So given this complete lack of planning, I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised when stuff didn’t work out exactly as intended. Our initial idea was to go down to the car rental place the day of departure (reservations? what reservations?), rent the cheapest, tiniest car they had, swing by the book store to buy a map, return to the house, toss a bunch of clothes in the car and then head off in the vague northerly direction where we knew Hokkaido to lie.
Reality, however, quickly intruded on the best laid plans of mice and pandas and upon our arrival at the car rental shop, we were dismayed when the man informed us that all their small cars were out of stock at the moment.
“I do, however, have a lovely MR class vehicle for you sir”
“MR class? Whassat?” I inquire
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be quite pleased”
“Okay. How much?”
“60000 (USD $600) for the week”
*THUD* <-- sound of KC and Panda falling over in shock because that's double the price of the small car we intended to rent
Unfortunately, as it turns out, we happened to be what economists refer to as a “captive consumer” because our lack of planning also stretched to include a failure to write down the address/numbers of any other car rental agencies in the area.
“I hate you” I mutter under my breath in english as I painfully plop down 6 crisp 10,000 yen bills.
“Very good sir. Follow me this way to the car?”
Now I have no idea what an “SR class” vehicle should look like, but I do know that the picture he showed me on the brochure looked like a hip little cube car, like the kind they advertise as being fun and cool and driven exclusively by good natured party surfer dudes to the beach where they are swarmed by beautiful girls in bikinis who sit on the opened rear gate and sip cokes and laugh and listen to music blasted from boom boxes.
And so with this image in mind, I think you can understand why I was dismayed to follow the man in the short sleeve dress shirt and tie to the parking lot to find this waiting for us:
This, gentle readers, is what we refer to in America as a “minivan”. Minivans, are not, to say the least, usually associated with adjectives like “hip”, “fun” or “cool”. I am also fairly certain they are not associated with beautiful girls in bikinis but then again, neither am I, so I guess that’s to be expected. What minivans are usually associated with is suburban mediocrity, a gaggle of ungrateful whinging kids requiring parental shuttling to little league soccer games, and the complete surrender of the last vestiges of our masculinity and pride as men. Also, it was a really weird shade of purple (“elderberry!” the clerk proclaimed proudly), with a bizarre metallic luster-flake undercoat that made it shine and sparkle in the sunlight, catching the eye of all who passed by. Friends, I am not an expert in the automotive paint business, but it seems to me that if you’re driving a purple “elderberry” coloured minivan, the last thing in the world you want to do is draw extra sparkly attention to it. But what do I know?
Heaving the heavy sigh of a man who is silently cursing himself for failing to pick up the phone a day earlier to make a reservation and now has to look like an ass driving an overgrown metallic grape on wheels all over northern Japan for a week, I resign myself to my fate and we climb in behind the wheel.
“Have a happy journey!” the man waves to us, barely waiting for us to clear the parking lot before running back inside the office to throw our money in the air and run around in the twirling confetti of the half grand plus in crisp bills we just handed him.
Unfortunately, this proves to be just the beginning of our misfortune. We make our way to the bookstore to find that they’re all out of cheap usable road maps – we end up walking out of there with a $50 road atlas instead. After this, it’s almost a relief when the camera shop turns out to not have a wide angle lens I intended to rent for the trip in stock, because we’ve already gone almost $400 over budget, and we haven’t even left the city yet…!
the time we make it back to the house to grab our stuff to go, KC and I are both tired. More importantly, we’re also kind of broke, and as I’m tossing our bags in the back, she glances at me.
“You know panda…”
“Yes?” (manly grunt as I toss a rucksack filled with clothes into the rear seat)
“It might not be a bad idea to perhaps put a futon in here so we can sleep a couple nights in the car…. As it is, we kind of used up our hotel budget for the week on the extra cost of this minivan.”
“I dunno… maybe we can just pull over and sleep in a highway rest stop or something?”
We share a laugh.
“Yeah. Sleeping in a dark secluded highway rest stop. What could go wrong with that!?”
