My son planned to get a time lapse video of the sun hitting the shrine; the sun would be rising off to the right of the east-northeast facing gate, as we faced it. He wandered around planning where would be best to do that. My wife, camera mounted on tripod, looked for good angles. I sat and looked out over the Inland Sea. That waterway is one of the world's most traveled, deep water channels protected by the forces of the Pacific. The torii wasn't illuminated at that time of morning.I found myself wondering at what time the lights went off, if it was automated. Or did someone have to turn them off manually, the sort of daily ritual that provides patterns to life's fabric? That's the sort of useless information that I squirrel away until needed for some obscure reason.
As I sat, pondering, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned, expecting to see my wife in some trouble; she was obviously excited about something. It was dark. A tall man was standing next to her, and I couldn't make out his or my wife's faces. I walked over, saw that she was smiling broadly, the very smile that I fall in love with just about every time I see it.
Years ago we had a friend in Nashville, a doctor from Tokyo, very intelligent man, a triathlete, runner, father and husband and friend. I met him once in Japan after he returned to his father (now, unfortunately, deceased) who lived hear Himeji. We maintained contact via social media. He has always been a friend.
And there, on an island more than five hundred miles from Tokyo, thousands of miles away from Tennessee, was our old friend.
Turns out he had to give a presentation in Hiroshima the night before, and came on the first train and ferry to Miyajima. We talked about our lives, his trip, our trip. My son didn't really remember him; they only met a few times, and the boy had been a preteen the last time our friend saw him.
Together we went into the shrine after the sun rose. As with old friends and chance encounters, our conversation covered broad topics. Yes, he still ran, though not as much as he wanted. No, I don't play soccer much any more.
After a couple of hours, we had reached a point that required us to part. He was heading up Mt. Misen; we needed to go back to our inn for breakfast. It's a small island, I said. Maybe we'll meet again.
After breakfast we went back to the shrine for their celebration of the Emperor's birthday.
Those things fascinate me much more than anyone else in my family. I can quite literally sit in a temple or shrine for hours on end, fascinated to think about whose feet have walked the ancient passages, whose eyes shared the views, and how would those ancients feel about the changes made over the years? The priests played their screeching music. Here is a sample of the sounds.
I felt bad taking pictures; it's weird photograph someone's religious rituals. But it was fascinating, so while I didn't take as many as most, I did take a few, in the name of blogging. When that ended, I walked outside the shrine, waiting on the ceremonial dancing to start. Workers were busy repairing some of the columns, taking advantage of the good weather and low tide. For ten minutes I watched them, aware that they were doing tasks handed down to them for generations. I don't know where my family went during that time; somewhere along the waterfront.
I found a place to sit with my feet dangling over the muddy ground, the tide nearing its low ebb, the gate and shrine supports fully exposed. It was crowded. My wife and son had rejoined me, and we watched three dances. I really wanted to appreciate the art of it all, but much like the ritual music a little earlier, I found it a struggle. Maybe I need to understand the why of it all in or to appreciate the craft.
Up the hill is the slightly larger Daiganji temple. It's a famous place, reached only after walking up a long flight of steps. There are many statues with knitted caps or scarves. At one of the halls, there is a completely dark passage.
I'm not a huge fan of that level of darkness. And maybe had I known what I was going into, I might have held back. But I live a YOLO life. Here and there there are some Buddhist images lit up. I'm sure there is deep meaning to those, beyond the simple truth I gained: sometimes in the absence of light, we must walk towards that little we find ahead of us, but always move forward, always step carefully in the dark, confident in the light.
Or something like that.
When my wife and son did the maze-like circuit (not an actual maze, but you don't really know that when you're on those winding passages), they bumped into the people ahead of them, who evidently were more interested in the Buddhist messages than they were.
The day could have lasted forever. There's so much to explore on that island, where there are few cars, few permanent residents. Miles and miles of hiking trails. Numerous historical landmarks. Great views. Calm. Peace.
We walked around some more, bought souvenirs, then headed to the ferry. On the far side of the channel, we ate a very simple lunch bought at a convenience store. Rice balls (onigiri), mine with tuna, my son and wife choosing salmon. It cost us around six US dollars to eat, including a bottle of tea. For all that people complain about the cost of travel in Japan, it can be done very cheaply. Especially food.
Around sunset, we arrived back in Himeji at the apartment. In only a couple of days that small fifth floor abode had become home, a place to return to, a place to appreciate and enjoy. It is deeply unfair - on many levels - that all of that is true.