Sunday, April 04, 2004

OKIJIMA I: The boat in the forested cove, signs of the Pure Land

This morning a Monaco-type drive over a lakeshore distance we thought would take an hour-- Okijima always unreachable in the far offing from our house windows, had grown so far away in our minds-- the last stretch, 6 twisting kilometers beyond the little village where 808-step-stairway Chomei-ji Temple is located (and where I used to buy the great traditional black cinnamon candies the local grandmas make), along an old and twisting narrow peninsula shore road overhung with long festoons of blooming cherry tree branches, a tunnel of pink cherry blossoms in the early morning sun, we had the pedal to the metal so arrived early at the boat in the forested cove.

Every two hours the boat leaves for the island, just a small passenger busboat for maybe 30 or 40 folks (only 400 yen one way!), it was half-full this morning, a few tourists, mostly island farmer ladies coming back from early shopping in the big city for among other things fine quality plastic buckets, we sat outside on the back deck to see the island as we approached it like the other side of the moon, we never see this side from our house, and as the island loomed there were ducks on and above the water, hawks, seagulls and cormorants in windy spray as the boat headed straight for Buddha's shoulder. Then a quick turn and reverse, few fillips of the helm and there we were: on Okijima.

The first thing we did was wander the very narrow streets on Buddha's neck (alleys really, on most of them you have to turn sideways to pass another person), trying to tend toward the opposite shore of the neck whence we could see the range of mountains where we live, view our usual here-now-there from our everyday there-now-here. It was wonderfully difficult to move on, though, the alleyways beckoning this way and that along the sea and up the slopes, many of the sudden buildings still richly aged, with walls like elderfaces grown in wisdom and character to the essence of beauty in response to the weather, but fading nonetheless, may not be there next time, so had to be looked at carefully, the way we used to look at Kyoto before it disappeared...

As we walked up and down the alleys and stairways that led to temples and forests, stopping every here and there to look at something of interest, the while hunting for the minshuku (a kind of B&B; there are two on the island), I felt something niggling, something unfamiliar, something slightly irritating, like a pointless gesture repeated endlessly, then I realized what it was: there were no cars or trucks on the island! Not even a motor could be heard! Even in those narrow alleys I had been listening and sensing behind me as we walked, being cautious of approaching vehicles to no point whatsoever; the silence and quietness, the rambling folks and rich air were other clues my deeper mind had noted but my surface mind had overlooked in traveler's distraction. Smiling grandmas cruised by, going to and from their gardens on three-wheelers.

Another thing I noted (and envied) from the casual and open way of the gardens, and as I later confirmed by talking to one elder fisherman sitting on a seawall in the sun making fish traps, the Okijima islanders are blessed with a blissfully complete lack of monkeys. No deer either; their biwa trees and spinach thrive in the freedom sought by all living things. Crows love their cabbage, though; the islanders' scarecrows are old rubber gloves on sticks, rising from the earth among the swelling cabbage-heads like resurrecting gardeners... A bonus of the fisherman's generous conversation is that now I know how to make fish traps.

As we tended toward the other shore for the here/there experience, wandering down one alleyway and taking a couple of turnings much as if in a maze, we came upon a small temple named Seifuku-ji, before which stood a wooden sign that spoke of the temple's strong connection to Rennyo Shonin! Amazingly, and by sheer coincidence, our trail had crossed that of the renowned Pure Land monk of the 15th century, who as it turned out played a key role in the little-known Okijima ghost story we were about to hear, to be told once more in Part II...

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