Monday, April 10, 2006

Miyajima

Saturday, March 19, 2006

“ATTENTION: The deer on Miyajima are wild. They may eat paper and cloth. Please pay attention and keep your eye on your personal belongings—especially tickets and souvenirs as the deer might eat them.”
—amusing disclaimer on Miyajima tourist brochure

The schedule had allotted an hour and a half to get from Hiroshima to Miyajima. I thought the bulk of the time would be spent on the ferry. In fact, we spent an hour in the cable-car bus, standing up, luggage crammed all around us, just getting to the port. I stared out the window at the many rivers of Hiroshima—it really is a beautiful city. The ferry, by contrast, took only about fifteen minutes. I was just enjoying the strong, cold wind whipping through my hair, and suddenly we were there.

Now my guidebook had warned me about deer wandering the street. Even so, I was not prepared for the mob that awaited me outside the port. The deer were swarming around tourists, getting right up close to them, jumping on those with food and snatching it right out of their hand. Naturally, my first instinct was to take a picture. But that had to wait. First we were off to the ryoukan; only after we had dumped our stuff into the lobby (check-in wasn’t until 3:00) that I could properly coo over the deer.

I loved them. The deer appeared everywhere: in front of the shrine, inside ditches, even crossing bridges. One tried to eat the plastic bag I was carrying my umbrella in; I told the deer plastic wasn’t good for it, but it insisted on ripping off a large chunk and then spitting it out in disgust. I liked petting the deer. Their coats were thick and bristly, but the baby deer had soft, soft fur.

Julie and I wandered this way and that, on the edge of the ocean. Through the green, grizzled pine trees we could see the bright orange* torii in the bright blue ocean. Other signs showed we were approaching Itsukashima Jinja: growing crowds, stone lanterns, and two statue guardian dogs…er, lions…, one with its mouth open, one with its mouth closed.

We paid the 300 yen ($3) to enter the shrine, most of which seemed built on a dock. The buildings were the same bright orange* as the torii, but the roof was a dark brown thatch. Lanterns hung everywhere, and there was a “floating” Noh stage surrounded by water. However, the effect was dampened a bit by a maintenance crew blocking off certain sections in plastic and working on it as we walked by.

The best part of the shrine was the pier. There were no handrails or anything else which might prevent you from water (besides your own common sense), and that made it more thrilling somehow, as though I was in mortal danger of falling in the water. One part of the pier went straight off, giving you the perfect front view of the “floating” torii. Indeed, all the tourists were lined up to take their picture standing at the edge of the pier, the perfect front-view of the torii behind them. But I was less interested in this than in a magnificent pair of bluish lion statues, their long tails swirled like that of a nine-tailed fox. **

We came out of the shrine and rambled around town. Miyajima is a wonderful place to ramble. You can smell the ocean and feel its gusty breeze; you can see green, green pines (a welcome sight after a long, brown winter) and pet the deer. There are many shrines and temples, and many small shops, selling souvenirs: cheap fans and beautiful pottery and maple-shaped cakes filled with anything from chocolate to cheese and wooden rice scoops, which had been invented by the priest Seishin around 1850, a native of the island, I assume. We did a bit of shopping while we rambled.

Once we found a small garden opened to the public. It was not professional; patches of the ground were bare and the pond was dried up. But there were flowers, including a blossoming plum tree. I got the feeling that someone with a love for plants kept the garden, and decided, out of the goodness of their hearts, to let others enjoy it.

Julie and I visited a small museum (where I learned that a bloody battle had taken place on this island involving the Taira clan, but, unfortunately, couldn’t read the details) and caught the end of a Heian-ish* parade.

Then, as the day stretched into afternoon, we decided to see what we could see at the top of Miyajima’s mountains.

