ALL PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002
OSOREZAN IS renowned for its shamanesses, who are reputed to have the power to communicate with the dead. The first time I visited the volcanic shores of Gokurakuhama and Usoriyama lakes, I had been deeply moved by the otherworldliness of the place, which in the minds of many Japanese is a kind of River Styx—for beyond the shores of the lake, it is believed, lies the spirit world.
Fumaroles gurgled and the smell of sulphur permeated the air as I strolled around the area during what was then the shamaness festival. Colourful pinwheels blew in the breeze but a mood of mourning lingered as people prayed for those who had passed on.
I also had hoped at that time to meet with an shamaness, but the swelling crowds outside the shamanesses' tents were disheartening as were the words of one gentleman who told me that it was unlikely that the shamanesses could communicate with "gaijin spirits." "Even if you're Japanese, you can't make head nor tail of what they say," he told me. "They're speaking Nambu dialect," he explained, scratching his head in frustration as he tried to convey to me that the dialects of Aomori prefecture are about as impenetrable as Geordie is to most English people.
Etsuko was none too happy with my wanting to have a session with an itako. Hailing from Okinawa, she claims to find it all a strain and, perhaps, so would I if I came from a family where I had a telepathic uncle, an aunt who claims to regularly see and speak to ghosts, as well as a mother who's a qualified palmist.
I, meanwhile, love to dabble and have met a number of psychics and shamans in my time. "I can see you walking the stage of Broadway; your name up in bold letters on the billboards," an American psychic visiting Tokyo once told me after I simply mentioned that I love the theatre.
But the palmist I met at Wat Po Temple in Bangkok shook me some thirteen years ago when, without a clue from me, he said: "Your mother is not the woman who gave you life. You will meet your birth mother in a foreign land." Ten years ago, my birth mother flew to Japan and we were reunited for the first time since I was three months old.
It's now almost three years since my adoptive father passed away. The shamaness, Miyou Ogasawara, fingered her thick, brown beads and asked for my father's name. I trembled as I uttered, "Arthur Charles King." "Azian Chong Ching," she repeated, and Etsuko and I curled up with laughter. The old woman repeated my father's name several times but each time it made him sound like a Chinaman.
Ogasawara-san started her long chant and then the message came: "Be careful on the road as you walk south. Be careful with your health; eat well and rest. I'm sorry I could not survive the illness, but to make me happy marry and give me grandchildren." The same message she repeated several times before ending the session.
"What a load of codswallop," Etsuko scoffed afterwards. I don't truly think that the itako had communicated with my father, but how did she know about our walk?
AS OUR pedometers approach the 2,600-kilometre mark, we are both pleased to report that, healthwise, we are doing surprisingly well for two women who usually lead cosseted lives in Tokyo.
Apart from vicious colds—which still didn't stop either of us from walking—Etsuko and I have little to complain about. The odd twinge in our shoulders, shins or knees only seems to be expected after covering great distances on foot over mountain passes in torrential rain. But the aches and pains of the day quickly fade with a soak in an hot water spring or traditional Japanese inn bath.
Blisters, which caused me misery in the early days and plagued me during our last two hundred kilometres through Hokkaido, have disappeared since investing in a second pair of boots. Etsuko, who's about to shell out for her fourth pair of trainers, hasn't had any feet problems since the first month's slog from Cape Soya to Nayoro.
Honshu is also proving to be far less demanding than Hokkaido, where we often had no alternative but to cover forty-five-kilometre stretches a day in order to find food and shelter for the night. Often, after twelve hours or more on the road, the only sleeping space we found would be the cold floor of a retired steam locomotive, hard benches in a bus shelter or spine-breaking plastic seats in some remote railway station.
Since arriving in Aomori prefecture, we have relaxed our walking pace and presently cover an average of twenty-six kilometres each day. As such distances place less strain on us physically we no longer need as many rest days to recover for the next haul. And, although we recently spent one night sleeping with two thousand jizo statues (guardians of deceased children) on the outskirts of Kanagi, it was more out of intrigue than desperation that we rolled out our sleeping bags in the shack that stands in the grounds of Kawakura Sai-no-Kawara Jizoson.
