Tuesday, 4 May 2004

Get well soon

First up this week goes to my uncle William. I got an email from my mother at the backend of last week to say that William, or uncle William as I know him, has recently had an operation for bowel cancer. The offending bits have been removed and all, apparently, is well as can be expected. So come along William, get well soon, that sort of thing, soon have you up and about. And, whilst we're here, hats off to the NHS as apparently they went from first inkling to recovery bed in less than a month. Well done. This leads in no way at all to...


As mentioned last week, the guru and I had a jaunt to Nagano pref. and Kamikochi in particular last week as part of the Golden Week hols, which come to an all too soon end tomorrow evening. Nagano is a jolly sort of prefecture, all outdoors stuff, hearty pursuits and even heartier foodstuffs (bear meat stew, anyone?) and was, of course, the site of the winter olympics in 1998, more of which later. In the two days that we were away we visited a temple, Zenkoji, looked at a bog that is particularly famous for flowers, did the kamikochi thing and even got to visit a winery. So first up was...


Zenkoji is a jolly important temple for all things Buddhist, as associated halls in the temple grounds are the headquarters of a number of Zen sects such as the Jodo and the Tendai, which means that pretty much every Japanese person has heard of it. Interestly, there is also a family connection. The guru's family, on her mother's side, come from Nagasaki prefecture, home to the famous city (for all the wrong reasons) and the family owns, or runs (I'm not really sure which) a temple on one of the many islands just off the coast of the prefecture. The bit of the famaily that now does the temple thing is quite a way removed, but had the guru's mother been born a boy, then he would now be head priest or something, but as she was a woman and women can't be priests, it went to another branch (pay attention, I will be asking questions later!).

Anyway, the family temple was part of one of the sects that held Zenkoji as important and so all of the members of the family that went into the priesthood went at some stage of their training to Zenkoji to receive instruction in how to be a good monk, or whatever it is that they learn at that time. I keep having images of David Carradine in Kung Fu spring unbidden into my mind's eye as to the sort of thing they learn. I know it isn't true, of course, but that is the power of television. (It's either that or Monkey, take your pick...)

So it was good to visit there and have a poke about. The best thing about the place is a great way of scamming money from people. For 500yen you can walk the path of enlightenment. What you do is walk down some stairs into a passage way underneath the temple. It is completely dark, not a flicker of light to guide you, so you walk and, with your right hand, feel along the wall trying to find the key to Buddha. Once you find and touch the key, which sits directly under the statue of the Buddha, you will attain paradise. So, walk through a dark passage, find the key and you will be eternally blessed. Seems like a pretty useful way to use that oh-so-difficult area beneath the temple. Martha would be proud. This sounds a tad irreverent, I know, but I really do think they have hit on a good way to get some more cash out of people, it's original, so why not. During the walk in the dark you are meant to let go of worldly concerns. I failed as I was very concerned with the decidedly worldly issues of not smacking my head into something, not stubbing my toes and not walking into the person in front of me. Must try harder next time.

The bog

Not much to say really. We went to this bog, it is famous for flowers but as Nagano is emergent from winter, especially up in the mountains, there wan't much in the way of flowers to be seen. Nice try though. And the melting snow was pretty in a last-vestiges-of-winter kind of way. No really.


We stayed the night in Hakuba which was made famous by the 1998 olympics. It was something a little bit personal for me as it is related with one of the best experiences as a gaijin in Japan. I remember that, on that fateful day in 1998 I had gone to the gym in the morning before going off to teach in the afternoon, this was at the Sports Square in Gyotoku. The morning sessions were always very low key affairs as the gym was full of older and retired folk, mainly as everyone else, except English teachers, was at work by 11am. Anyway, as usual the tv screens were showing sports and on this day it was the team ski jumping event. Japan has a decent record in ski jumping and hopes were high. And luckily the chaps didn't let the nation down. As the competetion wore on, more and more people in the gym stopped their pumping of iron (or considering the age group, pumping of hair tonic) and were watching the drama unfold, yours truly included. Now ski jumping is not the most exciting of sports to watch, usually, but this was enthralling and it all came down to the last jump of the competition by a Japanese veteran, Fukuda I think, who had fluffed an earlier jump and fluffed something in the individual competition and it all came down to him and the snow was falling heavily and the wind was blowing strongly and they thought they might have to cancel the competition but no he said I'll jump and in best disney style he did and he flew and he flew and he flew and he did it and they won and the gym erupted and we danced and they cried and we all hugged and for the briefest of tiny flickers I felt part of Japanese society because we were all united in our happiness at the reult of the team ski jumping competition. And then composure reasserted itself.

So we went to Hakuba and we saw where it all happened and now I have an even more profound and deep respect for anyone willing to throw themselves off a mountain like that. Mad, the lot of them.


The following day we went to Kamikochi. It is a lovely place where the overstressed denizens of Tokyo and other big cities can get away from it all and be closer to nature.

With 12,000 other people.

But that's not really being fair. Everyone knows it is a popular place and therefore is going to be busy, especially on the first saturday of the golden week holidays. That's why the people who really want to get away from it all take the bus to the car park and then head off into the mountains for some real hiking, which I really wanted to do and had some real angst issues that I couldn't and then I looked up into the mountains and then looked again at the equipment the hikers had and realised that they weren't hikers at all but were climbers with serious gear (ice axes, crampons, rope and abseil equipment) and thought "ah, maybe into June or July would be more appropriate for me". The mountains around Kamikochi are in the 3000m range, about double anything I've ever climbed before and looked like they had some serious 'up'.

So like evryone else we did the walk up the river valley, we marvelled at the scenery and breathed in the deliciously clean and fresh air and tied to blot out all the other people (as they, I'm sure, tried to do with us). And it was good, in itself, but am now getting very itchy 'climbing' feet. But at least we got to visit the...


Ever tried Japanese wine?


They make nice grape flavour ice creams though.

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