Nikko II: Ghosts, Gods, and Good Food

So I arrived at Takino’o Shrine, not as far as I expected from the main shrines of Toshogu and Futarasan. It’s a smaller shrine, more encased in moss than its counterparts. I loved it, and its relative solitude. In the half an hour I sat under the trees, I don’t think ten people walked by.

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I sat and thought about faith, and where we find solace. I think that there is something to Shintoism, though I am not a practitioner. There is a great American literary tradition of “taking to the woods” to find oneself, or to find peace. I think that, while the worshiping of certain stones and trees might fall outside my spiritual practices, I do find peace in the woods. It’s nice to feel small sometimes, to feel dwarfed. I felt something akin to what I felt when I climbed Emei Mountain, the sheer size of the world compared to myself. Going to the Grand Canyon does the same thing – it’s a comfort, in a way, to see how big everything else is. In Nikko, it’s not the size, but the age of the trees. Like staying with the nuns in Iowa, or being in the Sequoias in California. They’ve been around far longer that I have been or probably will be. And isn’t that nice? I don’t have to worry about them; they’ll be there. Assuming we don’t chop them down/burn them down/otherwise behave in a way that is unbecoming and yet distinctly human.

When I think about faith, especially “foreign” faiths,  I also think about that scene in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where Mr. Wednesday calls out the hippie for not actually worshipping Mother Earth, for essentially giving lip service to her religion. I am aware that it is one thing to be an actual worshipper, and another to feel a resonance or kinship with the idea of a faith. I don’t want to be that hippie, casually throwing around transcendence terminology without actually doing any of the work that faith asks of the faithful.  Then again, I also don’t want to blaspheme the Catholic faith with which I have had a tumultuous relationship. So, what is one to do, when one idea carries great resonance, and the other carries all the traditions, ceremonies, and obligations?

I rested my hand and forehead against one old tree that I thought had a great deal of character, halfway asking for advice. I felt a little cliché doing so, but because I need to stop self-censoring I decided to go with my instinct. Turns out the tree was less than impressed with the speed of my life. I felt distinctly like it was chuckling at me, this quick little thing that never seemed to hold still.

 

Turns out I’m not as weird as all that. When I started walking back I approached a gaggle of very giggly Japanese women walking up towards the shrine. They were still some distance off when four of them stopped, walked up to an old tree, and rested their foreheads and hands against it. They fell into a reverent silence, and stayed like that for a full minute. Then they all carried on walking and laughing. It’s nice to feel that you’re not alone in seeking wisdom from your elders.

I had mixed feelings as I walked back, partly because I didn’t want to, and also because it turns out that there was a flat path back, parallel to the service road. I had climbed the steep stairs unnecessarily. So, let it be known, tourists, that if you want a longer, but easier route to Takino’o Shrine, turn right from Toshogu and walk up from the parking lot. The path consists of large, uneven stones, so it has its own difficulties, but it’s not a climb up and down (for that, see my previous post and take the path along Futarasan).

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See how lovely and flat it is? DO YOU SEE?! Whatevs – climbing is good for the calves.

Before I left, something glittery caught my eye along the path. Upon inspection, I found the most beautiful beetle I have ever seen. While I like beetles in general, this one was different. It sparkled, iridescent thorax twinkling on the fence, and two blue-green antennae tested the air around it. It moved with great deliberation. I am convinced that this was a Kami – a Shinto spirit. This was the incarnation of the spirit of all beetles. It was a giddy moment for me – I haven’t had a moment of spiritual grace in years. I did not bother him as he walked, but I did try to get a picture.

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When I arrived in Nikko, it was raining and misty. I walked to the Narabi Jizo then, in the late afternoon rain, and saw the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. In all the damp, my phone shorted out, though I did get a couple of good photos. The Abyss is not quite appropriate – the waterfall does not go down into nothingness. It is a steep drop, however, full of beautiful sound and aquatic fury. The Narabi Jizo line one side of the abyss like thoughtful sentries.

The Narabi Jizo are nicknamed the “Bake Jizo,” (pronounced Ba-keh) because if you count them front to back and back to front, you will wind up with a different number (“ghost Jizo”). I did not count. I trust that the number is not the same, and that there is a ghost guardian wandering the Kaman-ga-fuchi Abyss. It’s better to leave it unknown.

The Abyss and the river walk are down a ways from Toshogu, on the opposite side of the river, tucked back along the south mountain ridge. I highly recommend seeing them, both for the beauty and regal-ness of the statues, as well as the glorious sounds of the rapids.

