Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wild Wild Camellia Hike in the Wilds of Kamakura

Ah, the aging process. The first thing to go was my hearing and now it seems my reading comprehension has fallen victim to the encroaching decades.

My flower walk guidebook recommended the Gionyama Hiking Trail. This is how I read the opening paragraph before convincing five Explorers ranging in age from five to sixty years to join me in searching for wild camellias last week: Wild Japanese camellia is best seen in its native habitat in Kamakura, on the east side of the Nameri-gawa valley, where a thickly wooded narrow ridge running north-south is kept intact from surrounding urban development. There, the smooth gray-barked trees bloom mysteriously in the shade of tall broadleaved evergreens. Many of its flowers fall along the narrow ridge and are vividly red with a central boss of golden stamens retained in the tubular forms.

This is how I should have read that paragraph: Wild Japanese camellia is best seen in its native habitat in Kamakura, on the east side of the Nameri-gawa valley, where a thickly wooded narrow ridge running north-south is kept intact from surrounding urban development. There, the smooth gray-barked trees bloom mysteriously in the shade of tall broadleaved evergreens. Many of its flowers fall along the narrow ridge and are vividly red with a central boss of golden stamens retained in the tubular forms.

In Japan a "narrow ridge" is an 11-inch wide strip of rocky, muddy, slippery dirt suspended 60-500 feet above the forest it traverses. Live - if you're lucky, that is - and learn.

Following the guidebook's advice, we stopped at Hokaiji temple first to see garden variety camellias.
Nicky and Xan are admiring a stray camellia blossom in an old stone lantern on the temple grounds.

We studied the handy map at the beginning of the trail. What's that Takatoki Harakiri Yagura? Yagura means cave, I learned that a few days ago. Takatoki was the last Hojo regent of the Kamakura shogunate. Harakiri sounds disturbingly familiar. Hmmm. Reiko confirms that we will soon pass the cave where Takatoki ended his own life. Nicky finds this quite disturbing so we don't dally at the cave.

The initial incline is deceptively slight.

This is one of the last pictures I managed to take before my hands were otherwise occupied, gripping tree trunks and branches to avoid an untimely demise. Xan and Nicky kindly offered their hands and helpful tips on where to plant my feet next.

Camellias grow very tall in the wild. Kim, Reiko, and Xan are admiring what I'll bet is a lovely specimen but I can't say for sure since the only camellias I saw were the ones littering the ground at my feet.

This is an example of the sort of stuff we clambered over but you will just have to use your imagination to sketch in Grand Canyon-type cliffs on either side of the roots.

Near the end of the hike there's a nice flat resting place offering a magnificent view. The only thing that could get me back on that ridge was the promise of waffles.
According to the guidebook, it takes 30 minutes to hike the Gionyama Trail. We managed to do it in about two hours. Tarzan is the only person I can think of who might be able to cover that ground in a half hour.

A highpoint of our day, besides the feeling of accomplishment, was visiting the other Reiko's shop and meeting her little granddaughter.

My two Reikos finally met each other. Xan looks as thrilled as I feel.

It might be a while before I convince anyone to take another hike with me. I think I heard them whispering about putting a match to my guidebook.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cherry Blossom Viewing Party #1

Someone had a bit too much sake at Tadodai House last night. It wasn't this man in the WWII aviator hat. He was drinking beer when he wasn't pouring it on my shoe.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Cherry Blossom Viewing Party is an annual event. Mike and I were unable to attend either year during his commanding officer tour so I was not keen on missing another one just because Mike's deployed. I don't know how we rated an invitation this year but I only scratched my head for about five seconds before saying yes.

Being the only representative of Navy Medicine in attendance was a crushing responsibility but I did my best to exude dignity, grace, and serenity throughout the evening.

Valerie was there with her husband, John, the commanding officer of the weather station (it's called something else but I'm too lazy to check references tonight).

Robyn and Curt live next to us and gave me a lift to and from the party bus. Curt is the commanding officer of ATG which stands for something or other and has something to do with Seabees.

Nonie and Keiko were looking particularly fetching I thought.

This is the piece de resistance. I am indebted to Yoriko Kosano for the introduction and the photo. The first person (not you, Ancient Mariner) to correctly guess the name of this young man's father will receive some carmelized almond mushroom-shaped cookies. Hint: the father held a high political office just a few years ago.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Stuffed with the Quilters

"Let's go spend some of our clean money on lunch!"