"Weren't you scared?" the elderly caretaker asked us incredulously the following day. "You wouldn't catch me sleeping here; this place must be haunted by all sorts of spirits," the chap gasped with eyes growing wider by the second.
Kawakura Sai-no-Kawara Jizoson is believed to be the home of the shamanesses, and since the nineteenth century the site has served as a center where people pray for the souls of children who have passed away. Founded by Jikaku Daishi, the same monk who established Entsuji temple on Osorezan, up on the Shimokita peninsula, this sacred site also possesses the aura of the netherworld.
The faces of jizo peered out at us as we strolled through the surrounding forest area. Two halls stood chockablock with thousands of dressed jizo figures of all sizes. Photographs of departed loved ones were scattered here and there, along with their old kimono, suits, shoes and other personal belongings. The shelves in one hall were bursting with glass cases of dolls dressed in bridal attire; offerings made by families at a time when they consider it appropriate for their deceased to marry.
Etsuko explained to the caretaker that, under normal circumstances, neither of us would have been able to sleep a wink in such a place. We were both simply so exhausted from the heat of the previous day's walk that, miraculously, we managed to sleep as soundly as the dead.
IT'S A DOGU'S LIFE
,000 yen per piece.
ETSUKO WAS at the end of her tether with me. I had been appointed map-reader for the day, and now we were completely lost, stumbling across rice fields after having left Kanagi late in the day.
"It’s beyond me why you always have to read maps upside down. No wonder we’re lost," she screamed at me as I held the map this way and that in the hope of pinpointing where we were in relation to Kamegaoka.
Rice fields stretched on into infinity, and there seemed little hope of finding a sealed road again that day that would take us, before sunset, to the home of a mysterious prehistoric doll.
A woman, donning ninja-like headgear came pouncing after us, obviously curious about these two characters having a showdown in her paddy fields.
She eyed me suspiciously and inquired what was in our luggage trolleys. When I told the old dear that they simply held PCs, clothes and camera equipment she gave a disbelieving laugh. Could she possibly think we were dragging a sarin factory all the way through Japan? Did we look like a cult?
Our ninja pointed out endless paddies that we would need to cross to make it to Kamegaoka, which is famed for the Shakoki Dogu, a Jomon period (10,000 B.C.E. 300 B.C.E.) doll that some people say is the representation of aliens that visited early Japan.
A shroud of mystery hangs over the dogu and what the prehistoric ancestors of the Ainu used them for. Some archaeologists believe that the clay figurines were used as fertility symbols or that shaman would transfer pain, particularly that of childbirth, into the doll and then smash it. Other researchers claim that the dolls were merely toys, perhaps funerary objects or religious icons. And, then there is the batty alien theory.
But, these intricately designed clay figures, which have been found as far afield as Ecuador, are reputed to be the oldest dolls in the world.
Echigoya Koichi, 80, is the great, great grandchild of Shichitaro Echigoya, the man who found the one-legged Shakoki dogu in his paddy fields 113 years ago. "For generations we kept ningyo-san (the doll) in our safehouse," Mr. Echigoya said of the doll, dated from 1000 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.
"We only brought it out for the occasional visitor to see or during Festival of the Dead and New Year when we would place it on the family altar and make offerings of sake and food to it," the old chap said of the Important Cultural Property that now rests in Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.
Hiroumi Ichinohe, who works at the local Jomon museum, also makes a living as a potter who does a brisk business in producing replicas of Shakoki dogu, selling them for up to 150
"I have all sorts of people who want to buy these dolls," Mr. Ichinohe told us after taking us out to his art studio. "Some people are real fanatics, believing the dogu possess psychic powers or will help them communicate with aliens. I always make it clear that I have no special ‘energies’ to instill in these figures and that it is purely a commercial business," he shrugged.
