Monday, July 2, 2007

Takayama - I Really Don't Think They're Harmless Loop-The-Loops

Today I woke up laughing. The moment I stopped laughing, I forgot the entire dream, but I'm sure it was hilarious. I'm just glad there was no one else in my room.

I went down to the morning market, where a lot of really, really old ladies sit under tents, selling their home-grown and crafted goods. As one woman put it, the young people are too busy to care about markets. I think I was the only person under 60 there.

Now, here's my dilemma: since I'm in Takayama, which is in the Hida District, now would be the perfect time to try the world-famous Hida beef, yes? The problem is that it's no less expensive here than it is in the United States - if it appears in any item on a menu, no matter how small the portion, it instantly jacks the price up at least $20. However, small stands on most street corners in a lot of cities usually sell skewers with grilled chicken, seafood, or a local specialty, and it's usually priced at only $2.50. Here, they sell Hida beef skewers. So I tried Hida beef, and let me tell you - it's perfect. It also allowed me to try Hida beef relatively guilt-free. You see, when you buy it - or practically any other food - at home, you're paying for the meat as well as the transportation of it, which is all too often a trip on an airplane, which is absolutely horrible for the environment. Of course, flying here to eat the beef isn't a viable solution, since I'm not only flying here, but back home as well. But at least while I'm here I'm mostly eating local, guilt-free food.

And since I'm on my ecological soapbox, allow me to continue. I'm reading a book by Al Gore, and in it he describes a phenomenon which I didn't really believe. He says that in heavily-forested or jungle areas, after a rainstorm, you can actually see clouds re-form from the evaporating water from the plants, which in turn rain back down on trees further downwind, and so on and so on. Sure enough, it rained up in the mountains, and as I watched, rain clouds rose right out of the forests, came down, and rained on me and the city. It was so cool. Now, imagine that if I was a tree, dependent on the rain that the mountain jungles provide. If we cut down all those trees up there in the mountains, when it rains, the rain stays up there (or it washes downhill, eroding away all the fertile topsoil, so less crops are able to grow, but that's another story), and now you've not only killed all the trees you cut down, but you've also killed me and all the trees around me dependent on the rain clouds formed by those trees you destroyed, and so forth and so on. And that's just one of the many reasons why deforestation is awful. So stop cutting down trees, DAD.

Anyway, it rained.

So I thought it would be the perfect time to go on a two-hour hike that takes you past all these shrines and temples up in the mountains, since it was just a light rain, which chased off the heat and the crowds for a while. So I followed the signs and somehow wound up in a huge, ancient graveyard instead of on the trail. The rain started to pick up, so I explored this giant graveyard in the middle of the forest while the rain poured down. It was so spooky and cool. And when I returned to the road, I noticed I was on the wrong side of a gate that had those "do not enter" white lightning bolts hanging from it. Oops.

The problem with Japan is that there are so many shrines around, so when you're looking for one specific area of shrines, it can prove quite difficult. I tried to find the path by climbing some really steep, overgrown steps up to shrines I saw on some hills, only to discover that I had unknowingly stumbled into some poor schmuck's private garden.

After about an hour of this, I finally found the path. But they failed to indicate that some of the branches of the path are not actually included on the hike, so sure enough, I'm back in another graveyard. Two guys called to me, so I went over to them. They didn't speak a word of English, and I quickly realized that they were grave-diggers. One started talking really fast to the other, who pointed at me, then at his genitals, and started to laugh really hard. I swear I'm not making this up. So naturally, I just turned and left, the whole time expecting one to grab and rape me.

Anyway, there were some more shrines and chanting monks and stuff on the walk, and it was all very peaceful, since I was the only one out in the pouring rain.

Now, what really piqued my interest in this town originally was this giant house of worship called the Mahikari-Kyo Main World Shrine, which is the center point of the new religion Mahikari-Kyo. Why was I so interested in this, you ask? I'll let Lonely Planet explain:

"Mahikari-Kyo... is said to combine Buddhism and Shinto. Opinion is divided on whether its believers are harmless loop-the-loops or anti-Semitic doomsday cultists."

So I had to visit.

The place is hard to miss - if you're in Takayama, just look for the giant golden roof to the west. When I got there (after a much longer walk than expected - clearly they don't want visitors), I didn't know what to do, so I just entered.