And with that slightly unsettling thought, we jump on the highway and head north.
[cue passage of time here]
About 12 hours of straight driving later, we’re well in the remote northern reaches of Tohoku Japan and quite exhausted, ready to call it a night. Remembering our earlier conversation, and our beaten wallets, we glance at each other around 10pm before pulling the car over to an abandoned parking area on the side of the road. Checking around for:
b) serial killers
c) more bears
(roughly in that order)
We toss our stuff in the front and nervously climb into the back of the van to sleep, wondering if this might be our very last night on earth.
We wake up the next morning with stiff backs, but otherwise healthy and un-murdered, which when you’re sleeping in dark highway rest stops, is generally considered to be the definition of a successful night. After stumbling to the bathroom to wash up and get changed, we jump back in the car to find that it is 5:40 in the a.m. Given that we had gone to bed at around 10 the night before, it was kind of like were living the Ben Franklin maxim: “early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”.
Well I don’t know that I felt any healthier, wealthier or wiser (after all, I had just spent the night sleeping in a grape coloured minivan), but what I did feel was hungry. Unfortunately, in the Japanese countryside, there’s not a whole lot of dining options along the side of the highway at 5 a.m. so after sharing a sorrowful glance at one another, we dig under the passenger seat for a few stale cheese puff snacks from the night before, then head off, tummies growling, towards the vast northern aomori wilderness in search of sustenance, hopefully in the form of a MOS Burger.
One of the restaurants that virtually everyone who visits Japan loves is the fast food chain “MOS Burger“. MOS Burger is awesome. MOS Burger is great. I would give MOS Burger my first born child if it asked for it, and maybe even my second as well. I’m not alone in my love for this humble little burger chain – tien mao has lovingly photographed it, a hamburgeraday has devoted an article to it, and Tennis almost needed some alone time after consuming it in her visit a few months ago. In fact, whenever I ask one of my foreign friends who have returned home what they miss about Japan, MOS Burger is invariably somewhere near the top of that list.
With all this being said, KC and I were quite looking forward to having some MOS Burger along our journey. But 24 hours – and half the length of Honshu – later, we were almost ready to give up all hope, having failed to spot even a single one. As hours passed and we drove even further north, our spirits dimmed in an inverse relationship with the loudness of the mutual growlings coming from our painfully knotted stomachs.
Now that you have this visual in mind, I hope you can understand why, 850 km into our journey, when I spotted a familiar red M set against a dark forest green sign poking up against the urban skyline of town in northern Aomori, I jolted forward in my seat and cried out without thinking:
“TURN LEFT HERE!!!”
My voice, unfortunately, was a bit louder than I had intended and it had the effect of startling the hell out of KC, who up until that second was happily driving in a straight line, nodding mindlessly to some mellow pop tunes. As my cry pierced the small cabin, she jolted upright, eyes wide open, cheesy puff snack flying from startled hands flying up to wrest control of the steering wheel, head swinging erratically, hair swinging out in frizzled halos as she desperately scanned the horizon for whatever danger she thought I had just spotted.
“OMIGOD WHAT!!!??? WHAT???!!”
she cried out even as her foot pumped the brake and her arms furiously jammed the wheels to the left, tires squealing, flinging gravel from underfoot and scorching black vulcanised rubber tread marks as the rear wheels of our grape coloured carriage shuddered once, then broke free of their tenuous traction with the roadtop surface – drifting they call it, not normally possible with front-drive cars, but here we were, car swinging around to cut a sharp left in a nearly uncontrolled power slide, a portside arcing drift nearly certain to end in disaster.
