Episode 26: Ganbarezo!
And lo, after spending the last day doing low-field testing in Kawasaki
well into overtime, it was time for me to wave farewell to Nokia and
climb aboard the JR Dream Bus for Kyoto.  After a poorly slept night --
the stupid bus stopped literally once an hour to refuel -- a groggy
Jani was dumped into Kyoto Station at the ungodly hour of 5:55 in
the morning.  As absolutely nothing, not even the temples, was open
at that time I twiddled my thumbs for an hour, ate a quick breakfast
at 7 AM when the first coffee shop opened, then trudged over to
my ryokan, dumped my bags, and finally headed for the first cultural
target of many, many more in the days to come.

This first destination was Ryoanji, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon,
famed for its stark Zen garden consisting of nothing but gravel and
rocks.  My first reaction was a disappointed "Is that it!?", and
I won't attempt to claim that I truly came to understand the profound
symbolism or beauty of it.  But perhaps its charm lies exactly in
its koan-like nature, it's a riddle that forces one to think.
One irreverent answer to the puzzle can be found in the picture
I took: people spend their time staring at a bunch of dirty gravel
and ugly rocks when true beauty is just above the low wall...
indeed, tour groups stomped up and down the path straight to the
garden, while the rest of the expansive, beautiful gardens were
almost ignored.

Two gardens in one

Kinkakuji in the sunshine

Mossy hill at Ginkakuji
Next was Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion.  In complete contrast to the
insistent understatedness of Ryoanji, on that picture-perfect clear
and sunny (not to mention bloody hot) day the Golden Pavilion looked
absolutely surreal, a gold-plated temple rising out of a carefully
landscaped pond, its reflection clear in the water.  And then
Ryugen-in at the massive Daitokuji complex, a quiet and rather
obscure little place with an amazing selection of Zen gardens.
The main moss garden was simplicity in itself and would've looked
right at home in an average swamp, but when you stared at it for a while
the carefully sculpted ridges of moss seemed to undulate like

And that was all before lunch on the first day.  Higashi Honganji,
Nishi Honganji, Kinkakuji, Nanzenji, Eikando, Yasaka Jinja,
Kiyomizudera, Sanjusangendo, the endless temples and shrines blended
into a mismash and by the end of the second day I was mechanically
slogging from temple to temple and checking names off the list.
To put it simply, I was templed out.  The Zen temples of my first
day were new for me and thus amazing, but the rest were too
ordinary for my jaded eyes.  Seeing the crowds of foreign tourists
I could intellectually imagine what it would be like to see
such magnificence for the first time, but I didn't feel it myself.

Om Stone, Ryugenin

Hey, you never know.

Bodhisattva Amida

...is Plastic Jesus?
My feelings about Kyoto itself were mixed as well.  Guidebook warnings
aside, I found it quite nice and green for a Japanese city, at least
compared to Tokyo.  The view of some areas of the entertainment districts
of Gion and Pontocho at night alone were worth the trip; one part of Gion
is carefully designed to look entirely traditional, with little wooden
exorbitantly priced restaurants and teahouses shaded by gingko trees
scattered long the riverbank, lit only by lanterns at night.  But I was
unprepared for the extent of touristification: everything was in English
and, wary after dealing with millions of clueless gaijin tourists, I was
constantly treated rudely -- not by Western standards, but by Japanese
ones.  When I visited JTB to attempt to book a ryokan in Ryujin, I was
politely but firmly told to go annoy the people at the TIC instead.
I was not always Irasshaimase!'d upon entering shops and restaurants,
during my meal the same people who pampered the locals with
obsequious honorifics stayed mute or spoke in pidgin English
despite my use of Japanese, and I was rarely Arigatoo gozaimasu'd
upon leaving.  Nitpicks, to be sure, but the sum of these little
things was that the atmosphere felt unfriendly, for the first time
ever in Japan.  Only the long-suffering owner of my ryokan, once
convinced of my language skills and familiarity with civilized ways,
treated me like a local.

To cure my temple doldrums I went on two day trips, one to Nara,
the other to Himeji.  Nara is Japan's first capital and a treasure
trove filled with -- surprise, surprise -- yet more temples and
shrines.  But even the star attraction, the Great Buddha (Daibutsu)
which is even bigger than the one in Kamakura, didn't really strike
a chord.  (Then again, while Kamakura's may be a bit smaller, it is
generally agreed that it's artistically better.)  As a city it was
downright bizarre, since all the sights were embedded in the massive
deer-infested Nara Park and the usual urban sprawl of a Japanese
city was entirely hidden from view.  Perhaps the highlight ended
up being eating lunch at Sanshu in Isui-en Garden, as recommended
by the Lonely Planet.  Fortunately, an obscure location and total
lack of gaijin-friendly signposting filtered out the hoi polloi,
so while the meal was a bit too "traditional", the building and
the garden outside were quite nice.

