In search of Karikome Pond

As I look out my window, swathes of the mountainside have turned a burnt orange colour, contrasting with the pines that stand unaffected by the changing of the seasons. On sunny days the leaves shine with radiant yellows, oranges and reds, but on cloudy days all I notice is the nakedness of the trees. In a last attempt to enjoy the autumn colours, I suggested to a friend that we take a trip out to Karikome Pond, near Ono. Unfortunately, winter got there before us.

30_01_tKarikome Pond is on the very eastern edge of Fukui prefecture, and a good two hours drive from Fukui City, so we had a race against time to get there before the sun set at 4.30pm. We did however have time to stop at the Watering Hole in Izumi, near Ono. This is a secret local spot, and I had to go through a maze of people’s back gardens, before I found the right road through the paddy fields to get there. When we did find it, this is what we were greeted with.

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Turquoise waters and no sounds other than bird song and the rushing of the river. This is a place where ALTs gather in the summer to swim and, as the name suggests, to drink. But without a group of laughing gaijin around, this place is the epitome of serenity.

A pilgrim’s path

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From there we started out journey along Route 173 and our destination was the end of the road, quite literally. This road follows the path the Shugendo ascetic St. Taicho took from Fukui to Hakusan in 717C.E.

Shugendo is an motley mix of the mystical-spiritual stem of Buddhism, the philosophies of old Shintoism and some other stuff from folk animism. It had no founder or doctrine, and never turned into a ‘school’; it was only ever a ‘way’. Followers try to gain enlightenment by understanding the relationship between humanity and nature, most commonly sought through ascetic practices in mountains.

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yamabushi-snow-suigyouModern day Shugendo

I was surprised to find that Shugendo exists today. Check out this tantalizing trailer for Shugendo Now, a film that followers practitioners as they seek experiential truth of Shugendo teachings, by doing arduous climbs in sacred mountain. 

Hakusan, the mountain I climbed last month, is one of the three sacred mountains in Japan, and pilgrims still make the journey to the top, looking for more than the perfect view.

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Other practices they perform are seclusion, fasting, meditation, and enduring standing or sitting under cold mountain waterfalls, or in snow. If you want to find out more about these pilgrimages, this website gives you lots of information. 

As for Karikome Pond, its name derives from a legend that St.Taicho drove out 1,000 huge snakes from the pond, when journeying toward Hakusan! This pond is also mysterious as it has springs running into it, but none running out. I imagine it’s pretty wet underfoot then.

Driving along Route 173, we were following the route St. Taicho took as he pilgrimaged to Hakusan to found the headquarters of Shugendo. Apparently there are 1200 year old Judas trees which grow along the path because Taicho stuck his chopsticks in the ground when pausing to eat on his way to Hakusan. That’s certainly a lot of power! I wonder how many snow showers he must’ve had to do that!

Nowaday mountain-dwellers

As we made our way further into the Hakusan National Park, we could feel we were getting further and further away from civilisation (measured in Japan from the distance to the nearest combini). The only other vehicles on the road, were truck drivers mining the mountain. Most had a cigarette in their mouth, dark-tinted, dated sunglasses and a cheeky grin. Some even had full-on beards, which is an extraordinary thing for a Japanese man to have!

We went past houses which looked abandoned, and mini-vans that had once been protected by makeshift snow shelters, but had been left for vegetation to grow on them. As I drove past one tiny old lady tending to her cabbages, I wondered how she could live up here in the mountains. Then I looked at the beautiful view she woke up to every day, and I wondered if it would be so bad.

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 As we went round one corner, Mt. Sannomiya (elevation of 2128 m) came into view, and it shone radiantly in the sunshine. After a week of thunder storms, the sky seemed even more blue than I’d remembered.

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The road continued up and up, and round and round, criss-crossing over the river we were following. To my surprise, we reached the snow line and it felt like we’d crossed the time-zone into winter. The lake was still a fair distance away, the snow was scraping against the underside of my car and with no snow tyres on, we thought it was best to turn back before sunset and the roads became icy. Now I know that the lake is an 150 minute hike from the road, so we probably wouldn’t have reached there anyway, (a slight underestimation of distance on my behalf)!

P1060626On the way back we went past many roadside Shinto shrines with flowers, incense, and in this one had a can of beer! I imagine those truckers have a great sense of humour! We also passed an onsen that looked a bit like this one Houshi Ryokan in Ishikawa prefecture, the oldest hotel in the world, so it’s says.

We never made it to the pond, but it was worth it just for the journey. And perhaps next fall, I’ll make the trip again but do it in mid-October, when winter is still far off.

* Some people call the lake Karikome, others Karikomi, it’s the same lake. ** You can find more info on it here.

Squeezing the sunshine out of summer

When I went home I asked my Grandad if he read my blog. He said, not really, “Isn’t it just you writing what you did each week?” I explained to him I put more about Japanese culture and things I find interesting here, than my daily life in it. But this post is unashamedly me-centered.

