Miyajima and the Shinkansen

The rest of our trip to western Honshu was much cheerier. Last Sunday we went to the island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima, in the Inland Sea. The whole island is sacred. No one is allowed to die or be born there. I think that this kind of restriction could only work in Japan, where mass transportation is so reliable. The ferries to Miyajima and back are frequent, punctual, and comfortable (though perhaps less so if one were in labor or the last throes).

Miyajima is famous for the torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is set way out in the water. Torii gates are set outside all the Shinto shrines in Japan, and mark the boundary between material and spiritual space. This gate in the sea is considered one of the three most scenic views of Japan, as determined by someone. (It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, something a preservationist likes to collect.) There’s been a gate like this at Miyajima since the 12th century, but this one dates to 1875. We arrived at high tide, when the gate appears to float. By the way, the people you see in the boat are not picturesque peasants heading out to fish with handmade nets. They are tourists on a boat ride that forces you to wear the rice paddy coolie hat to enhance other tourists’ pictures.

We stuck around long enough to be able to walk out to the gate at low tide. Up close, one can see that the posts of the gate are gigantic tree trunks. I read that they are from camphor trees, which sound terribly exotic.

The shrine itself is also set over the water. The day was beautiful, and the light off of the water reflected on the ceiling of the shrine, making the whole building shimmer.

Miyajima is also famous for its brazenly fearless dear. I was warned by my friend and Japan veteran Anastasia that they can open zipped backpacks and eat the contents. They certainly were merciless in pursuit of Chip’s crackers and juice. Chip didn’t seemed fazed by them at all.

The view from the top of the island can only be reached by an arduous hike or a cable-car ride. Although such conveyance induces white-knuckled terror in me, it beat hiking. The view from the top was astounding, and looked not unlike the Caribbean. At the top, Chip and I ate noodles at the cafe and Rob hiked around.

The mountain itself is full of very unique sites like a monkey sanctuary, “scabies rock,”  an always-wet cherry tree (now destroyed but still advertised), and phantom tengu. You can read about it all yourself.

Back in Hiroshima on Monday, we had some time before our train left so we went to Hiroshima Castle. As you can imagine, it is a reconstruction, built in 1958. At Hiroshima Castle I fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a samurai. It was surprisingly easy.

Goodbye, darling. Mama has to go and fight for family honor

Ah, the shinkansen. It was so lovely. So smooth, so fast, so quiet, so clean. Chip slept, Rob and I had cocktails, and the sun set over Japan outside our window. Six hundred miles and three-and-a-half hours later, we were home.

The ride is that smooth.

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Kite Update–they are demons

One thing I learned in Tokyo last week was that kites, the birds that have been attacking me since I moved here, are in fact demonic. I had suspected as much, but it was nice to have it confirmed. Apparently in Japanese folklore, there are creatures called tengu; I think that they are also somehow related to Buddhism (I learned all this through a somewhat awkward translation, so I might be missing some nuances). The tengu are portrayed are bird-beaked or long-nosed men, and they lurk in the forest doing evil, although I guess sometimes they do good, too. They are purported to steal children, but Japanese parents probably just say that to get their kids to eat their noodles and go to bed. I think these rather frightening statues that we saw in Kamakura when we went last month are tengu:

It takes three to Tengu

Anyway, it turns out that if a tengu loses his powers, he becomes a lowly kite, doomed to scavenge bread from the hands of foreigners for the rest of their lives. I wonder what the birds that have attacked me did to fall to such disgrace.

Despite their evil connotation, I was happy to learn about the tengu. It’s like I’ve lifted another shovelful of dirt from the great mound that is trying to understand Japanese culture. I think that it’s ultimately a Sisyphean task to attempt to know another culture, but every piece I learn makes me feel a little more connected to the Japanese. This experience has been so different from Peace Corps in that I do not have the mandate nor desire to integrate as fully into my host society as I was expected to in Mauritania. Nevertheless, I want to understand so much more than I do. Looking around the Tokyo Museum last weekend made me long to just be able to somehow download a repository of their cultural knowledge into my head. As Rob remarked, when looking around a gallery of fierce-looking wooden statues that adorned 16th-century temples,”I wish I knew what it all meant.”

On the other hand, I really enjoy being a spectator to another culture as well. I might not understand exactly what I’m seeing, but I can appreciate it in a way that someone immersed  in their cultural birthright cannot. It’s a strange sensation to live in the peripheries of a culture, “in but not of,” but I will enjoy the view for the next eighteen months.

So Chip, in the past short week, has learned two dangerous feats. The other day I found him at the top of our suicidally steep Japanese staircase, grinning at his achievement. A baby gate on the first floor has joined one already in place on the second floor. This protects Chip of course, but leaves me to almost break my neck several times a day as I hurdle over them both. Secondly, he learned that he can grab the spoon at mealtimes and get it into his mouth, sort of. I know I should encourage his independence, but it was just so much easier feeding him myself. Maybe I should feed him outside–the fallen-demon kites swooping overhead might be the motivation he needs to learn to eat quickly and efficiently.