, in 2013, it was my turn. The religious meaning behind Dewa-sanzan may not have changed for over a thousand years but, thankfully, technology has. Instead of walking Mike and I were 'trekking' via car, which was a good thing as Dewa-sanzan was over a 100km from Yamagata. The road, the 112, was just as beautiful as most of the roads here in Northern Tohoku; it meandered it's way around and across mountains, past forests and over beautiful lakes. With Dewa-sanzan in sight I made the first mistake of the day. Misreading one road sign led me onto Japan's famous 'money sucking' highways. I drove 17km, in the wrong direction, and ended up paying 500 Yen (£4.20) for the privilege. Still, the road had been stunning; it consisted of a very high bridge over a beautiful lake giving me an excellent 'birds eye' view of the water and the surrounding mountains. Once off the highway we re-joined the '112' and Mike and I had 17km's of 'deja vu'.

It seemed to take forever to get to Dewa-sanzan. Having stopped to take a photo of a huge tori, we eventually found signs for Haguro-san. With time being short we dismissed the 'free' way of entering the temple sight (by parking at the bottom of the mountain and climbing the 2,446 stone steps to the top) and paid the 500 yen to drive up to the temple.

There are three temple 'sights' in Dewa-sanzan and Haguro-san is the main one. As I got out of the car I was surrounded by a pine forest on one side and souvenirs stores, restaurants and other unessential stores on the other. Fortunately there was a big map and it was quite easy to see that we were not far from the temples. Once through another big red tori the site opened up in front of us and yet, it seemed to have been built around the forest it found itself situated in. There must have been a dozen of buildings (some quite large) and yet, none seemed to have disturbed the harmony the forest provided. Due to the woodland being mostly made up of tall pine trees the humidity level was low therefore the whole area was cool and peaceful. As we walked towards the main temple we checked out the other smaller temples on the way; there seemed to be a service taking place in one of the temples so, after a cheeky photo, we moved on quickly.

Gosaiden, the main temple, stood within the middle of this woodland proud and defiant (though sadly it was undergoing restoration work). It must have been at least three storeys high and it's thatched roof almost peeked out above the tree line. This temple holds the mountains three deities, enshrined behind gilded doors. The time was almost midday and with only one of the three sights reached, we both quickly looked around before preceding back to the car. Though my visit was short, I have to say that this was one of the nicest temple complexes I've ever visited; it would have been lovely to have found a quite spot, opened up a book and read within the shade provided by the trees but alas, we had to move on.

Both Mike's and my guidebook stated that, even though the next temple sight is named after the highest mountain within this area, Gas-san, it's the one that can be missed if short on time. They did say that if the weather was clear the temple, which was close to the summit of Gas-san, provided excellent views of the valley below however, when looking towards the sky, it was still very cloudy. Unfortunately we read this 'vital bit of information' on the road to Gas-san; luckily for us there was a farm house which provided food and drink, ice cream and, hopefully, directions. Once inside we realised just how hungry we were. With nothing on the menu we liked, we opted for an ice cream and studied the map the restaurant staff had given us. At this point it all seemed relatively easy; all we had to do was turn left out of the farm house before taking the second left and that would bring us back to the main road where a small shrine, Dainichibo (note, not the third temple complex, just a single shrine), was located. Within this temple was a 'living Buddha'; a naturally mummified body of an ascetic Buddhist monk who starved himself to death. Even though I had difficultly putting 'living Buddha' and 'a naturally mummified body' together, we still felt it was worth seeing. He died in 1782AD at the age of 96. Apparently this monk lived on a diet of nuts, seeds and water and, when his time was drawing to a close, he disappeared into a cave and stopped eating altogether. Here his only choice for entertainment was meditation. Finally, when close to death, he was buried alive where he breathed through a straw. If this is the road to 'enlightenment', I thought to myself, you can forget it. Why, in all religions, are there ridiculous acts of sacrifice to reach the top level. Why can't I reach enlightenment by eating doughnuts, watching TV and making sure I abide by the law. Now I can see why some religions are losing members.