Sanshu, Nara

Himeji Castle

Beautiful Osaka
Himeji's sole attraction is the Himeji Castle, also known as
Shirasagi-jo or White Heron Castle.  Close to 3 hours by train
from Kyoto, getting there took a while and cost quite a bit,
even if I did get to pass through Osaka.  (The one picture of
Osaka in the archives was taken when crossing a bridge between
the Hankyu and JR train stations, and it illustrates the
essence and appearance of Osaka quite well indeed.)  Himeji
was the first castle I had seen in Japan and it certainly is
an architectural masterpiece, but spending some 5000 yen to
sit in a train for 6 hours just to poke around the castle
grounds for a few hours was a bit steep.

Half my vacation was gone and I was disappointed.  It all looked
too much like Tokyo, and what I wanted was to go to a place entirely
unlike Tokyo.  So, after Himeji, instead of returning to the
Beautification Enforcement Areas (as stated on numerous signs) of Kyoto,
I headed down south to the forested, mountainous prefecture of Wakayama.
As the train gradually exited the suburbs of Osaka the scenery became more
and more hilly and green, and my spirits were instantly lifted -- this was
much closer to what I wanted.  My first stop was a centuries-old stronghold
of esoteric Shingon Buddhism, the mountaintop temple complex of Koya-san.
Night was falling as I arrived, so I checked in at my lodgings in
the Daien-in Temple immediately.  At 9000 yen/night, it wasn't cheap
even with two meals included, but it made a nice counterpoint for my night
in Kinkazan Shrine.  A shaven-headed young monk led me to my spartan tatami
room and served my meal, an excellent display of shojin ryori, albeit a
considerably less unearthly one than my previous experience at Daigo -- and
even the sake was only 500 yen a tokkuri.  It was still only 8 PM, so armed
with a flashlight, I trekked the 2 kilometers to the massive graveyards
surrounding Kobo Daishi's mausoleum Okuno-in.  Dimly lit by stone lanterns,
the entire hillside was covered in pine trees with graves new and old,
small and large, traditional and modern.  Some of the more whimsical ones
caught my eye: a rocket for an aerospace company, a coffee cup for UCC,
and a large obelisk dedicated to all the ants killed by a pesticide company.
Unsurprisingly, at night the place was deserted and sufficiently spooky
that I didn't venture outside the zone lit by the lanterns.

I woke up next morning at the entirely and totally obscene time of 5:45
so I could attend the morning rites at 6 AM.  I got there just in the
nick of time; the main hall was already almost full so I had to sit
seiza in a corner without much of a view of what was going on.  Not that
I really needed one: the ceremony consisted largely of two monks chanting
mantras paying homage to Kobo Daishi, while the younger one clanged copper
plates together every now and then to keep everybody awake.  Quite
hypnotic and trancy, yes, but personally I've never much liked the idea of
devotional mantras.  But to each his or her own.  After the ceremony
it was time for a shojin ryori breakfast, a wondrous innovation: after
nattoo, the most unpalatable part of a Japanese breakfast is the fish,
but in vegetarian cooking there is none, even in the miso soup!

It was time to hit the tourist trail.  Up in the hills it was nice and
cool and early on a Monday there weren't too many tourists around.  I
pottered around most of the obligatory sights, which were nice if not
spectacular.  The most interesting sight for me was the Great Pagoda,
which is painted in the garish flourescent red usually reserved for
Shinto torii.  From outside it was "rather gaudy", as the LP puts it,
but the inside was a surprise: instead of minimalistic Zen style or
old, dusty scrolls and paintings, the inside was dominated by sparkling
new massive golden statues of Dainichi with attendants, surrounded by
remarkably Tibetan-looking extremely colorful paintings of female(!)
deities on the supporting pillars.  I dismissed this as a coincidence or
parallel evolution, but later when checking my _Buddhism in Japan_ I
found that Shingon is indeed derived from the same right-handed Tantric
teachings that form the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism.  After a second
look at Okuno-in, including the absolutely amazing and very well named
Hall of Lanterns, it was to walk to the beginning of the Koya-Ryujin
Skyline and stick my thumb in the air.

Maybe 5 minutes passed before a car screeched to a halt.  I blinked.  No,
it wasn't mechanical failure: after uncounted middle-aged salarymen,
truck drivers and families I was finally being waved on board by two
cute 20-something Japanese girls.  And so it was that I met Chisato and
Noriko, aka Chichan and Norichan, and embarked on my greatest hitchhiking
journey yet.