To get in, I had to walk two floors up this huge spiral staircase inside a tower, which brings you to the main grounds. A guard saw me, so as I'm walking up the stairs, suddenly this horrible screeching noise comes echoing from everywhere. What the hell is this? Have they unleashed a banshee on me? The noise carried on for about two minutes, and then a really imposing voice came on the intercom. It would take more than that to stop me, so I continued up. I get to the main ground, look up the steps at the huge shrine, and what do I see?


Now, I'm sure it's unsettling enough to be in old parts of Germany and see left-over swastikas and Nazi articles from the war. And I'm well aware that the swastika was originally a Buddhist symbol. But you'd think if you were building a shrine for a religion accused of anti-Semitism, you would choose something other than the swastika to adorn your two enormous towers with. It literally took my breath away and stopped me in my tracks. It was the last thing I'd expect to see.

The tried to offset the swastikas with similarly-huge stars of David, but, dudes, that's not doing anything. In fact, it only makes you look more guilty. If a new religion started and their main shrine glorified both pictures of a Klansman and pictures of a black guy, they would be called many things, but "friendly to all people" would not be one of them.

I stood there for a while, and some ladies passed me, all of them wearing Stars of David and swastika pins on their lapels. Charming. They all greeted me enthusiastically, but were noticeably off-put by my obvious zoom photo obsession with their Nazi symbols.

As I strolled beyond the swastika-bedazzled "Towers of Light", I noticed a strange fountain on the right, which I later learned was dedicated to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. I always thought he demanded human sacrifices, not fountains. But maybe that stuff goes on inside. As I began to walk up the steps to the actual shrine, a guard saw me and went sprinting up the stairs, yelling into his walkie talkie. He shortly came back down to enthusiastically greet and welcome me and walked me up to the entrance, asking me questions about myself the whole way.

When I entered the shrine, everyone was standing at attention, waiting for me. Most of the male worshipers were wearing blue jumpsuits, which is fun, I guess. I had to sign some contract totally in Japanese, and on my way out I had to drink some religious wine. So I guess I'm one of them now.

It's unfortunate that I couldn't take pictures inside the shrine, because it was totally bizarre in there. First of all, in the entrance hall, a man was kneeling in the corner with red words written in paint on his shirt, I assume as some sort of punishment for something. It's good to see that the scarlet letter is still in practice.

The actual shrine was - for lack of a better word - ginormous. It had a few balconies as well as ground seating, three crystal chandeliers as big as houses, a whole bunch of gold crap up at the front, and even an aquarium! I didn't spend much time in there, since everyone was doing nothing but standing and staring at me. I had at least ten pairs of eyes on me at all times. So I drank the wine that so far hasn't killed me, and ran back down the steps.

In the main square, just below the gaze of Quetzalcoatl, some guys in their cute little jumpsuits carrying flags, some girls with hardhats and massive first-aid kits, and other swastika- and star-of-david-adorned individuals were gathering for some sort of evil plan, no doubt. Of course, the second they saw me, someone ran at them to warn them and they immediately dispersed.

I checked the whole walk back to make sure I wasn't being tailed.

Later, I decided to go to a noodle restaurant in Lonely Planet that sounded good and cheap. I looked out the window to check the weather, and it didn't look like it was going to rain, so I left my umbrella with my stuff - this restaurant, after all, was only two blocks away on the map.

But by the time I got to the front desk, it had started to pour the hardest it had all day. Unfortunately, I had only noticed after I had already turned my key in at the front desk, and I was far too embarrassed to turn around and ask for it back, as stupid as that is. So I just went out.

Of course, since we're talking about Lonely Planet here, the restaurant was not where the map and address told me it would be. And, again, since I get embarrassed by stupid stuff when I'm alone, rather than stopping in my tracks and turning around, I just turned right. And naturally the road turned out to be a long, winding one that took me out of my way, so I spent nearly twenty minutes walking back through tiny little neighborhoods just to get back to town.

Now, some of you may want to ask, "But, Danny, if it would have been embarrassing to turn around and ask for your key back, wasn't it more embarrassing to come back after only half an hour, soaking wet, requesting your key?" And to you I say: Shut up.

I bought a can of Sprite from a vending machine next door, somehow believing that a good excuse for my little jaunt would be that I spent half an hour in a downpour looking for a Sprite that I could get right next door.

If I've learned anything on this trip, it's that the only person with less street smarts than me is the Lonely Planet cartographer.

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