Road's end

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12 August 1999

Traveling is sometimes a game of chance. Having rolled snake eyes on the previous day’s activities, I woke up with a desire to leave Innoshima with all due haste. Maybe I could improve my game back on the mainland.

And so I did. I was bathed, breakfasted and checked out of the Hotel from Hell in time to catch the 7:40 bus to Onomichi. I had no intention of following through with my original plan of cycling the 20 km across the final two bridges. Air conditioned comfort and views of Setouchi from the fast lane were what I wanted and exactly what I got. I arrived at Onomichi Station at 8:30 am.

But I hadn’t planned to spend much time in Onomichi--it was more of a bed and breakfast stop than a day’s sightseeing destination. I had no idea what I’d find there to occupy my day. My entire Onomichi research consisted of the mimeographed map given to me by the travel agency which showed where I was staying for the night.

The station map indicated that there was a nearby castle park, so I walked down the street in the direction of the ropeway that would carry me to the top. Maybe I could stretch the park to fill my morning; I’d figure out what to do with the afternoon when it came.

The ropeway at Onomichi was much quainter than that at Tokushima. People crammed into the car until it felt like a Tokyo train at rush hour. at precisely 9:15, the car, stuffed with two dozen sweaty riders trying to fan themselves without whacking their neighbors, began it’s slow ascent. We traversed a shrine, glided past a pagoda and were deposited at the top of the mountain in a few minutes.

I had picked up a bilingual area map at the ropeway station but the crowded compartment had prevented me from unfolding it. Now I sat on a rock wall and spread it in front of me. I sipped on some warm tea and nibbled leftover Oreo cookies from the previous night’s orgy while I studied my options.

Onomichi is nestled in a curve of shore between the mountain I now sat on and the inland sea I had just crossed. Its nearest island neighbor is a two minute ferry ride across a narrow stretch of sea that looks like a river. It is a port town so ferry terminals and docks with huge cranes dot the water’s edge. I could see all of this from my vantage point atop the wall on the mountain. In the distance, I could see hazy mountains of farther islands poking out from a shiny glaze of water.

But returning my gaze to my map, I discovered that I was not the only one to be taken with the beauty of the scene. I was sitting at one of the “Vantage Points of Famous Painters” that were marked by stars on the map. Looking around, I saw a little plaque about a half a meter away that said the same thing, only without the star and the English. I don’t know who he painter was, but I could appreciate his taste in viewing points. Another dozen stars were scattered around the map. I decided to try to take in as many as I could.

Also marked on the map were two walking routes--the Road Way of Literature and the Round of Old Temple. According to the map, the Road Way to Literature began almost where I was sitting. I looked up and turned my back to the view to see what was around me.

I had missed noticing the two-story circular observation platform when I alighted from the ropeway, but there it was, squatly topping the height of the mountain. Signs pointed the way to cobblestone paved paths leading to the town’s art museum and an amusement park. In the opposite direction was the Road Way to Literature and a temple. I opted to begin with the Road Way to Literature.

The Road Way is a hiking course that starts down the hill away from the ropeway then snakes behind the pagoda I’d passed on the way up and winds its way back up to the top of the mountain. The Literature part takes the form of 25 stones inscribed with poems. Many of the poems seemed to have an outdoor theme and some were specifically about the mountain and Onomichi. I surprised myself by being able to read a few of them from start to finish. The calligraphy of the inscriptions was supplemented by a nearby sign neatly printed and including furigana, the spelled out readings of kanji often seen in children’s books.

Along the trail were several more of the Viewpoints of Famous Artists. They must have painted lovely pictures of the mountains and sea, though I suspect that they completed their works before the hulking orange and white cranes in the harbor got in the way.

Heading downward along the Road Way, I visited the vermilion pagoda. It was lovely and shady and I stopped for a few minutes to admire yet another view over Onomichi.

To worship at a temple, you must summon the attention of the deities that are housed there. Normally this is done in one of two ways. A Buddhist temple, you clap loudly in front of the shrine before bowing. At Shinto shrines, you ring a bell fastened above the offering box. But at this shrine was a novel noisemaker.