"Look, Kathy-san! That lady in the field below us is wearing the same outfit as you!"

"Look! Those cars are parked facing in rather than out. They must belong to American drivers." "No, Kathy-san, they are parked facing in because there are signs reminding the drivers that there is a house behind the fence. It is bad manners to back into a space when doing so would send exhaust fumes toward a home."

Plentiful signs in both Japanese and English make exploring Kamakura easy. Mastery of the metric system is helpful but not necessary.

"If anyone needs to use the restroom, we will have to order lunch or a snack."

"Does anything on the menu appeal to you, Kathy-san?" "Everything sounds so delicious. Let's go in."

"Oh, how cute! I have an antique stained glass window just like that leaning against the wall in my closet."

Hisayo and Kayoko ordered seafood pasta topped by what they insist were tiny shrimp. "Are those red things insects?" whispered Weather Girl.

The Americans all chose pasta with a tomato sauce and eggplants. "Those white cubes had better be mozzarella and not tofu," whispered Picky Eater.

If there is hamburger on a menu, Hiroko never fails to order it. Yes, there is a hamburger under that egg.

More times than not, sugar is served in liquid form. I assume it's like Karo syrup but I wouldn't know for sure because I prefer my sugar in cookie and candy form.

This was probably the second time in my life I've opted for tea outside a Chinese restaurant. When the waitress filled my cup and the heart appeared, I could not contain my delight. I might order tea more often in the future.

"We forgot to order dessert." "I'm too stuffed to eat dessert." "I'll be too stuffed for dessert when pigs fly."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Laundering Money in Kamakura

We rested for roughly seventeen seconds at the top of Kewaizaka Kiridoshi Pass before Madam Drill Sergeant, I mean Hisayo, directed us down the other side of the mountain. "Almighty Lord", I prayed silently, "forgive me for not thanking you more often for your wonderful gift of gravity."

About halfway down the mountain, we spotted a large rock on the side of the road. The rock marked the entrance to a tunnel leading to -- don't try to pronounce this without drinking at least three beers first -- Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Jinja. We'll just call it The Money-Washing Shrine from here on out, okay?

You remember Yoritomo Minamoto, right? He was the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate, the husband of Masako Hojo, who erected that other temple we saw today in his memory. Legend has it that Yoritomo was sleeping one night after a series of battles when an old man appeared in his dream and said, "I am the god of Ugajin. There is a spring in the gorge northwest of Kamakura. Go find it and worship Ugajin with the spring water. People may start to have faith in the god and peace will be restored."

Since the dream occurred on the day of the Serpent in the month of the Serpent in the year of the Serpent (1185), Yoritomo interpreted it as a divine revelation. His men found the spring where this shrine now stands. He ordered them to dig a cave and enshrine the god Ugajin, the god of grain (uga means food and jin means god). Later, Ugajin evolved into the god of wealth and somehow became assimilated with Benzaiten, the Goddess of Fortune.

According to the Kamakura website, this particular shrine is an example of "syncretism" in Japanese religions because it combines a Shinto god (Ugajin) with a Buddhism deity (Benzaiten) through the common element of water. The torii gates and the incense burner indicate a reconciliation of Shinto and Buddhist elements.

The coin-washing routine began in 1257 when Tokiyori Hojo, the Fifth Regent and no doubt Masako's nephew or cousin, washed his coins with spring water at the shrine one day and started a rumor that coins washed here might be doubled. The rumor spread quickly and has endured more than 750 years. This is one of the busiest shrines in Kamakura to this day.

We watched a steady stream of elderly women crawl out of taxicabs at the entrance to the tunnel. Fortunately we did not visit on the Day of the Serpent since that's when hundreds of merchants arrive to wash bundles of 10,000-yen bills.

That's the background. Let's walk through the tunnel now and visit the shrine.

First we'll tuck our water bottle into our handy pocket so we can wash our hands.

Now we will go over to the counter and give the man a 100-yen coin. He will give us a basket, two little candles, and a bundle of incense.

