There are many ways to measure the distance travelled today. One is by the trains - three total, each subsequently getting smaller and more aged than the last. Another is by English - progressively disappearing from signage and the tips of tongues. And I suppose there’s the old fashioned method of kilometres (not to mention miles, which some scholars might remember as a unit of measurement the ancient Americans relied upon).
Whichever way you look at it, it all adds up to me landing in the car with Hase - my host - who swung by the bus station after work to give me a ride.
As with the train, our road gets narrower and narrower as it gets less and less travelled. The forest is now reaching over us, and the road rises and falls in surrender to the natural curves of the steep hills. That is, until the single lane suddenly ends with the road. We are here.
This is the furthest I’ve been from a convenience store on this trip so far, which is to say I am “out there” by Japanese standards.
A familiar little statue greets us on the stoop, with a sly smile and its classically generous gonads. The first time I noticed these figures was in the Kiso Valley, where they dotted doorsteps throughout the towns. Once you notice them, you start seeing them everywhere. I asked my host about it in Magome and, from what I recall, the conversation went a little something like this:
Me: So, what’s with all the little monster statues along the street? Is it the town mascot or something?
Her: “Errrrm, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Me: Well…they look kind of like a happy mouse - but maybe a cartoon or anime version?
Her: “That doesn’t ring a bell”
Me: But you have one in the garden in front of your house.
Her: Blank stare.
Me: It has…what I suppose might be resembling…big…tes-ticles??!
Her: “Oh! Yes, of course. That’s tanuki.” she finally exclaims with a wide grin.
I guess I’m the shy one here.
Apparently, tanuki (raccoon dogs) are mischief makers that cause trouble. Ceramic likenesses are placed outside of buildings in an attempt to trick the tricksters into believing that the place is already being frequented and they better move along to other opportunities. Outside of Japan, the raccoon dog is probably known best as a character in the old Mario Brothers video games (less the emphasized ball sacs).
Hase introduces me to his father and after a bit of chit-chat, I cast a sidelong glance at tanuki as it would seem he is not the only mischievous one at this residence.
Father is the local priest. The 300 year old temple is immaculate - well built and cared for. Their residence is alongside it, while mine is a separate building (originally grandma’s) alongside theirs.
Hase and his wife recently moved back here after seven years in Tokyo, mainly due to the stress of living in the big city. Now, they have a little three year old running around. Hase works at the sleepy information centre in town, while apprenticing under his father to eventually take over the role of priest.
The din of the city has been left behind, and I am once again able to hear myself think. Fresh air from the forest’s exhale feeds my inhale, and I can feel myself breathe. The shade of the canopy touches my skin, and I can feel…well, a little bit less moist. It’s still a heat wave after all, even at elevation.
Hase briefed me in the car. In short, there’s not much to do out here. There are two shrines within walking distance, but otherwise you need to leave the immediate valley (most people go to Yoshino Town and the namesake mountain). Rain is in the forecast and I am weary, not yet having a chance to fully recover since my bowel “troubles” in Narai. So with two nights planned here I intend to hunker in, rather than venture too far out.
All that’s planned for tomorrow is morning service with the priest; a schedule that is refreshingly simple. And for this evening? Chopping veggies in my little kitchen with my new knife.