Friday, September 01, 2006

Sushi with explosively hot horseradish mustard. Blows the roof of your mouth off. Umeboshi. Sweet-sour mouth-puckering bitterness. Cleans the palate for the next taste sensation. A sort of Irish Stew with yam ('taro'). Sticky white rice - I haven't seen brown rice anywhere in Japan. Barbecued fish with a wonderful teriyaki-type sauce. Salty miso soup with little cubes of white tofu and spring onion. To follow, 2 perfect grapes, each the size of a small plum, frosted, wonderful Muscat flavour, seedless, of course. Offset with two slices of crisp, cold nasi (Japanese pear).

I am puzzled as to what the Japanese call ‘luxury’. By European standards, I would call the ski-hotel I'm in fairly ‘luxurious’. Yet there’s a row of construction workers’ trucks lined up in the carpark and they’re all staying here. I wake up and look out of the window at the workers jigging their trucks’ hydraulic platforms around to get the water off, preparatory to moving out for another day's work on the infrastructure.

dawn at ski-hotel
construction workers’ trucks'
morning ballet

'Ski-hotel'? The Japanese, refreshingly, do not seem to inhabit the dualities we construct ('the religious' vs 'the profane' etc). Do they ski down holy mountains? Of course. I look out for the three gods in Versace ski-suits - surely pink, lime and mulberry with cream piping - bopping down the moguls; then the local bus takes me into Haguro-san Centre.

I cross over the road and squeeze into the birth canal.

A mad Japanese photographer with loads of equipment is hopping around Venerable Cedar Tree next to gojin (5-storied pagoda), trying to get the best shot of the rope-hung cedar. I’m trying to get the best shot of gojin in fleeting, wind-driven sunlight myself, but he keeps disturbing me, hopping around, talking loudly to himself and laughing. In a conformist society, indeed, in any society, how do you create personal space for yourself? One way is to go mad .. or pretend you're mad. They may leave you alone, then, so long as you don't overdo it.

There’s a sudden influx of tourists and three groups of kids.
"Arigato gozaimasu!" the primary school group greets me.
"Arigato gozaimasu!" I reply.
“Good morning!” says the first secondary school group brightly.
“Good morning!” I reply.

The third group just giggles, and one of the schoolgirls gives me a brilliant smile. There’s a spattering of Westerners. I look at them curiously. Haven’t seen any for, oh, weeks.

blonde girl at Haguro-san
exotic beast
amongst a forest of crows
There are 2446 steps from where I am, opposite gojin, up to the shrines at the top. It ‘took 13 years to build them.’

"What you up to today, then, Hirashi?"
"Building steps, mate, building steps"
"But your pappy and your grandpappy both built steps-"
"Yes, mate, that's what we do - build steps, mate. Runs in the family, like. Step up in the world, you know."
"Haw haw haw"
" How's you're stepmother?!"
"Haw haw haw”.

I'm still jumping around photo-ing steps and cedar trees. I clamber up a few hundred, stop to take photos and have a rest.

2446 slippery steps up Haguro-san
God, it's hard work being born!
2/3 of the way up there’s a path off to the site of South Valley Temple. In Basho’s day there was a temple here, a fairly new one, built just 50 or so years ago. It's where he and Sora stayed, courtesy of the head priest. Basho wrote:

The winds that blow
Through South Valley Temple
Are sweetened by snow
The site is unbelievably tranquil. A small, green glade. Two kidney-shaped ponds which encircled, held, the temple; now full of water plants. Some large, flat-topped stones which were the foundations of the temple (it burnt down centuries ago). Another inscribed stone at the far end. Scattered trees. I'm quite alone.

Looking for best angle for shot
I tread unintentionally near pond
a frog
The idea/non-idea, concept/non-concept, practice of 'non-intention'. Very central.

I leave South Valley Temple, rejoin the steps and continue the process of birth.

the birth canal
of this goddess
is lined with cedar trees

human being he go up with great difficulty
daddy long-legs he glide up
lightly, naturally

Yet more steps. Early in the afternoon I burst through the red torii at the top of the steps into infinite light:


All three gods, of Haguro-san (birth); Gassan (death); and Yudono-san (rebirth), are enshrined in this brodignagian red jumbo-jet hangar for the gods in front of me. 'The thatch on the roof alone is 1 1/2 metres thick', the brochure informs me. A dull wailing is being emitted from within, a ceremony going on. The steps to the hangar are high even for my long legs. There's a bit too much encrusted tradition going on here for my taste. I like to think the mountain gods and goddesses (and the forest gods) are rough gruff sorts of chaps and chapettes who like fresh air, not too much incense. They sit up there amongst the clouds or trees and grump around the place, lay a bit of waste every now and then. I can't relate the mountain god singing to me all night on top of Gassan to a being or a doing who would consent to live in an airplane hangar (oh, a very very impressive red-painted one with oodles of functionaries to worship one, to be sure).

behind the shrine
Smell like toilets everywhere
I wander off to find out times of buses back to Tsuruoka, and after a bit of argy bargy with a ruff-tuff monk-type (these fellows ain't sissies!) it turns out there's quite a few, so I decide to go for the 3.30. This worries ruffy-tuffy who keeps telling me 'next basu, next basu' and pointing to next bus already waiting. I wander round the corner out of his sight. Smile at beautiful woman selling postcards.

Back in Tsuruoka . Lonely Planet are a bit sniffy about Tsuruoka, but it suits me fine. It's got excellent transport connections to everywhere; a great supermarket which sells cheese and bread; cheap, good, clean accomodation; free internet connections on the 3rd floor of the Marica Department Store next to the station; a Mister Donut (!); not to mention, of course, a silly statue outside the station which sings loud folk songs to itself whilst turning round and round. What more could one possibly want?

[click here for satellite imagery of dewa sanzan]


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