STOPPED ON SUSPICION
PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT
HAVE ETSUKO and I become prime suspects of terrorism? It seems that walking has become a shady activity in Japan, especially if it involves a Japanese walking with a foreigner. Detective Toshiharu Sugimura of Gonohe Police Department said he needed to check me out as part of "terrorist preventative measures."
Etsuko and I both laughed, but we wondered if visiting the small village of Shingo could possibly be considered part of a Middle East plot. Tucked away in Aomori prefecture, Shingo, formerly known as Herai, claims not only to have pyramids older than Egypt’s and links with the Lost Tribes of Israel, but also boasts having the "Tomb of Christ."
For those not in the know, local legend here claims that Jesus never died on the cross but that his brother, Isukiri, died in his place. Apparently, Christ fled to Japan and lived up to the ripe old age of 106 in Shingo village. And, if you don’t believe it, Shingo has the tomb on show for all to see.
The Juraizuka tomb claims to hold the body of Christ, while the Judaibo tomb, which is reputed to be his brother’s, is believed to hold hairlocks of the Virgin Mary as well as an ear of Isukiri.
Detective Sugimura observed me carefully and then whispered, "As you know, there has been the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. President (George) Bush is also planning to visit Japan.
"We have to check out all foreigners living in Japan," he continued. "We need to check Japanese too if they raise suspicions. A Japanese walking with a foreigner stands out, especially in this part of Japan." The detective eyed Etsuko, adding that he had seen us walking twice so far on the roads of Aomori prefecture.
Why would Detective Sugimura find us dodgy? I wondered. We had recently been in Misawa, where there so happens to be both a U.S. and Japanese military base. In nearby Rokkasho there is also a nuclear waste facility. Perhaps that was considered odd.
Or had Gonohe Police Department already done its homework on us and discovered that in Hokkaido we visited two Self Defence Forces bases, including the radar base on Okushiri island where we had enjoyed lunch with Chief Commander Mitsuzaburo Saguchi? Had that made antennae twitch?
Detective Sugimura made a huge blunder: "Shimabukuro-san, I will need your address and a telephone contact number too so that you can also be checked out." Etsuko wasted no time in telling him bluntly, "As a Japanese, I have a perfect right to walk in my own country. And, I don’t give my number and address to strange men." She then proceeded to tear a strip off the man.
"So, what you are saying is that Japanese can’t have foreign friends; that to do so is strange and raises police suspicions?" Detective Sugimura gave a slight nod. I wondered if perhaps this wasn’t already some Kafkaesque trial: Guilty by association.
Detective Sugimura leaned back in his chair and bit his lip. "You’re both likely to be stopped and questioned further," he said. "All the way down to Okinawa," he emphasized, shaking his head in disbelief at what is our walk’s destination goal.
The following day we left Shingo village. Within minutes of crossing into Iwate prefecture, two police cars crawled passed us on the road.
WALKING BY FOOT
PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002
MOST PEOPLE Etsuko and I meet while on the road cannot grasp that we are truly walking through Japan. One fellow in Kindaichi, to whom we explained our zigzag route from Hokkaido’s Cape Soya through to Iwate prefecture, still concluded the conversation by saying, "But you are walking by bullet train, aren't you?"
Often we are baffled by people inquiring if we are "walking by car," "walking by motorcycle" or "walking by bicycle."
We have discovered that the Japanese word for walking, "aruku," is synonymous with simply traveling, and it has left us wondering if even Japan's famed geographer Ino Tadataka, who is credited with walking more than 43,700 kilometres around this country some two hundred years ago, actually truly walked the whole distance. Could it be possible that while drawing his maps of Japan, Tadataka covered some of his seventeen-year journey either "walking by horse," "walking by palanquin" or "walking by boat"?
We were also rather startled by an incident that happened at Apple Hot Spring on the outskirts of Asahi town in Yamagata prefecture. We had just spent a leisurely hour melting away the aches and pains of the morning in a bath full of whopping red apples and were ready to hit the road again when a podgy, middle-aged chap waddled up to us, blew cigarette smoke in my face and asked, "So, where have you walked from? Yamagata city?"
