Sunday, September 22, 2013

From Koyasan to Nikko

It was a crisp, clear morning on Saturday when we walked out of the Ekoin Temple gate and down the street to our bus stop. It was 5:55 a.m. But the sun rises early in Japan, and as we stood there, we could see the brightening rays in the west and the clear, full moon setting in the eastern blue sky.

Directly behind us, an aged monk was sitting in front of an altar, doing his morning ritual of chanting prayers. It was a perfect morning to say goodbye to Koyasan, where we had spent a remarkable few days.

(It will be necessary to turn the volume on your computer - and the YouTube volume - all the way up in order to hear the priest.)

As a side note, the goofy cartoonish monk character sign was ubiquitous throughout Koyasan. The community is getting ready to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of its founding next year, and this guy is apparently their "mascot." It is representative of something I've notice about Japanese culture, and that is the use of cartoon characters in signs, announcements, etc. I would expect to see this sort of thing for children, but not in adult society. Yet, it is. Along with child-like voices that make announcements at train stations, in elevators, etc., and music box music that is played when a train is approaching. I don't know if it is deliberate, e.g., to exert a calming influence on hordes of people - which I suspect it is in part - or is representative of some larger aspect of the Japanese psyche.

The bus picked us up at 6:06 on the dot, and we wound our way through the community back to the cable car station to descend to the train station below.

From there, we reversed our steps back to Osaka, arriving at Namba Station 90 minutes later and then taking a subway to Shen-Osaka station. Here, we caught a Shinkansen (bullet train) at 9:50, which took us back to Shinagawa Station on the south side of Tokyo, arriving at about 12:15. The highlight of the ride took place as we neared Tokyo and had an absolutely gorgeous view of the whole of Mount Fuji, except for a small ring of clouds that wreathed it about two-thirds of the way up.

We had seen a Buddhist art store in Kamakura when we were there that had some beautiful pieces, but we assumed that we would see something we liked better in Kyoto or Koyasan. That didn't happen, so we arranged to leave Koyasan very early in order to make a quick trip back to Kamakura before heading on into Tokyo.

When we arrived a the store, the owner told us that he would be closing in an hour for two weeks in order to do some remodeling. We couldn't believe our good fortune. We wanted to get a small painting for a friend of ours, and the guy had dozens of them - unframed - for us to look at. Finally, we chose one, and it wasn't until the fellow was rolling up the canvas and putting it in a tube that would fit in my suitcase that he said that it had been painted in Japan by Tibetans (presumably monks) and was based on Tibetan Buddhism. Again, we couldn't believe our good fortune because our friend is a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism.

Then on to Tokyo, where we stayed at the same place where we had stayed when we first arrived in Japan. The next morning, we made some adjustments in our travel plans, deciding to go out on the west side of Tokyo and visit the American School in Japan, where Mark had gone to school for a couple of years in the 60's.

We had planned to leave for Nikko from a station close to where we were staying, but decided instead
to take a subway to Shinjuku Station, where we boarded a train to Musashi-Sakai Station, then
transferred to a small train that, two stops later, arrived at a station near ASIJ.

It meant a great deal to Mark to make this trip to ASIJ. I have tried to imagine from time to time what it must have felt like to him to have spent 10 years of his childhood in a foreign land, to which he had not been able to return until now. I haven't been back to the two towns in Illinois where I grew up in a very long time, but the fact is that I could have gone and still can without traveling halfway around the world. I can appreciate how much it has meant to Mark to see the places he lived. 

We weren't sure what we would be able to see at the school since it was Sunday. When we arrived, a security guard was reluctant to let us in. Mark told him that he had gone to school there as a boy, but the guard had apparently not understood. He said we needed to have an appointment. We asked if there was someone we could talk to inside the school. He handed us the directory, but said that all the offices were closed. Finally, in desperation, I tried to explain - again - that Mark had gone to school here as a boy, using my hand to indicate short height. "Ah!" he said. "Alumni?" "Yes!" we responded. That one word had made all the difference. He smiled and handed us the visitor sign-in sheet, gave us two passes, and off we went. Mark was able to see his old classroom and the campus and was thrilled.

Mark standing outside his 5th grade classroom

We then made our way back to Shinjuku station where we boarded a train for Nikko, arriving here about 3:00. We are off this morning to see some temples and shrines that are World Heritage Sites, the temple being the shrine to the first Tokugawa shogun who obtained power in the very early 1600's. This afternoon, we will board another train that will take us an hour north of here, further into the mountains, where we will spend our last three nights in Japan at an inn in a hot springs area.

While walking around yesterday afternoon, we had seen an Indian restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel and decided to go there for dinner (particularly after we saw that the owner is Indian and there were Indian customers eating there). When we walked in later that evening, there was a group of four or five guys and a woman sitting at a table, and the first word that greeted us as we entered was "PFLAG" (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays - an American support group). 

As we heard bits of their conversation (in English) it became obvious that at least two of the guys are gay, and two were Caucasian. When they got up to leave, we couldn't resist. Mark told them we are here on our honeymoon, and they were all, "No way! How cool! Fantastic!" Turns out one of the Caucasian guys is from Boston and the other from Columbus, Ohio. Now what are the odds of us running into a group of American gay guys in an Indian restaurant in Nikko, Japan? Sometimes, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. (BTW, the food was *fantastic*.)

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