Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Guest Post: A Backyard Adventure

One of my fellow ex-pats here recently e-mailed me this story, which I really enjoyed. I asked for his permission to post it here so I can share it with you.
- t.M.M.

We've had a couple of days of cold rain and/or wind this week. Yesterday, as the weather was fine, I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk - something I do several times a week. What a delightful adventure it turned out to be. The sky in the morning was clear, wind calm, and air a comfortable 60 F. After a few minutes through familiar paths, I started down a dirt road I had never explored before. Turning a corner, I saw man pruning some tall bushes and I startled him when I said konichiwa. I apologized for sneaking up on him, and we talked a bit about how pretty his camellia flowers were and then I went on my way.

The road went down hill into a tall stand of bamboo with very thick trunks, then turned and I soon found myself in front of an empty wooden pavilion where a large temple bell once hung, and beyond, a very old temple in a small clearing. In the yard were three apricot trees in full bloom and the stone path leading up to the temple was lined with daffodils. There was an evergreen by the path, trimmed and twisted like a bonsai. Someone is clearly keeping things up there. There is a small house, no doubt for the priest, but no one was home at the time. The house itself is fairly old as I could tell by the foundations and walls, but has a new roof and storm shutters. The temple is perhaps 25 feet on each side, with a veranda surrounding it. It is very weathered and the only color remaining of the paint that once adorned it is the red of the eyes of animals in the wood carvings. There are very intricate carvings all around the entrance. The roof supports of the entrance are topped with a carved lattice depicting lotus flowers. Lions, dragons, and Bodhisattvas inhabit other carvings. The solid wood pillars of the entry are warped in two graceful arcs, as if tired from their burden. The tile roof is high and rises to a single point with a chrysanthemum crest near the top. Behind the temple, against a backdrop of bamboo, there is a small grave yard with some very ornately carved stone markers. Some have reliefs of Bodhisattvas on them and are covered with lichen. It is well maintained and there are fresh flowers at many of the graves.

I walked on down the road and entered a long narrow valley covered with rice paddies and surrounded by trees. The nearest house I could see was perhaps two miles away toward the mouth of the valley. No cars, no electric or phone lines. It was very quiet except for the sound of insects, frogs, and birds. There were "uguisu" (Japanese bush warblers) in the trees making beautiful music on either side. One paddy had just been tilled, as it is getting to be planting time. I turned up the valley on the gravel road. There were three older women, on the road. One was in a rice paddy picking some plant, the other two were sitting on the road by their bicycles sorting through piles of the plant. I asked what it was, but all I heard was a long sentence that I did not understand. Excusing myself, I continued to the end of the valley and found a newly constructed small reservoir which was stocked with fish, and there were two men fishing. Soon, the road became covered in tall grass and ended at a creek amongst the trees.

On the way back, I stopped by the women, determined to learn what the plant was, and asked again what they were picking. It was "seri", Japanese parsley. I had seen it before because it is one of the 7 herbs served in "nanakusa-gaiyu" (literally seven herb rice gruel) on New Years at Shinto shrines. They asked about me, where I lived, what I did and so on, and I tried my best to answer. That was fun.

I told my wife all about it when I got home. She wanted to see, so after lunch we went back. There is a sign by the temple and my wife read it for me. The temple, of the Rinzai (a Zen sect), was originally built in 1765 but burned twice and the present temple was built in 1805. I showed her the graves and she read the older ones and learned they were from the early 19th century, during the Edo Era. She had never seen the temple before. That surprised me as it only a 30 minute walk from where she has lived most of her life. Of course, I've been exploring this area on my walks ever since I got here and only today discovered it myself. When we reached the reservoir, we noticed a red torii at the base of a hill, indicating a shrine. We went under the torii up a very steep slope of earth steps framed by small split logs. At the top was a small shinto shrine. The old shrine was perhaps two feet wide and five feet high with small stone foxes (inari) protecting it. A shelter of wood with a corrugated aluminum roof had been built over it to help preserve it. Another path led us beyond the shrine and we came out onto a paved road that we were familiar with and we followed that home.

It was amazing to find such an isolated valley, old shrine and temple so close to home, unknown even by someone who grew up in the area. Before the mid twentieth century, many areas around here must have been like that - small valleys of farms, separated by low hills, each little community with its own temple and shrine. I hope this little time capsule can remain untouched by the blade of the bulldozer.

Later addendum:
After reading my story, my wife thought about it and corrected herself about the date on some of the grave stones. They are older than she first thought. Some of them say "Genroku" which was the era during the Edo period between 1688 and 1703.

Moody Minstrel's comment:
That last date correction makes sense. The Kashima area, considered sacred ground since ancient times and thus kept largely uninhabited, was settled by the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1670s, first for agricultural development and then to help with the construction of the canal system. That's something I just found out a few months ago. What an amazing coincidence that an acquaintance of mine has found concrete evidence of it!


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