As I did not want to trek back up the mountain to my cabin in the dark again, I started walking back. I stopped at the Zen café, a tiny eatery on the Nikko main road. It only has four tables, two menu options, and an industrial chic vibe that does not match the rest of the town. Their specialty is “Yuba rolls,” which upon researching I learned is bean curd sheets (and actually are Chinese in origin). I had their “set meal,” which was a series of small plates and one yuba roll. Though not a bacon cheeseburger, I did wind up satisfied. I recommend it!

And then (le sigh) I hiked home. I couldn’t tell which was more difficult, going it in the dark and the rain, or seeing the incline. Seeing it was definitely more irritating. Looking up every so often and seeing how far I needed to go made me wonder how I had done the climb with a suitcase. Perhaps it was for the best that the light faded quickly, and I had to turn on my solar light. I used music to get me up the last third of the climb.

Here I am again, cozy in my heated kitchen. Tomorrow I return to Tokyo, to work, and to the grind of teaching. I think, tired though I am, I am incredibly happy to have been in Nikko for this weekend. Do I regret not going out with my friends? Certainly. But I know that my soul needed trees and fresh air, which I found in abundance here. I’m a country girl at heart, and a little solitude is healthy.

Still, next time I will bring people with me. Maybe I won’t mention the climb…

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Nikko? Oh, it’s all flat valley land and sacred bridges. Certainly no unnecessary hiking…

 

Nikko Part 1: Uphill Always

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Today I awoke to a pristine mountain morning – far earlier than I intended. It turns out that when in completely unknown circumstances my imagination really lets loose. I woke up twice thinking there were hunter spiders in the room, and really all it takes is twice to ruin a night’s rest. So I awoke at dawn tired, but filled with a sense of purpose. I was going to see some temples before the tourist buses arrived.

The 5 million kilometer walk downhill was much easier, as anticipated. I took a back way that cut off 15 minutes of walking time, since I did not need to go back to the train station. It also unexpectedly cut out all food options. I arrived at the Inari-gawa bridge, just off my destination, without finding a single café. Luckily, my rental came stocked with welcome snacks – dried dates stuffed with walnuts. They wouldn’t last me long if I didn’t find anything within the temple complex. But then, in my experience where there are tourists, there are food vendors.

Nikko’s most famous attraction, apart from its rugged natural beauty, is Toshogu shrine. While there are many famous sights in the area, Toshogu Shrine is what earned Nikko a place on the World Heritage Site list. My plan was to see Toshogu and all the heavily trafficked places early in the morning, and then hike up to find Takino’o Shrine, as I had read that it was largely not crowded but also beautiful. My second reason for wanting to beat the crowds concerned the season. Fall is a big tourist season in Japan, especially out in the mountains when the leaves start changing. Much like the hanami parties in the spring, flocks of tourists come out to look at the flaming and golden Japanese maples. I had no desire to be shuffling along in that mess.

I made it to the sites just as they opened (8am). The parking lot already had cars in it, and there was one tour group already passing up into Toshogu when I arrived. I got some good photos, and took all the “required” tourist pictures. Chief among them? The “see no, hear no, speak no evil” monkey engraving. The original monkeys are somewhere on the site, but as the whole shrine is under construction they could not be seen. There is a lot of gold leaf, and some really beautiful painted engravings all along the walls of the shrine.

Note: Entering Toshogu costs 1300 yen (about $13.00). You get to see some beautiful architecture, but there is a lot of scaffolding and restoration going on.

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Oh! I finally started filling my calligraphy/seal book (shuinchō). The monks/priests in two of the Nikko shrines put in their markings – one for the Toshogu shrine, the other for the Roaring Dragon Shrine. And because I have my own book, the on site cost is considerably less – only 300 yen each!

Another note: You can buy calligraphy books at temples, or at tourist shops. They vary in price. I bought mine at a religious store in Minatomirai (Yokohama) for 1900 yen. I saw them at Toshogu for 2100 yen.

I wandered around, fighting hunger. I listened to the “roaring dragon,” a trick involving the acoustics of the roaring dragon temple. Standing under the dragon and banging two sticks together reverberates, making the dragon appear to “roar.” I can’t tell if it’s a gimmick for tourists or something that was believed at one point. I mean, the ceiling has the dragon painted on its length, so perhaps it was always a point of reverence. It felt a little more like a tourist grab when I saw it. I wonder how faith and ceremony alter when you begin to incorporate tourism into the mix.