The entire length of the van shuddered, metal doors creaking as the body frame groaningly flexes against the torqueing stress. Our luggage tossed haphazardly in the back of the car continues forward along its initial inertial vector, blissfully unaware of our frenetic course correction moments before, then, milliseconds later slamming into the now-perpendicular inside right interior cabin wall. A groan, this time from me, as I remember I had my camera back there atop a pillow, but I have no time to spare it another thought as I engage in my very own life-and-death struggle against inertia, my sizeable panda mass being flung over towards the driver’s side where KC is desperately trying to bring the ponderous vehicle back under control by whipping the wheels back into counter steer. My left hand shoots up for the grab handle located near the top of the passenger’s side door, but I miss, finding only open sky as my fingers thread through the small gap between the open window and the door and given the urgency of the situation, curl upward and wrap around the outer metallic rim of the door frame itself, praying – praying – that the car doesn’t tip over the other way with my hand sticking out as it is.
There is a moment – a gap into eternity, seemingly – and finally, with a long, frightening low bass shudder followed by a high pitched coda of protesting, mashing gear grinding from somewhere deep in the transmission box, our metallic purple eggplant straightens out, the rear wheels re-engage the asphalt and with a whipping bite, we are back under control after having effected a 90 degree left hand turn at 70kph.
“HO- LY SHIT!!!” we both breath simultaneously.
“OMIGOD PANDA WHAT HAPPENED?!” KC follows moments later. One glance at her eyes makes it clear she thought I spotted a child we were going to hit or something.
“Umm…. I uhh.. spotted a MOS Burger.” I answer somewhat sheepishly.
Much to my amazement, however, rather than being upset at my nearly causing us to overturn at high speed in the middle of a highway, KC ‘s face lights up.
“OMIGOD WHERE WHERE!!??”
And that, people, is the magical lure of MOS Burger. Look at how happy she is! Like a newborn baby.
After filling up on delicious life-giving MOS Burger, we were finally ready to head up to the first major destination in our great Tohoku road trip – Osorezan Temple in the Shimokita Peninsula of Northern Japan.
The Shimokita peninsula is the axe-shaped bit of land that sticks up from the top of Honshu (the largest island in the Japan chain), just under Hokkaido. As one of the most remote places in the country, you have to really have a certain degree of dedication to get up there – time, patience and your own set of wheels is a must. Since we had all of those, plus a tummy full of hamburgers, off we went and three hours later we found ourselves carefully navigating perilous cliffside mountain roads (that brought to mind certain memories) and wrinkling our noses at what was an increasingly foul stench permeating the car.
“EEEWWW! Panda, did you do that?”
What?” I reply innocently.
“Make that smell!!!” KC giggles.
“Stop lying! You know it was you – like the rule say: She who smelt it must have dealt it!”
Our fart-centred banter comes to an abrupt halt as we clear the final curve at the base of the mountain, rounding it to find ourselves almost blinded by a near-endless flat expanse of bleached white volcanic rock. Our pupils contract as the overpowering light crashes against our faces and we squint through the glaring whiteness, barely making make out the stillness of a yellow tinged lake laying against a gravely shoreline.
“What the….?” we begin in unison. But as we draw in a breath to finish the sentence, we find ourselves rendered unable to speak.
Many people are familiar with the reputation the element sulfur has as smelling like rotten eggs. However, while this may have made more sense back in the European Dark ages when presumably alchemists plied their wares on street corners and every house wasn’t considered fully stocked without at least a few bottles of bizarre tinctures and magical powders (it is possible my image of medieval Europe has been influenced by exposure to Harry Potter…), in this day and age, I wonder how many people have ever actually smelled rotten eggs, let alone sulfur. My guess is not many. And of those who have, I wonder how many have ever smelled an intense concentration of sulfur, like out in the wild, all in one place, all in the ground, in the water, in the air, boiling and steaming and hissing from the demonic bowels of the earth itself.
A safe bet would be at least two, because there, at that very moment and juncture in history we were, my faithful travel companion and I, piloting our grape flavoured horseless carriage towards the very epicentre of what I imagine was fully 2/3rds of the world’s sulfur deposits laying tainted and yellow on the earth’s surface for all to see.
