Mountains, Poetry and Wanderlust

Afternoon sun Daishin-bo, photo credit Thom Stone

[Fourth in a series about a recent trip to Japan]

The purpose of our trip to this area in Northern Honshu (besides escaping Tokyo’s heat) was to visit the three sacred mountains and shrines collectively known as Dewa-Senzan. But first, we checked into Daishin-bo, one of the simple temple lodgings that proliferate in the area. (The best known temple lodging, Seikan, is actually next to the shrine on the mountain top, and was built to accommodate pilgrims and visitors, but many inns cater to visitors and fall in the category of temple lodgings.)

Legendary Daishin, symbol of merriment, photo credit Thom SteoneThom recalled that Daishin was a legendary figure associated with merriment; today, Daishin has become a label for a kind of meditation practice. A shrine in front of the traditional inn depicts Diashin as rotund, eyes crinkled shut in joy, mouth parted in laughter.

After parking our shoes in the shelves in the stone entry area, we were “checked in”; that is, Thom filled out the hotel registration form. Toki, the middle aged wife of the proprietor, led us through the inn, past a half-dozen tatami-mat covered rooms to our triple, a large room measuring approximately 36 x 20’. Three futons were laid in the corner with fluffy duvets and small pillows. Three sliding glass doors opened to a view of a meadow immediately outside; we could hear, but not see, a brook flowing rapidly somewhere nearby. Birds called out in rapid, single-note calls to one another. As day turned to evening, they were joined by a chorus of crickets. The cross breeze felt refreshing after Tokyo’s stifling heat and humidity.

Before dinner, Thom and I walked five minutes to the entrance to the stone steps, which were added in the Edo era to beautify the shrine where Buddhism and Shintoism were practiced jointly beginning in the late 6th century. Two small shrines housing samurai figures bookend the entrance, next to which a large mossy boulder was encircled with a shimenewa and fenced for further emphasis and protection. A sign in Japanese explained that the age and beauty of the rock invited contemplation; later, reading Bashō, Japan’s most famous poet, I learned that he wrote of this very rock when visiting in the 17th century.

Bashō’s most famous poems were created when he undertook a five month journey with his friend, Sora, starting in Edo (now Tokyo), looping through Northern Honshu to an area north, and then south, all the way to Gifu, a trek of 1,233 miles.

He spoke of traveling:

In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores.” (as translated by Hiroaki Sato)

Shinto protective symbols for homes in Haguro areaThom and I wandered the quiet streets around the town, passing friendly people, most of whom were tending gardens or shrines. Most of the houses and buildings had rope and hair “amulets” hanging over the door, just below the roof line; although we never found out the purpose, we can guess that the rope was part of the Shinto tradition that is intended as protection, and the hair may have represented a ward against “oni”, demons. An old woman’s asparagus crop had gone to seed, leaving feathery fronds below the cut where the tender tips had been harvested. An old man cleaning out a ditch asked Thom in Japanese if he was going to go to a tavern and get drunk that night. He said he was going to go inside, drink some beer, and then some more sake, as soon as he finished his chore.

Buddhist cemetery in woods in HaguroWild hydrangeas were in full bloom in the woods, tucked between straight sticks of trees. I noticed a short set of stairs leading into the woods. A family shrine and tall, columnar monuments were clustered there, stela used by Buddhists to mark burial places. As I looked into the dusky forest, I realized similar clusters of graves stretched as far as I could see, receding into the dark shade. Family members were venerated here, huddled under the boughs of the trees, close to nature.

At 6, we walked to the common room. For the first of several times, Todd whacked his head on the low beams of the hallway. Our meal was served on trays next to the family shrine, a veritable feast: 11 carefully prepared small plates included tempura, smoked salmon and numerous vegetable dishes. We dined alone, legs folded to the side, interrupted only once by Toki, who came out to explain the dishes and provide rice.

Daishin-bo Dinner

After dinner, we read quietly in our serene room. I read the translation of Bashō’s “Narrow Road to the Interior.”

Next: Following in the Steps of Basho to Dewa-Senzan

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