To hike the trails would take a good half a day (I can imagine my dad setting out for it early in the morning), so we took the ropeway. The ropeway is what it sounds like: a series of poles planted up the mountain with cables running through them like telephone wire; you are pulled up these ropes in a small glass box that gives you a good view of the island as you move ever higher above the trees. (Yep, Dad would definitely be hiking.) It took about twenty minutes to get to the top of the mountains.

But when we got to the top, I was surprised to see, of all things, monkeys! The tan-furred, pink-faced monkeys were lounging on rocks, posing perfectly for camera-wielding tourists (myself included). Signs warned not to look them in the eye, lest they become aggressive. I did not like the idea of aggressive monkeys. Some of them fought each other, shrieking like the veloceraptors in Jurassic Park. Shiver. Aggressive monkeys are not so cute.

The view from the top of the mountain was quite breath taking. As Julie said, proof of our own insignificance. In the clear blue ocean, you could see several tree-covered islands, some near, others going off into the horizon, where the clouds were.

We came back from the top of the mountain. It was about 5:15, and I wanted to go back to Itsukashima Jinja, because I’d heard that when the tide was low, the floating torii would be surrounded by nothing but mud. At this time you could walk right up to it and touch it, if you wanted.

At 5:15, the sun was just starting to set and it shone through the dark clouds and sparkled upon the water. The entire area around the orange torii was covered in mud and puddles and slick green seaweed. I hopped around as careful as I could, trying not to soak my hem in water or slip on the seaweed and dirty the rear of my jeans. It was wonderfully cool, the air of the island fresh.

People were already taking pictures in front of the muddy torii. I took a picture too, then scurried over to examine the base. The thick orange poles were firmly planted in the mud. The area where the tide had washed over the poles were stained black. My head barely came over this stain.

At the edge of the water, to my delight, people were digging for clams. Not just one or two either, but a good portion of the town had come with their buckets to scoop clams from their cold water puddles.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I told Julie, “if you lived here and you liked clams; every evening, whenever you felt like clam chowder (or the Japanese equivalent) you could dig for some and put them in the pot for dinner.” It was a romantic notion, more fun in theory than reality, but still, the thought made me happy. It reminded me of all those games we used to play as kids where we foraged through our backyard for survival.

“Let’s go up the water’s edge,” I said.

We picked our way through the mud collecting seashells as we went. The waves were lapping calmly against the shore. I looked over at the edge of the island, at the trees and the mountains and the sunset drifting through the clouds. I smiled.

“Oh. Starfish,” Julie commented.

I looked down. There, nestled in the seaweed, were several purple-tinged starfish, beached by the waves. I bent down to touch them. They were wet and rough, slimy and sticky; they were still alive. I threw them back into the ocean; though I desperately wanted to keep one, I couldn’t bear to kill it.

Julie and I walked back to dry land. From the corner of my eye, I saw a deer leaping through the mud. Finally, it got back to the island, and so did we.

There’s not much else to tell. At about six all the stores closed. Julie and I were miffed because we had wanted to buy maple ice cream, but we were partially consoled when were found out our ryoukan had an all-you-can drink (non-alcoholic) bar in the lobby until 6:30. In a country where drinks are expensive and refills are scarce, this was a find. I had several glasses of a sugary blue soda that tasted vaguely of bubblegum. We ate dinner at 7:00—more ume wine and too many clam dishes. Afterwards we hit the public baths. These baths had a fountain and a nice view of the city lit up at night; but the water was still too hot.

* Other sources claim it’s vermillion.
** I think a nine-tailed fox must have some significance in Japanese folklore; I’ve seen it come up in random animes.
*** Small history lesson: From about the late 700s to about 1100 AD was the Heian Era. During this time the court nobles ran the government. This is the time where women wore five or six kimonos at a time, and men spent all their time writing poetry and courting women. Shortly afterwards, came the rise of the samurai. Specifically, two clans were fighting for dominance: the Taira and the Minamoto. The Taira won initially, but the Minamoto came back and slaughtered them (quite literally).

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