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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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[DC notes to self and others in brackets]

Chapter 3

April 29, 1988   -   RIDES TO HOGOJI [Shogoji]


The bus from Kikuoka had to stop while going around a blind curve.  The driver could see a truck coming the other way thanks to the round, convex, tire-sized mirror mounted on an orange pole on the creek side of the bend.  Blessedly, the mirror also worked from the other vehicle's direction and I was relieved to see it stopped too in plenty of time.  While the truck backed up I looked above us up the steep verdant embankment, all covered in a heavy metal mesh that looked like giant cyclone fencing.  With his white-gloved hands firmly on the wheel, the driver slowly, carefully maneuvered the bus around the turn, managing neither to scrape the truck nor slip a wheel over the gravel edge on the left.  Then we were back motoring up the left side of the road, mysteriously passing oncoming vehicles without collision even though there clearly wasn't enough room for the two of us to get by.

 It was the twenty-ninth of April, the Emperor Showa's birthday and a national holiday.  I'd heard the Emperor's brief address to the nation that morning on the TV in the bus station coffee shop where I had breakfast in Kikuoka.  He was a dignified old fellow.  The lady who runs the place and I listened to him respectfully.  One guy just glanced up from his newspaper and then went back to reading.  There was a lonely looking gal in blue jeans on the video poker game who never stopped to pay him mind.  He's come a long way since the living-god days.

Putting a microphone to his thin lips, the bus driver called out over the tinny speaker system the name of the next stop.  His voice had a forced, high nasal quality that mesmerized me with its strangeness.  After thirty minutes of going up the wild rocky river from Kikuoka past occasional bridges and old farm houses stuck back in valleys in the lovely low mountains, exceedingly green and spotted with tall bamboo groves, we came to a stop where the road butted into another.  I recognized the name the driver called out, even in his brand of schnozzle-ese.  Ryumon.  He assumed that was where I was going and turned around to see if I was aware we'd arrived.  A few of the handful of other passengers smiled and looked at me with interest.  An old lady asked if I was going to Hogoji and, when I answered affirmatively, she put her palms together and said, "Gambatte kudasai," a polite encouragement to throw myself into it.

I thanked her as well as the driver, who thanked me too, and I was left standing on the roadside with two brown stuffed L.L. Bean bags, a big one and a small.  I had been lugging those monsters plus a duffel bag across Japan.  Thank goodness I'd sent the latter ahead.  The two I gripped felt like they were indeed full of beans and my lower back hurt, as it had for days.  I was afraid of throwing it out in a painful spasm, which could leave me temporarily paralyzed at the edge of the asphalt.  "I should have taken a taxi," I said out loud to a passing crow.  I thought the turnoff to Hogoji wasn't far down the road but I wasn't going to tempt the devil and tote the bags more than I had to.  I also didn't want to stand there all day.

A car approached and impulsively I stuck out my thumb.  It went on by.  Ah heck.  Then I remembered what my friend Bop in Kyoto had told me about hitchhiking in Japan.  He said it was easy but that they didn't use the extended thumb method.  What was it now, oh yeah - you just put your hand up and sort of half wave and half signal them to stop.  A white mini pickup truck came from the bend the bus had disappeared around and I attempted the proper technique, stepping out almost in front of the oncoming vehicle raising my hand and, lo and behold, it did stopped.[??]

The taciturn old farmer who picked me up wouldn't say if he was going my way, but he took a left up the mountain after a kilometer or so.  The turn was right in the middle of a small village with tile-roofed wooden buildings both new and old surrounded by walls of clay and walls of cinder block.  There was a small sign that said something was one point six kilometers away, the something being written in kanji, the last of which I recognized to be the character for temple.  One point six kilometers adds up to a mile - not far.  The road climbed up alongside a mountain creek that cascaded into the stone filled river we'd skirted to that point.  Up creek not a hundred feet there was a thirty foot waterfall, glimpsed through the trees as we drove by.  The small trees coming up from the creek bed looked like poplars and some of the large ones were definitely sycamore which grow along creeks all over California.  We continued the steep winding climb past rice paddies and groves of sugi, a type of cedar that is planted to harvest all over these mountains.  Everything was so wet and green.  It was getting lovelier and lovelier but I was becoming tense.  Looking down into the valley I reflected on freedom in nature and remembered the nature of monasteries is to restrict one's physical freedom in order to assist in the pursuit of mental freedom, true liberation, I told myself unconvincingly.  [Suzuki] My old teacher used to call it putting a snake into a bamboo tube.  The truck went around a tight switchback as I held on tightly. The old guy stopped his pickup on a wide bend in the road at a ten foot high black stone which had those same Chinese characters on it that I'd seen at the bottom of the hill.  Must be Hogoji, I thought.  I got out, retrieved my bags from the back and thanked him several times as politely as I could.  He just nodded, pulled into a turnout and drove back down the hill.

I looked up a long expanse of steps shaded by sugi.  These steps were made of rough hewn beams the size of railroad ties.  The landing of each step was a yard deep, two wide and filled with reddish brown cedar bark.  Cautiously carrying my bags, not making any quick moves for the sake of my lower back, I moved up toward the sunlight.  When I reached the top of the steps, I walked out on a gravel path to a well-tended lawn surrounded by short pruned hedges.  I stood in the breeze and admired a round cement monument on an elevated area.  Above and below were terraced fields in countless shades of green.

Accompanied by a quadraphonic chorus of swallows, acrobatically catching insects on the wing, and the high buzz of an unseen weed eater from the rice paddies below, I slowly crossed this open area to a narrow asphalt road with mountain runoff gushing down wood troughs on both sides.  I entered the shade of a pine grove guarded by oaks, put the bags down for a moment and groaned in relief.  Beyond a clump of large rocks surrounded by swirls of gravel, there was an old house.  It was shadowy and mysterious and I looked at it uncomfortably as I trudged up a long flight of stone steps in stages with my load of beans.

Stepping onto a stone path in a sunny flat raked gravel area, I sighed and set the bags down, lifted my head and saw those old temple buildings for the first time.  The air smelled so wet and fresh - of vegetation, of spring - but with a touch of... of something musty, ah, of course, incense.  What a wonderful, hidden spot, I thought, and shuddered in mixed anticipation and dread of the time that lay ahead.