Thursday, October 8, 2009

Miyajima Day 2: finding something sacred

After about 4 hours of sleep we woke to the sounds of fishermen collecting their morning catch of oysters by the dock. With their scooter engines at a roaring idle and their headlights beaming directly at our tents while they pulled in their kelpy nets, we got the impression that we weren't welcome on their dock any more. Then we saw this, and didn't care:

With no more sleep to be had, we packed our tents and brushed our teeth with bottled water, seeing who could hawk their spit the furthest out to sea. I got a little on my shoe. After grabbing sandwiches and coffee at the Seven Eleven we took the first ferry across to the lovely island of Miyajima, home of the Itsukushima Shrine and its famous floating Torii gate.

During high tide the shrine is completely surrounded by water, a feature that's earned it a spot on Japan's long list of World Heritage sites. Consequently it's also crowded as hell so we did NOT venture inside. This was about as close as we got. For a mere 800 yen you could ride one of these cool boats around the Torii gate wearing your very own conical Asian hat. We chose the cheaper route and hoofed it when the tide went out. The immensity of this structure was humbling.

Miyajima had some of the best souvenir shops I've seen in Japan - including Kyoto. Every Japanese tourist spot has to have its specialties, and for Miyajima these specialties were momiji manju - little maple-leaf shaped cakes filled with custard or sweet beans, oysters - usually grilled, and rice paddles . . . yup. Whatever gets the tourists, I guess.

The food options were by no means limited to these specialties, however. Go to any carnival and there's not a chance you'll find as many snack-on-a-stick options as in Miyajima. Octopus, corn on the cob, fried fish sausage wrapped in bacon and seaweed and dipped in cheese or mayonnaise (aka "puke on a stick"), and just to gild the lily, momiji manju dipped in batter and deep fried . . . served on a stick, of course. The deer who range freely on Miyajima live on a steady diet of paper wrappers and wooden sticks with greasy remnants of fish guts and cakey trans fats. These deer are sacred . . .

The dusty paths were crowded to the brim with tourists - eating maple cakes, slurping oysters, snapping pictures of the floating Torii, taking boat rides and wearing straw hats, giddy photo ops with the garbage-eating dear, buying miniature Torii gates, having their caricatures drawn on wooden rice paddles, laughing and throwing money at the tightly-leashed dancing monkey, standing hours in line for their photo at the shrine, paying for fortunes they couldn't read, bowing to gods they don't believe in . . . I felt rather disgusted with myself for becoming a part of all this. I think back now with Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums in mind - especially the character Jaffy, who at the end of the book is embarking on a spiritual journey through Japan's most famous temples in Kyoto. He speaks with wonder of Kiyomizudera - one of Kyoto's most popular tourist attractions - as though it will be one of the most uplifting and enlightening experiences of his life. I wonder, does he know about all the other people there?

By far one of the best things we did for our sanity and well-being this day was take a break from the sun and the crowds in the cool inviting shade of Senjokaku hall, a temple built in honor of fallen soldiers. Because the architect died before finishing the temple, this beautiful structure remains open and cavernous - a perfect respite from the claustrophobia I was feeling. I paid the priestess 100 yen, took off my shoes and stepped barefoot onto the cool smooth wood, breathing in that aged woody smell that will forever remind me of Japan. This was a sacred place to me.

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