His face turned purple with rage when I told him that we had walked from Hokkaido. "Impossible)!" he spat. "Baka na gaijin (Daft foreigner)," he screamed, "Baka na onna (Stupid woman)," he raved, promptly turning on his heels and stomping off in a huff. Etsuko and I both laughed but we now realize that some people think we're making fun of them when we say we've walked all the way from Japan's northern reaches. If in Yamagata-ken, the locals think we are pulling their legs, then what responses will we encounter once we recount our ventures to people in Kyushu and Okinawa?
Certainly, every day is an education on the road, but we also learn a lot about the Japanese when we bathe. The Japanese often think of themselves as shy and reserved. We both disagree, and it doesn't necessarily take copious cups of sake for the Japanese to let rip. When you're stripped down to your birthday suit, obachan see this as a green light to get up to a bit of mischief.
With a lecherous squeal of delight, the roly-poly grandma grabbed hold of my left breast and gave it an almighty squeeze. "Yah, it's like a bean paste bun," she whooped with toothless glee as I--purely from embarrassment--turned the shade of boiled octopus.
A hunch-backed granny with boobs that drooped to her kneecaps tottered into the onsen bath to add to the commotion. "Yah, bijin da (It's a beautiful woman)," the old dear drooled, stroking my lily-white shoulders as I prepared to defend myself in the event that she, or any other obachan, decided to take another lunge for my "bean paste buns"--or anything else for that matter.
The "groping granny" will remain an unforgettable bathing experience, having taken place on our last evening in Akita prefecture, a region renowned for its bijin, as well as its hot spring baths.
IS THE white circle floating above my right shoulder a ghostly apparition? Etsuko and I had taken more than 50 photographs in the "haunted room" at Ryokufuso guesthouse in Kindaichi, Iwate prefecture, yet it was only the last shot of the evening that showed what Sakakida Michiko purports is an orbis--or the paranormal presence of a little boy who died here 660 years ago.
Mrs. Sakakida was celebrating her thirtieth wedding anniversary at the traditional Japanese inn with two friends, Mrs. Saikawa Sekiko and Mr. Komura Masao, who also claim to have had various experiences with the zashiki warashi (fire hearth spirit).
"It was on my first wedding anniversary that I first encountered the spirit of Kamemaro in this room," Mrs. Sakakida told Etsuko and I as we listened to the experiences of the woman, who since that time has slept more than fifty times in the room that overflows with cuddly toys, where he is said to regularly appear to guests.
The middle-aged woman told us that over the years she has seen Japanese wooden sandals fly across the room and regularly hears toy birds that are sensitive to vibration suddenly start twittering in the night. Mrs. Sakakida also claims to be able to see the spirit of Kamemaro in his various forms and is, apparently, even visited by the zashiki warashi at her home in neighbouring Aomori prefecture.
"He often appears as bubble-like formations. I also see his face in what are dream-like states, and he asks me to play with him or bring him toys," she told us while Mrs. Saikawa pulled out photographs of her daughter and a friend who had recently stayed in the room. Two pictures clearly showed large white blobs hovering over the face of her daughter, while one showed an eerie white outline lingering in the corner of the photograph. "If Kamemaro appears to you, your wishes will come true. It is believed that men will progress in business and that women will find a rich husband," Mrs. Saikawa said of the spirit of the boy, who was born into Kyoto's aristocratic Fujiwara clan. Relations smuggled him up to the Tohoku region after members of his family were slain by a rival clan during the Nambokucho period (1337-1392). It is said that the six-year-old Kamemaro was plotting revenge before his life was cut short by an illness.
"Kamemaro died before he had the chance to seek revenge," Mrs. Sakakida told us. "He had many aspirations that he couldn't realize in his own life and that's why he now grants the wishes of those he appears to," explained Sakakida.
