Thursday, January 3, 2013

My legs were really, really tired.
Really, really, really.
The hike from January 2nd was harder than I had thought even at the time, I guess, and every joint from the ears down ached in some small or large way. Mostly large. Especially my ankles.
Not that I let that stop me from exploring.
It is well known in my extended Japanese family/friend network that I know Himeji. Not just the main roads. I have walked the town from coast to mountains, taking side roads or seeking out signs of temples and shrines. It's easy to find a shrine; you look for the trees, and those trees will mark either a park or a shrine, and either has its own charms. Temples you find by the ornate roofs that stand out from the rest of the community like a Hummer at a Mini dealership.
On January 3rd, I found some places that were new to me.
My intention was to find a public bath. As I mentioned in the first four sentences, I was tired. A good soak in a hot bath was what I needed. Places close, and the economy has been tough in Japan; the bath that I was going to visit was no longer open. I had walked all the way to the castle, about a mile, with no bath waiting on me. I could have turned around and gone back to the apartment, climbed under the kotatsu (think: coffee table with an electric heater under it, with a blanket that covers everyone's laps; remember you sit on the floor in Japan; and my in-laws have a heated carpet; it is heaven). That option crossed my mind. I also thought about hitting up Mr Donuts. (It is hard to overstate how good those donuts are; I was confident one or two would rejuvenate me.)
Instead, I went in search of another bath that I had heard about.
Sidebar on my fascination with public baths. It isn't so much the bathing in public that I'm all giddy about. What I do like is that a good bath will have multiple hot tubs, of varying temperatures, a sauna, perhaps a cold bath (just to make sure you're awake), and, if it's a “super sento” (super public bath), there will be at least one or two unique types of bath: one that's outside, one that has something added to improve health, a waterfall that you can stand under, etc.
I didn't find the bath. I didn't really look that hard, because I found some cool things in Himeji that I had either forgotten about, or just didn't know.
First, as I've noted before, Himeji was a castle town. The walls and fortifications were very broad, encompassing much of the town. That means that, here and there, you can find remnants of that era. Most of the buildings were long ago destroyed; it's hard to remember that we didn't always have the fascination for our history that we do today. What I found on my trip was part of the earthen wall and moat east of the castle. Along the moat (which is really now just a large, more or less rectangular pond) was a path. At first it was clearly meant for walking, three people wide and well worn. As I continued along, crossing a wonderful reproduction bridge, it grew more and more narrow. To my left was the moat, to my right houses. Maybe two thirds along it was hardly wide enough for one person. I tried hard not to brush against the walls of the houses, and I was fascinated at what it was like to live there, to have, outside my back porch, such beautiful scenery.
As if in answer, an old lady through a small bag of scraps over my head into the moat.
Now, I really, really like to find the best in situations, and I'll give her the benefit of the doubt: I think she was feeding the koi in the moat, because she said something to that effect after she threw the bag in, which was also right after she saw me seeing her. It was a plastic bag, so maybe she just needs to learn to use something more biodegradable, or, perhaps, open the gate and throw in the tangerine peel (that's what it looked like). I'm certain the fish appreciated the gesture, but would prefer to not choke on the plastic bag. Or be teased by having a nice, fresh tangerine peel within their grasp, but unable to eat it because of some barrier that they cannot comprehend.
But I really think she was just throwing away some garbage.
I walked on after giving her a look of reproach.
At the end of the moat, I had circled back to the castle. I turned right, and then, after a hundred meters or so, right again. That led me to a shopping street that I have never seen before.
Twice in one day I had seen something new in Himeji.
It was an old shopping street, and pretty much everything there was closed. It wasn't covered. On both sides of the brick-paved road were beautiful street lamps. They looked old, giving the street a classic look. I wanted the stores to be open, to see what the neighborhood was like when there was commerce happening. A map about halfway up gave me the layout of the neighborhood (Nozato; that's where I started my hike the previous day). It listed many temples and old buildings from the castle era. I set off, having forgotten the bath and my aching legs.
Temples are different from shrines. Temples are Buddhist. Shrines, Shinto. In the area east of the castle, I found at least eight small temples, with their associated cemeteries. Shinto shrines don't have cemeteries; they're the dominion of Buddhism. Most of the temples were either in very good condition or had been recently refurbished. They had older buildings, but new as well. All had a bell tower, and I wanted to hear the peal of the bell. It is a very serene sound, deep and intense. I rang a large bell once; on Mt. Shosha at Engyoji temple there is a peace bell that all visitors are allowed to ring. The experience stuck with me.
Not once did I see a large shrine; there were small ones, literally no larger than a closet in most cases. Where I a scholar I might know why there were only temples there. But while I would love to be a scholar on such things, I'm not, nor do I have the means to pursue such a life; I'm a traveler, plain and simple. My job is to explore things, to seek out areas where I haven't been. In one day I found a plethora of new things, experienced a side of Himeji that was new for me. Somewhere, in a past life, I was an explorer. Maybe I can make a stretch of my job and say that I still am, in a manner of speaking. But at the end of the day I am meant to do, with my mind and body, to work and uncover new things and let others decide the meaning of those things. I'm a simple man living in a complex life, that sometimes feels foreign to me, and, strapped by the trappings of modern life, I suppose that will always be.

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