Sunday, December 04, 2005

Travels With Wasabi

I had to get out of the apartment today.

I'd been listening to William Shatner's new album "Has Been". There's a song on there called "You'll Have Time", and it starts off like this:

Live life
Live life like you're gonna die
Because you're gonna

Good song. Good message. Made me want to get off my butt, get out of my apartment, and live.

For reasons that I will clear up a bit with tomorrow's post, I pretty much stayed in my apartment from Friday after work until this morning.

I like my apartment. It's warm (which is a major change from every other apartment I've lived in while in Japan), it's relaxing, and I generally enjoy spending time here.

But I had to get out today and clear my head.

And do some shopping.

What with Christmas coming up and all.

So I headed east on Rt. 36 to Shiraoi (translation: white old age). There is a really cool museum here dedicated to the Ainu (pronounced "I knew"), the indigenous people of Hokkaido. It's known as Porotokokan, or The Ainu Museum. It is dedicated to the preservation of Ainu culture. I've been there once before, and it was amazing to see some of the similarities between Ainu and Native Americans. Not just culturally, but also in the types of discrimination (and worse) that both groups faced. (For an interesting article about the relationship between Ainu and Japanese people, click here.)

Plus, you can feed bears!

There is a building that you walk through before you get to the actual museum. It's FILLED with souvenir shops. This is where I headed today. I'd write more, but people that will be receiving gifts I bought there will be reading this. Let me just say this: the shopkeepers I dealt with were all very kind. One gave me candy, one gave me a cup of tea, and both gave me discounts on merchandise. Nice people.

After about an hour of shopping and buying, I headed back to the car and set off for my next destination: Mukawa! (If you didn't read the story about my trip there before, click here for story, and here for pictures.) I was on a mission, not from God, but from You-Gay-Nay-San (spelled out phonetically, you pervs!), which is close enough. What she says, goes.

YGNS: "Dustin, jump!"
Me: "Yes, Ma'am! How high?"
YGNS: "Dustin, run!"
Me: "Yes, Ma'am! How far?"
YGNS: "Dustin, drive to Mukawa and buy some shishamo for the party we're going to have for you when you come back to Izumo at the end of this year!"
Me: "Yes, Ma'am! How many?"

Thirty, as it turned out. I also threw in some toba, which is salmon jerky.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I had to get to Mukawa.

This ended up being trickier than I expected, especially since I'd been there before.

I was driving along, and suddenly, I thought, "Something's not right here." Somehow, on the way there, I ended up on a highway heading north instead of the one heading east. Road signs in this country make little to no sense, so this kind of situation is pretty common. And I can read the damn things.

So after checking my map and realizing that I was WAY off track, I found a turn off that would put me back on the road to Mukawa.

It was a four-digit road. That's a first. Hokkaido Route 1046.

How many dang roads do you need?

(Although, since most roads in Japan don't actually have names, only numbers, it's still probably fewer than the number of roads we have in Oregon. Heck, if we numbered all of the roads in Oregon, my folks would probably live on Oregon State Road 24601.)

Anyway, this was the road I needed to take to get me where I needed to go, but on the way, I found something I needed even more.

A shrine.

Shinto shrines have been my obsession and my salvation since I came to Japan.

The peacefulness that I feel when I step in to a shrine's grounds is amazing. And, surprisingly enough, difficult to put into words. There is a sense of stepping out of the modern world and into something far more ancient. There is something primal, something sacred, something terrifying, something exhilarating, about making that transition. There is a sense of something greater than oneself. You feel as if you are merely a small piece of a much larger puzzle than you thought you were working on. Is it God? Is it nature? Is it just me getting over-excited about some trees and a building?

I'm not one to press my religious opinions on other people, but I know that I've felt very much in contact with God at shrines.

Living in Shimane for six years may have had something to do with that. Shimane is home to Izumo Taisha, one of the most important shrines in Japan, and it has influenced Shimane so much that the atmosphere inside Shimane is different from any other prefecture I've visited (and I've visited them all). Very mysterious, Shimane Prefecture is.


The shrine I found? Izumo Shrine.

That's what made me stop. That, and the fact that the torii (translation: shrine gate) was a normal one, instead of an imperial-related one (scroll down to the second photo). It's not an easy case of one or the other, but you can tell which shrines are related in some way to the Imperial Family by the shrine gate.

I have no beef with the Imperial Family. I just get a weird vibe from imperially related shrines. I don't feel particularly comfortable there. The problem in Hokkaido is that the majority of shrines are in some way connected to the Imperial Family.


Because the major movement of people to Hokkaido and development thereof started after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The Meiji Emperor was restored to power, replacing the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had run the country with the Emperor as a figurehead. One of the other results of the Meiji Restoration was the establishment of State Shinto. With State Shinto, the government used religion to focus the faith of the populace on the Emperor, making them easier to manipulate. (Wow, that doesn't sound at all like what happened with the elections last year...not at all.)