Mr. Kazuhiko Itsukaichi , 65, is the owner of the house that was originally built in the fourteenth century yet he has never slept in the zashiki warashi that is booked by guests months--even years--ahead of time. "It is forbidden for any of our family to sleep there. When I was a boy, it was the guests' quarters," he told us. "But many people who sleep in the room have experiences with Kamemaro and later return to tell me that their wishes did, indeed, come true," he said as we all sat around the fire hearth in his living room that is adorned with antiques, and is where you can also see the small Shinto shrine that is dedicated to his ancestor, Kamemaro.
TROUBLE ON ROUTE 112
WE ARE both appalled by the general attitude of Japanese drivers. It seems to be: "We own the road and you’re just in our way." Japan’s police force also seems indifferent to the plight of pedestrians, so should the patrolmen with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), or even construction workers be any more sympathetic?
The MOLIT patrolmen had stopped us on the road, shortly after we headed out of Tsuruoka city in Yamagata prefecture. After reading about our venture in a local newspaper, the two men delighted us by presenting us with a map of the prefecture, as well as a radio-torch and a letter bidding us well on our walk.
But, Etsuko and I are not sure how truly honourable their intentions were. The letter they handed us also informed us that due to construction works we should not pass through the tunnels on Route 112. The letter instructed us to walk over a mountain road that happens to be a notorious nest of tsuki no waguma (Japanese brown bear).
"Please be careful," the chubby, helmeted chap warned. "That mountain road is quite dangerous," he said before hopping back into his jeep.
But, before we had even reached the tunnel, Etsuko and I were told that the mountain road would be inaccessible that day. "There’s been a huge landslide," an old fellow on a bicycle informed us. "There’s no way you can cross the mountain road," he said.
The construction chappie standing at the mouth of the tunnel, however, would hear nothing of it. "This tunnel is for cars only. Pedestrians aren’t allowed to walk through," he fibbed while waving his throbbing-red baton under our noses. "You have to go over the mountain. It’s safer," he insisted.
"How can walking over a bear-infested mountain with huge landslides be safer?" I challenged him. "If you are so concerned about our safety then stop the traffic for a few minutes while we pass through, or just let us walk within the construction workers safety cones," I pleaded. Etsuko, meanwhile, charged on ahead and disappeared inside the bowels of the tunnel.
Tunnels have been one of our worst nightmares during this walk. We feel like pieces of chewed-up meat passing through the rancid, turbulent innards of some huge, snoring beast. While trudging through the vacuum, we choke on exhaust fumes that also burn our eyes, and the amplified sounds of traffic only add to our terror.
Poorly lit and rarely paved for walkers, Japan’s tunnels are usually littered with old construction tools, bits of wiring and shards of glass. Other obstacles include bento boxes, drink cans and bottles that motorists see fit to toss from their windows.
Tunnels also seem to be a popular place for dumping pornography. Video cases showing bare bottoms and breasts lie here and there, and it hasn’t been unknown for us to get our trolley wheels tangled around a stray pair of panties or stumble over a bra.
More common are oil slicks, mud and rubble that send us sliding and tripping, or cause our trolleys to lose balance as we teeter along the narrow sidewalks of endless tunnels. Often, we are left with nothing more secure than a grimy, black tunnel wall to cling to or fall against when the pressure of huge trucks hurtling passed nigh on blows us off our feet.
But, after all the fuss made over passing through the tunnels on Route 112, they turned out to be the safest and easiest tunnels that we have walked through so far on our trek.
PHOTOS BY JAPAN ON FOOT 2001/2002
We wearily trudged back down the steep mountain road to the Kayabukiya rest house that lies nestled in Tamugimata, Asahi village, in Yamagata prefecture. We had already gone looking for accommodation there, but the inn owner’s mother was another who didn’t want to take in guests that day. "It was a hectic weekend for us, and usually this time of year we start slowing down round here," Mr. Kazushi Shibuya had told us. "But, if you have no luck finding a place, do come back," he stressed, "as there’s nothing else apart from the lodge up on the main road."