Instead of a bellpull over the offering box there was a long rosary of grapefruit-sized wooden beads on a pulley. The beads filled all but the last meter or so of rope that strung them together. I was attracted to the sound and watched from a safe distance to see how it was done before trying it myself. Pulling on the loop caused the beads to fall from the top of the pulley to land on their mates below. They made a lovely clacking sound. One bead was painted red to mark the end of a full circuit. People who had done this before were able to keep the flow of beads evenly tapping the whole way around. My attempt was a bit uneven but pleasurable nonetheless.

After the pagoda, the Road Way angled back up to the top of the mountain and ended near the art museum. Unfortunately, the art museum was closed in preparation for a showing of “Water Painting in connection with Onomichi” scheduled to open the next day. Once again, I was a victim of bad timing.

But it didn’t really matter. I wandered over to the edge of the mountain where the keep of the old castle was perched. It was a classic white walled, winged roofed castle of the style which figures prominently in samurai movies but that was destroyed throughout Japan when the feudal period ended and the Meiji era began. There are still plenty of castle remnants around, though. I can only imagine what the countryside looked like before the end of the 19th century. So many castle towns!

A bamboo forest shaded the path leading off the mountain away from the castle. I followed it and end up not far from the station. It wasn’t quite lunch time yet, so I opened my map and decided to follow the Round of Old Temple for a little while. It would lead me in the direction of the shopping arcade near the ferry terminal which promised to have a good noodle shop or two.

The Round of Old Temple was a long winding route up and down grey, shell patterned stone paths and myriad steps. It wound its way from one end of town to the other and took the diligent walker to almost two dozen beautiful old temples which had survived the war, earthquakes and centuries of time. Unlike many of the famous temples in Tokyo and other big cities, these had not been firebombed and reconstructed.

The street, a narrow pedestrian lane bounded on both sides by the garden walls of the housed that faced it, radiated heat that the local cats napped in. The cats in Onomichi are friendly, like the people, and whether perched on a garden wall or curled up in the shade of a garden gate, they purred appreciatively when rubbed behind the ears. I walked along, collecting an overdue quota of cat-petting as I made my way from on the Round.

At one of the temples I visited, I found yet another opportunity to incorporate pottery into my travels. I sat on a bench in the shade of an eaves and watch people walking past me on their way to the cemetery. The neatly swept dirt courtyard in front of me ended in an old-style temple hall. But outside the hall a middle aged couple were sitting on zabuton cushions at a low table and they seemed to be making something from clay. I watched for a little while, but couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t even sure if they were associated with the temple, or just visiting like me.

As I smoothed a bit more sunscreen over my arms and nose, the gentleman and his wife stood to leave, bowed to a woman in the door way and headed towards me. The wife turned and went to pray at the temple; the man sat at the other end of my bench. He smiled at me, we exchanged pleasantries in Japanese and then, in broken English, he said “Hand Buddha. You can make it.”

So that’s what they were doing. making Buddhas. It didn’t take me too long to debate whether to try it myself and I was sitting on a zabuton a few minutes later. A woman in an indigo blue work kimono greeted me and smiled when I said I wanted to make a Buddha.

She apologized for not speaking English and proceeded to instruct me in the proper way to hold the cylinder of clay and squeeze it to form the Buddha’s head and fingerprinted body. I pulled ears and a distinctly Western-looking nose from the clay and with a bamboo skewer incised the remaining details.

When two junior high school girls came to sit at the table opposite me; the woman looked relieved. Did one of them speak English? They giggled, as teenagers around the globe do, and said they did not. However, when we got to a sticking place in the instructions, they knew the right English word to enlighten me.

Buoyed by this exchange and activity, I walked on to the next temples. On the way up a long flight of stairs, I saw a sign pointing the way to the Mansion of Literature Onomichi. That seemed like a fitting extension to my earlier Road Way of Literature walk, so I turned and went up the side path to a little house.

I could see people inside reading, I almost didn’t go in since my Japanese reading skills are on a par with my spoken Japanese. I was sure that this place might hold more embarrassment than joy for me. But as I stood there deliberating, someone came out and that sealed my fate. It was air conditioned in there!

