Enoshima: Dragons and Goddesses

img_9005This is the “island” of Enoshima, southwest of Yokohama and Tokyo. I say “island” because there is a wide road and bridge that cover the narrow strip of sea between the island and the coast. It feels very connected to the mainland.

I’m writing this as a quick aside, since I have a lot to write and I don’t want to forget about my first real “touristy” jaunt out from Yokohama.

Before I elaborate on the island itself, let me encourage any tourist going to Enoshima to buy the Enopass, or island pass. It’s 1000 yen (about $10), and it lets you on all the island’s “special” attractions, including the sea candle and gardens. It also lets you take the escalators, but more on that in a moment. You can buy it from the tourist office before you go under the overpass and cross the bridge. Facing the island, it is on the right hand side of the road.

Enoshima houses shrines to the sea goddess, Benten (or Benzaiten), and the five-headed dragon that she tamed and/or married, depending on the story. Benten is the goddess of music, wealth, knowledge, and good fortune (small wonder she is still very popular), and to the best of my knowledge she is one of a small handful of deities that is depicted naked – at least one of her forms is (Benzaiten Myoon).

img_8903

Ancient history holds that Enoshima itself was formed upon Benten’s arrival to earth, marked by an impressively long earthquake. She came to earth because a monstrous five-headed dragon was terrorizing the Japanese people. Benten is no Artemis, however. She did not destroy the dragon.  Upon her arrival the dragon was so taken with her that he wanted to marry her. Benten refused because the dragon was being a total prick to the Japanese people, and so the dragon ceased terrorizing, and changed his ways. And Benten maybe married him after all. As a story, I like the easiness of it. I preferred this version to the second version I heard, which made it sound like Benten sacrificed herself and married the dragon to save the people.

img_9013

 

 

And I liked Enoshima. It reminded me of all the ancient shrines I climbed in China, in many ways. Packed streets, vendors lining the walkways, steep stairs – this is an “easy” island to navigate, but in order to see everything, you have to climb up, then down, then up again. There are temples and shrines, though they’re on the modest size. You can watch tourists wash their money before offering it to Benten. The line to pray at her shrine was long, but her sanctum, which houses her sacred statue, was deserted. The Enopass gets you a discount on entering that latter shrine. It smelled of sandalwood, and there were oranges set in front of her statue (photography is strictly prohibited). Though small, it carried a great deal of spiritual weight – perhaps more so than the giant money bag shrine with the line, because it was a more intimate space.

img_9023

 

To get to the different levels of the island, you have to climb. This is where the escalators come in handy. They’re only one way – up – but they get you all the way to the top of the island. From here, you can go through the gardens and climb the Sea Candle (it’s a lighthouse). The line to get to the top of the Sea Candle was modestly long, but the Japanese are very efficient about getting into and out of elevators, and we only waited around twenty minutes to get up. The view is pleasant – not spectacular, but then you need pleasant views or you wouldn’t know the spectacular when you saw it, right? On a good day you can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was cloudy on our visit, and there was a powerful, terrific wind blowing. I felt a small rush, standing up in the wind overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s such a vast expanse of inhospitable salt water, but it’s beautiful because it’s remote, despite our best efforts.

img_9027

After some climbing down, and down again, we found the two primary caves that house the ancient holy statues. In the back of one of the dimly lit caves is a statue of the formidable dragon who had a change of heart. There is a sign there that says when you toss money and bow, if you see a specific number of “flashes” your wish will or will not come true. I offered my money, made my wish, and bowed, and no matter who disputes it, I definitely saw two flashes – one from a camera, one from a light bulb. It counts, and my wish will hopefully come true now. Rules are rules, otherwise I’d post my wish here.

Food wise, I say skip the “pickles” offered along the way – they’re not real pickles, and they’re not cucumbers. They’re some strange halfway thing that was neither briny nor crisp enough. If you’re into seafood, there are plenty of shops offering fish crackers, in addition to the many squid-on-a-stick vendors. And even in the wind and bluster, I enjoyed some soft-serve ice cream. I heartily endorse buying weird soft-serve. Here, I’ve seen some odd flavor choices (mustard seed comes to mind). I had black vanilla, and it was delicious.

