Sunday, December 17, 2006

One-Eyed Daruma, or a story from early fall

Over the past months, I’ve been getting used to the place I live. By that, I mean I rarely find things particularly exotic or fascinating anymore. It’s just life. I got over the exotic, fascinating aspect of Shi-town within a week of arriving, and saw it for what it really is; a flat, broke-down farming town. Just vast expanses of rice paddies strung together by the occasional narrow, sidewalk-free streets that are lined with dilapidated snack shops or rarely-open knick-knack stores. Anyway, as much as I get used to things as being business as usual, the mountains continue to hold onto their mystique. Somehow, they surround us in every direction, and on a clear day, the view is still snap-you-out-of-any-stupor gorgeous. When we were newer to Japan, we used to go on adventures exploring the little, winding mountain roads.

We wanted to find this mountain temple. We could see its white dome jutting over the trees from the train. We could see it from the main road through tacky, commercial central Kouhoku (which is basically just like Collins Road in Cedar Rapids, but Japanese). We could see it, but it was still so out of reach, with no easy way to get there. There are plenty of ways to enter the mountains. There are lots of tiny dirt roads, often partially concealed by brush, even more often in someone’s back yard. You can enter, but there’s no telling where the road will take you. And it does take you. Once you start driving on one of these roads, you have no choice but to continue forward, no matter how far it carries you from your intended destination. Any attempt to turn around could cause your vehicle to slip over the edge of the path, thus sending you careening to your fiery death a hundred feet below. So you follow it further and further from any sign of civilization. There’s always a slight feeling of panic on these drives lingering in your chest. As you get deeper, the path narrows even more, and low-hanging tree branches scrape against the windows of your already diminutive car, as if the mountain plans to eat you. But it’s worth it in the end.

In the mountains, I ultimately encounter the Japan of my wishful imagination. Quiet, beautiful, and full of secrets. Hidden treasures or even “easter eggs” (to unfortunately use gamer terminology) would be a more apt description, but for some reason, saying “secrets” feels the best to me. Despite the state of mild panic (being lost + danger of fiery death), there are always amazing things you sort of stumble upon. Suddenly you encounter an ancient-looking shrine, or rows of torii (Shinto gateway things), or a moss-covered stairway that looks as if it could lead to another dimension. But you’re already sort of in another dimension. Your cellphone doesn’t get reception, the silence of nature is actually constantly humming with insects, and said insects look like fantasy creatures from Alice in Wonderland. When trying to describe things like this, it agonizes me that I’m not a better writer.

Somehow, following those strange and dangerous roads, we find the temple. We follow a driveway on foot and encounter the temple’s imposing, white dome-iness, wide white stairs leading to the main floor. A young Japanese couple is coming down the stairs as we’re going up. It’s almost shocking to see other humans. They put their shoes back on and return the rubber slippers to a dirty crate. We take our shoes off but pass on the dirty slippers. There is no indoors to this temple, as far as we can tell. It also has the feeling of being fairly new, as if it were constructed in the fifties out of cheap plaster-like material. We walk along the main floor (really, the only floor) and admire the view outward. Turning toward the actual temple, there are giant golden statues in cages, a rotted wooden box with a coin slot in front of each. Since Colin is still new to the Japan Temple/Shrine experience at this point, I decide to give him a tutorial: “This is what you do. First, you drop a coin into the box.” I drop a one yen coin. “Then you clap.” I clap twice. “Then you pray.” I bow my head and press my hands together, and squeezing my eyes shut, I think, pleasepleasepleasepleasehelpmepleasepleasehelp. I go to each statue and find another reason to pray to that one, dropping the coin, clapping twice to get god’s attention, bowing my head and thinking pleasepleasepleasehelpplease. This one is Buddha sleeping, this one looks like a mother, this one is a child. The whole time I was doing this, I never once thought that I was praying to an actual god. It was lip service, going through the motions, play-religion. I was pretending, much like I pretend to be a writer or a good singer or a good person. In this case I performed the actions, with none of my intellectual mind actually behind them, in hopes that by some superstition I don’t even believe in, something would come and help me. Without realizing it, maybe I would realign the universe, and contrary to my expectations, I could be saved.

Religious rituals can have a lot of beauty in them. I was fascinated with them as a kid. I wanted to feel that objects could be sacred like a picture or a book or a cross. Religion was magic. But I couldn’t believe it, no matter how hard I tried. I knew my friends went to church, but I was shocked to find out that they actually believed in all the crazy stuff that went along with it. I thought people went to church just because they thought it was cool. I kind of wanted in on the fun. I wanted so badly to believe in something, as a kid and a young adult, and believe me I had plenty of chances. I picked a religion that’s aesthetic I liked, but I would always end up thinking it was made-up playtime bullshit. There would be some part of every religion’s tenants that would be utterly incompatible with my own values. It would be pretty cool to think that there are lots of crazy gods that you could appease by throwing pieces of bread on their alter and the world is carried on an elephant’s back and every year at the solstice you put on a pretty dress and do some traditional dance and burn incense for some reason. I appreciate good aesthetics in a religion. There are probably quite a few religious people who are really just worshipping aesthetics, anyway. Who knows where that tangent was supposed to go.

Anyway, Colin wouldn’t throw the coin, wouldn’t clap his hands, and definitely wouldn’t pray, wouldn’t even pretend to pray. I walked all around the outside of the temple, stopping at the statues, and he watched, refusing to play religion with me. Perhaps that’s less offensive, since some people really do take it seriously. But it’s no more offensive than the many Japanese people I’ve seen at shrines and temples since then, fumbling with their change, struggling to remember the order in which to ring the bell, clap, throw their coin, pray. You don't need to ring the bell and clap, people. It’s one or the other. You only need to get the god’s attention once.

We head back down the stairs and walk along the driveway, the air hissing and screaming with fantasy insects that hop/fly. Spiders with glistening green bodies spin webs within seconds. The trees are laced with these webs, and the spiders sit at the center and wait. Seeing the bugs everywhere is too much, and Colin goes yelping down the hill. Back in the car, I want to write about nature-like spiritual things that no one is interested in. I do. And I wonder how to end the entry.


Blogger GLE said...

Coming to CR the day after Christmas if that works for you.

Christmas is going to be lonely this year because Charles and John will be gone and I have to work from 8pm-4am. But I'm pumped to see you!!!

10:31 AM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

I like: "You only need to get the god's attention once."

12:11 PM  
Blogger Carol said...'s Mom. Your writing makes me so happy. You don't have to pretend to be a good writer, you are a good writer. But go ahead pretending. Pretending makes it real. Our senses pretend to see a house when there is only a bunch of atoms spinning around in space. I pretend to be okay when your dad tells me that his "engagement" is official. I almost told him not to worry about inviting me to his wedding. But I said nothing. I cried the rest of the day. I cried in front of the contractor, I cried in front of Dennis, I cried in front of Paula and Susan. Today, I just watch the snow.

5:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home