“Hey panda, I’ve got an idea.” piped up KC as we headed away from the noxious odors of the sulfur fields. “How about visiting these temples in Yamagata?”
“Sounds good!” I mumbled absent mindedly, trying not to drive the Purple Elderberry of Doom off the side of a cliff on the steep descent down the mountain. “What’s there?”
“Something about a Buddhist mummy I guess?” she replies. “There’s not much to go on in the book, but it sounds cool.”
“Mummies, huh? Definitely cool.”
“Yeah…. unless they’re in movies starring Brendan Frasier.”
“What do you have against Brendan Frasier?”
“Dude, Encino Man…!?”
I hang my head in defeat, because folks, there’s no come back to that.
But while we had a date to keep with an apocalyptic showdown against an undead Buddhist mummy, we first had to deal with something much more pressing: nap time.
Sleeping, it turns out, was not that difficult to sort out – we were already becoming comfortable within the metallic confines of our sparkly grape conveyance, and despite having to strike a delicate balance between having the windows open while we slept and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes or closing the windows and dying of suffocation, we generally managed to sleep quite well. Unlike the murderous bear-infested highway rest stops from the previous nights’ journey, this time fate smiled a bit more kindly upon us and bequeathed upon us an abandoned – but in typical Japanese fashion – fastidiously upkept – camp site near Lake Towada-ko along the border of Aomori and Akita prefecture.
Actually getting to the camp site took a bit of doing, because as it turns out, this lake is about 400 meters up a steep set of mountains – which perhaps accounts for what many tourist sites refer to as its “picturesque beauty and incredibly clear water” (supposedly you can see up to a depth of 10 metres in it), but which also has the side effect of making it quite treacherous to drive up to in the middle of the night.
If there is one thing I would like to convey to you with these road trip reports, gentle readers who have never piloted a vehicle here in this land of the rising sun and bean paste, it is this:
Driving in Japan is Not Easy.
The Not Easy -ness of it all can be compounded by several factors:
1. You are driving in a mountainside “road” consisting of a single “lane” (i.e. rough outcropping of rock sticking out the side of the mountain) which is expected to convey traffic – including massive tour buses – in both directions and at a steep incline.
2. You are behind the wheel of a gigantic purple sparkly minivan in a land designed for tiny little honda 2-seater k-cars.
3. It is dark.
4. It is rainy.
5. The road suddenly turns to gravel without any warning.
Now if – heaven forbid – all of the above should happen to transpire at once – a Perfect Storm of Driving Doom, if you will – well then, my friends, one quickly comes to realise what a fleeting and delicate thing life is.
Sort of like when, in the middle of the winding mountain roads, we suddenly plowed into this:
going 120 kph.
Let’s just say that I’m glad it was a rental and not my car we were driving.
To make a long story short (well, this is still gonna be a long entry anyway, so I guess, to make a long entry errr… less long), the lake was beautiful, but we got there kind of late at night so we didn’t see much. And with a lot of driving ahead of us, we ended up leaving early the next day, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you whether it lives up to the hype or not. But from what we saw it looked nice.
Anyway, the next morning we woke up bright and early, once again thankful to be alive and well, if a few bug bites the worse for the wear. See, while normally the mosquitoes weren’t too bad when we were sleeping in highway rest stops, when we parked our minivan in the middle of a pitch black humid forest camp site, the bugs, sensing the arrival of fresh meat, swarmed to us like locusts to a crop field. I’m pretty sure I could have come up with a better simile there, but whatever. The point is, not more than three minutes after settling in the night before, we started to hear the first bzzz-buzzzzing of a squadron of mosquitoes, followed by a cry from KC.
“what happened?” I roll over.
“Dammit. A bug just bit me in the face.”
“Hahhaha. Well what were you doing putting your face around bugs – OWWW GODDAMIT A MOSQUITO JUST BIT ME IN THE EYE!!!! AAARRGGHHH!!!”
Now normally one would just close the windows, but as mentioned earlier, this course of action would quickly have been followed by our rapid expiration from lack of oxygen. So then the old question – open the windows but get eaten alive by mosquitoes, or close the windows and suffocate to death?
Just as we were about to despair, salvation came to us in the form of current sitting Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe. For those of you not up to date on your Japanese politics, Mr. Abe is the current head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and one of the most unpopular prime ministers in recent history. This is pretty ironic since he was the hand-picked successor of one of the most popular prime ministers, Junichiro Koizumi, who just stepped down last year.