In the midst of autumn the surrounding mountains of Tamugimata were a blaze of russet and golden hues. Etsuko and I were glad we ended up staying in the hamlet as apart from enjoying the rustic atmosphere of eating our stews and mountain vegetable dishes around an fire hearth in the thatch-roofed inn, we got to hear some fascinating tales during the two days we spent there.
The most staggering story we heard was that, in a nearby temple visitors can view the skeletal form of a local man who turned himself into a mummy. "You'll need to head back north up the road again to see it," Mr. Shibuya explained and so we walked back in the direction of Yudono-san, one of the sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan.
Once at Dainichi-bo temple, we discovered that the monks bristle if you refer to Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin as a mummy. "This is a living Buddha," emphasized Jinichi Honma, one of the monks, as we looked on in awe at the skeletal form of the monk who starved himself to death on a diet of nuts, seeds and water.
From his twenties, Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin had striven for enlightenment, aspiring to become a living Buddha and, in 1783, after seventy years of religious austerities, he had himself committed alive to the earth. From his underground vault, the monk continued his devotions and consumed nothing more than lacquer that was fed down to him through a thin pipe. The lacquer served to mummify the monk from the inside out.
Dressed in red and golden robes and donning a tall pointed hat, the living Buddha slumps forward in a glass case on an altar in the temple that was founded in 807 by the renowned Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi. Also, on this mountain that was once referred to as the "unspeakable mountain" because a commandment forbade anyone discussing the sanctity of the place, there is Churen-ji temple that also boasts having a living Buddha.
"Their living Buddha is not in such good condition as ours," Mr. Honma told us, adding, "It was not an uncommon practice in the olden days for monks to starve themselves to death in pursuit of enlightenment." I could feel my stomach rumbling from the need to eat lunch, and resigning myself to the fact that probably I will never escape this world of samsara, Etsuko and I left Dainichi-bo in search of a place where we could wolf down a bowl of steaming hot noodles.
MOSES WAS HERE
OSHIMIZU TOWN in Ishikawa prefecture holds two great stakes in its claim to fame: it is the hometown of the world’s first clone cows, and the place where Moses is said to be buried. Local legend claims the Biblical prophet flew into Japan by spaceship and lived to the ripe old age of 583 on Hodatsu mountain.
With its jigsaw of paddies and fields of daikon and cabbages, Oshimizu is really no different from Shingo-mura (village) in Aomori-ken, where Etsuko and I had previously seen the two crosses that mark the reputed tombs of Christ and his brother, Isukiri.
But, while Shingo may have tentative links with Japan’s Hidden Christians—who took their religion underground after it was banned by the Tokugawa shogunate (1603~1867)—Oshimizu, we were told by the farmer on whose land "Moses’ tomb" lies, has no history of persecuted Christians.
Etsuko and I bumped into Mr. Hiroshi Koshino just as he was rushing out in muddy wellies to tend to his fields. He filled us in on Mitsukozuka burial mound, the reputed tomb of the Old Testament prophet that is situated in what is called Moses Park.
"I’m not sure if I’m related to Moses," he told me earnestly, "but when I was a small child, my father was visited by a historian who handed over documents proving that the ancient burial mound on our ancestral land is where Moses was buried.
"I believe that Moses lies there," he added without hesitation. "And the surrounding burial mounds hold the remains of members of Moses’ family."
Even when compared to the story of the Exodus, in which God parts the Red Sea to help the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, the story of Moses flying out of the Sinai wilderness to Japan seems too hard to swallow. Or is it?
Pulling out several books—each easily as thick as the Bible—Mr. Koshino started flipping excitedly through the pages of the "Takenouchi Documents," the originals of which were found in a cave in Ibaraki prefecture, a little north of Tokyo, in 1935. The documents were said to reveal that both Christ and Moses lived and died in Japan but, unsurprisingly, the scrolls that were scribed in Japanese have since been proved fake.