The man who took my admission fee apologized for not speaking English (maybe this should be an unofficial Onomichi slogan) but then proceeded to explain to me, in English, what the museum was all about, and that there was a second part of it up the hill and around the corner. This part of the Mansion of Literature had been home to one of Onomichi’s celebrated writers. I perused the manuscripts in the glass cases, looked at the giant painted gourds on display and gawked at the beautiful view from the window of this writer’s study room.

But the house was only three rooms, so after a few minutes, I was back on the path upwards to find the other half of the Mansion of Literature. I took a momentary wrong turn and considered giving up and going back down into town for lunch. But I knew if I was this close and I didn’t find it, I probably wouldn’t bother to try again after lunch. I persevered and after turning myself in the right direction, found the other half.

A chorus of “I’m very sorry but I don’t speak any English” greeted me at the door as the counter man exchanged my ticket for a bookmark with the museum’s logo. I wandered through several rooms of displays looking at the momentos of writers, playwrights, poets and songwriters. A shamisen. Fountain pens. A pair of wire rimmed glasses. A tea service. And on the walls were photographs of the writers and their brief biographies.

I was puzzling through some of these when an old man approached me and asked (in English) if I was interested in Japanese literature.

When I expressed an novice’s interest, he was delighted and gave me a personal tour of the museum, explaining who the authors were and what they wrote. His particular favorite, and I gather the most famous of the Onomichi writers, was a woman named Fumiko Hayashi. I had seen a statue of her in the town square earlier that day.

Takagaki-san, my self-appointed escort, told me all sorts of stories about her as he lead me through the rooms devoted to her writing and her momentos. He told me about the years she lived in Onomichi and how she eventually moved to Tokyo. Her house there is now a museum. I told him I would be sure to find it and visit.

“Do you read Japanese?” he asked. I said I could read a little bit, and he asked me to see if I could read the read the postcard she had written to her six year old son while he went off to look for something for me.

He came back with a photocopy of the Tokyo museum’s brochure which included the address. We talked for a while longer and he said he would send me a copy of Shitamachi, one of her short stories that had been translated into English. Profoundly grateful for this incredible kindness, I wrote down my address.

Takagaki-san confided in me that he has translated 720 Japanese songs into English. “Just for a hobby,” he said. I suggested that they would make a very interesting book with facing pages of the Japanese and English lyrics along with the musical notation. He demurred, saying that he didn’t think there would be anybody to buy it. But I’m not so sure. You don’t see bilingual books like that very often and they can provide good insight into the natural use of both languages.

Eventually, I took my leave and started down the hill to have lunch in the shopping arcade. But before I’d gone two hundred meters, I stumbled across a cafe terrace with an unparalleled view of the water and the mountains. It wasn’t marked as a Viewpoint of Famous Artists, but it should have been.

The proprietress was a liaison for AFS (American Field Service), an international exchange program, and had spent lots of time outside Japan. Although she understood and spoke English perfectly, she knew the value of speaking to me in Japanese. So I stumbled along and got further beyond the four question conversation than I ever had previously. She coached me when I erred and my half hour sitting in the shade of her trees listening to the cicadas and chatting was very pleasant.

Lunch ended up being really late and by the time I’d finished it was time to check into the hotel and have a shower--my favorite time of day!

Onomichi held more delights in store for me. Marked on my map was something labeled Tile Street near one of the temples on the Round of Old Temple. I wanted to see what this could be. It turned out to be a tiny alley which someone had paved with cement and colored tiles laid in patterns. The walls of the alley were covered with wooden frames holding bathroom tiles onto which visitors had penned their wishes and thoughts. Tile Street didn’t hold the allure of Bangkok’s flashy tiled buildings, but it drew a fair crowd of people regardless.

I wandered around on the Round and saw a few more temples, even going so far as to climb up an overgrown staircase to get a view of the pinkening sunset sky with a pagoda in the foreground. But eventually it turned dark and after a promenade up the shopping arcades, I settled in for dinner at a pizza restaurant with a wood fired pizza oven and two independent women entrepreneurs.

After dinner, I holed up in my room with the television. Since we don’t have one at home, I was enjoying the opportunity to watch some of the silly Japanese shows. Variety shows with guest stars taking on silly challenges while dressed in bizarre costumes filled my evening. Tomorrow, I would catch a train to Hiroshima to meet Tod and begin the final leg of my trip.

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