We light one of the little candles and stick it on a nail on a stand that closely resembles a votive candle rack in a Catholic church. We light the incense bundle and head off to plant it in the big iron sand-filled incense burner in the middle of the courtyard but our incense stops smoking so back to the votive rack we go to light it again. After three attempts we manage to keep the bundle smoking by simultaneously blowing on the incense while jogging across the courtyard. We opt at this point to switch to rudimentary French so our behavior will not cause all those elderly Japanese women to make sweeping generalizations about stupid Americans. We light the second little candle and stick it on a nail.

Having found the proper home for every item in our basket, we can now enter the cave and wash some money. There is a distinct Mario-Luigi-Yoshi aura surrounding this whole procedure.

"Pardonez-moi, Weather Girl, distractez-vous ces peres while I use mes ladle to fish some francs out of this l'eau."

Everyone in Japan carries a little washcloth on their person at all times since most restrooms don't provide paper towels or dryers. The little washcloths came in handy when it was time to dry our dollars and yen. "An Anpanman cloth? What will you pull out of that pocket next?"

The final step in the money-washing routine is a bit complicated but quite fun. We each took turns tossing a coin into the money box, climbed up a few steps, clapped twice, bowed twice, clapped once, and tugged on one of those big ropes to make the acorn-shaped bell at the top jingle or tinkle. I pulled as hard as I could and my bell clamored and clanged. I wish I could explain why it mattered so much to me that my bell ring the loudest, but I can't.

Perhaps it's just a French thing.

Reconsidering Fashion Choices on Kewaizaka Kiridoshi Pass

Just beyond Jufukuji is Eishoji temple, a nunnery established by Okaji no Kata after her lover's death. Her lover was a Tokugawa shogun who nicknamed her Okatsu, Lady of Victory, because he never lost a battle when she was present on the battlefield.

"You can visit Eishoji another day," Hisayo declared as she shooed us away from the gate, "Now it is time to go for a hike." When I recreate this adventure in June, Eishoji can fill in for the Swany's fabric store segment!

The rest of the group was turning left into a residential neighborhood when Weather Girl spotted a cute little door leading into a charming private garden.

"This isn't a very steep incline. I like peeking into people's gardens as I lope along."

Hiroko said it is important to increase one's salt intake when hiking. She passed around what we swear she called "salt tablets" but sure tasted like Kraft caramels to us. When our taste buds started doing a joyous polka, Hiroko dug the package out of her purse so we could take pictures that will help us identify the "salt tablets" the next time we're wandering around a convenience store. Don't you just love digital cameras?

What happened to the pavement? I feel like a billy goat scampering from one slippery rock to the next. (Scampering is probably not the word my companions would use to describe my uphill battle but it's how I choose to record this for posterity.)

Huff, puff, gasp, wheeze. "You all keep going! I'm just going to pause for a minute to take a picture. My friends and relatives back in the States have been begging for an aerial view of a typical Japanese middle-class neighborhood."

Oh, look. Hiroko waited for me at the foot of the concrete cliff. We should have brought a rope and some of those piton thingys.

We crest the hill and find ourselves in an open space as flat as a mesa. The first thing we notice are the camellias.

Then we turn and spot an enormous statue. We walk across a green plastic grid to explore the statue. The green plastic grid protects against erosion. The statue is a Benzen (priest). (I wonder which religion came up with the pointy hat concept first. This is something to pursue with Dr. T as it will give me an opportunity to rattle on about Saturday Night Live in general and Coneheads in particular.)

Let's take a picture so we can all remember the day Kathy climbed Kewaizaka Kiridoshi Pass in the baggy pants she bought at the quilt show! "What's wrong with these pants? The enormous pockets make them perfect for hiking. I just shoved my windbreaker in the left pocket and my water bottle fits in the right pocket with room to spare. Would you like me to carry the rest of the salt tablets for you, Hiroko?"

"No thanks, Kathy-san, but I would like you to show us what you learned at the tea ceremony you attended last week. Why don't you pretend your water bottle is a tea cup? Ha, ha. Please do it again for Kayoko. Ha, ha."

