Episode 19.3: Hedonistic Zen Monk -- The Midlands
  Summer grass -- all that remains of warrior dreams
                                                    Basho, TNRttDN


After extensive vacillation and more than a few regrets I decided to
wave goodbye to the eastern seashore and head inland to Hiraizumi,
instead of hitchhiking on to Kesennuma.  My acquaintance of yesterday,
Mr. Sikorsky (I never did learn his first name), joined me for what
turned out to be a grueling 6-hour trek.  Ferry, wait, train, wait,
train, wait, train...  the schedules were close to pessimally
designed, leaving hour-long waits between each half-hour hop.  But
after becoming intimately acquainted with train stations in anointed
places like Onagawa, Ishinomaki, Kobota and Ichinoseki we finally
arrived at our destination.

During the reign of the Fujiwaras, Hiraizumi was said to rival
Kyoto in "grandeur and sophistication" (as Lonely Planet puts it),
but now all that remains are the temples of Chusonji and Motsuji,
both of which are mostly in ruins at that.  Basho discovered this as
well and penned the famous haiku quoted above, with the end result
that now Basho is more idolized in Hiraizumi than anywhere else.  You
can't throw a rock in Hiraizumi without hitting a Basho statue,
a Basho monument, an inscribed copy of a Basho haiku or at the
very least a coffee shop waving its "As mentioned in Oku no
Hosomichi!" banners.

Just the same, after staying the previous night in a shrine, it was
interesting to come to Hiraizumi and spend the night in a temple!
Motsuji -- yes, the other famous one -- operates a nice youth hostel
on its grounds, 2700 yen per night and that includes entrance to the
garden and treasure museum (which would be 500 yen).  The garden has
reportedly been carefully preserved from the Heian era, 1200 years
ago, and it seems downright un-Japanese in its liberal use of wide,
grassy spaces.  This was until I realized that half the open spaces
had scattered rocks and a "Kanjikanjido was here" post stuck in the
middle; what is now a huge garden was once a huge temple complex.
Mr. Sikorsky
Motsuji's park

...and the main hall
Hiraizumi's hero 
After all this hedonistic monk-eying around (groan), I figured it was
time to do something about the Zen part as well.  So when one of the
affable caretaker/priests came up and asked if I have an interest in
doing zazen, the answer was obvious.  Even if it meant waking up
at 6 AM, once again...  So at 6:30 the next morning a groggy column
of would-be acolytes, hands in gassho (prayer position), tiptoed
their way across the temple to the main hall.  The head monk
proceeded to give an animated if mostly incomprehensible lecture on
the salvation of all living things and the use of zazen to achieve
enlightenment.  After another lecture about proper zazen position --
including the warning that any lapses in attention would be rewarded
with sharp raps of the stick of kindness -- it was time to start.
I've done meditation before, but never "formally", and it was a
strange feeling to sit there early in the morning, eyes closed, with
the smell of damp tatami in the wind, semis and birds chirping
outside...  maintaining the very strict half-lotus-back-straight-hands-
in-mudra pose was somewhat tiring, but hearing the monk tiptoeing
around punctuated by occasional bursts of WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
concentrated the mind wonderfully.  And no, I didn't get hit.  =P

After a quick breakfast (nattoo, aargh!) and a quick loop through
Chosonji (not bad, but I've seen it all before and paying 800 yen
to get in left a bad taste in my mouth) it was time to set forth.
I again vacillated extensively about where to go -- Morioka?
Yamagata? -- but in the end I picked the most random option: I
went to Naruko Onsen, a hot-spring resort tucked in the mountains of
Miyagi-ken.  The place gets all of one paragraph in LP and isn't
even mentioned anywhere else, but it was nicely on my route and,
it being a drippy day, I figured it'd be a nice change.  Damn
straight!  Oh, and of course Basho was there too.

