Long Holiday: Days 2 – 10

Mihara
Debut Taiko Performance

My long holiday weekend began with extensive taiko practice. My debut performance was on Monday, September 19th, and I had to have the Matsuri song memorized by then. Another newbie and I spent our Saturday evening drilling the song until we thought our arms might detach themselves and run away to hide somewhere for the workout we were putting them through. We finished the night with a decent mock-performance of the song and crossed our fingers that we would perform perfectly on Monday.

Early Monday morning we met the rest of the Gogawadaiko Group to load the drums into a moving truck. Each drum has it’s own special padded case, and the largest drums – odaiko – took 4-6 people to lift into the truck. We carpooled to Mihara – another rural town nearby – where we would perform in front of a crowd of elderly Japanese people in honor of Respect for the Aged Day.

We got dressed in our blue hapi jackets, blue belts, black pants, and tabi shoes. The performance began with us giving our self introductions in Japanese. I didn’t say too much, but I smiled plenty and that’s always well-appreciated by the Japanese.

Our song lasted approximately four minutes, during which time I don’t think I blinked or breathed once. I had the biggest smile I could muster plastered on my face as my arms flew through the motions of the song. Muscle memory is such a blessing. I’m not too sure how we did, but everyone congratulated us and said we were jozu – skilled (although they’ll tell you that no matter how you do, just as long as you put forth an obvious effort).

I enjoyed performing immensely, and can’t wait for Gogawadaiko’s next event in Izumo in November.

Misato
Lessons in Shin Buddhism and the Rindik

I spent Tuesday with the leader of a local Japanese conversation group in a neighbouring town. She is a Buddhist priest and lives in a beautiful Buddhist temple overlooking the Gonogawa River. She speaks English well and wanted to spend the day practicing expressing herself in English. What a treat! We talked about travel, personal histories, religion, and our respective experiences in rural Japan. It was fascinating, for both of us I hope. She provided me with several books on Shin Buddhism, the form of Buddhism she practices. I’ve been reading D.T. Suzuki’s Buddha of Infinite Light and have found it absolutely enlightening.

For dinner we enjoyed rice topped with an array of about ten different varieties of Japanese pickles. Japanese pickles don’t utilize vinegar as the pickles I am familiar with do. They are salted and sometimes given a dash of mustard or wasabi to provide some spiciness. I could identify eggplant, cucumber, konbu (seaweed), daikon radish, and renkan (lotus root).

Later that evening the Japanese conversation group gathered at the temple. The group consists of myself, one other ALT, and a few friendly locals. This week a local sweet potato farmer brought a rindik – a type of bamboo-xylophone he had studied in Bali. He played for us and then offered to teach those who were interested one of his simpler compositions. I learned to play the first song he learned from his teacher in Bali!

He even brought a bag of freshly harvested sweet potatoes – steamed just to the point of being able to eat them whole. Fantastic.

Izumo
Izumo-Taisha, Shimane Prefectural Museum, Izumosoba, and Izumozen-zei

In spite of a typhoon blowing through the area on Wednesday I took off in the direction of Izumo – Province of the Gods. I took a train the entire way, but had to spend an hour in a small coastal town waiting out the storm. I left the station in search of a coffee shop and happened upon a little cafe with a few tables, a coffee bar and the standard television in the corner showing the latest news and weather reports. I ordered a cup of coffee and watched as the cafe owner ground the beans fresh and proceeded to prepare the coffee using a mechanism I’ve never seen the likes of before. A sort of reverse – percolator I believe…

I rarely watch the news (well, never actually), but that morning I was overcome with comfort in the small coffee shop with the news on, customer anxiously awaiting updates on the typhoon.

The coffee was delicious, and presented beautifully. As I drank my coffee the cafe owner poured over an atlas and engaged me in conversation over the color of violets in South Dakota. Turns out she’s obsessed with violets and thought she remembered reading somewhere that violets in South Dakota have unique stripes. I was ashamed I couldn’t confirm her queries, but told her all I could of the other varieties of flora and fauna in South Dakota.

