"For Your Just" - written on a store ad
Some people say there's a kind of peer pressure felt on social media to have a feed full of fun and smiles no matter how sad or rotten you are on the inside. I don't feel that as peer pressure, but I'm rather reluctant to put anything less than happy and bubbly up for public view. I don't think twice about it, until someone mentions how happy I must be, when I haven't been really feeling that way. Or what a fun-filled life I've been living, when I'm actually just as stuck as anyone else under the shadow of Covid-19.
I'm a very social person, and since I haven't been able to see my real friends for a year now, I've been getting closer with my neighbors and my husband's family. I haven't spent a night anywhere where there have been any cases of Covid in that city. I'm lucky I live near a mountain where I can just go lose myself in nature when I have nothing better to do. And I have hobbies at home to keep me company. And I have a very demanding job that takes up all those little scraps of free time here and there that I used to relax in. So I'm not going to complain that Covid has destroyed my life or anything; that's simply not true. But that doesn't mean I'm living my life oblivious to the disease and that doesn't mean I'm not lonely.
The other day I got very lonely. It was a national holiday - labor day - and my husband was supposed to get off of work to be with me, but he couldn't. Feeling lonely with all my plans for the day destroyed, I had him drop me off somewhere where I could watch the sunrise.
"How are you going to get back from here?"
"With my own two Kamoshika legs."
He got the nuance. I'm a mountain goat at heart. Off I go.
I didn't walk home, though. I walked straight. I walked until the road turned up a mountain. I walked until I was on a path strewn with oak leaves and mushrooms growing along the sides. I walked until I found a quaint little farmhouse with a field stretched before it full of birds pecking for food in the morning light.
I walked until I got to a crossroads. One way said, "To the amusement park" and another way said, "To the firefly valley." The third way had no sign, so I went that way. As I walked, I felt something falling away from me. Something that had been clouding my mind. After a minute, I realized what I was missing.. On choosing the unmarked road, I'd given up my inner voice of time management, my inner voice that tries to figure out where I'm going, and the inner voice that likes to tell me I've made the wrong decision. My mind was free! I didn't know where I was, or where I was going, or how long it would take me to get somewhere. I was no longer lonely, I was looking forward to adventure!
Terribly excited, I kept walking. When I saw something interesting here or there, I went up a hill, or followed a footpath through some trees, or circled a pond. Sometimes I saw someone else walking. Sometimes I followed them and sometimes I decided to leave them alone. Finally I ended up at the top of a hill in the middle of a graveyard. It seemed like a dead end to all my wandering. The path stopped and for the first time I'd have to retrace my steps and actually think about which direction to go on. But first, I thought I'd take one picture of a row of Jizo statues that stood on their little feet with their little red bibs that probably some elderly volunteer had taken the time to make for them. As I moved to a different angle to take a picture, I noticed a path behind them going down into a bamboo forest.
I felt like this was an omen.
The path led me to an abandoned, derelict house. Rooftiles had fallen off on one side. I sorted through them and took one home with me (an awkwardly heavy souvenir for my husband). I paid homage to any ghosts that might have been watching, and then I sauntered down a little more until I came to a tiny stream weaving between houses and a little bridge that came with a sign claiming it as a cultural point of interest. Over the bridge, a street ran straight up the hill, lined with trees and dotted with sculptures. It seems something promising would be at the end. Then I came to the base of a long staircase and heard the whistle of a traditional Japanese flute. To my right I saw a giant stone lantern which had a top that resembled the bud of a lotus flower.
I hurried up and found the whole side of a hill transformed into a place of worship. Lengths of stairs lead up to various temples, shrines, and pagodas. There were large trees shedding red and yellow leaves, and little gardens set up in corners or between buildings to add to the atmosphere.