I don’t know how many more shrine trips I’ll be taking. Not only is my workweek shaping up to be busy, but I’m hitting a saturation point on shrines. I know I’ve written about this before, but I think the temples and shrines become a little bit like churches back home. This is not to say that they are not beautiful, or that they all look the same. But when there is a shrine or temple in every town, it takes something a bit more to really make a trip worthwhile. Something like dragons and goddesses, maybe…

img_8910

Here is a useful page about getting to and from Enoshima, if you’re so inclined.

Ancient

Kyoto: Nara and Inari

Oh, my feet are bleeding tonight. I have a blister on my heel that makes me want to weep a little.

It’s all Inari-sama’s fault, but I’ll get to that.

We left early in the morning to go to Nara. As I mentioned, I was in Japan because I wanted to help a friend complete a lifelong dream. I didn’t know very much about Japan, but after some research I determined there was one thing that I really wanted to see – the sacred deer at the Nara temple. I wanted to see Kyoto, as I am fascinated by religions and spirituality, but as someone who grew up visiting Deer Forest every year, I knew that I simply had to see these sacred creatures.

Getting to Nara required using the trains, which was fine by me, as with the Rail Pass they were free via the JR Nara line. It’s a fair distance to Nara from Kyoto, so it’s better to leave earlier in the morning. The cold crept around my edges, and I lamented how inaccurate all the weather prediction services were about Kyoto temperatures. It got down into the low forties, and took most the day to warm up.

At Nara, we are greeted by a giant screen of an animated dancing deer. In fact, the whole walk up to the temple (maybe half a mile) is full of dancing deer, animated deer, stuffed deer, bobble-headed deer. The holy deer apparently have cornered the market on tourist goods, as they are on everything from socks to sake sets. After a uphill sloping climb, we reached the first series of pagodas and temples, and the first set of deer.

IMG_3111

The welcoming deer did not make a good impression – they were fat, and their antlers were sawed down (an annual ritual done in the fall as I understand). Their winter coats were coming off in patches, reminding me of my German shepherd when he needs brushing. They looked, sadly, rather ratty. In the harsh morning light, I wondered if perhaps I had been misled about the deer, about the site in general. The gravel roads and paths didn’t seem all that impressive, and I saw no markers to the largest wooden structure in the world, Daibutsu-den/ Todaiji Temple.

It turns out, that when entering from the JR Nara station, walking up Sanjodori St., the entrance is a little more modern. In order to get to the actual Nara site, one must walk past the five story pagodas and the Nara National Museum. Things livened up there – more people, more sites, more deer. So if you find yourself in Nara, don’t get discouraged by the ragtag welcoming committee. There’s simply a little more walking ahead of you.

“Deer biscuits” (flat cookies) cost 150 yen – roughly $1.50, and you will want to buy more than one package, as the deer are tenacious. Some are gentle, but true to the warnings there were small herds that figured out that mobbing a person would force them to drop their biscuits faster. There are even signs that warn about these rogue deer. Watching all the people trying to pet the deer, feed the deer, and generally get pestered by the deer, it got me to wondering again about symbolism. Like the samurai teachers last night, I wondered if these sacred deer still held any significance to the people? Were they just touristy gimmicks now, relics to be photographed and fed? Or did they retain some of their spiritual weight?

Then a deer decided my plastic bag might have food in it, and we got into a tug-of-war. I’m rural, so I didn’t panic, though I did get some laughs. Later, I found a nice one that just wanted a chin scratch. We walked to Daibutsu-den together.

 

Daibutsu-den is massive – the world’s largest wooden structure, housing an immense bronze Buddha. I couldn’t do it justice in my pictures – the vast scope of the interior proved impossible to fit into my screen. I’ve burned enough incense across the width of China to no longer find Eastern architecture as new as I did before, but there was something graceful and yet sturdy in Daibutsu-den. B. commented as we left that if I had told him that structure was there, he wouldn’t have been so reluctant to come and see the Nara deer (which he fed all the same).