I picked the first ryokan (of 2) mentioned in LP and booked a room
for the night at a cost of 8000 yen.  8000 yen is not "cheap", but
it's not bad at all for a ryokan.  Not only was there space with
12-hour notice, but I turned out to be the only customer!  The
very friendly owners were astonished to see a gaijin show up and
were even more astonished when I showed them that their little
ryokan is mentioned in the LP.  Sure, Ryokan Eisen may not be the
classiest place around, but it's cozy, comfortable and above all
comes with two separate ofuro, one of them an outdoor rotemburo
(my first!).  Both baths use actual hot spring water (a toasty 74
degrees C, but cooled down a little before use) and, best of all,
could be used at any time including after dark, when the floodlights
light up the garden around the outdoor tub.  I arrived early and,
when I wasn't soaking in the baths, spent the rest of the day chilling
out, sitting on the balcony writing postcards, watching the rain
drizzle down and coat the green mountain valley with thick white
mist.  And being glad that I spent 1500 yen on trains instead of

The meal wasn't bad either.  Here's a list of the main dishes, quoted
from memory: tuna sashimi, grilled eel, fried salted ayu (Japanese
miniature trout), pork sukiyaki, chilled fresh cucumbers with sweet
miso dipping sauce, roasted corn on the cob, shrimp and vegetable
salad, hiya-yakko (tofu with bonito flakes, ginger and onion),
pickles, miso soup and rice, plus tea, sake, and watermelon for
dessert.  Do excuse me if I left out a few dishes.  A few steps
above youth hostel or shokudo fare, I assure you.
Who needs Chernobyl?
Japan's crowded trains
Eisen's owner Kiyoshi-san
During the night, the drizzle turned into an outright downpour,
effectively trashing my plans of hitching down to Tsuruoka.  After
a wonderful and massive breakfast it was time to bid a sad farewell to
Naruko.  The trains to Tsuruoka were next to empty, but the scenery
was gorgeous, outside the tunnels at least.  I was planning to stay
in the Tsuruoka YH, but I'd been unable to reach them, and some
investigation in Tsuruoka revealed why: the place was under
construction and not taking customers.  Since Tsuruoka & vicinity
lacked any better alternatives, I had to opt for the Hotel Washington,
a posh-looking and all too expensive (7000 yen) business hotel with
rooms the size of cubicles.

For entertainment purposes, a booklet entitled "Digi Pero Channel" had
been tactfully placed on the bed.  The booklet informed that pay-tv
containing "nuudo eiga", translated to English as "funny movies",
is available for 1000 yen/day.  Purely out of professional interest
I investigated the wiring system, which left me rather worried about
its fire safety.  Just the same, the system is clever and essentially
unhackable: a button press is sent down to a switch somewhere,
which turns the TV's separately piped-in video channel on.  Since
no signal appears in the room unless paid for, there's nothing you can
do, unlike traditional systems where all you have to do is bypass
the scrambler.  Oh well, it appears that I'll be deprived of
funny movies like -- and I quote -- "Za FUCK3 20 Part2".

I don't like Tsuruoka.  This is not entirely due to the city itself,
as I was annoyed by paying that extortionate sum for a mediocre room,
by returning to the hotter coastal areas after the nice and cool
mountains, and probably above all because I was again in a large,
noisy, ugly urban city, instead of the peace, quiet and natural beauty
I was looking for and found in the mountains.  But even discounting
all this, Tsuruoka -- like most cities in Toohoku -- looks like
a Japanized version of a rural East European town, all dusty shops,
rusty sheds and faded hand-lettered signs.  Lacking anything
better to do, I went walking around, and my mood did improve once I
arrived at the large central park and its tranquil Shonai Shrine.
As I arrived, a pretty Shinto priestess was busily intoning sacred
texts as an older fellow stood at attention, cap in hand, watching
as his sparkling new big blue garbage truck was ceremonially purified.
After a surprisingly good teishoku (even if it did include raw
octopus) I retired to my cubicle and plotted the course of the next
few days.


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