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Amaterasu the Goddess of the Sun

Shinto Priests blessing the citizens Kakunodate


ura umi ya
sado ni yokotau
ama no gawa

Turbulent the sea—
across to Sado stretches
the Milky Way

From Oku no Hosomichi. Exiles were once sent to Sado.
Matsuo Bashô (松尾芭蕉)

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We stayed a couple of extra days in Kakunodate to watch the Hikayama Matsuri festival which is enacted in the Autumn to pray for peaceful times suggestive of a safety valve to moderate their conflict-prone samurai past. The only crisis was being awoken at 1 am by a policeman who demanded our passports, drivers licences and the papers for the van which is not officially a rental vehicle, but who in the end took off without hitch. The town is famous because it still retains a tree-lined section of samurai houses, large black traditional Japanese houses with mossy gardens set in a polarity to the merchant neighbourhood to the south.

Festival float Kakunodate

The floats are 7 ton wooden carts, which boast warlike fantasy play samurai figures on the front, pulled by two teams of strong men (and a few women) assisted by older men and children as young as 2 or 3, egged on by a whistle-blowing cheer leader.

Each cart also has two teams of young girls in kimonos, on the front, who perform dances with fans and shawls, and inside each is a troupe of musicians with drums, flutes and Japanese lutes. The carts are pulled through a complex route around town with shouts of gusto and a great deal of heaving every time the float has to make a change of direction. The first evening all the floats were dragged to the major Shinto shrine Shinmeysa, where each team performed their songs and dances and ascended the steps to be blessed by the Shinto priests.

The next morning the priests did a round of the town in a parade of mobile shrines shaking paper fronds over each property and receiving offerings of prayers written on paper or fruit and other foods, after which all the floats began a morning and evening parade stopping at certain places where there were judges and other respected members of the populace where they would again dance and sing and receive blessings.

The whole performance gave a fascinating insight into the way Japanese culture preserves a staunch image of itself and retains a sense of national and local identity through both cultural tradition and the role Shinto plays as a founding religion of culture. I'll come back to this again when we come to some later experiences.

Wedded rocks - South of Atsumi

On the second morning after the parade, we headed to the West Coast to find a tempestuous and desolate wind-swept series of beaches, although less tsunami ridden, filled with concrete tetrahedra to reduce the pounding of the surf and make the coastline more accessible to fishing boats. Towards nightfall, we wound up to a high coastal volcano Mt. Chokai, shrouded on cloud and rain and stopped the night in a forest clearing, plagued by mosquitoes. In the morning we drove up to the little alpine town overlooking the summit crater, with panoramic views of the coast, and a hideously deep crater valley.

Pilgrims at Haguro San

We then looped back to the sea and a couple of fishing villages with classic little rocky island shrines connected together by ropes. Just as with Futami at Ise-Shima, in the bay there are two rocks sitting side-by-side, one large, one smaller, known as Meoto-iwa (the Wedded Rocks). Two rocks are tied together by shimenawa, ceremonial rope that is made of entwined and twisted rice straw and is used to mark off sacred or purified areas.

The small fishing towns broke the sandy monotony, before heading south inland to Yuza and Matsuyama Tachikawa to Haguro San, a mountain Shinto shrine which the pilgrims climb, led by a Yamabushi of the Shugendo sect in checked pantaloons and blowing a conch-shell. It is a sacred mountain with thousands of steps leading steeply up from a waterfall shrouded valley stream to a misty tree clad summit, with a string of high-Shinto shrines and an extraordinary children's graveyard clad in all manner of clothing , eyeglasses and barbie dolls.

This sect, which combines Shinto and Buddhism, has been recognized as distinct ever since Shinto was officially separated from Buddhism in the 19th century, an action that was probably associated with the rise of imperial Japan and Shinto as the official religion of the emperor, whose family strangely traces its origins to Amaterasu the Goddess of the Sun. Shinto is a pantheistic native religion in which all things are deemed to possess spirit or consciousness, especially natural phenomena, such as trees, water falls, hills, islands and sacred spaces of any kind. Shinto combines creatively with Buddhism in the Japanese psyche to invoke a polarity in which Shinto is the religion of life celebrated at weddings and Buddhism is the religion of mortality lamented at funerals. Unlike Shinto, which is consistent with the warrior samurai stance, Buddhism exhorts moral behavior. Personally, apart from the association with imperial militarism, I like Shinto a lot and see it as part of a groundswell of indigenous spirituality far more genuine than an absolute form of religion from apocalyptic Islam and Christianity which are hollow shells of delusion even to Buddhism which is tainted also with absolutes. The test of religion to me is the mark it leaves on nature, and in this respect both Zen Buddhism and Shinto rank very highly and Islam as a scorched earth desert religion of submission very lowly.

Island Shrine with Sacred Bridge

We then drove on to Tsuroka and the quiet Zenpo temple on a hillside by the coast, staying the night on the coast at Atsumi, south of Tsuroka near some deserted beach houses on a sea wall beside a tsunami warning sign. All along the coast, at 6 am and 6pm loudspeakers relay warnings accompanied by a jaunty tune like Bolero. Next day we stopped at some small fishing villages with island shrines connected by bridges to the mainland.

From Murakami we went inland and again got lost in the rain, taking a small valley road into the mountains to Mikawa looping back to the coastal valley and doing some expert navigating with the compass on back country roads to pass Tochio to the little town of Sumon, sleeping on an old section of road overlooking rice paddies and forest through the mist.