The rest of my train journey went smoothly thanks to some immensely helpful strangers. I have so much confidence in humanity sometimes. Especially here, where there is a general sentiment of friendliness and helpfulness that pervades public interactions. I love participating in it.

Izumo-Taisha

I made it Izumotaisha shrine around noon, and was glad I had packed my umbrella. The combination of wind and rain limited my photos to those I could take from sheltered areas… I took this photo from under the eaves outside a restroom. I love the Japanese response to rain splashing off the roof – instead of running it through a gutter they allow it to trickle down these beautiful chains:

I began my journey by passing under a massive torii gate and heading down a long stone path lined with beautiful old trees. There were many small shrines and statues along the path, but I kept trudging on, knowing that Izumotaisha awaited. The path split and to my left I saw the chozuya , a small pavilion with running water and ladles to rinse your hands and mouth before going to pray at the shrine. I took cover and was greeted by a Japanese gentlemen who talked me through the steps of washing at the chozuya: First, fill the ladle brimming full. Pour some water into your left hand and swish it around. Pour some water into your right hand and swish it around. Pour some water into your left hand and bring it to your mouth (not sure if you just wipe your mouth off or actually put the water in your mouth at this point). Tip the ladle up so the remaining water flows down the handle and rinses it clean.

Izumotaisha is currently under renovation. The entire structure is being rebuilt, leaving only the main prayer hall accessible to the public. It was intermittently flooded with people; clapping twice, bowing in prayer, and tossing a few coins into the collection box.

Surrounding the main hall were several stalls selling various memorabilia, including fortune cards and ema – wooden plaques upon which prayers are written and hung from designated racks around the shrine.

Discouraged by the wind and the rain, I left Izumo-Taisha and headed for the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo. A fellow teacher had told me of the current special exhibit – a collection of Buddhist statues and images from all over Japan. The museum also boasts an excellent permanent exhibit on the Izumo-Taisha and the history of the region. A large portion of the exhibit is given to pottery. Much of the pieces were Sue ware, or iwaibe doki / chosen doki , Korean style pottery brought to Japan during the 5th and 6th centuries. Sue ware marks the first use of the pottery wheel and anagama – hillside kiln. There were also some pieces of Jomon Earthenware – believed to be the world’s oldest earthenware.

As I was leaving the exhibit I bumped into a woman I recognized. We paused, stared at each other for a moment, and then burst into excited recognition. I had met her the week before at the funeral I had happened upon on my bike ride to Oda! She was astonished, and called over several friends so we could tell the story of our meeting. She even used the word goen – which she described as “our hearts meeting” but which I later found out means (roughly) the mysterious connections between people. By the end of our conversation we felt like old friends. I hope we meet again.

I met another ALT for dinner that night – Izumosoba and Izumozen-zei. Zen-zei is my favorite Japanese feel-good food. It’s sweet azuki bean soup with mochi dumplings.

I spent the night at my friend’s house, was treated to a delicious breakfast of fresh figs, and was dropped off at the nearest train station. On the road again…

Tottori Prefecture
Mount Daisen, Daisen BeerFest, and Daisen-ji Shrine

I set my compass North and took off to Yonago City – gateway to Mount Daisen, the tallest mountain in the Chugoku area. I had a two hour wait in Yonago City before I could catch a bus to the mountain, so I wandered around… Yonago was a beautiful city, with an intriguing intermingling of multi-generational interests and culture. It reminded me of Duluth – small but still a city, next to a large body of water, attractive to the outdoor type… I found a fancy little park to eat lunch at, and enjoyed a nice break from carrying my heavy pack.

The bus to Mount Daisen dropped me off at a free camping site. What luck! I set up a tent I had borrowed from a friend and walked to the Daisen-ji Shrine.

Daisen-ji Shrine

Daisen-ji Shrine has a long and interesting history. It takes up a large area of the mountainside and is comprised of many paths, stairways, shrines, temples, prayer halls, and statues scattered throughout the forest. Daisen-ji was founded in 718 as a training area for shugendo – a form of ascetic/shamanistic worship, but later came under Buddhist influence. Daisen-ji is now noted for its statue of the Pure Land Buddhism deity Amitabha Tathagata.

