How I Spend My Days Off…

I had my first yasumi (literally “holiday”) from work today. I decided to spend it on the road, biking down river to visit the gardens and home of a fellow Shimane gaijin. It took a couple of hours travelling on a little-used backroad alongside the river to arrive in Kawado, a tiny rural town where he lives with his wife. He gave me only one landmark to look out for in his directions – “the candy-colored bridge”. I knew I had arrived when I spotted this…

I called him from a roadside payphone and we met near his riverside gardens. The land is not his, but was lent to him from an elderly woman who is no longer able to farm it. His garden was bursting with tomatoes, taro, eggplant, peppers, and winter squash. I helped him harvest for a bit before we headed up into the valley to have a coffee at his home. He explained to me how he had purchased the house at an extremely low cost as part of a Shimane Prefectural program which is providing land and homes to couples who will settle in the rural areas of Shimane. He told me stories and shared the location of many little-known temples, shrines, gorges, museums and backroads in the immediate area.

Before sending me home, he loaded me down with eggplant, peppers, cherry tomatoes, and winter squash. I wish everyone gave vegetables as gifts.

On the way home I stopped at Imai Museum of Modern Art. I was the only one there and was shown all around the museum and given free tea, chocolate, and postcards! The artwork was incredible. I stayed for several hours. These were some of the most inspiring:

By: Miyasako Masaaki

By: Kitada Katumi

By:Nishida Shunei

Outside of the museum was a display of shachihoko – Japanese folklore animals with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp. One has its mouth closed and the other has its mouth open. I’m assuming this is in direct relation to the komainu (liondogs) which adorn shrines and represent the beginning and end of all things.

The remainder of the trip home was full of excitement.

In the first town I came into on my bike I noticed a series of homes that were crumbling apart. Davies had told me earlier in the day that one in eight homes in Japan are abandoned. The life expectancy of a new home in Japan is twenty years. The practice of maintaining homes has disappeared. Homes are destroyed and rebuilt regularly. An abandoned home will stand for about fifteen years before its internal structure rots and the walls crumble away.

In another town I met with some older folks engaged in a rowdy game of croquet. They were quite amused by my observation.

In the same town I came upon a temple and took some time to poke around.

Further down the road I unexpectedly came across a monkey in a small cage. The monkeys in Japan are Snow Monkeys (Japanese Macaques). There was another cage set up as a live trap nearby, so this monkey must have been acting as bait to lure in others. I know that troops of monkeys are extremely destructive to farmers’ gardens in this area. I felt sorry for the little guy so I fed him some of the tomatoes Davies had given me. He took them from me happily and we held hands for a brief time.

As I came back into Kawamoto I noticed a narrow set of stairs heading up the mountainside. I immediately parked my bike and started up the path. It was obvious no one had used these stairs in ages. I had to break through a great many spider webs and overgrowth to make it up. I was rewarded with a beautiful overlook of the town, and two shrines.

The First Shrine

Shimenawa

Behind the first shrine, a path lined with red torii gates led further uphill, culminating in a shrine dedicated to the god Inari.

The kitsune (stone foxes) are sacred Japanese animals found in pairs (male and female) at all Inari Shrines. They almost always carry a symbolic item, such as a scroll, a jewel, a sheaf of rice…etc.

Bell Rope (rung to wake the kami before praying)

Shide (zig-zag strips of paper used in purification rituals, also seen festooning shimenawa, as is the case at this shrine)

Another Great Day.

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