When I get home, I will ceremoniously burn the 'map' given to us by the restaurant. It didn't take long to find out that not all roads were marked. At one point we ended up driving down a country lane which resembled the peak district. Rolling hills of green were situated on either side of us with cattle grazing peacefully. Sometimes the road had a white line in the middle; at other times it did not. We saw the same vehicles numerous times on our 'trip' (each one with a confused driver) and, once we past a small Buddhist statue for the second time we screwed up the map and used 'the force'.

We eventually found a wider road and, with a lot of traffic coming the other way, it seemed to be a main road. We put the fact that we were the only car using the south-bound lane to the back of our minds and just concentrated on the fact that seeing a car every few seconds must be a good sign. With no other attractions around this area (according to my guidebook anyway) we decided that this must be the way to the next temple complex and shrine.

It wasn't before we went around the final corner that we realised just how wrong we were. Looking a bit like an old 'Wild Wild West' fort crossed with a prisoner or war camp, we wondered if we were on a military base. We parked up in the 'overflow' car park (due to the other two car parks being full) and walked to, what looked like, a ticket office. A very lively Japanese lady, with a fantastic smile, asked us if 'she could help' and we explained where we wanted to go. We also asked what was this place and she explained. 'Oshin' (http://www.japantoday.com/category/entertainment/view/oshin-big-screen-remake-announced) was a Japanese television drama series aired in the 1980's. Apparently it's making a comeback, as a film, and here is where it was filmed. The saleswoman, who apparently stars in the film, explained all about it through some, quite excellent, gestures. It will be coming to a cinema, near me, in October and actually, I quite fancy watching it. I also quite fancied going in and having a look at the set however, at 1,600 Yen (£13.00) I declined the offer. Once she'd 'gestured' all she could gesture about the film she went off and came back with some excellent maps. As she was explaining where we needed to go, you could tell that she was into acting; her whole manor projected a confidence only actors and actresses seem to have. On top of this she was very pretty and smiled continuously; Mike and I agreed and, once she had given us the map, we walked away wishing we had her mobile number. As we drove out of the car park she looked up from her stall and gave us a little wave.

Being fed up of getting lost, we followed her directions to the letter and each time we came to a turning, we stopped at a nearby shop or tourist office to make sure that we were heading the right way. Annoyingly it seemed that we were heading back along the '112' towards Yamagata; within my guidebook, the map seems to show the temple complexes being close together however, in reality, they were not.

Eventually we found the turning for the 'living Buddha', which we drove past at 11am this morning. In one way I was annoyed; in another, due to the sign having no English on it whatsoever, I wasn't annoyed as there was no way we would have found it. Once outside the temple Mike and I made an agreement; the time was 3:30pm and so we had to be quick. Speed was the priority now. If we were going to visit the third temple complex we could only afford a brief look at the mummy.

It was at this point that I realised that there is no God. The entrance fee was 500 Yen which, for a five minute stop, was a lot but at this point it didn't matter. I took my shoes off and I was just about to enquire into the location of the mummy when a monk asked us to follow him. We were then told to sit down; once sat a bamboo stick, with many strips of paper, was 'wafted' above our heads and incense was poured upon our bodies. The monk then sat down and started to talk to us, and another four visitors, about something in Japanese. Time dragged on and this monk kept talking; the only thing I understood was that the mummy was not within sight and that, though Buddhist monks are supposed to respect all forms of life, they seem to make an exception for annoying flying insects. After fifteen minutes or so we were asked to stand and were directed to another room. Finally the mummified 'living Buddha' was in front of us within a glass cabinet cross-legged, head (skull) bowed and it's hands placed in front of it. It's right-hand was holding a set of beads and it was dressed in a rich red gown with a pointed hat. Having seen three dead bodies in glass cabinets (Uncle 'Ho', Mr 'Mao' and this dude) I would say that this guy is looking a little worse for wear. Mike and I nodded to one another to symbolise that the mission had been completed and it was time to leave. At this point we were asked to sit down again. The monk then started to give us this Buddha’s life story however, after ten minutes, he was replaced by a slightly larger monk. This monk must have had a lot of time on his hands as he spoke to us, non-stop, for thirty minutes. I caught a little of what he was saying but not enough to create the whole picture. He talked about the life of this 'living monk' before saying what it all means today. Then, I think just to annoy Mike and I, he started chatting about the prefectures our group members (which had doubled by this time) came from. All-in-all I was talked at for about an hour.

