Daiyuzan Saijo Temple
Tirragen Vixie, Staff Writer
October 6, 2011
Filed under Travel
It is remarkable how distinct Japan’s cities are from its countryside. Less than fifty miles from the center of Tokyo and less than two miles from a small town is the Daiyuzan Saijo-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to Japan’s feudal era and still in use today. The temple itself is a place of quiet and peace. Only a few sounds float among the ancient buildings: the shuffle of monks’ slippers, bird calls, and the occasional deep, resonating sound of a gong being hit. Wild pigs root enthusiastically though the undergrowth and caretakers meticulously sweep the temple pathways. Their timeless game, the back-and-forth of dirt scattered across the concrete and brushed away again, is hidden by a whispering cedar grove.
But now I rewind. As many travelers will agree at least half of an adventure is not the destination, but the journey one takes to reach it. So it was, from the moment I stepped out of the hotel with my father and brother. We took the local train to a larger station nearby, a bullet train from there to another, another local train from there, and finally a rickety, single-track branch line that left us at a train station called Daiyuzan in a small town that one might easily overlook.
There was some disagreement over our map, but we unexpectedly managed not to lose ourselves and began the hike, ignoring the opportunity to take a bus. What followed was over an hour of climbing and a good deal of sweat made far more pleasant than it sounds by our surroundings. In the eyes of the world, Japan receives a good deal of attention for its major cities – especially Kyoto and Tokyo – and prominent shrines, as well as for the inventions and the culture that we find so strange. This is what we ignore. This is what one, when thinking of Japan, fails altogether to imagine.
As we neared the temple we began to encounter stairs, entirely different from those we might see in America. The United States has extremely strict building codes which Japan happily ignores, and we tend to shape the outside world similarly. I have never in my life encountered an American stairway with a “slope” of one (where the pitiable climber travels upward at the same rate he or she travels forward) or even steeper, but Japan is a country based on the conservation of space. It will suffice to say that no one actually vomited, but general opinion on the subject was uncertain.
Even more hazardous than the stairs were various trails which looked as though they led to the temple. We had just explored one and returned in vain when a group of climbers with professional hiking gear appeared on the eroded slope above us and began to pick their way down. The first to reach us was a spry, elderly woman who grinned and bid us good morning. “Ah, pardon,” I said in halting Japanese, “Is there something up that way?” She blinked and followed my finger back the way she had come, then huffed out an exhausted breath and told me, “God. God is.”
My brother, who had guessed at the nature of my question and recognized the key word of her response, laughed incredulously as she turned to go. Neither of us was sure what to make of her words as we heard them, or in the minutes afterward, but they came back into perspective a few minutes later.
We eventually made it to the temple and took some time for relaxation, but our eye was caught – of course – by one area on the temple map that stood away from the rest and seemed to be nearly at the summit of the mountain. When we had collected ourselves, we headed in its direction by way of what seemed to be far too many stairs. I laugh now at my past self: lord, what fools these mortals be! For there seems to be an element of the Chinese Feng Shui in Japanese temple design; it is impossible to see quite where you’re headed until you’re nearly there. A dozen stairs passed beneath our feet. A dozen more. We sweated and huffed our way around a final bend in the trail and it suddenly appeared to us:
The half-hearted, it seems, have no place here.
As I climbed, I almost wondered about the idea of Plato’s famous “world of forms,” his theory that there is only one true version of each object, an ideal that expresses the perfect concept and the epitome of its realization. Perhaps what I encountered that day on a distant mountain in Japan was not of this world, but the One True Staircase, a perfect expression of the thing that is staircase-ness.
And, once again, my mind returned to the elderly hiker. I cannot say with certainty what she might have meant, but there – looking up at two hundred and sixteen steps and looking down from their summit, the echoes of her words did not seem strange. God, she had said, was on the mountain.
And why not?
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