The smell, gentle readers, was indescribably horrendous…! It was like as if you took a thousand captain goochsweats and juiced every last bit of stink out of him and sprayed it into the air with some sort of giant demonic humidifier from hell The assaulting gag of rotten eggs was thick and noxious and moist and slimed our tonsils, singed our noses, stung our eyes. Tears streamed from my face as my olfactory system cried out in inexpressible agony, lamenting the loss of its innocence and the pain of sulfurous immolation.
In the back of my mind I became dimly aware that our car was drifting out of control and as I blinked back the tears of pain, I stared through eyes clenched tight to see KC slumped over, nearly unconscious at the wheel, mouth forming an oval as shoulders heaved struggling to draw breath, fresh breath, clean breath, any breath but this…!!!.
I had not ’till then known what the inside of a large intestine might smell like, but in that moment, it was the only image burning forever and searing in my mind. The dark dimness of gray unconsciousness tugged at the periphery of my vision and my lungs huffed uselessly trying to extract oxygen from the slimy aerosol of death that flooded into it from a nose that had ceased to respond to conscious thought.
“…w…w….what is this…… this…. smell?!” was all I could cough up, dry flecked lips parching in the flaring sun as my mouth ran instantly dry, the sulfurous odor seizing up all my veins and turning my salivary glands into lumpen rocks.
“…I….i…..my… my nose hurts…” whimpers KC from her slumped over position hanging out the open window.
The worst part of this odor was how thick and visceral and wet it was – it was like drinking poop in gaseou-liquid form – it got deep down inside of you, permeated through you, simmered stewed and marinaded around you…! You could not escape it, you could not avoid it, you could not put it from your mind. The stench, it was not only everywhere around and inside you – no, my friends, now the stench, it was you.
Somehow – somehow – KC managed bring the car to a stop before we passed out and after a few minutes that seemingly stretched into a gray eternity spent teetering on the brink of the world between the living and the dead, we finally began to slowly stir, fingers twitching first, then toes, then a half-heaved pathetic cough, followed by a fluttering of eyelids, a filtering of the sun bleached hellish world at the end of the known earth all around trickling in through the mesh of interleaved eyelashes.
Remembering in washed out grainy film cut flashbacks the sulfurous tragedy that had filled my lungs seconds before I passed out, I held my breath for as long as I could, like an astronaut stranded outside an airlock without a space suit, knowing that when I finally could endure no longer, that that would be the last breath I would ever hold in this life.
But finally, I could stand no longer and I let out the air in my lungs, followed with a breath which I fully expected to be my last. But to my amazement, I felt nothing but the dull visceral sensation of air whoosing through disturbingly leaden brachial passages. To my right I saw KC slowly straightening up in the drivers seat, drawing breath with the same perplex expression.
“Why…. why doesn’t it hurt to breath anymore?” I asked. “are we dead?”
“I… I… I don’t know” she replied. “But I know I can’t…. can’t smell. I mean… my whole face ….. I can’t feel my face!“
After sitting in the car for a few minutes getting accustomed to the feeling of not being able to smell, let alone feel our faces, KC and I decided to make the best of a bad situation and stepped out of the van and headed towards the temple gate in the distance.
The area known as Osorezan – 恐山 – literally, “fear mountain” has historically been considered to serve as the entrance to hell itself (or at least the specific Japanese incarnation of it). And walking around, it is easy to see that it lives up to its reputation. Besides the staggeringly powerful sulfur stench that visibly belches from the bowels of the earth, the area is centred around the deceptively pleasant looking Lake Usorisan – a dead cesspool of leached natural sulfur so furiously toxic it is devoid of any form of life at all. Surrounding the surreal cadmium sulfur yellow stained shores there stretches out a bleached, bone-white gravel expanse of volcanic rock which cracks under stride and mercilessly reflects the sun’s full fury onto the face of any who dare set foot there.
It is into this dubious and bleak expanse that my friend and I stride, and as we head towards the towering torii gate of the Bodai temple presiding over the volcanic plains, I spare a glance upward, my mind reminded of a famous passage from Dante’s The Inferno:
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.