IMG_3213

I got a yam to eat. I know that sounds utterly simple of me, but I actually missed being able to buy street potatoes.

On the train heading back, I suggested we stop at the Inari shrine, which is supposedly the single best thing to see when in Kyoto. It was along the line, and would save us having to back track on our last day. Brendan agreed.

This is where things took a turn for the competitive. Inari Mountain has a series of red prayer gates, built to bless families and individuals. There was a short walk and a long walk. We opted, after the short walk, to climb. There were fewer people that way, and more options for photos. Then there was an overlook, and wouldn’t it be nice to see the city from the overlook? And of course, there was another landing after some more gates, and then we were so close to the top…you see where this is going. I had not worn my hiking shoes, and a mountain is a mountain, even if it’s decorated with beautiful red gates all the way to the top.

We inadvertently climbed Inari mountain. I don’t like giving up, and even though I’d been walking all day, I wasn’t going to say I almost climbed to the top. No guts, no glory. So up another landing, make an offering at another fox shrine, walk under gates, pause at next landing, pray at a fox shrine. Take a picture. Reflect on tourism and spirituality.

Towards the top, I started talking to the fox statues, started blaming them for teasing me up the mountain. “This is all your fault, Inari-sama!” “Curse you, Inari-sama!”

Inari = fox
Inari-sama = Sir Fox (I made this up, I think. I was very tired, but I liked it)

IMG_3300

Tee-hee!  Climb higher!

Sama is a term of respect, though by the time we reached the summit of the mountain my foot was blistering fiercely and I’d worn a hole in a sock. The view was beautiful, but it is not a climb for the timid. And standing at the top of Inari Mountain, watching the setting sun, I realized that I was only halfway done. I still had to descend. Thank goodness the Japanese put vending machines everywhere. Seriously, everywhere. And while there isn’t always water, there is usually a tea or juice. That saved my spirit.

The saddest part of the day was again at the close. The path down deposited us not at the main gate, but in a residential area strangely detached from everything. I worked out how to generally get back to the main site (and the train), and there were still food stalls out. Famished, I went to buy a custard fish (which is a cake shaped like a fish filled with custard). The man wouldn’t sell me the last one – he was closed. My face did nothing to persuade him.

So now I sit on my tatami mat, fishless. My foot is bleeding, and my legs hurt. According to my phone, I walked tens of thousands of steps, and climbed almost seventy flights of stairs. I might have overdone it on day three.

I am a completionist. It’s why I’ll never finish Skyrim.

Between the two, Inari was more beautiful, but those Nara deer were far easier to handle.

Mussels at Montmatre, Macaroons at Midnight

Winding up Paris, I went to Montmatre. An elevated section of Paris, Montmatre’s largest monument is Sacre-Cœur Cathedral.

IMG_5075

I think it manages the feat of being imposing no matter the weather or background. Boring gray skies or bright fluffy clouds, the cathedral on a hill always looks solemn and secure. The interior holds a glorious mosaic dome and some stunning masonry. You can’t take pictures inside Sacre-Cœur, but I am comfortable with that. It helps the place keep some mystery. While I believe that no cathedral can match the Gothic soulfulness of Notre Dame in terms of spiritual design, I have to give credit to the Montmatre Cathedral for being a working spiritual site. I’m not sure if that’s very clear, so I’ll try to explain.

When I enter Notre Dame, I can feel the work that went in to trying to reach God. There’s a sense of effort and toil in the dark archways, the vault straining to reach heaven, to allow for prayers to find the Almighty. I like to imagine I can feel the millions of souls who came to witness its building over the years, the pilgrims on their long marches. However, Notre Dame is now one of the most famous tourist sites in all of Paris. People walk through the halls in a continuous circle, many to photograph the windows or that same vaulted ceiling. They are not there to pray – they’re there to see. This is fine, and as a Catholic I can take a certain measure of pride that my holy buildings can attract so much attention.