Abe hasn’t really done a lot of good for anyone – his cabinet has been plagued with massive corruption, tons of political gaffes (his health minister famously referred to Japanese women as “baby making machines” and his former defense minister went on public record stating that “Japan deserved to be bombed with nuclear weapons during World War II“, a sentiment that while has occasionally crossed my mind on more frustrating days here, one should not – especially if one is the Japanese Defense Minister – probably be espousing aloud. Oh and his agriculture minister bilked the government out of 28 million yen in “utility fees” despite renting a parliamentary office in which the utilities are free (“it was for bottled water. nobody drinks tap water anymore” he once famously declared before, umm, killing himself.)) and just overall ineptitude. His popularity (or lack thereof) reflects this as well – the guy is showing some seriously low numbers these days.
But for us, the bedraggled, mosquito-assaulted huddled masses, Abe came through that night. Or rather his poster did. See, in lieu of mosquito netting or anything else we could string up across the windows to leave them cracked open but keep the bugs out, we took a gigantic Abe political poster, crumpled it up and stuffed it in the window gap. Air could still get in, but most bugs couldn’t navigate the weird winding cracks. And with that, we settled into a babe-like slumber.
Now I can hear you asking yourselves at this point: “self, why did Panda and KC have a gigantic political poster of Shinzo Abe in the minivan with them on this road trip?”
And that would be a very good question my loyal readers. The answer is “because we stole them from remote countryside villages all over northern Japan.”
Now your next question – also a very good one – might be: “why on earth did you steal Japanese political posters from remote countryside villages all over northern Japan?”
And my answer to that would be: “I don’t know, ask KC, it was her idea. I was just the driver. (are you paying attention here, Japanese Police? I. Was. Just. The. Driver. .. The. Innocent. (Possible. Coerced. Against. His. Will.) Driver.”
It is my hope that KC will grace us in the comment box with the impetus that drove her to suddenly cry out “STOP THE CAR!” as we meandered through a little nowhere inaka town, then fling the door open and hop out even as the wheels were still grinding to a halt, casting a half-glance rearward and mouthing “Keep the engine running and an eye out for the fuzz!” before running across the street and ripping a bunch of posters off the side of a business. But until she does, I shall have to ask you all to just be patient and do what I do whenever my dear friend does something inexplicable – chalk it up to some mysterious logic in her head that only she can understand, and perhaps, possibly, drugs.
(as my mother once asked me on the phone: “is that girl on drugs? I think she’s on drugs. She looks like she’s on drugs from those photos you put on your blog. You shouldn’t hang out with her any more. She might go crazy and jump out a window on an acid trip and die and then what? Then you’ll have to explain to the police what happened and they’ll think you did it and arrest you for murder and then your father and I, we’re going to have to mortgage the house to try and pay for your bail and if you think we’re going to fly all the way over to Japan just to rescue you, well then, kid, you’d better think again. I’m not getting on any 14 hour plane ride just because you were too dumb not to hang out with crazy people. Nu-uh. Forget it. They eat raw fish over there. RAW FISH! Hell, forget the girl, the whole country’s crazy. Sleeping on floors and eating raw fish. When are you coming home? Come home now before something horrible happens to you over there! And when are you going to get married!?”
Me: “Mom, are you on drugs…!?”)
Anyway, so in case any Japanese constables are reading this page, scratching their heads and puzzling over the rash of Political Poster Thefts that just recently hit northern Japan, umm, sorry about that.
One thing that is funny is that there is no inconspicuous way for a 4’10″ white girl wearing stripy black pants to steal a political poster of Shinzo Abe off the wall of a building in the middle of a somewhat busy town centre street. The best is when, in the middle of stealing this particular poster (a poster for the rival Minshutou (___ – Democratic Party of Japan) – hey, we’re equally opportunity thieves):
a lady happened to walk by.
“KC! We’ve got incoming! INCOMING!” I scream into my mobile.
“Oh my god! What should I do? WHAT SHOULD I DO?!” she replies.
“I don’t know, but she’s about to round the corner! Do something. Do something NOW!” I shout, hand shaking with tension as I think about the memory cards laying in the back of our van filled with pictures I took documenting our little prefecture-spanning crime spree. Oh god. I had to dispose of them before the cops came! But how!? Could I eat them? Break them in half!? Burn them!???
