D, K and Z in Japan, Day 12

Aug. 26, 2006: Five Hundred Buddhas and a Hundred Caves

This morning at breakfast we had nashi, or Japanese pears, which actually had the taste and texture of a pear masquerading as a jicama. We’d had something similar in the States, although never this good.

Once again we all piled into the van and headed out for a field trip. When we stopped for gas, it was hard not to notice some of the features that this station (and presumably many others in Japan) offers that you generally won’t find in the stations back home. For one thing, there were cheerful uniformed attendants on hand to provide any required assistance, including rags. This sort of thing vanished in the U.S. during the late Pleistocene epoch. Then there were the rectangles painted on the pavement next to the pumps, indicating where you should park so that the hose could reach your tank conveniently. (This only works, of course, in a country where all the vehicles are approximately the same size.) Each pump contained a static discharger that you could touch to eliminate any hazardous buildup of electricity, as well as a holder to keep your gas cap in plain sight so you wouldn’t drive away and forget it – which heaven knows, nobody we know of has ever done.

The most interesting feature of all was a video display depicting reels of a slot machine. When a customer buys gas, he or she can spin the reels for a chance to win a discount on the purchase. Dennis was awarded the honor of spinning the reels, and he came up with three bars, resulting in a discount of three yen per liter. Hey, glad to be of service.

On this drive, we saw something that we haven’t seen here before: a reckless driver, weaving in and out of traffic lanes at intervals too close for comfort. One sees that kind of thing in the U.S. every day, of course, if not every minute; and while it can be annoying, we just accept it as normal. But the reaction of our hosts to this motorist seemed to be not only that he was annoying, but that he was embarrassing, and even a national disgrace.

Today’s first adventure was at a place referred to as the Mountain of the Five Hundred Buddhas. When we pulled into the parking lot, we heard an announcement on a speaker that a 75-year-old woman was missing in this vicinity. It made us wonder what kind of wilderness maze we were about to plunge into. But while there were indeed plenty of wooded hiking trails to meander off on, the one we were to take was pretty straightforward (if one can apply that word to any path that zigzags so frenetically) right up the side of the hill.

At the base was an old temple left unmanned (unpersoned?) so that tourists could wander in and examine it for themselves, and purchase little talismans and souvenirs on the honor system. Nearby, the ubiquitous soda machine sat near one of the ancient statues, a stark contrast between the ancient and the ultramodern. Inspired by this contrast, the equally ubiquitous Goza Family posed for the camera while doing their best to blend in with stone holy men.

Up the hill we trekked, passing hundreds of watchful little buddhas of every imaginable flavor: sitting buddhas, standing buddhas, crouching buddhas, broken buddhas, weathered buddhas, somber buddhas, merry buddhas, wistful and enigmatic buddhas, buddhas that seemed to evoke the old “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pose, buddhas adorned with red headgear and bandanas that obviously are a recent addition, since the little fellers themselves have been stationed here for centuries.

Most members of our party, however, never had the opportunity to do a head count on this battalion of stone sentinels, because they were driven away by a welcoming committee of mosquitoes quite happy to have something to sink their schnozzes into besides sculpture. While everyone else retreated to the parking lot, only Dennis and Toshihide were stalwart enough to carry on all the way to the forbidding summit, braving angry and hungry hordes of bloodsucking varmints. Once at the top, they’d earned the privilege of viewing the remains of an ancient temple, with an added marker wishing peace to the world’s peoples in different languages. They’d also earned the privilege of scurrying back down the hill through the cloud of mosquitoes again.

Lacking any other options, we resourcefully had our picnic in the parking lot.

Next on the itinerary was Hyakyuana, which means “100 Caves”. It’s a pretty accurate description, except that there are far more than 100 of them, and they’re not really caves. There are, to be more or less accurate, 216 of them. And what they really are is tombs, little burial enclaves dug into the side of a very steep hill.

Most of them are rather snug, but some are roomy enough to be the summer home of a hobbit. We entered one of these, and were astounded by its acoustic properties. When we spoke, the sound reverberated off the domed interior with a palpable intensity, a series of increasingly overlapping harmonics that seemed about to bore a hole in the ceiling. We don’t know if this sonic sorcery was deliberate, but the effect certainly was wasted on the intended occupants.