In contrast, Sacre-Cœur is a newer cathedral. It does not carry so many centuries of faith on its shoulders. While it welcomes all visitors to see its beautiful interior, it does not allow for photography. When I walk through Sacre-Cœur I’m conscious of the people still praying in the pews. I’m aware of the role of the objects in the space, more than how I could be framing them in my camera phone. In a way, Sacre-Cœur makes me more mindful of the role of a church. Notre Dame makes me proud, and Sacre-Cœur makes me humble.

IMG_5076

It helps that to get to Sacre-Cœur you must climb the steps of Montmatre – nothing humbles like a steep climb. Get off at Metro stop Abbesses and turn left to start the gentle incline upward. You have three options at the base of the stairs – you can either climb the steep stairs straight up (roughly ten sets of fifteen), you can take the garden stairs with the gentler slope, or ride the funicular up the slope at the cost of one metro ticket. If you have bad knees or a wonky hip, there is no shame in taking the funiculaire. If you are my military brother who likes to emphasize his actions by singing the “Top Gun” soundtrack when doing anything, you might as well take the stairs.

Once the haven of artists, free thinkers, and prostitutes, Montmatre is now home to caricature artists, tourists shops, and cafes. When the weather is good one of the plazas is ringed with artists, all painting tiny oils of boulangeries, boring spray painted Parisian skylines, or pencil drawings of monuments which look very much like they did not actually make them. I bought a painting here when I was in high school, at the cost of 45 euros. I can only imagine what they’re charging now – this last trip it was evening and drizzling, so the plaza was bare save for a few brave caricaturists.

IMG_5024

Montmatre is, in my opinion, a good place to buy the cheap Paris trinkets for friends. They’re slightly cheaper than at Notre Dame or the Eifel Tower (I think because not as many people are willing to climb the hill) – so if you want a scarf or a keychain, this is where I recommend going. And don’t go to the large “tourist” store right off the funiculaire. Go to one of the small shops on the side streets leading away from Sacre-Cœur, closer to the artist’s square.

Would you like a keychain?

Would you like a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don't want a keychain?

Ok, are you SURE you don’t want a keychain?

If you go around a mealtime, I recommend eating at La Petaudiare, a piano bar located on the main stretch of shops. It’s roughly two blocks from the artist’s square, a corner. It deals primarily in Italian food – pizza and pasta. It is not fancy, and it is certainly not unique, but I eat there every time I go to Paris. Though it’s no longer on the menu, when I asked they said they still make moules-frites, which is my go to dish at La Petaudiare. They make them in a white wine broth that is creamy but not thick. They also make passable escargot, a dad’s favorite. The wine list is serviceable, the atmosphere dismissive in a Parisian way, save for the excellent piano player who is clearly enjoying his work. Tip him when you come in and he’ll play almost anything for you. I also like it because the prices are quite fair.

IMG_5077

There are other things to do around Montmatre. If you walk down the hill opposite from Abbesses you wind up in one of the more blue-collar markets, filled with knock off shoes and bags. There’s a large collection of fabric stores here as well, and at the end of the street you are not too far from the Moulin Rouge. This establishment is best viewed at night from the outside, as during the day it looks a little sad. Be on the lookout for pickpockets – this is a big area for them. That night, I make the last stop for treats to take back.

My splurge for friends back home are macaroons from La Duree. These tasty cake/cookie confections are pricey, to be sure, yet they are delicious all the same. There are also chocolates, pastries, tarts, coffee, and a cafe should you wish to do more than hit up the macaroon buffet.

IMG_5093 IMG_5089

Though I will say, the buffet is worth it. I recommend buying the night before you fly out, since macaroons don’t keep. There are, of course, other places to buy macaroons, however I think La Duree wins for showmanship. Lovely cardboard boxes, tissue paper – they make it look like you are spending the money you are indeed spending.

Pricey, but worth it.

Pricey, but worth it.

A Plum Bum

Photo 1

 

“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

Photo 9 Photo 5

Photo 4Photo 3

 

We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.

IMG_1444

 

All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.

 

Photo 8 Photo 7

We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.