“Ummm.. uhhhh…. ohhhhhh!! oh god, here goes nothing!” she replies, then the line goes dead just as I lean over to jam the car cigarette lighter into its socket. I don’t know if it will get hot enough to light a 4 GB Compact Flash Memory card on fire or not, but damn if I’m not going to try. I glance back up to see:
KC, playing it casual as all can be, calmly pretending like she’s putting up political posters…! The lady walks by, stops dead in her tracks, does a double take at the short little white girl seemingly papering the entire side of a building with campaign adverts for a candidate for the Democratic Party of Japan and just stands there for what seems an eternity. My heart stops in my chest and I catch my breath – is she going to say something? Is she going to cry out for help? Is she going to all the cops…!?
Just as I can’t take the stress anymore and am about to crack, with a jolt the cigarette lighter pops out of the socket as simultaneously the woman gives one more shake of her head and what appears to be a little laugh and turns and heads off. I let out my breath and hungrily gasp down fresh oxygen as through the lens I can see KCs legs shaking so badly I wonder if she’s going to topple over right then and there.
“Omigod panda, I think I almost peed myself!” she laughs into the receiver.
“You! I was half a second away from lighting the car on fire!!!”
And that is how we ended up with a bunch of political posters in the car. And my house.
But anyway, back to our story.
After waking up and getting dressed, we hit the road. The temples we are looking for are located off a random highway in the middle of Yamagata prefecture – not exactly the kind of place you’re likely to “run” into – if you’re here, you probably came a’looking.
A few hours of driving later we wind our way slowly up the mountain towards where the first of the two temples – Yudonosan Dainichbo – is located. Now when I say this place is remote, I’m not kidding – looking around all we saw were a few grass thatched farm houses, never ending expanses of terrace-farmed lush green rice fields, and the endless sounds of cicadas and crickets chirping out mid-day summer melodies. It was literally like a scene right out of My Neighbor Totoro.
We pull into the gravely outcropping next to the side of a big weathered wood and grass torii-like gate which looks like it is out of a forgotten corner of Japanese history.
“Is this is?” murmurs KC
“Well, that’s what the GPS says…” I reply.
“Is this the same GPS that almost led us off the side of a cliff back at the lake?”
“… let’s not talk about that. My hands are still shaking.”
We jump out of the car and start walking towards the temple at the end of the long stone lined path. I glance at my phone and see that it’s like 9:30 am. One of the things about sleeping in a car is that you tend to get up waaay the hell early – around 5:30 today – and a natural disadvantage of that is that the rest of the world generally doesn’t conform to your time schedule. I wonder to myself if this temple is even open yet.
My fears are allayed, however, when we get closer to the temple entrance. Through the glass window of the front office, I see a woman in an apron – clearly in the middle of fixing breakfast, stare out at us in shock, then run towards the back yelling in Japanese.
“Husband! Husband! Wake up! We have customers! And they’re foreigners…!!!“
We climb up the last set of stairs and start towards the door when a bleary eyed middle aged Japanese guy stumbles out of the side door, still struggling to done his monk-robe thing.
“Oh… Ha..haroo.” he slowly begins in broken English. “You… here…come” he gestures towards the window next to the entrance.
“You…ahhh… you…. pay… ahhh…” his eyes flick towards the sign next to the door. It is clear he wants to tell us how much admission is.
“It’s okay. We speak Japanese.”
“Oh really? Great!” he replies in Japanese, obviously relieved. “It’ll be 500 yen then, please.”
“Hey Panda?” KC turns to me.
“I left my wallet in the car. Can I borrow 500 yen?”
“Sure thing. Let me just…. oh crap.”
“You left your wallet in the car too, huh?”
I sigh, and turn to the guy.
“Umm, we’ll be right back, okay?”
When we reply, the guy is somewhat more awake and composed, to say nothing of being bemused at the two silly gaijin who forgot their cash in the car and had to walk all the way back down and up the mountain again to go get it. We pay the admission fee, and the guy motions us inside.
At this point I’d like to talk a little bit about temples (and shrines) in Japan. Basically, there’s a lot of them. You can’t throw a rock in this country without hitting at least one temple or shrine like structure within a few meters of you. In fact, as I sit in my apartment, located in the city centre I know for a fact that there are at least 5 different temples within a 10 minute walk.