Basically, what Sophie did in the last two months whilst she hasn’t been blogging. This one’s for you Grandad. 

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Summer was not as sweltering as I remembered from last year, and the warm nights were perfect for late night BBQs, beach parties and midnight swims, and many laps of the local pool. Since the August humidity lifted, September and October were perfect weather for enjoying Japan.

Sado Island Earth Celebration Festival 

My best trip in Japan so far was to Sado Island, in Nigata Prefecture. With five girls in a car, camping by a beach and watching sweaty men play taiko drums, the trip was always going to be a winner. I recommend seeing the amazing Kodo to anyone and everyone, especially at the Earth Celebration Festival on the island they train at. 

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Mud Volleyball Tournament

I took part in a local mud volleyball tournament that has to go on near the top of my “Best Moments” list. We squelched, jumped and fell over in the paddy field filled with dirty, brown mud. The funniest match we played was against a team of “New Halves”, or transvestites, who were dressed in bikinis, had gorgeous long hair and were wearing plenty of makeup! They were also terrible at volleyball, and before the game had even started had fallen over and lost their fake eyelashes to the heavy mud! A crowd gathered around, mostly to watch as the floundering who did a little dance every time they won a point. We won the game easily, but the cheers went to the muddy New Halves who had entertained us all.

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Climbing Mount Haku

Another weekend my friends and I climbed one of the three sacred mountains in Japan, Mount Haku. The start of this 2000m high mountain is only an hour out of Fukui Prefecture, so it is really a must for anyone who likes hiking in Fukui. Unlike the torturous and monotonous climb up Mount Fuji, this mountain is covered in dense forest and has brilliant views from the start. We began in the morning, and with ample breaks and photo-snapping time, we were at the top by 4pm. We had booked a night at the Murata Lodge near the summit, so didn’t have to worry about the time, or bringing food. The dinner and breakfast at the lodge was great. I have never enjoyed miso soup and rice so much for breakfast! I suppose after getting up at 4am, climbing to the summit to watch a spectacular sunrise, then doing an hour’s walk before we made it down to the lodge, anything would’ve tasted good!

1374541_10201037935576188_182132618_nNaoshima and Takamatsu, Shikoku

Since September and October are lucky to have quite a few long weekends, I’ve tried to travel further afield. In early October, my friends and I drove to Takamatsu in Shikoku, a seven hour drive, but one which was worth it. We went specifically to see the island of Naoshima which is famous for its modern art museums and installations. We had great fun posing in the giant pumpkin that is on the island, and seeing fantastic architecture by Ando. The museums formed part of the Setouchi Triennial Art Festival, and due to that the island was busy with chic looking tourist, with their newest cameras at the ready. Modern art can be great, it is something to be part of, to experience, rather than just looking at a painting, it feels as if you become part of it. We enjoyed the chattering men in the Benesse Art Museum, and laying on huge pebble-shaped marble stones whilst looking at the open sky through a large skylight. The Chichu Art Museum was even more impressive in its architecture and installations.

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Our funniest moment was when we queued in line for thirty minutes to see Monet’s water lilies paintings, but then found out it was actually a queue to see another installation called “Open Sky”, and it was exactly that! The sky does look better when you have waited and paid to see it! After disturbing the peace of the museum with our laughter, we joined the right queue to see Monet’s work, and again had to take off our shoes to see it. Wearing white slippers and being guided by young women in white clothes, we entered a completely white room. The huge Monet painting made us all gasp, and as you walk further in the square room there are three more paintings surrounding you. Unlike other museums, these paintings are behind pieces of glass, but due to the natural light coming in from the roof, there wasn’t a reflection from it, so you could get as close as you liked to the paintings and look at the individual brush strokes of each painting. It was like stepping into Monet’s world. As clouds went across the sun, the light would become darker and the change in light brought out different colours in the paintings. Even after seeing Monet’s work in his Parisian museum, I was more inspired by his paintings in this museum than in Paris. Just for that moment, the trip was justified.

We were also lucky to stay with my JET friend Julia, from the UK, who let us sleep on her floor, and was able to show us the best places in her city. She recommended us to visit Ritsurin Garden, which is one of the best gardens in Japan and lived up to its reputation. We saw tea ceremonies performed there, newly-wed couples having their pictures taken dressed up in traditional costumes, and other people dressed as samurai! After that we tried the famous Kagawa Udon, thick white noodles in a thin broth, and they tasted good, but I was more impressed by the chopstick stand! 

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Takamatsu’s famous udon

 So there are a few of my escapades from the last couple of months and I’ve certainly built up a fair few memories to keep me going during the winter. I had different motives when I came here; I wanted to save money to pay off a fair chunk of my student debt, yet as the yen has dropped so low compared to the pound, that it’s really impossible. So my new motive is to see and do everything I want to in Japan. But like this tourist sign says, the possibilities are endless. 

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Here’s a video and some more photos to make up for my two-month blogging absence. 