Graveyard lantern, Koya

Chisato, Jani, Noriko

I walked over that!?!
We chatted in Japanese and told our respective stories.  It was the last
day of their vacation and they, like me, were heading to Ryujin Onsen,
one of the 3 bijin hot springs in Japan reputed to make you more beautiful.
(Ever the gentleman, I assured the girls that they don't need to go,
as they cannot possibly become more beautiful.)  The road from Koya to
Ryujin was breathtaking and we stopped every now and then to take
pictures of each other and the scenery, ranging from mountainous valleys to
fields full of the oddly named "Cosmo" flower.

I had originally selected Ryujin Onsen because of its very obscurity.
It's not mentioned in any travel guide that I could find, and I only
found out about it by looking at a large map of Wakayama Prefecture,
where Ryujin is a small spot in the wilderness.  The downside of this was
that tolerably-priced accommodation was limited, especially on the day
before a national holiday, and I was unable to find any decent lodgings.
No matter!  We picked one of the cheap public outdoor baths and went in.
Unfortunately, it wasn't quite rural enough to have a mixed rotemburo,
but the pools were nice and hot and the view over the valley below would
have been excellent had I been able to see anything without my glasses.

After boiling ourselves to a beautiful shade of lobster, we proceeded to
one of the many humble eateries and ordered the "country-style mountain
cooking" recommended by the proprietor, an old granny who had evidently
never seen a gaijin before in her life.  Japanese to the core, she
politely pretended I didn't exist, but did ask my companions if the
American could eat Japanese food.  Much to everyone's surprise I could,
and the meal was indeed quite good -- the black sesame miso paste used
was absolutely amazing stuff.

After hearing that I didn't really have any definite plans for what do
to after Ryujin -- my original plan had been to hitch down to the south
coast and work my way up to Wakayama for a night bus to Tokyo -- eyelashes
fluttering the girls giggled and asked if I would join them on a tour of
Koya instead.  But of course!  However, they wanted to take a short
detour to see a bridge at Totsukawa instead, would it be OK?  Sure...

Short indeed.  The road connecting Totsukawa and Ryujin may be called a
Prefectural Highway, but it stretches for close to 50 kilometers along
a convoluted hillside, without even a guardrail to separate the one-lane
road from the steep drops.  One lane in total, that is; cars coming in
the opposite direction were a bit of a problem, not that there were too
many.  Norichan drove, white-knuckled, as Chi and I laughed nervously
at the "Fatal Accident Here!" signs littering the roadsides.  After
many a "Yos! Gambarezo!" we arrived at Totsukawa, only to find that the
bridge was at Tanise, another hour up the road.

I thought that the girls were talking about a tsuribashi, or fishing
bridge, and after 3 hours of driving to get there I was wondering why
the girls were such fishing fanatics.  Only upon arrival did I realize
my mistake: it was a tsurubashi, or suspension bridge, and not just
any but Japan's longest (400m) and highest (50m).  And we're not talking
about some big steel contraption for cars, it was half a meter wide and
designed for walking across.  Those 50 meters are pretty high up when
you're separated from the drop only by a squeaky plank under your feet...
But with a few more "Ganbarezo!" we got across.  Elated by this, on the
return trip the always hyperactive Nori started skipping from side to side
and even bouncing, making the bridge sway from side to side.  To Chi's and
my surprise the bridge withstood the beating and we got to the other side

After a ceremonial bowl of overpriced noodles it was time to start
heading home.  It was getting dark and the J-Pop played until this
point was replaced by something far more bizarre: the soundtrack to the
musical "Dancing Maharaja".  Equal parts of traditional Indian music,
theatrical orchestral pomp and modern techno elements, the end result
was an amazing mix of beauty, weirdness and grooviness.  Unfortunately,
they only had a copy on cassette, I'm still trying to track down the

Just the same, singing karaoke in Hindi certainly helped pass the time,
and before I knew it we were in Hashimoto.  I bought my tickets and gave
the girls token Moomin-magnets.  We exchanged addresses, extended
invitations to visit should we ever see each other again and gave each
other last hugs and handshakes (Japanese people always insist on shaking
gaijins' hands).  Then I walked through the ticket gate, crossed over
to my platform, got on board and spotted the girls, still standing at
attention at the ticket gate.  There were a few minutes to go until
the train left, so all we could do was look at each other.  Eventually
the whistle blew and the train pulled out, the girls waving at me until
I lost view of them.

And it was over.  Everything was over.  Chichan and Norichan were gone,
the mountains of Wakayama were gone, and very soon all of Japan would
be gone as well.  Sipping at my Sprite, I stared into space for the
hour-long train journey to Osaka, mulling over Life, The Universe and
Everything.  The last day had been way too cool for me to be actually
sad, but the intensity of the pang I felt upon seeing Chi & Nori
slipping out of view surprised me -- I've done my fair share of traveling,
I should be used to the transience of friendships formed on the road.


I boarded the highway bus for Tokyo and arrived at 7 the next morning.

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