Now in the five years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a ton of temples and shrines – practically every single major one that ever graced a guide book page, and hundreds that never have. And while they’re nice and all, the thing is, they all kind of look the same and start to run together after a while.
And so, unless one is a) Japanese, b) Buddhist or c) a scholar, after the first 30 or so temples, one begins to get “templed out”. This is not to say that you no longer appreciate temples for what they are, it’s just that you know, you don’t need to spend that long in them anymore – just go in, see whatever it’s famous for, have a quick walk around, and then leave, secure in the knowledge you’re probably going to discover a new one or two on your way to the convenience store that evening.
This is my current temple viewing philosophy, and it is with this frame of mind we walked into the Dainichibo temple. Our guidebook said it had a mummy, and goddammit, we just wanted to see the mummy and then get back on the road.
Unfortunately, our friendly Buddhist priest had other ideas.
“Wow, so you guys can speak Japanese huh?” he asked, beckoning us to have a seat seiza style in front of the altar.
“Yeah. So I heard there’s a mummy here…?” I began, trying not to sound too impatient. We had another temple to visit further up the road, I just remembered.
“Oh yes. But not a mummy.”
“Not a mummy?” I repeat. My stomach begins to sink as I wonder if our guide book lied to us.
“No. Not a mummy. Mummies are dead. What we have is a Living Buddha.” As he speaks the words, his eyes light up and his voice drops reverently.
“A living Buddha?”
“Ahh. Well to answer that, I first need to tell you about the history of this temple.”
And here, gentle readers, I will spare you the torment that transpired next. See, basically the dude was so happy to have guests – foreign, Japanese speaking guests…! that he decided to pull out all the stops. He launched into this esoteric discussion about Buddhist sects and the surrounding famous mountains and how women who weren’t allowed on them came here to worship instead yadda yadda a lot of random stuff that kind of went over our heads because it’s been a long time since I took that one solitary “EA 266 Introduction to Buddhism” class back in college. Basically he talked for an hour and rather than repeat all of that, you can read about it on their home page, if you so desire.
After his mind numbing narrative on the more esoteric aspects of various Buddhist sects in ancient Japan, our brains were melting, our legs had fallen asleep, and KC was giving me the international sign for “there’s no mummy here, let’s get the hell out of this temple”, which, in case you’re curious, look something like this:
At this point, however, the man finally bring the conversation around to the whole reason why we came in the first place.
“So…. I suppose you want to know about the living Buddha we have here, huh?”
“Yes. But I thought he was a mummy?”
“NO! A living Buddha!”
“…errmmmm, what’s the difference?”
“A mummy is DEAD. It has all its organs removed. But a living Buddha… he is alive.”
“Alive? Like alive alive? How old is he?”
“He is 300 years old.”
“….so not alive.”
“A living Buddha.”
“… oh well that makes perfect sense then.”
So here’s the story. Basically this guy – the internet says his name is “Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin”, but let’s just call him The Mummy (sounds better than “The Living Buddha”) – so basically The Mummy was this Japanese guy born in the late 15th century. He decided to become a Buddhist priest, which I guess what not all that uncommon back in the day. He either established or worshipped at the Dainichibo temple – I didn’t really understand which – and was apparently quite a devout and popular (?) priest.
So far so good. But then one day, in his early 20s, he decided to get all austere with his worship with the aim of becoming a Sokushin-butsu, a “living Buddha”. When I was in my 20s, it was my aim to become “a college graduate” and “not arrested for peeing on the window of starbucks on State Street during the 2001 State Street Halloween Parade”, so I suppose he has me beat there. Stupid over achievers.
Anyway, towards this end, he decides to engage in this process of extreme fasting and over the next few decades stopped eating anything except for nuts. Then one day, he woke up, and went into the woods where he stopped eating anything except for water and tree sap. Yes, tree sap. (it was funny too because I didn’t know the word for “tree sap” in Japanese so the guy was trying to explain it to us, and he had to pantomime it, like someone licking sap from a tree – which, if you’ve ever played Charades, you know how pretty much any action can start to look dirty if you do it repeatedly without saying anything. Trying to mime licking sap from a long pole-like object (supposed to be a tree trunk), it goes without saying, can seem perverted pretty quickly. Anyway, so here he is trying to explain to us the divine transformation of a 15th century monk and all we can do is sit in the corner and giggle cuz it looks like he’s, well…. you know, and we have the combined mental age of a 6th grader.)