 

Time never stands still

There has been a long lapse in my writing, and can only honestly say it is down to laziness. I never wanted my blog to be a chore, and so like all creative hobbies, I only write when I’m motivated to. Yet to those of you who have missed my blog posts, I apologize to you! When I arrived in Japan last year, I enthusiastically wanted to share all my experiences of living in Japan with my family, friends and other blog readers. This year, it is not that these experiences are not as exciting or my life not as eventful, it is more that I have realized that my time in Japan is a short one, and so I am living it more than reflecting on it.

It was at an Obon Dancing festival in Takefu, that I realised my time in Japan is limited. Because I organised it for ALTs to join, I decided I wasn’t going to dress up in a yukata (a traditional summer kimono), but when a friend said, “But Sophie, this will be your last year”. It suddenly hit me. If I keep to my plan, this would be my last chance to take part in this festival. So I quickly got changed into a yukata and danced traditional routines around my local town. Even though we had to dance the same four dance routines for two long hours, I didn’t regret this decision. Since then, I have felt the pressure of time constantly counting down the months until my life in Japan will be over. If I stick to my two-year plan, I only have nine months left!

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Bucket lists

It makes me wonder what it must be like to have a time-limit put on your life. I always find it interesting what terminal-ill patients choose to do. Some people choose to do clichéd ‘once in a lifetime experiences’ like swim with dolphins, see the Aorerea Borealis or go skydiving, a little like cancer-patient Helen Fawkes ‘List for living’. Whilst the majority of people just want to spend time with their loved ones. Anyway, thinking about death can be a bit morbid, but it can also keep things in perspective. I was inspired by Roz Savage a 30-something consultant in London, who one day sat down and wrote the obituary she would most like to have written about her if she died. She realised if she continued on the life path she was on, making a lot of money but on the rat-run of working in London, she would not be the person she wanted to be. So, she quit her job, took up rowing as a serious hobby and rowed single-handedly across not just one ocean, but three. I have no plans to row across any oceans, but I do think about what my priorities are in life, and making money in an office job is not near the top.

If you were told you were going to die soon, what would you do? Walter White’s lasts words to Skyler were, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really . . . I was alive.” Making meth and becoming a super drug-dealer king, probably isn’t on most people’s lists, but Walter’s words, taken out of context, can be thought of as words of wisdom. At least he found something where he felt ‘alive’. Ok, I can’t promote Walter White as a moral person to follow, as Breaking Bad followers know, his morals became distorted to the point of no return. But it was the trigger of being told he only had a few years left that prompted him to do something with his life.

Witnessing others go through life-changing events can really make you think about your own life. Two of my father’s close friends ended up in hospital last year, one from finding out he had a serious form of cancer, the other had a heart problem. It was this realisation that people his age were getting ill which prompted my dad to take early retirement. So for the last three months he has enjoyed going cycling, sailing or walking with his friends, or looking after his elderly parents and his friends who are still sick. And he has every right to enjoy his hard-earned freedom after 33 years as a secondary school teacher. Like the kids write at school, “I’m proud of my father”, because he is living life now, as who knows what might happen in the future.

Being interested in becoming a speech therapist has led me to some interesting books about people recovering from strokes, and regaining their speech, movement and importantly their sense of self. The book “My Year Off” is by British publisher called Robert Crum, and is his account of the year after he had a stroke, he speaks of how it affected him,

 ‘It is, perhaps, not possible to overestimate the significance of a serious stroke in the life of an average person. It is an event that goes to the core of who and what you are, the You-ness of you. First of all, the event happens in your brain which is, without becoming unduly philosophical  the command centre of the self. Your brain is you: your moods, your skills, your character, your intelligence, your emotions, your self-expression, your self. When all that fails, you are left with the question: what was the cause?’

But doctors can’t answer that for sure. Crum came to the conclusion that it had taken place because of ‘a profound internal dissastification with my way of life, my goals and ambition, my achievements such as they were’. This was the only conclusion that Crum accepted as ‘why’ the stroke happened, but he believed it was destined to happen. Blaming catastrophic physical breakdown on our lifestyle choices, is a dangerous opinion to have, and not one I withhold to. Yet I am interested in what happens when a person’s sense of identity is stripped away from them, what do they cling on to?

And bringing this all back to me in Japan, I feel the clock ticking for the time I can spend in this awesome country. This change in me came when the last cohort of Fukui JETs left and their resounding advice to me was to “Enjoy your time here to the full”. It is a truism that “You only appreciate what you have when it is taken away from you.” Friends and memories are probably the best things I’ll go home with from Japan, so I’m investing in making those.

As I accompanied friends to the train station for the last time, and watched them weep with sadness for leaving this beautiful country and their friends here, I made up my mind to spend the next year in Japan experiencing as much as I can and using my time in ways I won’t regret. I could stay a third, fourth or even fifth year on the JET programme, and it is very tempting to do so. This will be the decision I will make in the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted!

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