Next: Money Laundering Japanese Style

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Blanketing Kamakura with the Quilters

The fact that I haven't added a single stitch to my little Setsubun square since last month's quilting lesson at Hisayo's house was easy to ignore when the Japanese quilters offered to lead Weather Girl, Artistic Explorer, and me to the new Swany's fabric store in Kamakura. Weather Girl hasn't exactly spent the past six weeks hunched over a sewing machine either and, after my failed attempt to take Jen F to Swany's last fall, I won't get a good night's sleep until I find that shop. And if that's not sufficient rationalization, every group needs a buffoon.

What we Americans originally assumed would be a simple $2 train ride, six-block stroll, and pleasant hour or so caressing bolts of fabric was transformed by the Japanese quilters into one of the most fabulous of many fabulous days I have spent here. Hiroko, Hisayo, and Kayoko decided we would visit some temples, climb a mountain, hike three+ miles, and break bread together before winding up our day at Swany's.

When the family gathers for Matt's graduation in June, I hope to re-create this adventure - minus the Swany's in deference to Ancient Mariner, an only child who had to abandon his dream of playing catcher for the New York Yankees because his mother kept dragging him to fabric stores when he ought to have been perfecting his throw to second base. Here are a few highlights for those of you who can't join us in June.

Jufukuji Temple was our first stop. Generally regarded as the first Zen temple in Kamakura, Jufukuji ranks a mere third on the list of the Five Great Zen Temples in Kamakura because it did not originally follow a purely Zen tenet. Masako Hojo, the wife of the first Kamakura Shogun, Yoritomo Minamoto, built this temple to propitiate his soul when he died in 1199. This was about 300 years before Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies. Masako was perhaps a nostalgic woman as she decided to erect the temple on the site where her father-in-law had once lived.

Masako invited Eisai Myoan to be the temple's founding priest. Eisai is famous for introducing both Zen Buddhism and green tea to Japan after making two trips to China. He probably leaped at the chance to get out of Kyoto when Masako's invitation arrived because his teachings had made him unpopular with the reigning Tendai sect. Zen Buddhism went on to attract a large number of followers among the samurai, including Masako's brothers who served as regents until her children were old enough to take over as Shoguns.

The green tea contribution might have been overlooked if Eisai had not recommended it as a hangover cure for Sanetomo Minamoto, Misako's second son and the Third Kamakura Shogun. Eisai later wrote "Healing Sickness with Green Tea", a two-volume essay considered valuable in terms of medical care and as an example of ancient writing. Two volumes! And you thought I was verbose . . .

A patient person might have waited for those ladies to move before taking a picture of the temple's impressive entrance. At the end of the day, therefore, a patient person would not have a physical memory of the people we later discovered are members of a - you're going to love this, Kate - Haiku Club that meets once a month to visit various locations and compose poetry inspired by those settings.

Maybe the Haiku Club decided to visit Jufukuji because Takahama Kyoshi, a famous haiku poet, is buried in the cemetery behind the temple. One of Takahama's poems was an apt epigram for my day.

Spring breeze !
On the hill I firmly stand
With the great resolve.

Lured on by a flowering tree, Artistic Explorer ignored the barrier erected across the path. "The sign says 'Please Come In'," I quipped to no one in particular and just happened to spot spontaneous grins flashing across a few haiku poets' faces. I have noticed that Japanese people seem inordinately fond of sarcasm which might explain why I am so happy here.

"Bossy, look! Is that a red camellia blossom on the wall over there? That will surely inspire one of these poets." "No, it is key. The words "Sweet Factory" are printed on the red ribbon. This is a key to a candy store. This is what I consider an auspiciously good omen."

We think this is where Masako's ashes are buried (above).

The caves (above) where the ashes of priests and other dignitaries like sculptors and poets are buried are called yagura.

The cemetery was surprisingly ecumenical (see cross, above).

We didn't go all the way to the top of the cemetery but this picture (above) will give you an idea of the terrain behind the temple. Walking up and down steep steps like that every day could be a reason why obesity is not the epidemic in Japan it is in America.

Coming back down the hill from the cemetery, Hiroko, Hisayo, and Kayoko stopped dead in their tracks to point out a pair of squirrels. If I had thought to take a picture of their faces at that moment, I swear you might have mistaken them for three little children seeing an elephant, giraffe, or gorilla for the first time.

It's refreshing to spend time with people who pause to appreciate the little things in life that I too often overlook.

Next: The last time ever I hope you will catch me wearing Japanese pants and a particular sweater.


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