So The Mummy does nothing but drink water and consume tree sap – lacquer sap for 42 days straight, during which time, the monk explains, the sap begins to lacquer and solidify his internal organs. Finally he heads back to the temple (heh heh, The Mummy Returns) at age 96…! where they then bury him alive in a stone-lined hole in the ground with nothing but a breathing straw poking up for air. He then begins to meditate and chant some mantras and that’s the last anyone sees of him for 3 years. At that point, they decide to dig up the hole and they discover him, cross legged, lacquered through solid and mummified in mid-mantra.
Now folks, when I hear the word “Buddha”, I usually think of a fat friendly guy. Looks kind of like this:
That is not what this guy looked like. No, my friends, he looked like this:
Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures of His Ghastliness, so you’ll have to settle for this scan of a card instead, sorry.
Which for my American readers who are old enough to remember Tales From The Crypt, probably reminds them a little bit of this guy:
Now regardless of whether this guy was a “living Buddha” or not, that is Some Scary Ass Shit To Keep In Your House. Because, you see, the temple caretaker who was telling us this story lived in that temple with his wife and family. Also present in this temple? Mr. Scary As Shit Mummified No Excuse Me “Living Buddha-fied” 300 Year Old Corpse Crypt Keeper.
Yes, that’s right folks, they kept him in the house…! In this little glass display case no less, like the kind you use to show off your plastic car model collection or something. Because that is what they are made for. Toys. Not The Dressed Up Corpse-like Remains Of The Living Dead.
The thing of it is, it’s not like this glass case was just sitting out there in the open for us to see as soon as we stepped in the room. No. Rather it was covered by these ornate red silk drapes and placed in the middle of some flowers and presents that had been donated to the temple by grateful (?) worshippers. So we didn’t even realise what it was until, just as the guy is getting to the climax of his story, he slowly reaches behind him and yanks this cord and then the blinds fly up and reveal this unholy lich sitting cross legged in an airtight glass box a couple of feet from our unsuspecting faces.
After we recovered from our shock at having His Ghastliness pop his festively be-frocked countenance out of nowhere and scaring the shit out of us, the monk manage to stop his chuckling long enough to invite us to spend some time reflecting on the withered corpse before us.
“Oh, take all the time you need to sit here and meditate!” he implored us cheerfully. KC and I at the lich like monstrosity before us, then at each other, then at the monk.
“Oh.. uh yeah, we will.”
“Oh and make sure to buy some souvenirs before you leave! We have some omamori (protective amulets) and other trinkets for sale – 1000 yen each, which I know is expensive, but it’s worth it!”
“Oh yes. See we change His Ghastliness’s clothes every three years, and we cut up the old clothes and put them inside the omamori. So you know, it’s really good luck!”
“….right. Because the clothes off of a 300 year old unholy zombie is basically the same thing as a rabbit’s foot.”
“rabbit’s foot? what do you mean?”
And with that, he left us to sit quietly in the room whilst presumably he went off to go eat breakfast. In his house. Which he shares with a mummy.
And that’s that! After this temple visit – which at almost 2 hours in length was exactly 1 hour and 50 minutes longer than we had planned on staying – we went on to visit another nearby temple – Churenji, which also had a mummified Living Buddha in it. Only this one was apparently a (reformed) murderer. Oh and he had a gigantic hole where his left eye socket should have been. Which kind of made him even creepier than the one we just saw, if such a thing is possible.
The two temple visits combined ended taking up our entire morning, and it wasn’t until well into the afternoon when we finally got back in the car and waved Yamagata, with its beautiful lush green hills, brilliant blue skies, cool northern breeze and decrepit mummified corpses, good-bye.
“Wow. That’s something you don’t see everyday huh?”
“Yeah, no kidding. I think I’m gonna have nightmares for the rest of the week.”
I laugh. “So…. where shall we go next?”
“Well, I’ve always wanted to go to Akita – it says here they have this one samurai village that is supposed to be really cool.”
“KC, please tell me this isn’t going to be like the last ‘Samurai Village’ you dragged us to!”
“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out!”
And with that, we turned onto the highway and headed off towards the next part of our adventure….
[TO BE CONTINUED...]
Now listening to: “Signalrunners – Backfire (Radio Edit)”