In any case, when I finally left Toshogu, there were vendors at the exit selling hot vegetable soup and mochi balls. I lack the space here to wax poetic about the vegetable soup, but I will try. It’s chilly. I’ve been walking for about two hours, and I’ve eaten two dried dates with walnuts. For a mere 300 yen, a man gives me a bowl filled with hot broth, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, tofu, and probably radish or turnip. I sprinkle some chili flakes on top. Let me tell you – it was Heavenly. Or Nirvana-esque, or…I’m not sure what the Shinto version of paradise is *Google check* Takama-ga-Hara.

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Sated and saving the mochi for later, I walk over to Futarasan shrine. According to my map, I should be able to walk around behind it and eventually wind up on the path the Takino’o. Futarasan is less crowded than Toshogu, but also far simpler in terms of architecture and grandeur. It also seems far more functional. Is that intentional? And I found the path, wandering up the side of Futarasan.

In a way, it reminds me of being in Sequoia National Park, or Kings Canyon National Park. The ancient towering cedar trees glow in the morning light with the moss on their trunks. Old dark stone steps climb higher and higher up, and the air is crisp and clean. I may not be a climber, but I appreciate a good hike, and this path does not disappoint. Not too strenuous, plenty of gorgeous scenery – this is exactly why I came to Nikko.

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And then I had to walk back down.  This surprised me, as reviews suggested the shrine was at the top of the mountain. Nooope.

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It occurred to me, rounding a bend to reach Takino’o, that I had just walked the entire hill in vain. There are two paths to Takino’o – the more arduous up and down of the hill, or the relative flatness of the service road/main path leading from the parking lot near Toshogu. I was mildly put out, but then I consoled myself with how my harder won victory would make me all the more appreciative of my final destination.

I was right on that point – Takino’o was removed enough from the temple complex that there were very few people there. I stopped and spoke with a Frenchwoman, who was waiting for the path to clear of the couple in front of us so she could take some more atmospheric pictures.

“Do you know the story of the stones?” She asked me.
“Yes,” I respond. “You throw a stone through the hole in the gate, and your wish will come true.”
“I did it,” she said. “And I missed.”
“You could always try again,” I said. “No one would know.”
“It’s alright,” she replied stoically. “I’m ok with missing.”

I felt that was a very French way of handling the situation.

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As this post has gotten quite lengthy, I’ll wrap it up here and continue on from Tokino’o (including my walk back to my house…uphill. Always uphill.)

Nikko: Uphill Preface

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This photo is from my second day in Nikko, when it was still light. I’m uploading from my first night as opposed to my first day, because this story overshadowed my afternoon. And because it was so dark, I have no photos to accompany it, save for this one I took later in my journey.

2km according to Airbnb. 3k according to the message I received from my host and a second Google map search.

What my host failed to mention in any of our correspondence is that however many kilometers it is from the Tobu Nikko train station to his rental, 95% of the journey was uphill. Nikko is a mountain town, but I passed my afternoon on a relatively gentle slope, and the town itself seemed more in the basin than on the inclines.

Not so my accommodation, I realized. I passed the rental one of my fellow teachers recommended (sold out), and kept climbing. I passed the rental that I had cancelled (too many negative reviews), and kept climbing. I ran out of sidewalk, and light. I passed inn after inn, pausing for a moment at each opportunity to stand in a light source and check my photo map. And I kept climbing. I had not stretched or prepped in any way for such exercise. My legs eventually stopped feeling the good kind of tired. I could feel it in my quads – 2 miles uphill was a lot to ask after a day of hiking. They are going to hurt tomorrow.

In the darkness, I could still see the occasional silhouettes of the tall trees around me. It made for a moody walk, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the poisonous spiders, leeches, and other dangerous things that I had recently read live in Japan. I tried not to get too close to the trees and bushes, while also not wandering into the road. And then there was the rain, which I had not minded until I was going solidly uphill in the dark with my poncho draped over my bags to keep them dry. By the by – my poncho is my hero, but also the dumbest inanimate thing. It kept sliding to one side, or getting caught under the front wheel without actually draping over the bag itself. Ugh.

Anger kept me going after the halfway point. I was pissed off that there had been no mention of climbing a mountain in the description of the property, nor in the reviews. A pleasant place, the reviews had said. Beautiful location, the reviews had said. I drafted my own Airbnb review, scathing and full of really beautiful but negative vocabulary. I started wishing horrible things upon the owner for his omissions. Eventually, I lost the anger, and I could feel real fatigue eating at my edges. The closer I got to where I thought I was going, the more I felt like I was going to turn into a blubbering mess from sheer exhaustion. Why had I been so stupid as to hike all day and then go to my lodgings? Why had I not planned better for this?