Silently Mike and I slowly made our way down the stone steps and towards the car. Eyes wide, not a word was said as I opened the car. Once inside we put on our belts on and looked at each other. I put the car into reverse, turned around and off we went.

My mind was total 'mush' after that assault. We managed to laugh it off but, with the time being 4:30pm, we had run out of time to see the last temple complex. This however didn't stop us trying to see it and, with our soles cleansed, maybe this would go well. After a few more wrong turns, and a few more stops for directions, we finally made it to the final site; Yudono-san.

As we arrived the road was shut. The time was 5:30pm and it had been closed since 4:30pm. We parked up within the nearest car park and walked up to a chain which prevented cars from going further up to the temple. If we crossed the chain we might be able to get a quick look at the temple; however our soles would no longer be cleansed. We gambled and broke into a Buddhist temple complex. Mike's 'Lonely Planet' guidebook said that the temple was a 'ten minute walk' up the road and so, we agreed, that if after ten minutes the temple had not been found we would turn around.

I walked up this road as fast as my long white legs would carry me. About halfway Mike heard a car engine. Up ahead we could see a car making it's way down the road and so we ran, into some bushes, from a Buddhist monk in a Toyota corolla. This was a first for me however, this act presented us with some good fortune; we had found a walking path which, according to the map, looked as though it would take us straight to the temple in half the time the road would. We followed it into the undergrowth.

This walking path just kept going on and on. With the sun going down (and with a huge sense of guilt) we abandoned the climb and went back down the path until it came close to the road. After switching onto the road, we 'frog marched' our way down it hoping that we had actually 'over-shot' the temple complex and we would see it on our way down. Of course, with our luck today that did not happen, and the final embarrassment occurred when a mini-tuck drove past us at a point where there was nowhere to hide; the driver gave a head nod to say 'thank you for leaving' whereas I returned the gestured to say sorry. Once down we jumped the chain and, once back at the car park, I found it roped off. There was a car waiting but, as soon as he saw us, he drove off. In my panic I dried to untie the rope whereas Mike (admittedly a lot more cooler in this situation; he must have broken the law more times than I) realised that, by unhooking the metal piece the rope was attached to, the whole rope could be moved away from the entrance and we would be free. Wasting no time at all I burnt rubber and got the car out of the car park; Mike then hooked the metal piece back into place and off we went. There were sights we still could have seen but, with our luck, we didn't risk it. We drove back to Yamagata and, because we'd already travelled a fair way down the '112', it only took an hour to get back to the city.

Just like yesterday we both went our separate ways to have a shower and get changed before meeting up for dinner. This time we had a 'beef bowl' in a Japanese style restaurant. The waitresses was very nice and Mike wanted me to ask for her name in Japanese. I did and it turned out to be Yuki (which means snow).

We left Yuki and went in search of a couple of café/bars. One of the bars we went to we had visited the night before however, the other two were new. One new bar ended up being more of a restaurant than a bar and the staff got a little annoyed that we opted for bar stools instead of a table (if you take a table you get a table charge). The other new bar was down a small side street and ran by the quietest barman known to man. He may have been quite but his bar was vibrant and full of many objects from all around the world. Again we sat at the bar and, among the bottles of alcohol, were many objects ranging from finger skateboards to pieces of wood. I asked him if he liked travelling (as the items were from all over the world) to which he said no; he said that he just liked the items on display. He went a little further and said that he liked art.

With the time coming close to Tuesday and, having been up early, Mike and I shook one-another’s hand and wished each other well. Tomorrow Mike was off to Nikko (which I have been to) whereas I was off home however, if the weather was good, I would make a small deviation back up to Zao-san (to see the crater lake I missed yesterday due to the weather). As my head hit the pillow I realised that it should have been here all day.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. I've lost my Mercedes F1 baseball cap! My parents brought it with them in April (when they came to see me) as a present. I think I left it at the mummified Buddha shrine and I ain't going back. Looks like I will have to buy another.

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