Honshu, the main island of Japan, is the place where the land shakes. It’s the cold wet you feel on your skin as you drive through a mountain cloud. It’s the vast expanse of the volcanic plateau stretching into gold and beige haze that seems to stretch into eternity. The past is what I felt when I circled Honshu looking for the ghosts of samurais and the red lantern paths of certainty.
I haven’t mentioned that this was a road trip. It all began when we picked up a car in Tokyo. I snicker when I say it was a Toyota. (Little did I know that later on I would drive over a bridge with endless amounts of little Toyotas ready to be loaded as shipments to be sent all over the world; an interesting reminder of globalism and interdependence).
Let’s just say that you haven’t really lived until you’ve driven on the wrong, wrong side of the road while fighting a G.P.S. that is speaking and writing in Japanese. Can you imagine what this would even sound like? What I’m really describing is hurling into oncoming traffic. You see, trying to break your American habits can be summed up by the squeak of the windshield wiper waving instead of the blinker signal . . . the two of us breathing heavily, part sneer, part amusement on our faces. YES, driving on the left side of the road was unusual, but only hard for the first day or so. And I actually mistakenly reached for the door handle on the opposite side of the car even several times even after I returned state side.
The perfect introduction to the island was Nikko. Nikko translates directly to beautiful. It’s the center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship. As luck were to have it, we happened to visit at the most splendid time of year, autumn, when the reds of the leaves really left an impression.
The feeling of true wonder is something that is harder and harder to find these days.
One of the slight cons I’ve discovered recently about going far and wide is that it desensitizes you. You become harder to impress.
Toshogu is a mausoleum build in the 1600s to honor the shoguns that ruled Japan for 250 years. The details in the architecture were incredible. It’s the original location of the “see no, hear no, say no evil” monkeys . . . an appropriate prelude to my real goal of this journey: photographing wild snow monkeys.
Walking behind the monks I marveled at the height and magnificence of the towering trees. I wondered what all they had seen over the years.
The complex allows you to roll over the mountain side, giving a very strange feeling that you aren’t even a visitor there, but one flying over the rooftops from above.
I lost myself in the carvings, felt different amongst the Japanese school children as they scuffled by on a field trip, and felt as if I shouldn’t even be allowed to be there. European explorers hadn’t even visited this part of the world in it’s heyday. Japan was basically unknown, and foreign. Strangely enough, I could relate to what it might have seemed like stepping foot onto the island as a sailor centuries ago.
Kyoto was founded as Japan’s capital of peace and tranquility. It now sits as the capital of culture. I was surprised at how traditional it appears even though it is a large city. I won’t sit here and pretend to understand everything about zen gardens. There’s lots of different types of them. They’re insanely old. Some date from before the 12th century. I learned quite more about the Japanese values of simplicity, ornateness, and perfectionism while admiring the plants and tranquil sounds of water. The gardens are designed to look their best in each of the four seasons. I did feel at peace here, and close to nature.
Japan was the place where the number of countries that I’ve visited became greater than the number of years in my life. Needless to say, I was highly reflective while there. It’s the first place that I’ve ever been where I was totally submersed in a culture that wasn’t a single.thing.like.mine. And it’s the type of place where I wouldn’t be sad to disappear into for 30 years or so to make a life for myself in a 200 year old house, or a tiny apartment in the city.