Koshino, however, was not to be deterred. Stabbing a finger at the chapter that states Moses flew to Japan by amasoraukifune (heavenly flying ship), Mr. Koshino said, "You see, it says right here. And I’m not the only one who believes it. Apart from the many Japanese Christians who visit Moses’ tomb each year, we also have had large groups of American and Italian Christians pay their respects at the tomb."
Mr. Koshino has visited Shingo village—home of what some say is Christ’s tomb—on a number of occasions, but he holds no Christian beliefs.
"I’m a Buddhist," he laughed, "I don’t know anything about Christianity or Judaism," he told me.
So why would Moses and Jesus have ever come to Japan? I asked him. The elderly man observed me like I was a complete and utter nincompoop.
"It’s obvious," he announced, "Because Japan was the world’s first civilization. All great learning came from Japan and spread throughout the world." Mr. Koshino had another piece of information to share with us.
"The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by the emperor of Japan and their wisdom spread throughout the world. But the stones on which these laws were scribed still rest in this country," he said.
Feeling like I had stepped out on a trail hotter than even the one for the Holy Grail, I ventured to ask where Japan’s Ten Commandments could be found.
"They’re in a temple in Ibaraki prefecture," the farmer told us before heading off to his fields.
Etsuko and I strolled out past the paddies, through forests of towering pines and thickets of bamboo before reaching Mitsukozuka tomb. Clambering to the top of the ancient burial mound, we found a small altar adorned with flowers, some offerings of fruit and soft drinks, as well as incense. In a wooden box, a small, pink rosary lies waiting for those who wish to kneel down here in prayer.
MARY, QUITE CONTRARY
I'M THINKING of getting a sex change. Etsuko and I had dropped by a scruffy restaurant for lunch in Kaga, Ishikawa prefecture, and had barely taken our place on the tatami-mat floor when a middle-aged woman nudged her friend and in a loud voice said, "Do you reckon that foreigner is a woman or a man?" Having toddled out the ladies' loo in a hotel the night before and had an old dear go ballistic on me, screaming, "This is not the men's toilet," I felt frazzled by a nation of people who live with the myth of their own politeness. I couldn't believe the chutzpah of the woman in the restaurant asking her friend's opinion on my gender. She was much butcher than many gay women I've met. "Watakushi wa onna desu (I'm a woman)," I called out cheerily to the woman, but she didn't flinch. So, I switched to bitch-mode: "Anata wa dansei desu ka? (Are you a man?)," I asked, as the woman's predilection for scratching her crotch in between poking around dentures with a toothpick was not exactly what "polite society" might call "lady-like" behaviour. The woman looked blank. Perhaps she truly had the hide of an elephant, I pondered, but it turned out that she couldn't quite believe that a foreigner was speaking Japanese. The owner of the restaurant, however, immediately picked up my prickly vibes and came scurrying over to mollify me. "Oh, sister, you are so pretty. Isn't she pretty everyone?" she addressed the whole restaurant, wringing her hands under my nose and squirming in agony at the "Wa (peace)" of the place having been shattered. I was touched by her concern but also humored by her efforts to convince me that I am, indeed, female. Etsuko bowed and apologized to everyone for the sad fact that I had ever come to attain a grasp of even one syllable of Japanese. I only hoped that toothpicker and friend had learned a lesson: when talking about anyone—even a gaijin—it is probably wise to do so in hushed tones. Toothpicker and chum joined the restaurant owner's aria of how pretty I was, stressing that like singer celebrity Akiko Wada, it is my height that makes my gender so questionable. Tears poured down my face in mirth, rolling into my sake and stew pot. We were accosted by a herd of yellow-hatted primary schoolchildren as soon as we stepped out of the restaurant. "She's Chinese," a chubby boy pointed my way. "Ooh, it's a gaijin-san," a little girl cooed as if she had just spotted something as cute as Pikachu on the road. "You're an American," butted in a serious-looking girl. "I think she's French," added what had to be the classroom swot. I told them I was from London and was surprised that the city rang a bell. The serious-looking girl broke into song: "Rondon bridge is farring down, farring down, farring down," she screeched and her classmates joined in. "It's Santa," a chubby girl stroked my red jacket. "So what's in your bag?" the skinny girl pushed forward to take a closer look at my trolley. "I'm Santa and this bag is full of presents," I told them, not realizing that I would regret pulling the legs of Japanese children. An umbrella came crashing down on my head. The skinny girl lashed out with fervor, repeated blows raining down on me as I tried to outrun her. "Sukebee oji-chan (You're a dirty old man)," she screamed at me, and I wasn't sure whether I was more hurt by the pummels of her brolly or by the fact that even to a Japanese schoolgirl I look like a man.