An announcement over a loudspeaker stated that something was starting in 10 minutes. I looked at my watch and it was almost 10am. I wasn't sure what was happening, so I went around the shrine and stopped to pray at one of the larger temples. Almost no one was there, leaving my ears open to the sounds of nature around me. Ping! Ping! Ping! What was that? At first I thought it was footsteps from within the temple. But the noises sounded irregularly. Ping! Pong! Pop! Something hit my shoulder. I looked down and saw an acorn. The trees were shedding acorns and they were hitting the roof and rolling down in an almost musical way. I put the one that hit me in my pocket and sat in front of the temple to listen to the sounds of falling acorns.
At precisely 10:00, a new sound rumbled in from somewhere down below me. It was the beat of a drum. After a moment, the voice of a man accompanied it in the familiar chanting tones of any Japanese religious ceremony. I realized what that announcement had been! The morning prayer service!
I walked all over the shrine and temple grounds while listening to that chant humming through the air and the beat of the drums making vibrations in my body. As I climbed some stone steps toward a pagoda, the beating became louder and the chanting turned into solid tones rolling out from deep in the priest's throat. The drumming sped up, and I imagined the drumming throwing his sticks at his instrument in violent rapture. The tones of the voice were no longer words, but a focal point for worshippers to concentrate on and fill their awareness. The trees full of red and orange leaves shivered overhead. Acorns rained down on the roofs. It seemed that every corner of the temple grounds was caught up in prayer.
As the prayer began to dwindle to an end, I caught sight of a large stone with a poem carved into it. This led me to a path going up a mountain lined with these poems. I kept following the path and it drew me on, away from the temple and to the top of the mountain. At the top was a worn map and a twisted pine tree. A kite (the bird, not the toy) perched on top of the tree, but on seeing me it spread its massive wings and took flight. I stood there for a while in wonder at the world.
The logical side of my brain told me that my adventure was over and it was time to retrace my steps. I struggled with that thought a while and finally pushed it away.
"You haven't packed a lunch. You'll get lost and starve."
"It's only 10:30. I've got nothing else to do today."
"No one knows where you are."
"You'll regret it if you go back now."
So I went down the other side of the mountain, following what seemed to be a hiking trail. I followed this trail a good hour, never quite rising above the trees to see where I was, and mostly moving down into valleys I'd never been to before. At one point, scaling down the mountain involved keeping a tight grip on ropes tied to trees. At another point the trail petered off into an old dam that had crumbled and stones lay haphazardly on top of each other. I realized I must have lost the main path so I went back and found it again.
Eventually the mountains opened up and the trail widened into a paved strip with a guard rail, maybe for electrical maintenance. This led to a very large road cutting into the valley. Having no idea where I was, I pondered on whether to go up or down for a moment. Finally I settled on down and after a few turns, found the outskirts of civilization at last. A crude sign written on a broken board claimed that a train station was up ahead, but the name of the station had worn off. Several signs pointed back the way I'd come, heading for Yuga Shrine. The road forked and forked again with no hint at which road would take me to the station. Finally I found a little marker on the road saying that a little local cafe was somewhere in the area. A landmark! I took out my phone and found the cafe, then I was able to orient myself on where to go.
That's how I eventually found my way to Kimi Station, which I'd never heard of before. Similar to my own town, the train only comes once an hour. By the time I'd gotten there, I'd missed the train by 6 minutes.
I called up my awesome neighbor, Mr. Ono. He's always around town, taking care of property, town council affairs, helping out his friends.
"Ono-san, do you want to have lunch together?"
"Sure that sounds great! I'll come by your place and pick you up."
"Wonderful! But I'm not at home, I'm at Kimi Station."
"What? Never heard of it!"
"Me either. But I walked here and I don't know how to get home."
"All right stay put, I'll find it."
"Thank you so much!!"
Mr. Ono ended up taking me out for sushi and I relayed my day's adventures to him. He told me long ago, people took long pilgrimages to Yugasan. They would start at a point not far from my house and go over the mountains to reach the shrine and temple. There used to be a train station called Yuga Station, so that pilgrims would know where to get off.
That was a lovely adventure and well worth it.