Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fall foliage and friendly faces

The beautiful shrine across the street, end of November.

Christmas is coming, and I haven't even written about autumn yet. In my defense, the fall colors weren't at their peak in my neck of the woods until the end of November.

View of a mountain from the third floor of our apartment building in late November.

I'd been looking forward to Thanksgiving time for months — probably more than a year, in fact. That's because my friends Diane and Paul came to visit us from New York City. I used to work with Diane on the newspaper back home, and she moved to New York right after I moved to Japan.

It was so exciting to have friends visit, finally, and get to share what life is like here first hand. Countless times I remember telling Joe at our favorite neighborhood okonomiyaki joint that I couldn't wait to take Diane and Paul there. After months of anticipation, it was practically surreal to see them both walking toward us at the train station downtown.

We hit the requisite tourist spots around Hiroshima: Peace Park and the atomic bomb museum, Hiroshima Castle, Miyajima and last, Mitaki Temple (as well as that okonomiyaki joint!).

Paul, Diane, me and Joe at Miyajima

Our trip to Mitaki was actually my third that month. (You'll recall my Zen-like discovery of Mitaki last summer.) I'd gone in early November to find the leaves were just barely starting to change, and then in mid-November I actually took a day off work specifically to go to Mitaki in the middle of the week so that I could enjoy the fall foliage without the crowds. The colors were a bit muted then, though, and the place was overrun with old people. I thought I'd already missed the show.

Turned out I'd just gone too soon. The colors were fantastic while we were there with our friends, and I was happy they'd get to see the temple at its best.

On this visit I knew a bit more about what I was looking at, since I'd done some more research on Mitaki for an article in the Wide Island View.

It turns out that all these statues of children wearing red bibs and caps are called jizo. They represent a deity known as the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents. It makes sense that these are here because there actually was a military hospital on the site of Mitaki during World War II, and many of the atomic bomb victims were brought there to be treated. In fact, monks buried the unidentified victims there in those mossy old tombstones I photographed on the last visit.

Wikipedia has this to say about jizo:
In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that Jizō saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe, and letting them hear mantras.

Jizō statues are sometimes accompanied by a little pile of stones and pebbles, put there by people in the hope that it would shorten the time children have to suffer in the underworld. (The act is derived from the tradition of building stupas as an act of merit-making.) The statues can sometimes be seen wearing tiny children's clothing or bibs, or with toys, put there by grieving parents to help their lost ones and hoping that Jizō would specially protect them. Sometimes the offerings are put there by parents to thank Jizō for saving their children from a serious illness.
Interesting stuff. Also, remember that horrific, spiky haired demon statue I photographed on the last trip? This one?

He, I found out, is one of the Shitenno, guardians of the four directions. Which of the four he is, I still don't know. At any rate, they are warriors that ward off evil. (I sure as heck wouldn't want to mess with this guy!)

Just a few last shots:

More guardians at the temple's entrance.

It was great to share these places with Diane and Paul. As visitors, they were seeing Japan through a set of fresh eyes, and it reminded me a lot of what it was like when I first got to Japan. Paul was eager to try all the new and novel drinks in Japan's ubiquitous vending machines, and Diane had tried her best to avoid the squat toilets, only to find herself eventually forced into using one (just as I was). They enjoyed seeing all the oddball Engrish clothing and shirts all over Japan. The Engrish hasn't lost its charm for me, though I do find that I don't always look twice anymore at certain weird stuff. Recently Joe and I were in an elevator with advertisements for restaurants in that department store. One of the restaurants was named "Goo Goo Viking" or something like that. I remember commenting to Joe, "You know, I guess that's funny isn't it? When I first got here I would have been so tickled by how wacky that is, but now I just figure... eh!" We've gotten used to buffets being called "Viking", and a restaurant called Goo Goo? Well... par for the course of the butchered English language we encounter everyday.

I digress. It was lovely having Diane and Paul here. We got up early on a Tuesday to see them off at the bus station and I was caught off guard by how suddenly very sad I felt as I watched their bus pull away. Just a little affirmation that I think it's time to go home next summer, and get back to a place where all the faces are familiar again.


N.R. Brueggeman said...

Hello Gail!
My name is Nikki and I am currently Studying abroad in Osaka, at Kansai Gaidai University. I have to say your blog puts mine to shame. I really like looking over the things you have done and its giving me some good ideas. I leave Japan in May and so I am really excited to see the rest of Japan while I can!
Any big time suggestions? I will be going to Hiroshima and Tokyo in Jan.
Please take a look at my blog and more importantly please leave a comment on my blog of places you suggest!
Hope to hear from you soon

Diane said...

We had a great time visiting you both, and I'm still sad it's over!!