Such characters in colour dim I mark’d
Over a portal’s lofty arch inscrib’d:
Bodai temple, not satisfied to serve merely as the earthly manifestation of the gateway to hell, is also dedicated as a place of worship for parents who have lost a child recently. Thus a great many of the people who make the journey up to these barren wastelands at the very top of Honshu are grieving couples come to offer prayers and offer final respects to their dearly departed children.
Evidence of this sobering purpose can be found literally laying all around as you walk in. Small offerings – bits of candy, tiny piles of coins, broken toys – lay in seemingly haphazard piles nestled within valleys of crushed white pebbles and porous volcanic rock. As we walk forward, our ears catch the sharp calls of Japan’s omnipresent dark black crows, their raven feathers and jagged cries taking on ominous tones contrast against the bleak still lifelessness of the wasteland below. As I glance about, I spot a group of three crows plucking at an offering of chocolate bars melting atop a large flat rock in the heat of the mid-day sun, bright red Meiji wrapper fluttering ragged and torn from the beak of the largest. As I squint I can just make out the square shape of a wooden frame set next to the rock behind him. I don’t need to get closer to realise it houses the picture of someone’s recently passed child.
We continue walking forward, pausing a moment to duck inside to photograph a ramshackle public hotspring – hot sulfur bathwater available free of charge to any who would willingly immerse their naked form in the cloudy yellow hell liquid. Returning to the path, we walk up to the temple itself – not so impressive, we decide once we’re up close, as the surreal landscape that surrounds.
Taking a step back from the temple, we spy a path winding up between to rocks to the left. Rough hewn stone steps mark a precarious ascent upward and after struggling momentarily, we crest the summit to find ourselves looking out over a barren white wasteland even stiller and more devoid of life than that laying outside the temple gates.
Interrupting the monochromatic expanse are more tiny offerings from bereaved parents, and something new – gray stone statues of the god Jizo, each covered in tiny red bibs and hoods and surrounded by piles of stones and other offerings.
The Japanese version of an old Buddhist deity, Jizo is known as the patron saint of, among other things, children who have died before their parents (including those who have been aborted or miscarried). According to old Japanese mythology, children who die before their parents are unable to cross the Sanzu river (conveniently enough also said to be located in Osorezan) which marks the border between the world of the living and the dead. Normally damned to spend an eternity making small piles of rocks along the banks of this river instead (I guess they don’t have Playstation in purgatory), they are spared this fate by Jizo’s intervention. Curiously enough, this is why statues of Jizo are often surrounded by little piles of stones – they are said to help shorten the amount of time children have to spend in limbo before moving on.
You can find Jizo statues in many places in Japan – along highways, in cemeteries, crammed into the nooks and crannies of different temples. But still, it’s unusual and a bit unsettling to see so many concentrated in a spot dedicated to children who have died a premature death. My friend and I walk silently, picking out spots in the craggy outcroppings to make our way down and around the white rocks, down past small wooden structures housing yet more dolls, yet more offerings, yet more pictures of lost children. And something new too – colorful pinwheels spinning rapidly in the howling wind, blurring streaks of primary hues silhouetted against the flat blue sky and stark pale ground, whipping twirling toys looking strangely out of place here in this little corner forgotten corner of the very end of Japan itself.
Eventually we reach the almost beautiful white sand beach that forms the shores of lake Usoriyama. We sit and look out, and for a moment, it’s almost as if we’re in Hawaii, or the Bahamas or some secluded spot in Thailand. But after a few seconds, you realise, that save the faint lapping of the waves against the beach, nothing moves in this lake. No fish, no small creatures, not even any vegetation swaying in the clear mercurial undercurrents.
