19-21 November – Takayama, Japan
It is below freezing outside. We each have one pair of jeans, one pair of wool socks and shoes, one long-sleeved wool shirt and a thin jacket (Jacob still has that coat from Esalen). We each bought cheap gloves off the street, and we each have a winter hat. For the next two days, we’ll be shivering around the streets of a small working town in the “Japanese Alps,” four hours and one train transfer north-west of Kyoto.
We’re excited to be able to stay in a temple (the ones in Kyoto had been full), a little adventure unto itself. There’s a tradition in Japan (yes, going back hundreds of years) where temples keep a few rooms available for travelers. It’s become a great budget option for today’s travelers, often the backpackers. We’re staying at Zenkoji, a Pure Land Buddhist temple (totally distinct from Zen). It seems there is one young woman who lives here and manages the temple, and she does her chanting practice in the large beautiful shrine room at 9:30a. Our room, off the hallway that surrounds the garden courtyard, is the biggest we’ve had in Japan. Our tatami mats lie in the center, green instead of the usual straw-color, and the futons on the floor are the thinnest we’ve felt (we’ve been sleeping on the floor like this for 2 weeks). The walls are literally paper (as we expected). If you’ve ever seen the Simpsons episode (30 Minutes over Tokyo, from season 10, I think) where they go to Japan…you see Homer just walks through all the walls, since they’re paper. Well, it’s just like that. Except we worry about falling through the wall if we trip.
Welcome to Zenkoji
“The falling of sakura (cherry blossom) is a symbol of love and nostalgic remembering of moments past, a bittersweet parting and beautiful death.
A Buddhist teaching says, that like the sakura, we also desire to be loved and remembered, living full lives and hoping for a beautiful death.”
There’s a fat laughing Buddha, a calligraphy scroll on the wall, a gong (that Jacob immediately sounds, ahhhhhhh), a bamboo vase with a flower in it – all this makes the shrine. Oh, and an incense holder! We’ve been burning incense in all our rooms both to cover odd smells and to create space for our meditation, but always using improvised holders like a crack in the wall.
Outside, it threatens snow. Its 7pm, and the streets are completely deserted. We’ve arrived after the very popular autumn festival, in October, but too early for ski season. When we told other travelers we were coming here, they had seemed baffled. So, why are we in Takayama?
I (Jacob) put together the itinerary for Japan and I didn’t have a good reason other than wanting to see somewhere outside of urban Japan. The countryside. As with most places I visit, I always imagine it romantically. Idealizing ancient Japan, with it’s highly refined imperial court and more rustic wondering samurai, I’m disappointed to find things like banks and vehicles, despite the conveniences they offer and I rely on. I notice that when I take pictures, I try to leave out the people because, with cell phones and fedoras, they are out of place to me. I thought I could find old Japan in Takayama. Oh, and it has a reputation for making two of our favorite Japanese indulgences, sake and miso (Jessica’s beloved rice & beans).
The train ride up, winding along a river, through fall-colored mountains, had been worth the trip in itself. So much so that we were loathe to wander the streets much, with the biting wind and the cold and barely adequate winter clothes. But wander we did, in part drawn by the promise of….our first and only Japanese pizza restaurant! In an old warehouse with staff that spoke no English, we, the only customers, had a glorious thin-crust margarita pizza. Jessica couldn’t believe she was eating cheese! Plus we got sake, from the local brewery, served in glasses that were themselves served in shorter wooden sake boxes. The sake was poured to overflow into the boxes (a symbol of abundance). We enjoyed the pizza Japanese style, with shiso leaf and pickled cabbage on top (leftover from the appetizer). We knew it would be hard to find vegetarian food the rest of our time in town.
In the morning, I (Jacob) went out, not really minding the cold much, to check out the morning market. I bought a small cup of homemade spicy miso, after sampling the ginger and the garlic flavors. The only other things for sale, it being winter, were various pickled things, radishes and apples. I bought soba noodles at the 7-eleven, and, having ingredients for breakfast, tried to wander home. I got lost. I enjoyed it for a bit, the feeling of being disoriented in a small, quiet town. Thankfully, a Japanese man walked me all the way home from the convenience store where I was hopelessly seeking directions. We had a breakfast of noodles with miso in the temple’s communal kitchen. Then we went out in the tiny streets, wandering through parks with temples. It was a beautiful walk, mostly sunny as the light filtered through the green, yellow and crimson leaves.
We didn’t do much else in Takayama, since there’s not much else to do. It’s a launching point for lots of amazing hot springs nearby, but we didn’t have enough time for that.
Just before we left, I (Jessica) went to the post office and mailed, on a slow boat, our winter gear and extra bag back to the US. They said it could take more than a year to arrive. I figured I’d probably never see that stuff again. I was happy, though to have finally made it down to one bag and my backpack! Jacob, with sentimental contemplation, finally abandoned the Esalen coat in the central Tokyo metro station. Someone working at Esalen had put it in the free box. It was from his ex-girlfriend’s grandfather. We wondered at the forgotten history and unknown future of this apparel. Now, free and ready for warmth, we boarded our train.
At Nagoya, the busy transfer station on the way to Tokyo and the airport, I (Jessica) was looking for some snacks when a Japanese man brushed by me and whispered “sexy”. I had forgotten what it was like to be treated like meat. I had been so happy to be in the one country where I thought that might not happen to me. But there it was. I hurried back to Jacob, shaken. It was time to go.