I passed the house altogether at first because the rain hid the faint Christmas lights. I mistook my rental house for another. Luckily, the second house had a loud, sturdy akita who let me know that I was mistaken. As I tried to leave the stairs, an old man came out to the balcony and asked me something in Japanese – my Japanese is still so weak that I mostly guessed at what he could be asking. I must have cut a pretty pathetic figure – my rain poncho was ineffectively tied around my bags, I was wet, my legs were a little trembly, and I spoke atrocious Japanese.

“Pension?” he asks.
“Airbnb,” I reply, but I recognize the word. For some reason it’s on almost all the hotels I’ve seen thus far. They really like using French here apparently. He disappears and his wife (I assume) comes out. She looks at my phone, and the pair start arguing about the address. In desperation, I turn on my phone’s cellular service. I will pay the (probable) $20 in extra fees for one minute of functioning google translate and a working map.

“Is that address near here?” I put into the phone.
“Ok,” the woman says after reading the translation, and takes off walking in the rain. She is still in her house slippers, and the old man follows. I try to stop them, but I don’t have the words, and when I show the man my google translate for “You don’t have to walk with me, sir. Just point.” He nods and keeps walking.

So there we are, one wet, confused American in a red knit hat, and an old Japanese couple dressed like my great uncle Tom and aunt Dorothy (bless them), each under an umbrella. They get me to the gate of my rental around the block, and I bow as low as I possibly can. I can’t tell, but I bet they were relieved I knew the place. We all reached near epic levels of confusion.

They’re going to be even more confused tomorrow when there’s a bouquet of flowers waiting for them. I passed a florist earlier today, and I’ve been wanting to get flowers for someone lately.

Soaking in the tub, drinking very hot ginger tea, I can feel all my swear words dissipate. I was about ready to quit the whole trip, suck up the financial loss and pay to stay at one of the faux “Euro-style” inns I passed somewhere on the unending incline. The sort that charges hundreds of dollars a night. And I know I’ll be peeved in the morning, as there are no combini around here, and I don’t have wifi so I can’t just go online and do some research. But right now, in my comfortable and warming up rental, I’m simply happy to not be climbing anymore. Tomorrow, I know I’ll get a taxi up here, and walking downhill is going to be so much easier.

Good thing too, as I’m planning to hike up the neighboring mountain…

MVPs of the day:

My red knit hat: I bought it 50% off at a 300 yen shop this morning because it was unexpectedly nippy. It kept my head nice and warm, and though I was only dry because of the umbrella, the hat made me feel quite comfortable.
My flashlight: An LED light from my True Dungeon volunteering, this little guy was a light for me when all other lights went out (yeah, it’s my Elendril light)
My legs. God bless my legs, and forgive me for not stretching them. May they not tense up too much overnight. They did such a good job getting 3k up an unplanned mountain.

Feeling Literary

I was standing in a sort of courtyard. A plain, ordinary courtyard filled with ordinary things: a car, a tree, a bike. People shuffled around the street and sparrows hopped from crumb to crumb.

And in that ordinary moment, I remembered some Tennyson: “I am part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades /For ever and for ever when I move…”

The day to day living is the same here as in America – I have written this before. Me in a courtyard in China is just like me in a courtyard in America, though I might be a little more confused in the Chinese courtyard.  Nevertheless, my feet are here in this courtyard. And my feet were on top of Emei mountain, and in the streets of Shanghai, just as they walked the Golden Gate Bridge and jogged the streets of Chicago.  And I think part of what Ulysses feels in “Ulysses” is that pull of wanting to be himself elsewhere, of recognizing the pull of the world and how it resonates in his heart. The horizon is a tantalizing thing because it promises differences, but what I think we hope for is that we will be different.

“Ulysses” is sad – he’s reflecting on the need to prove himself in his twilight years; that it is better to go out and fight than grow old at home. My cynical side notes that it’s easy for him – he’s got his son who inherits the kingdom and can do the work in his absence. I am lucky that I get to travel to work, but I must work.  I have no husband or children to carry on my legacy. That’s another difference – Ulysses is old, and I am not. I cannot go out and seek the way I would want to because I have student loans – shackles which will stay with me until I’m as old as he was. OH! So when I am as old as Ulysses, and my debts are finally paid, then I too can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western starts until I die.”

Now there’s the melancholy necessary to appreciate this poem, coupled with the optimism of knowing that I will not stop because things are difficult. Optimism in the face of challenges – that sounds pretty good.

“Ulysses”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

….Now how do I get out of this courtyard?

 

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.