So, you have new shrines being built in Hokkaido under State Shinto, so most of the shrines that are up here have short histories at their respective locations and are in some way, shape, or form related to the Imperial Family. Compare this to shrines further south that have been in the same location for 2000 years (or more) and started as animistic worship of the natural surroundings. This is the background I came from. So I haven't been too active in visiting shrines up here. In fact, Izumo Shrine may be the first shrine I've visited since I moved up here.

Aah, Izumo. Just enough like Shimane to bring back some nostalgia, just new enough (and non-Imperial enough) to make me feel comfortable up here.

There was a really cool tree on the shrine grounds. It looked like this tree had been blown over at some point in time, BUT IT DIDN'T DIE. It didn't give up. It kept on living. The trunk grew off to the right, and the branches grew up toward the sky. There was a stone marker in front of the tree that said, simply, "The power of life."

Simple, yet powerful. I really liked that. So I said a quick prayer and got back on the road.

I arrived in Mukawa around lunchtime. To explain about You-Gay-Nay-San a bit more...

There is an Okinawan restaurant in Izumo called Bamboo. Good food, good drinks, good company. In January, Bamboo's manager bought some tickets to an Okinawan music concert in the next town over and invited some of the better customers to come along. All told, about eight of us went to the concert. Which was amazing. Listening to those songs made me relive my trip to Okinawa. Very cool stuff. Misako Koja and Rimi Natsukawa. Incredible singers. After the show, they had their after-party at Bamboo. I was their waiter. First time I've ever taken orders, but I did fairly well.

Anyway, that group of eight (three staff members plus five of us) became the Bamboo TeiReiKai. We would get together for monthly "meetings", which were merely excuses to eat and drink. The members of The Bamboo TeiReiKai are:
  • Okinawa Cop
  • Havok (that's me)
  • You-Gay-Nay-San (what she says, goes)
  • Crab Girl (yep, this is how we met)
  • The Nurse in Training
  • Master
  • Master's Husband
  • He-Day!

Since I'm heading back to Izumo at the end of the month, we're having a TeiReiKai "meeting". On my previous excursion to Mukawa, I bought some shishamo and sent them to Bamboo for the other members to eat. They called me up and said thanks, and You-Gay-Nay-San told me that I had to buy some more before I came back. So that's what I did. Thirty of 'em, plus some salmon jerky...ya know, ta sweeten the pot a bit.

I figured after I finished in Mukawa, I'd head back to Tomakomai, do a bit more shopping, and head home. And yet, the weather was nice, my head wasn't cleared up enough, and there was unexplored road stretching out in front of me. Let's see where this road will take me...

Biratori Town. I turned away from the sea and headed for the mountains. Not necessarily a smart decision, considering the season and all...

But in Biratori Town I ended up. There are stories that say a famous hero from Japanese history, Minamoto Yoshitsune, didn't actually die in battle but was able to flee north to Hokkaido. Some of the better parts of these stories include how he taught the natives how to grow crops and how to fight, and in return they worshipped him as a god. Oh, those quaint little backwards natives! Aren't they lucky that a true Japanese warrior was kind enough to teach them these things? Because there's no way they could have learned it themselves, now is there?

An even better legend concerning Yoshitsune is that he escaped to mainland Asia, where he became the great conqueror Genghis Khan! (I don't know how widespread the belief in this one is, but, c'mon! How low can you get? There's no way that one of the greatest, fiercest warriors in the history of the world could have really been Mongolian! Aren't those quaint little backwards Mongol hordes lucky that one of our warriors went over there and turned them into the greatest fighting force the world's ever seen?) By the way, is there a font for sarcasm?

Anyway, I visited a shrine where Yoshitsune is enshrined. It was good for a laugh.

The view during the drive was amazing. Trees that had lost their leaves covered the mountains as far as you could see. I went there a month too late. Imagine the fall leaves in that area. I get chills just thinking about it. Next year, I'm there.

I continued the drive up into the mountains until I reached Hidaka Town, and then I headed west. It was getting dark, and I was pretty far from home, so I needed to get heading back that way.

Now, I'd been driving for about 300 kilometers when Wasabi-kun started acting funny. Not funny "ha-ha" funny, funny "oh crap, I'm on a dark road in the middle of the mountains with no cell phone reception and no houses for who knows how long and my car's engine is acting up and I may get stuck out here?" funny. Which, when you think about it, isn't really funny at all.

The engine died. I was able to pull off into a parking area before it did, but there I was, on a dark road in the middle of the mountains with no cell blah blah blah. What did I do? I waited, stayed calm, answered Nature ("Dustin, Line 4. Nature's on hold for you."), got back in the car, started it back up, and headed off again.

I had one more point where the engine started acting up again, so I pulled into a convenience store parking lot and gave Wasabi-kun a few more minutes of rest. Then, back on the road and back to Tomakomai, where I did some more Christmas shopping (considering that I've been wordy enough already, I won't go into details). Back on the road, back home, back in front of my computer, back to typing my blog, and now...back to bed.


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