Likewise the rare form of vegetation called hiyaki goke, or “shining moss”, which we spotted inside a couple of the “caves” at the bottom of the hill. It really does shine, i.e., glow in the dark.

The only way to the top of the hill is a rather arduous staircase of modern vintage; which leaves us wondering, exactly how did the old-timers make their way up here with corpses and how did they go about hacking out these neat holes? And up at the top there was – would you believe – one of those inescapable soda machines. We don’t envy the guys who had to haul it up here. In fact, we don’t envy the people who have to refill it periodically.

Speaking of soda, we popped into the gift shop near the entrance to the attraction and purchased a type of soft drink that Yukari’s been urging us to try. It’s a refreshing beverage with hints of lemon and lime, a little like 7Up or Sprite but not nearly as sweet and heavy. (Even so, Kimberly and Dennis split one, neither having much of a sweet tooth.) It was just the thing to wash down a treat we also bought, a type of slightly sweet bean cake coated with some kind of powdery substance. What makes the beverage really fun is the container, a clear bottle with a vaguely totemic shape, looking almost as if it’s trying to form a face. The cap is plastic, and it’s opened by a complex procedure that we had to have performed by the salesperson, who punched some kind of attached peg into it. The bottle is divided by a partial partition into lower and upper segments, and the latter contains (don’t ask us why) a clear marble. It may sound like a choking hazard, but a plastic ring secured around the rim keeps it from popping out and into your throat. Once the drink is drunk, you can, with a bit of effort, rip off the ring to remove the marble, and then you can choke on it if you really want to.

Also next to the entrance was a little museum exhibiting artifacts from the age of the samurai, who were ensconced in these hillside tombs. In a side room, youngsters and not-so-youngsters are able to dress up in full samurai gear for a photo op. It seemed too good to pass up, but we ultimately passed it up anyway, because several kids were in line for the makeover, and the wait would have been at least half an hour.

We just didn’t want to impose on our hosts to this extent – especially since Yukari was waiting out in the van. (Cultural note: when the Japanese ask if you want to do something and you don’t really want to inconvenience them, do not say, “That’s all right.” While we interpret this as “no thank you”, they evidently interpret it as affirmative.)

Once we were back at home, Toshihide insisted on walking Dennis down to the Pachinko parlor a couple of blocks away to show him how the game is played. Although Toshihide enjoys engaging in the pastime elsewhere, he insisted that he wasn’t fond of this particular location. This, however, did not prevent him from staying there long enough to feed a 1000 yen bill through the machines 3 times. He was particularly drawn to one with an Indiana Jones motif that played the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” march every time a player managed to shoot one of the tiny steel balls into the impossibly tinier hole – which Toshihide actually did rather skillfully, though not quite skillfully enough to come out ahead. The conclusion that Dennis drew from the whole experience was that if you enjoy throwing away money, being bombarded with noise and bathing in cigarette smoke, then Pachinko is definitely your thing.

Our dinner tonight included a bowlful of what appeared to be small potatoes, but turned out to be taro root, which we’d never had before. To enhance our vegetables, we were provided with a special kind of sauce, a type of soy sauce with vinegar, as we understand it. Kimberly elicited acute panic from our hosts when she started to pour some of it on her rice, which apparently would have been a major faux pas if not a cause for being banished into exile. We were so amused by the reaction that Dennis teased them by pretending he was about to dump a dollop of it on his own rice, while laughing demonically. (Actually, he’d already done so earlier when they weren’t looking. It was in fact delicious, and he still hasn’t been struck by a lightning bolt. Shhh!!) Fortunately, they had a sense of humor about the whole thing – as Yukari did when we pointed out the problem with her statement that “Food is on the table, so please eat yourself.” (Heaven knows how many times they’ve refrained from guffawing at one of our awkward attempts to speak Japanese.)

After dark, we went outside and lit some sparklers, just because they were there.

And then we went back inside to play Apples to Apples, which is one of our favorite games. We try it out on everybody we meet, and almost everyone loves it, regardless of age, income, gender or political persuasion. One of the gifts we brought over for our Japanese family was their very own Apples to Apples set, which we figured would be an asset to their study of English. (We gave them the Junior edition, which uses a simpler vocabulary and more common references than the Adult version.) They seemed to enjoy it too, once they got the hang of it; and as always, the game produced moments of utter hilarity. We’re not being paid to promote Apples to Apples, but maybe we should be.

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