Matsumoto Castle

In the morning, we drove on south to Nagano where we saw the imposing Zenkoji temple, then ascending a steep mountain road with another spiral viaduct and tunnel system to Togakushi where there are a series of Shinto hill shrines. We stayed the night in the wooded entrance to a pilgrimage track back to Zenpo and in the morning walked in the misty rain to the uppermost shrine, a mile-long walk uphill to the base of a sheer escarpment where the shrine stood beside a tumbling stream.

The next day we drove on to Matsumoto down a long winding valley, where there is a classic samurai castle in original condition, just having time to see it and a couple of heritage buildings looking like they had popped out of somewhere like Brazil before driving out of Matsumoto to sleep in a winding valley below one of an endless stream of hydro-dams that litter the steep forested landscape of Japan.

'Matterhorn' of Japan 3100m

The next day we drove over the Japanese Alps in peerless brilliant sunshine on tiny precipitous hairpin bend ridden secondary roads past Kamikochi and the skyline pike - a mad Japanese tourist route you can travel only on buses to avoid pollution, gaining clear but distant views of Japan's 'Matterhorn', a stark piece of 3100 metre high rock and down again to Takayama, which is a classic Japanese town with a beautiful old quarter full of temples shrines and old wooden houses.

Traditional buildings Takayama

After a lot of deliberation in various car parks on the edge of the old temple quarter,and dinner in the castle park, we decided to go and sleep at the cemetery by the crematorium. The night was full of rain and the morning misty and drizzly and as we took off back to the castle park to have breakfast, there was a strange pinging sound from the wind screen wipers. When I got to the park I realized the unusual sized lens hood for the camera, which I had trawled Auckland second hand shops to find, was missing and realized I had left it on the front windscreen. After driving back to the graveyard and then to each of the parking lots, Christine suddenly saw it on the road, severely dented but rescuable.

We spent the morning exploring the old commercial houses of Takayama, which is a tourist haven similar to Lijiang in China and then headed for Furukawa another old town with old white-walled saki-brewing and trading houses set on a canal, where there were little 'shrines' set up with fish food for the visitors to hideously overfeed the large Koi carp in the stream.

Second pass in the 'alps' overlooking a range of 2700m tree-clad Mountains

From Furikawa, we passed again up a back road over the Alps stopping the night in the forest by a glade near the road hoping to avoid being ransacked by bears despite the warning signs. Next day before we had gone a kilometre or two, we arrived on the fringes of Shirikawa-go at Ogimachi a delightful town full of period A-frame thatched traditional farm houses converted into expensive restaurants and hotels, where a single cup of coffee cost as much as a meal. From there, we drove on through several touristic versions of these farming villages, which were moved in the 1960s to make way for a large hydro-electric dam, stopping at the best, Ainokura. While photographing I fell over backwards slipping on the trench of a rice paddy and stabbed my hand into the ground, spraining my wrist and totally dislocating my middle finger at the tip, so that it pointed hideously back at right angles. After taking one careful look at it, I grabbed it and forcefully pulled it out and snapped it back into place. For about an hour it seemed miraculously unaffected but as the day wore on it filled with blood and became bruised all over, nevertheless back into a functional condition.

Ogumachi Town with thatched farm houses

We then drove on to Kanazawa where I have a neuroscientist friend Danko from Bulgaria, who very kindly put us up for two nights in his tiny but very comfortable airc-onditioned apartment. We arrived in the middle of a late summer heat wave with the road-side thermometers registering 36 centigrade, which even at night is suffocating in the van when you have to keep the windows almost closed with two people inside to avoid encephalitis mosquitoes and the ands of imaginary thieves in the night.

Dinner with Danko in a Japanese self-cook restaurant

The day we spent in Kanazawa we made a tour of the temple area, having already on the first day wandered the Samurai and Geisha districts. After leaving Danko we traveled down the coast stopping at the family clan Jisshon Temple Daisnoji at Kaga, looking at the rock formations at Mikuni, sleeping the night at a coastal carpark with tsunami warning systems using loud speakers to give the time as they have in many other places, even inland.

Fishing houses at Ine

We then drove on down the wild coast, bypassing Tsurugu and took the coastal rainbow line from Mikata negotiating a hideous clogged industrial stretch from Obaba to Maizuru, then turning north up the coast to stop briefly beyond Maizuru at Amanohashadate, a pine-lined sandspit overrated as one of the three most outstanding sights of Japan. At evening we pressed on to Ine where we found an idyllic spot right on the wharves along with three other groups of gypsy van campers fishing and sleeping off the wharves. Ine is unique as a Japanese cultural enclave consisting of unique houses in a sheltered bay in which the ground floor is a boat shed they can drive into at high tide and the top storey is for sleeping.

North Coast

Yesterday we traveled on along the coast in idyllic wild craggy scenery, becoming completely stranded when the coast road we took and even the main highway proved to be closed forcing us to make a convoluted detour on back roads over high hill country, including one of Honshu's few pasture cattle farms, before returning to the coast. A driver we stopped to ask how to get through drove for about 10 kms to help us get on to the appropriate back road detour, something Japan is renowned for. At Kumihama we routed the lake to the North and took a back road back to some of the wildest and most precipitous coast we have seen so far, with sweeping views of the rocky cliffs, the ocean scintillating azure and foam white in the sunshine, finally stopping just short of Kasumi on a beach beside a small seaside town.

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