I spent several hours wandering the Daisen-ji grounds. I saw only one other person the entire time I was there. I left only because the air was acquiring a cold edge and my stomach was growling. I walked downhill to the tiny mountain town of Daisen in search of some food. No such luck… Daisen had become a ghost town. I saw a few people scurrying along the sidewalks, but not a light shone from any store front… I eventually saw a woman in what appeared to be a sort of cafe. I knocked on the door and stepped in. In my most eloquent Japanese, I asked: “Do you have rice?” I was shooed away and told: “No rice, no rice.” I tried again: “Any dinner?” Her response: “No, but I can make you a bowl of soup if you need food.” Yes! I went inside and sat down to a bowl of hot udon and watched my first sumo match on television! It was wonderful. I wanted to curl up on the chair and fall asleep until morning.

I returned to my tent chilly, lonely, and a little scared to be camping alone for the first time. I started a fire right away and was immediately comforted. I lay on my back and saw my first shooting star in Japan! I even found some wild chestnuts and tossed them into the flames to roast. (Note: chestnuts have to be scored, or they’ll explode, as mine unexpectedly did before I could scoop them out of the fire).

I had underestimated the cold and was surprised to be freezing without a sleeping bag. I tried my hardest to fall asleep but kept shivering myself awake. I found a nearby heated facility and fell asleep on the floor until daybreak.

The next morning was a busy one with hikers going up the mountain to see the sun rise. I didn’t make it up that early, but I was certainly one of the first to the summit. It was enveloped in clouds, making it a mystical hike.

Daisen isn’t very tall (about 1,700 meters), but because it rises right from the coast, the climb is steep. The trail is well-maintained, and is comprised almost entirely of stairs.

I met an older gentlemen on the trail who had a very slow and steady pace which he never broke once the whole way up. I passed him quickly the first time, but he passed me later during a water break. He just kept going. I asked him if he’d climbed Daisen before. He said it was his 400th time!

The summit was cold and foggy, but a lovely couple offered to take a picture of me – so here it is. I made it to the top!

Daisen Craft Beer Festival

Beer was officially deregulated in Japan in 1997 – allowing small craft brewers to enter the market. The Daisen BeerFest was a celebration of the success of these young craft breweries. There were 39 beers available for sample from 10 breweries. I bought an “all you can drink” pass and got my notebook out. I tried a 4 oz. glass of beer from each brewery. My notes start out well, but, unfortunately, my taste buds lost their concentration after my 11th glass… Most of the beers were German style pilseners and weizens, but I found one excellent double IPA and a couple decent stouts. The food at the festival was perfect – piles of edamame, fish burgers, and pickles.

I went for the squid patty to accompany my Daisen Gold Pale Ale…

That night the previously abandoned campground was full of highly intoxicated foreigners. I slept in a lady-couples’ tent because I didn’t have a sleeping bag and I needed to be sandwiched for warmth. They were willing, and I’m not one to be picky when getting a good night’s sleep.

Tottori Sand Dunes

From Daisen, I took off with a few other ALTs to visit the Tottori Sand Dunes – a unique geographical phenomenon just North of Shimane.

We arrived late and camped out again that night. We took a midnight hike on the sand dunes and experienced pure magic. The sand, the stars, the ocean…

The next morning I walked out to the dunes alone and enjoyed some solitude.

After breakfast, we went as a group to play on the dunes. We were one of the hundreds of groups that had the same idea. There were people everywhere…

And for those looking for a particularly unique experience…

We bounded down the steep sides of the dunes and into the ocean below. It felt great to swim and relax on the sandy beach after a few nights of foolishness.

Matsue

We headed home that afternoon, making an evening stop in Matsue to watch the sun set over Lake Shinji, said to be one of the most beautiful sunsets in Japan.

A beautiful end to a very full week of vacation.

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