THE COMFORT OF FISH
WE'VE HEARD some pretty wild stories since first hitting the road in May, last year, but one of the fishiest tales yet is that of a reputed mermaid. On the outskirts of Hashimoto City in Wakayama prefecture, we found Karukayado temple, which is dedicated to Ishidomaru and his parents. It was the boy's mother, Chisato, who once owned the "mermaid" mummy that now takes pride of place in a lacquer chest in the temple's main altar room. Chisato, apparently, was also a bit of a wanderer. Travelling all around Japan during the Heian period (794-1185), the high-class entertainer had carried the "mermaid" mummy as a talisman to protect her against evil. She died in 1165 and one of her tombs is situated in the grounds of this temple, which once served as the entrance to the sacred mountain of Koyasan. The mummy of the reputed mermaid, meanwhile, rests in its chest at the foot of a statue of Chisato. Mr. Sofu Iwahashi, a Buddhist scholar and chairman of the Karukayado Temple Preservation Society, laid the wooden box that holds the skeletal remains of the "mermaid" on a table for us to view. Horror overwhelmed us as we peered at the mummy that is said to be at least 1,400 years old. From its head to the tip of its tail, the "mermaid" measures sixty-five centimetres long, and weighs about three-hundred grams. Fine strands of hair still remain around the ears. Most of its facial features--ears, nose and eyes--appear human, as does its delicate arms and hands, the latter of which still show traces of tiny nails on the fingers. The "mermaid's" torso is also very much human, revealing sagging breasts and nipples. Although Iwahashi informed us that not all mermaids in Japan were female, this one most definitely was. However, all human likeness ended just below the "mermaid's" waist, from where a scaly fish tail began. Feelings of pity and loathing welled up inside of me as I scrutinized the creature. The "mermaid's" petite hands stretched upward, turning in towards the face in a gesture of acute pain and anguish while its fishlike mouth, from which sharp fangs protruded, was set in a traumatic wail. "She takes away the pain of all who look at her; that's why she looks so anguished," explained Mr. Iwahashi, who believes that the spirit of the "mermaid" is very much alive. The seventy-two-year-old is adamant that mermaids once existed, and maintains that they inhabited the waters of Japan up until around the seventeenth century. I asked Mr. Iwahashi why he didn't think that the "mermaid" mummy was the result of some bizarre experimental operation; perhaps the surgical joining of a monkey and fish. The old chap denied the possibility, telling us that a surgeon in Osaka has conducted tests on the "mermaid" and established that the top half of the mummy is definitely human and the bottom half that of a fish. "There is nothing to show that two different creatures have been joined together," he told us. I ventured to ask Mr. Iwahashi how he thought mermaids ever came to exist in the first place. "Well, it's quite obvious," the old fellow said matter-of-factly. "Fishermen and sailors used to make love with fish. They were bored, lonely and frustrated and would put fish down their trousers to comfort themselves," he said. Etsuko and I curled up with laughter but had to agree that it was perhaps the most feasible answer, albeit a rather extraordinary one. Mr. Iwahashi disagreed with us: "You mean to say, you've never heard of fishermen putting fish down their trousers to satisfy themselves?" We had to admit to leading sheltered lives. Mr. Iwahashi was flabbergasted by our ignorance. "Well, fishermen all over the world used to do it and many, I dare say, continue to do so to this day. That's why occasionally you still hear reports of sightings of mermaids somewhere out at sea," he concluded.