Saturday, January 7, 2017

Miyajima - 1

A short distance west of Hiroshima, accessible by ferry, Japan Rail (JR), or the local Hiroshima Dentetsu (electric line), is a place worth the effort to visit. Where the Hiroshima Peace Museum brought on very understandable - and important - feelings of sadness, Miyajima is a place of great peace. There are a number of hotels, a lot of tourist souvenir shops, and quite a few restaurants. One supermarket. No convenience stores. One campground. Ferry service that runs from around five in the morning until before eleven in the evening; miss that last boat, and you're stuck.

For someone looking to get away from things, it is perfect.

We ate lunch near the train station; the island's prices are a little bit higher, and we would spend more for dinner by saving on lunch. One of the ferries is a JR company, so the rail pass covers the ride across. The boat passes by the large torii (gate) that the island is famous for.

Our inn was a place called Sakuraya. I picked it based on a combination of reviews and availability. There was no dinner plan like you get with a lot of Japanese ryokan; but it was still a Japanese style room, quite affordable, and located close to both the ferry as well as the touristy street and the shrine.

We were too early to check in, but they let us leave our bags while we wandered around. The inn had umbrellas we could take with us. It wasn't a good day for sightseeing; but we did it anyway.

Technically, the island's name is Itsukushima; that's also the name of the shrine that is the predominant sight people go to see.

We didn't go inside the shrine; we planned on doing that the next day, which was the Emperor's

birthday. Instead, we took a handful of pictures of the gate and walked up to the five story pagoda and the large temple there: Senjokaku. It is dedicated to the Toyotomi family; Hideyoshi was one of the three great warlords responsible for unifying Japan. The temple is, I guess, actually a shrine, since it is used for Shinto rituals; it is the largest structure on the island, technically incomplete. It is located on a hill that once was the headquarters of the Sue (suu-eh) clan, who were defeated in 1555, over thirty years before the monk Eikei asked that nearby Daiganji temple build a large Buddhist library. It is a beautiful place, wide open on the interior, an expansive, dark place that invites reflection, brings about a peaceful feeling just by its very existence.

My son and I laid down on the broad, wide open floor of the temple, looking up at the rafters, admiring the complex craftsmanship that goes into joining massive beams. Temple staff didn't exactly know what to think of that. They said nothing in English, but I could overhear them murmuring in a good natured way about why we were lying down. In the end, their speculation was partially correct; in truth we were dead tired and the coolness of centuries-old wood flooring was more comfortable than you might think. They wondered if they should do something; I told my son that I hoped that they didn't. I probably I should have sat up or walked around, but I'm dead certain that Enkei would approve of finding peace within those walls. He himself was a warrior monk who met a tough end after choosing the wrong side in the decisive battles for Japan's unification. Enkei followed the Rinzai school of Buddhism; meditation is a strong force in that sect. I cannot meditate, not really; I've tried. but I got pretty close in Senjokaku.

Then, the rain stopped and the sky lightening ever so slightly, we walked up towards the cable car, only to find it closed, which we expected because of the rain. I wanted to go to the top of Mt. Misen; it is a short hike from the top of the cable car, a long hike from the bottom, especially in the rain. There would be no awe-inspiring view anyway; the mountain was socked in by clouds. We walked around the shops, tasted some local delicacies, and found our way back to our inn.

Checked in, we relaxed for a bit. Jet lag had come on full throttle. My son fell asleep and murmured that he didn't want to go eat, which I didn't feel was true. It was the jet lag speaking. We ordered our breakfast (an extra 500 yen), then my wife and I headed out.

First stop was the only grocery store on the island. It closes in the early evening, so we wanted to do our best (as parents) to get our son some food to eat. There weren't a lot of choices. It truly is meant as a store for the locals. Most inns offer dinner, or people go out to eat. It's rare to not have a meal included in your inn, but we booked fairly last minute, and honestly we wanted to eat out anyway. The island is famous for its eel. I personally don't like eel; my wife does, and I have simple tastes. It's rare that I cannot find something to eat in a restaurant. When in doubt, I can pull the "I'm a vegetarian" line and see what they come up with.

We got him some bread and rice balls (onigiri), which he and I both will always eat when nothing else is available (or even if something else is available; they're awesome).

From the grocers we walked to see the shrine and gate all lit up.

A couple of things about the shrine. When the tide is in, it looks like it's floating. Sort of. Like a lot of things in life, you have to use a little imagination, but it's built on posts buried into the tidal soil. The large orange gate, too, is covered by the sea most of the time; only when the tide is out can you walk up to the large pillars.

At night it was beautiful, rain and all. I held the umbrella for my wife as she took photographs. I can still see that gate with the dark sea surrounding it. Few ventured out in the bad weather.

There's only so much to do in the dark when most of the streets are closed. My wife had picked out a restaurant, and we made our way there.

I have to admit I was a little shocked - and more than a little envious - that the owner was a foreigner; American or Canadian, judging by the accent (or lack thereof). It was a quaint place. I ordered ramen. I got a little miffed when the American/Canadian man came over and scolded me for not eating my noodles quickly enough. Because I tend to push back when pushed, I ate even more slowly. I've eaten more ramen than I want to admit to, from little dives near train stations to famous restaurants that have been on television. At no point has anyone told me I was eating ramen wrong. I paused to take a sip of water, because wanted a sip of water, and he took that to be some sort of offense, because he told me the noodles will soak up the liquid and that's not good. To hell with that. I will eat them as I eat them; drink water as I drink water.

My wife and I went to the public bath in the hotel; I had the place to myself. It was just one large tub. A dozen or so showers lined the walls. I soaked. And as I soaked, I thought of James. James who was an unabashedly rude foreigner. James who liked to tell people we bathed naked together in Japan. James who I shot guns with, argued with, made plans with. James whose death in October of 2016 has forever changed my view of Japan, because he was my moral guidepost. Not a compass; I know right from wrong. He just helped me find it when I was lost. And now I find I'm always lost.

I slept and had bad dreams.

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