IMG_1463

Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

Photo 6

They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.

 

PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.

 

Photo 10

 

Emeishan Day 2: The Summit

When I decided I wanted to get to the Golden Summit of Emeishan, I had it in my head that I could hike the whole way. I’ve never been good at judging distances, so ten-thousand feet sounded daunting, but entirely doable. Over a full weekend – two days, with the idea I’d sleep in one of the monasteries along the way.
Then I modified my desire – I wanted to see the sunrise on Golden Summit. It’s supposed to be one of the unparalleled sights in China. This meant getting to the top by Day 1, in theory, or close.
I started at the bottom of the mountain both days. Grudgingly, I admitted I couldn’t climb ten-thousand feet in a couple of hours, and paid to take a bus. Now I’m up in the dark, groggily pulling on clothes and grabbing my two coats. I wait for Vega for fifteen minutes, until I worry about missing the bus and have to leave him behind (to my credit, I called, texted, and knocked at his door). I feel a little bad about it, but just a little. I was very, very clear about my plan after all. The sun will not wait for me.

 

Neither will it wait for smokers. Want to see Jean get cartoon angry? Give her sore legs, a very lofty goal with a strict timer, have people grab her into lines and onto a bus like she’s a suitcase (much easier to pull than try and communicate) and then make her sit through someone’s smoke break. I swear to God, I thought I was going to lose it. The bus was making decent time – the light is growing quickly, but it’s just that pale blue of the potential sun. Then, twenty minutes in, we stop. I think maybe we have to switch buses, but no – outside the men are smoking, the old people are buying cup-a-noodles and steamed corn cobs. Twenty minutes in, and we’re taking a break?! But – the sun! The sun is on a faster schedule! I will not watch the sun rise over this ugly little strip mall on the mountain!

 

We’re off again, careening up the mountain. My ears pop – we’re climbing fast, but so is the light. I can make out individual leaves and trees now. The grey is turning blue. Up and up we go. And when we get to the bus stop, I can see the peak. It’s another thousand feet up – I can see the steep cable cars mounting the distance.
And the loading area is packed with people. Tour guides scream into megaphones, a man lights a cigarette at my shoulder, and everyone is funneling to a single set of stairs. Sometimes I wonder what my version of Hell would be like. I think this would be part of it – the horrid realization that getting up before dawn to see something will not only not yield what I want, but that all the normal hazards of Chinese tourism apply. I let myself get surged forward, souring in temperament further as people spit and smoke.

It's too early for this nonsense. I wanted a moment of transcendence so early, not more shoving and cigarette smoke...

It’s too early for this nonsense. I wanted a moment of transcendence so early, not more shoving and cigarette smoke…

Then I see a woman stop, and have to be taken off the path. Soon I see another person, squatting near a building. I hear it in the breathing of those around me – wheezing and coughing, labored inhalations. We’re around 9000 feet up – the air is a little thinner, and altitude sickness is not to be taken lightly. Oh, I shouldn’t have felt so sanctimonious, but as a man blows cigarette smoke in my face, clears his throat and spits in front of my feet, then starts wheezing in the cold mountain air, I do.
Up we climb, the mass of people. I am working hard to be in better spirits. After I get away from the smokers a little, the air is magnificent. It’s crisp, clean, and cold. I’m glad for my heavy coat. And the sun is up, but only just, and it illuminates the cliffs and ledges around me. I am glad to be there, to see it. There is something awe-inspiring about the sun and heights. They go together in a way that makes men and women pray. As the monks are doing here as they walk.
Vega finds me at the cable cars, still pulling out of a sour spiral. We get tickets for the cable car, and I direct him to the smaller, perpetually moving cars. They seat six to a car, and are a little terrifying. But not, I reason, as scary as the single car, which carries one hundred people and boasts of being “the longest cable suspension system without a support pillar.” Yeah, I like support pillars. And the climb is steep. We’re all a little frightened as the car shudders at each transitional support beam. I distract myself by debating where would be the best place for the cable to break – the nuts and bolts of certain death.
At the top, there is more climbing. I will not be resentful – it’s too cold and wonderful. Vega is amazed by the snow, but I can’t be. Having just survived the Polar Vortex in Chicago, I look at the snow as a nice decorative element. And it’s already starting to melt in the morning glow. Suddenly, I see it –the Buddha on the Golden Summit. Or one of the heads of the Buddha. Rounding a bend, I catch my breath.

