Monday, 16 June 2008

Taking Direction(s)

On Friday afternoon I received an invitation from a student to watch a local Kagura festival. Though I've been to several of these Shinto celebrations before, I was eager to see this one, knowing that it would be the last before my return to Canada.

As I had never heard of the shine where it was being held, I dropping into my supervisors office and asked if he could draw me a map. "Mmahhh!" he cried ambiguously and proceeded to pour over several resources. At long last we found the shine. "Woo woo," he said, looking baffled. "It's muzukashi (difficult)!"

"No, no," I assured him, "Just up this road I think," I pointed to a route off the main highway next to the dam. It appeared to twist and turn a bit into the mountains.
My super looked scandalized "No! Not here!" He laughed as a way of letting me know I was young and foolish in all things map-related and pulled the map towards him. "Here," he pointed. "Zupe zupe zupe."

This was the sound of his finger tracing the alleged path I was to take. The "zupe" referred, incidentally, to the zig-zagging path I was to follow through the mountains. When I looked for myself I noted that part of the map was missing. Rallying all his efforts (the ladies in the office), he proceeded to create a collage-like map by photocopying and gluing bits of the map together from various sources. The end result was magnificent: before me was a gigantic re-creation of the region, large enough even that I could possibly have driven ON the map to get there.

My supervisor has lived in the far reaches of the mountains for the majority of his life. And so, on Sunday afternoon I set forth in search of the shrine.

As I heaved my car up the most daunting mountain pass ever created by man it began to rain. It was a romantic sort of drizzle that ushered an eldritch fog over the entire mountain. The road seemed to narrow, too, as I drove up and up and up. It was an old road, built perhaps for the sole purpose of employing some delinquent public works servant. In many places the road was so narrow that if another car had come down the mountain towards me (and I was sure no car would) one or the other would be forced to back up or down the mountain several meters in order for the other to pinch by.

It was around the time that I began to consider whether it was safer to be wearing a seatbelt if my car took a sudden turn off the cliff edge, or whether it would be better to be buckled in for the thousand foot roll, that I came to a fork in the road.

"This can't be right" I said out loud, because by now I was quite lonely and quite scared and wanted the comfort of at least my own voice. I gazed at the map and found that I had entered the formidable "missing" patch of surveyed terrain. No matter, someone had simply drawn the missing patch in with a thick black pen, and I soon realized this was where I lay.

I contemplated the scene. And then I contemplated my life a little too; death and other things crossed my mind. "I should tell someone where I am, just in case," I thought. But then I (laughingly) remembered that not only did people know where I was (precisely), but had personally directed me to my impending doom. I decided, perhaps belatedly, to turn back. Literally. I reversed my way down the narrow narrow mountain pass, reaching an edge on the cliff where my car was able to make a ten-point turn and find itself tumbling back down the mountainside.

Back on the main road (breathing for the first time in at least thirty minutes), I did what anyone might do in my situation. I shook my fist at maps, men and folly of every kind and turned towards the dam.

The story ends like this: I had no sooner made a turn off at the dam when the sun shone beautifully, nay, miraculously through the sky (this, by the way, is know as pathetic fallacy). I ascended a road that looked as though it was frequented by cars, and which took me almost soothingly up the mountain to a quiet shrine, tucked restfully back in the woods.

Perhaps it is a test of worthiness, a shinto custom, to track down these remote shrines. After all, I have never known one to be easy to find. Indeed, as I took my place among the (surprised) elderly crowd, I thought that I might be on to something: Shinto is sometimes translated as the way of the gods, or the philosophical way, after all.

Truth be told, a great deal of philosophical thought had crossed my mind as I searched high and low that day (mostly high...). It seems no coincidence either that shintoism revolves around a reverence for nature. Here, tucked into these remote and seemingly inaccessible places, you truly have to respect the path that takes you there.

... A bit of sake, pictures with the local oba-chans, and a gleeful hug from one of my favorite students were by far worth the journey.

Thus, having escaped death yet again, I thus lived to see another day, somewhat wiser and certainly more vigilant...

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