"You're travelling to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound... but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land, whose boundaries are only that of the imagination.." Words that easily came to mind as I experienced the following...
Even though the area where we live is "rural" for modern Japan, and is surrounded by small farms, it is still a somewhat developed area with small businesses, small tracts of summer homes, power poles and car traffic.
We'd had a couple of days of cold rain and wind in mid-March here in Naka, an outskirt of Kashima "City" in the Southern tip of Ibaraki Prefecture. Then the weather turned fine, so I decided to get some exercise and go for a walk - something I do every day, weather permitting. What a delightful adventure it turned out to be. The sky in the morning was clear, wind calm, and air a comfortable 16 C. After a few minutes of walking along familiar roads and paths, I started down a dirt road I had never explored before. Turning a corner, I saw man pruning some tall bushes and I startled him when I said "konichiwa". I apologized for sneaking up on him, and we talked a bit, as much as my broken Japanese would permit, about how pretty his camellia flowers were and then I went on my way.
The road went down hill into an old stand of tall bamboo with very thick trunks, then turned and fifty meters later I found myself in front of an empty wooden pavilion built for a large temple bell, and beyond, in a small clearing, a very old temple. In the yard were three apricot trees with white blossoms in full bloom, and there was stone path lined with daffodils leading up to the temple. There was an evergreen by the path, trimmed and twisted like a bonsai. Someone was clearly keeping things up there. There was a small house, no doubt for the priest, but no one was home. The house itself looked fairly old as I could tell by the style of the foundations and walls, but had new roof and storm shutters.
The temple is perhaps 8 meters on each side, with a veranda of thick cedar planks surrounding it. There are very intricate carvings all around the front of the building. It is very weathered and the only color remaining of the paint that once adorned them is the red of the eyes of animals in the wood carvings. The roof supports of the entrance are topped with a carved lattice depicting lotus flowers. Lions and Bodhisattvas inhabit other carvings. Ovef the entrance, a carving of Monju Bosatsu with a red halo, a student of the historical Buddha, with a scroll in his right hand indicating wisdom, and a sword in his left, with which he cuts through illusion. He is riding a stylized lion. (Japanese artists in the old days did not travel abroad, and so never saw a real lion. That is why the lions in old carvings and paintings tend to look like fantastic dragons). The solid wood pillars holding up the roof over the steps, each about twenty five centimeters square and three meters high, are warped in two graceful parallel arcs, as if tired from their long burden.
The tile roof is high and rises to a single point with a simple family crest near the top. Behind the temple, against a backdrop of tall bamboo, there is a small grave yard with very ornately carved stone markers. Some have reliefs of Bodhisattvas on them and most are covered with lichen. A few are much newer, of polished stone. It is well maintained and there are fresh flowers at many of the graves. On one side of the temple are four larger graves and beyond them, a steep slope covered in bamboo. Stone steps rise steeply up the slope leading to a small altar.
Leaving the temple, I walked on down the road and entered a long narrow valley covered with rice paddies and surrounded by trees. The nearest house I could see was perhaps a mile or more away toward the mouth of the valley near the lake Kitaura. No cars, no electric or phone lines. It was very quiet except for the sound of insects, frogs, and birds. There were "uguisu" (Japanese bush warblers) in the trees making beautiful music on either side. One paddy had just been tilled, as it was getting to be planting time. I turned up the valley on the gravel road which runs the length of it. I soon met three older women. One was in a rice paddy picking some kind of plant, the other two were sitting on the road by their bicycles sorting through piles of the plant. I asked what it was, but all I heard was a long sentence that I did not understand with my limited Japanese language skills. Excusing myself, I continued to the end of the valley and found a small newly constructed reservoir which was stocked with fish, and there were two men fishing. Soon, the road became covered in tall grass and ended at a creek amongst the trees.
On the way back, I stopped by the women, who were still on the road, determined to learn what the plant was, and asked again what they were picking. It was "seri", they said, Japanese parsley. I had seen it before because it is one of the 7 herbs in "nanakusa-gaiyu" (literally seven herb rice gruel) served at the New Years celebration at larger Shinto shrines. The ladies asked me about myself, where I lived, where I was from, what I did and so on, and I tried my best to answer. That was fun.
I told K all about it when I got home. It piqued her curiosity, so after lunch I took her there. There is a sign by the temple and K read it for me. The temple, of the Rinzai Shu (a Zen Buddhist sect), was originally built in 1765. It had burned twice and the present temple was constructed in 1805. I showed K the graves and she read the kanji characters on the older ones and learned they were from the Genroku era (1688-1703) during the Edo Period. Then she said that she had never seen the temple before. That surprised me as it is less than a 30 minute walk from where she has lived almost all of her life. Of course, I've been exploring this area on my many walks ever since I got here last October, and only that day discovered it myself.
When we reached the reservoir, we noticed a red torii gate at the base of a hill, indicating a Shinto shrine. We went under the torii and up a very steep slope of earthen steps framed by small split logs. At the top was a small Shinto shrine. The old shrine was perhaps a meter wide and half again as tall, with the usual small stone foxes (inari) protecting it. A new shelter of wood posts with a corrugated aluminum roof had been built over it to help preserve it. Another path led us beyond the shrine and we came out onto a paved road that we were familiar with and followed it home.
It seemed amazing to find such an isolated valley, old shrine and temple so close to home, yet unknown even by someone who grew up in the area. Now I visit there every week or so and it always feels like I am going back in time. Before the mid twentieth century, many areas around here must have been like this - small farming communities, each with its own temple and shrine. I hope this "time capsule", not much changed for hundreds of years, can remain hidden and untouched by the blade of the bulldozer and the frenzy of modern culture for a long time to come.