The lake is dead – filled with sulfur from the boiling cracks in the earth’s surface all around – and the poisonous yellow clouds that stain the banks give visual hints of foreboding even as the dense rotten smell that hangs heavily on the ground warns you not to stay for long. As I crouch in the sand, watching the edges of my boots slowly turn yellow from the water seeping into the leather, I find it easy to understand how the Japanese could think that this place was the gates to hell. Or if not hell, at least purgatory – still, bleak, desolate, an immutable study in paradox. Black crows soaring over bleach white stone. Refreshingly cool lakes filled with poison. Azure blue skies dropped over the stench of rotting eggs. Tiny stone statues of Buddhist saviours next to pictures of recently dead children. What is this place in which we stand?
The lake area unsettles us, and so after a few minutes we get up and head back towards the temple. I look around for a caretaker to inquire whether there are any itako still to be found in the area. I knew that we had already missed the recent Osorezan Taisai festival earlier in the week, but I thought that we might still be able to catch sight of Osorezan’s other great claim to fame.
Itako as these women are known in Japanese – are a uniquely Japanese type of seer – a strange combination of a shaman overlayed with a priest like knowledge of traditional Buddhist beliefs. Perhaps their most striking characteristic is that virtually to a one they are all women who have been blind since birth – in the old days, before all inclusive education, the job of an itako was one of the few paths open to blind girls.
The initiation process to become an itako is strict, and involves fasting, intense study and memorisation of scriptures (they are unable to refer to texts as they are blind, so must remember everything by heart). In the final ceremony, the young girls are required to douse themselves in freezing water – often in winter, which can be brutally cold in Northern Japan – and enter into a state of trance sometimes lasting a week or more, during which they claim to be possessed by any one of an entire pantheon of gods. Upon exiting this trance, the trainee is proclaimed to be a full fledged itako.
Probably the activity itako are the most well known for is the channeling of the spirit of people’s ancestors. During the Osorezan Taisai, a large number of Japan’s dwindling number of seers gather in the Osorezan area and crowds flock from all over the country to communicate with and pay their respects to the souls of the dead.
One thing that has always intrigued me about Japan is the co-existence of a modern, scientific, “westernised” mindset and centuries old beliefs with little to no apparent conflict between the two. And so an engineer who spends his or her days designing better satellite communication technologies or fiber optic cable networking strategies in downtown Tokyo has no problem jumping in a car and driving 20 hours to the ass end of northern Japan to ask an old blind woman – in all seriousness – to put them through to the spirit of their long dead grandparents. Of course, I can’t speak to how much of this is a “real” belief that they’re talking to those who have passed into the afterlife, and how much of it is just going through ceremonial motions (as I am firmly on the outside looking in) but still… it’s fascinating.
That having been said, the realities of the physical world occasionally intrude in this ages old custom, and I remember watching TV here a few years back when they did a special on itako that featured one old woman claiming to channel the spirit of Marilyn Monroe herself. The thing that made this amusing, however, was the incredibly thick Tohoku-dialect of Japanese which the old woman – purportedly channeling Marilyn Monroe – spoke in.
“Why does Marilyn Monroe speak Japanese, first of all, and more specifically, Tokohoku-dialect Japanese?” asked the host.
I forget the woman’s answer, but I did a quick google search to see if I could find a clip online of the show. I couldn’t, but what I did find was someone with a similar question on the Japanese version of Yahoo Answers:
It’s good to see that people on the internet have put a lot of thought into the logistics of the whole spirit medium thing.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to find an itako to channel the spirits of some ancestors ourselves because we were informed that they had packed up and left at the conclusion of the festivities a few days earlier.
“Come back again in a few months for the next festival and then you can meet some” called the old caretaker as we headed out through the wooden gate towards the car.
No matter how you look at it, Osorezan is a long way from anywhere in Japan. But it’s a fascinating place that truly lives up to its billing as the gateway to hell on earth. If you ever get the opportunity, I highly suggest you make it up all the way to the very tippy top of Japan to visit it yourself. I hope that someday I too will have another chance to return, and maybe see some itako for myself.
But for now, as we slowly spun the steering wheel around and pointed the car back towards the mountain path that had brought us here, we had other places to go and other things to see.
[To be continued...]
Now listening to: Ray Lamontagne – Lesson Learned