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.

Echizen coast, Ono and meeting my host family

Summer is on the cusp of autumn. Rice is being harvested and dried, big ripe apples have come into season and Halloween decorations are in all the stores.

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On a top of a hill over looking a city surrounded by mountains. This is a restoration of the original castle, which was destroyed during the Meiji era in the 18th century.

More importantly, the weather has finally changed. I now don’t have to have the air-con on in my apartment, but a fan still helps to keep the humidity at bay and I still average three showers a day! The heat feels worst on days when it is overcast and a tropical storm is on its way. The thunder storms here are like nothing I’ve seen before. Sometimes lightening can be seen far away, even though you can hear no thunder. Other times it can strike what seems like metres away from you and the thunder rumbles through the ground! But one guarantee is that it will quickly pass and an hour or so later the sky will be clear, like nothing ever happened!Image

Freedom has come in the form of a blue banged-up Suzuki Alto. It’s automatic, has four seats and chugs up the hills like an old pony. The rules of the road have not been a problem, mainly as they drive on the left. The main roads here are based on American suburbs, with wide lanes and big superstores, restaurants and pachinko parlors on either side. Traffic lights every 100 metres means traffic is slow and you can’t go far wrong. A result of this is that there’s a noticeable number of people who jump the lights!

One thing I still have not mastered is the art of bowing, especially bowing in the car. It is not uncommon for other drivers to give you a polite head bow if you let them out but one truck driver gave a full on bow to me. Not something I am going to try! After having my new buggy filled up with gasoline at a local service station, I get a full 90’ bow from the service workers. That’s pretty special! In the office I’ve also seen my vice-principle bowing whilst speaking to someone on the phone. I had to try hard to suppress my laughter!

My little car has already made trips through the mountains to my visiting school as well as to the coast. After a single-track road which carved down the mountains the road took us through a line of houses which backed on to the sea. I didn’t see anyone under sixty in that seaside village! It’s easy to have a skewed view of the population balance in Japan when you work in a school, but from that experience I can understand what they mean by Japan having an ageing population!

Another Suzuki adventure I’ve had, is to Ono, a famous castle city and onwards to an infamous camping spot in the mountains. Named by an ALT many moons ago, ‘The Watering Hole’, most probably based on the tradition of going there on the last weekend before school starts and enjoying the last taste of the summer with a trunk full of beers. So after a long and treacherous drive to the hidden spot, I was ready for a swim in the river to wash away the stickiness of the humid air. My friend and I tepidly got in the water with no idea what could be under the surface. It was turquoise and clear so we trusted old ALTs which assured us there was nothing to be worried of. Thankfully, they were right. I’m not sure if it’s a safe option to be in a river whilst there is a thunderstorm but it certainly was atmospheric! Other ALTs joined us and we had a great evening with a campfire and sharing food people had brought. Teari, the most ‘Amercian’-American I’ve ever met, and also the friendliest, brought a kilogram of tortilla chips and homemade salsa. A welcome change from rice and noodles!

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I was too busy swimming to get a good photo. Just imagine the 500 m gorge this is at the bottom of!

I’ve also met my host family for the first time. This was set up though a volunteer organisation promoting internationalisation in Fukui. Families sign up to meet someone different and perhaps to practice their English on us ‘hosties’, as we’re called here! I have been extremely lucky in being welcomed in to a Japanese family who live just a five minute drive from my apartment. ‘Ko’, a cheeky seven year old, doesn’t get that I can’t understand his Japanese but chats away at length to me!  ‘Azu’ is 10 years old and her older sister ‘Chi’ is 13 years. Their mother ‘Mayumi’ is an afterschool English teacher and their father ‘Manubu’ works in a local micro-chip factory.

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Yes I ate one of those disgusting looking sea snails! You can imagine it wasn’t the best!

Last Sunday I was invited there for a family BBQ and had no trouble finding their house. Ma-chan, as Mayumi said I could call her, loves the story of Anne of Green Gables. So much so, that her and her husband designed their house based on the house in the novel! It has a green roof, red brick and a veranda out of the front. It feels like stepping into an American home more than a Japanese one with rose petal wall paper and vintage ornaments. The one Japanese they have is filled with English materials as it’s where Mayumi has her classes. So it is home from home.

After only going there a couple of times Mayumi has made me feel like part of the family. I have already made Crispy Cakes with the girls and Mayumi has taught me how to make gyozas, or Japanese dumplings. I know look forward to seeing the family every Sunday evening and playing games with the children. I hope I can be a suitable big sister for the girls but I’m sure they’ll teach me more than I can teach them.

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Mayumi, Azu, Chi and Ko putting soy sauce on the sea snails (whilst they are alive) before they go on the BBQ