Saturday, September 16, 2017

Howdy Pilgrim

By the time I was offered my new job, I was excited just to have a job, especially in Japan, but if you want to know the truth, what I really wanted was a job in Kansai.  Partly, I was being a culture snob.  There was also the fact that there would be at least one person around with whom I wouldn't have to go through that bullshit stage of friendship where you act a little nicer than normal and avoid constructing sentences that essentially use the word "fuck" as almost every part of speech so they don't get freaked out by you before they decide they actually like you.  I knew the lay of the land there...and it is relatively flat, among other things!  I was planning on getting a bike until I found out how hilly Yokohama is, and I decided walking my bike up said hills would kind of defeat the purpose.  But more than any of those things Kyoto just has a certain magical quality that I love, which Tokyo is largely lacking.  I catch glimpses of it from time to time, but in Kyoto you can almost smell it in the air.

When I got off the train in Kamakura last night, I could smell it there.

It took me most of the last week to actually go forward with my brilliant plan to head out of the city every time we have a three-day weekend.  I think Kanto (the region where I live) may have crossed over the line where it is bloody hot less than it is reasonably pleasant.  I'm basing this totally scientifically on the fact that I no longer spend most days hating life.  It's possible that I'm biased, though, since this is the first week since I arrived that's been gone in a blink.  Whatever the case may be, I was chillin' in the a.p.t. Thursday night and went, "Screw it - why not?!?"  I found a guesthouse near the beach that gave me a bed for 3500 yen for the night, and booked it for the following night.
Part of the reason I decided to do an overnight rather than just a day trip was the fact that there was a festival on - the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Reitaisai.  The parade bit with the mikoshi was on Thursday, so I had to give it up as lost, but according to the Japan Times there was dancing there on Friday night at six, so I grabbed McDonald's for dinner on my way into Tsurumi Station and caught the train down to Kamakura.  The shrine wasn't far from the station, so I set out in the night, following the sound of drums up the street.  I assumed they were part of the dancing, but when I arrived at the staging area, the dancers turned out to be geisha.
I watched for a while, then climbed the steps up to the main building of the shrine, which looked much cooler from below in the dark.  I considered buying one of their ema, the wooden plaques you're supposed to write your wishes on.  They were shaped like ginko leaves and I've been thinking I might do my next project for my painting class on them - some genius decided her creative theme for this semester would be Japanese culture and art - but for 1000 yen, I decided my wallet wasn't willing to suffer any further for my art.

Eventually I wandered my way back to the station.  In less than an hour the shopping district had become a ghost town, and it wasn't even 7:30.  I had to take the local train line three stops, and then walked two blocks to get to my guesthouse.  When I found it I'd been searching for a ryokan, and while the Ushio Guesthouse wasn't exactly that, it was a traditional Japanese house and it was cheap, so I decided it was close enough.  It was charming...the tatami mats, a sitting area downstairs with a porch area letting the cool night air in...until I woke up at 2:30 in the morning itching like hell.  With the exception of trips into Khuvsgul, I didn't think much over the last five years about using bug spray, and I'm regretting it now.  Under the circumstances, it wasn't hard to manage an early roll-out to beat whatever tourists weren't scared off by talk of the typhoon.

The most famous thing to see in Kamakura is the Big Buddha, which I managed to hit on my way to one of the other sites I managed to dig up (this is me joking, btw - Kamakura has a LOT of things to see because history and stuff).  The coolest thing about this Big Buddha (as opposed to some of the others I've visited) is that for a whopping 20 yen you can walk around inside him.  In spite of the fact that he weighs...a lot (sorry - if you really care what he actually weighs, you can look it up)...he is actually hollow, and from the inside you can actually see where each part was soldered together.  I even put up a hand and touched him, and then realized that I was basically standing in his crotch and decided to move on before I got struck by lightning.

Next on my list was Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine.  I'd put it into Google Maps at some point in the night while I was scratching mosquito bites, and the instructions went something like this:

"Continue along this street; turn neither to the left or the right until you come to the end of civilization, and then follow the overgrown trail through the woods, up a 60 degree incline.  Try not to fall off the side of the hill screaming when you run into spiderwebs."

It was a long hike, but I learned a new purpose for my fan along the way.  When I came to the top of the hill the breeze was refreshing...along a paved road.  I found out when I got there that people live on the top of that hill (or they did at some point - most of the houses seemed kind of deserted), and nobody is making that hike every day in the 21st century.  Apparently Google reads my blog, since they chose the adventurous route for me.  Or else possibly I chose the shortest.  You know, one or the other.

At the top I could also see the sea.  It looked a lot less scary by day at the top of a hill than it did when I walked to the shore at 8 the night before.  Maybe it's just me, but in the dark the waves washing in looked a little menacing, and although I knew logically that there were no giant squid lurking on the shoreline, waiting to drag me out to sea, I couldn't quite bring myself to dip my toes into the water.  Although it sure was beautiful and I sat and watched it for a while from the wall next to the sidewalk.
The point of all this effort was a little shrine called Zeniarai Benzaiten.  Benzaiten is one of Japan's seven gods of fortune.  She's the patron god of artists, among others, so it seemed fitting as an art teacher that I would come and participate in the ritual that takes place here.  At this shrine, for 100 yen you can wash your money.  You get a little votive candle to light, and some incense to burn, and a basket - after burning the candle and incense, you go into a cave, where you put your money in the basket and pour water over it, which is supposed to ensure that you have even more money.
I was going to try and write about Kamakura in one fell swoop, but I'm tired and I feel like it's already long enough, so be ready to pick up the story...probably tomorrow, unless I get distracted by something shiny.  Like, for example, all the riches Benten-sama's surely sending my way RIGHT NOW.

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