The final climb up to the Golden Summit

The final climb up to the Golden Summit

Absolutely incredible - the scope of it was a perfect match for the location.

Absolutely incredible – the scope of it was a perfect match for the location.

Majesty would be a good word. This is what you build on the top of a mountain – this statue, and the temples surrounding it. This monument to the sky – I can feel the significance and power of the place, which settles deeper than the tour groups can hope to overcome, try as they might. I climb the last flights of stairs behind the Buddha, and then there are to more steps. I am on the summit. I feel my face relax into a smile as I go to the ledge to look over the mountains. It’s breathtaking, sunrise or no. I can go no higher, and it’s the best feeling I’ve had in a while. It’s completion and satisfaction, coupled with admiration and delight.

Here is the admiration

Here is the admiration

Here is the delight (or goofy - they are close friends)

Here is the delight (or goofy – they are close friends)

Here is the majesty

Here is the majesty

I break out a celebratory Snickers, saved for just this moment. I should have waited till I was alone – Vega has been eating my trail food (he would continue to all day), since all he brought was a hoodie and some misplaced Pokemon cards in his backpack. He asks if he can have some. In the spirit of giving and being a decent person, I reluctantly share my Bar of Satisfaction with him.
I walk around the site, basking in the morning glow. Children are building a snowman with what melting snow is left. Men are smoking, and being chastised for doing so by the women with them. I light candles and incense for my family, and pray. I feel slightly awkward. While I like to think that Jesus and the Buddha hang out all the time, I’m not sure if God would want me talking to strangers, as it were. So I pray to my God, which also feels strange because I’m not at a Christian shrine. So then I awkwardly ask Buddha if he can do what he does as well. I don’t know any prayers to Buddha specifically. It’s so much easier to pray to spirits and deities of specific qualities – you just ask for those qualities. Since I’m already grappling with faith problems, feeling out of place is not new to me. My hope is that if a deity was listening, that they would take care of my family. Still, I felt like a faith switchboard operator.
After basking and walking and basking some more, we start our descent. Two female monks pass us. They’re dressed in grey shirts and pants, and they’re wearing thick gardening gloves and knee pads. Every three steps, they stop, kneel down, and put their heads to the ground. Heads shaved, I would not have known they were women, save for Vega pointing it out. Emeishan was, in its time, a sanctuary for female monks.
It’s steep and long and I don’t know why I didn’t just take the cable car back down, except perhaps to save the money and spend more time on the mountain. Do my time, though my calves genuinely hurt and wish I wouldn’t. The clouds move in, and we’re so high they blanket our walk in damp and fog. It’s nice, in its way. And there aren’t many people on the steps – it’s a long, difficult trek down. I can imagine what it’s like trying to climb the thousand feet up, with steps that are so steep and few platforms to rest.

It's beautiful, and the cool air was a nice addition. I could address shaky legs later

It’s beautiful, and the cool air was a nice addition. I could address shaky legs later

Still, we make it down. I’m wobbly. We hop on a bus, which gets us back to the main bus terminal. Bill and Sam are somewhere behind us, so we stop to get some dim sum. Except it’s not – every time I say I want small dishes, I invariably get full meals. I would be happy with dumplings and rice balls, but my translators seem to think I don’t know my own language. It’s good though, so I can’t complain too loudly.
My legs can. That night, after the three hours in the car back to the hotel, my legs cramp up. It’s bad – I can’t touch roll my feet without wincing.  I tried stretching them in the car. I knew that it wouldn’t be good to work them and then sit them for three hours without a cool down, but I don’t do enough. I feel like my legs have shrunk a few inches, and I limp to my room.
So worth it.