From: Peter Rivard
Date: Thu Apr 24, 2003 12:46:43 AM Japan
Today's letter is all description. Apparently my narrative imagination has failed me. I decided to finally follow an impressively wide road that I'd seen for years but never gone down because, quite obviously, it can't go anywhere. It's a numbered national highway, quite a bit wider than the main road between towns it turns off of, heading directly into a mountain--a mountain that I know has neither roads over it nor the 40 mile tunnel under it that would otherwise be required to connect with where it starts up again in the mountains of the next prefecture. I found myself at the beginning of the road after a failed attempt to find an open dry cleaner, and, with an hour to kill before meeting my student, set off. The road climbs gently up along the bottom of a cleft, usually separated from sections of the valley's village by a river. But despite the modern road and the location just a few minutes from my base school, I immediately felt I'd wandered a hundred miles off the beaten track--it felt like being in someplace a bit bucolic, say western Massachusetts, taking a left, and immediately finding myself in Montana--200 years ago. Just south of Manyo is the village that time forgot.
Around Takefu, especially in the rural areas around my schools, the view usually takes in quite a few traditional farm houses and ancient kuras (storehouses; for example, see some pictures from around Manyo), but this village seemed to have more of them--and more of them in undisturbed settings without tin-walled neighbors or cinderblock additions--than anywhere else in town. Quite a few glances down narrow streets found nothing that wouldn't have been in the same field of view a few hundred years ago (though I suppose a really close inspection would turn up all sorts of signs of normal, modern life--this is simply a place where people live, not a museum). There are some new houses, satellite dishes, and parked cars, but this village offered the best view of old Japan I've seen anywhere in Fukui. A really beautiful place.
And, at the point where the two lane highway finally gives up and collapses into a 3/4 lane unpaved track is what must be the third or fourth biggest shrine in all of Takefu and clearly one of the most important (or was at some point in the past). Goou (pron. "go-oh," with both "o"s held for an extra beat) Shrine has some unattractive new stairways and a concrete watercourse along the path up, as well as an ugly metal frame holding up a roof over one outbuilding (probably the treasure house) and a modern structure completely enclosing the rear main shrine, but these things are mostly, perhaps by chance rather than design, out of sight in most views of the shrine, or are somehow deemphasized by the layout and other attractions of the place. The shrine at the top is itself beautiful, clearly quite old but well maintained, with beautiful wood carvings that are not, as at most shrines, shrouded in hardware cloth to keep out the birds. It's set in an open space of moss and cedar shadows. But the treasures of the complex come before you get the to shrine itself. First, behind the trough for ritually cleansing oneself before approaching the shrine, a pair of small waterfalls pour into a rock alcove cut into the hillside but looking quite natural, with moss covering everything and small plants jutting out in all the perfect, random-seeming places. It reminded me of a sacred waterfall in the hills behind Kyoto, except that here you'd have to be pretty bold to bathe because you'd be in full view of the main stairway. Twenty meters or so farther up the stairs is an impressive Buddhist-style main gate (uncommon but not unheard of in Shinto shrines, but then again so many religious places here mix-and-match Shinto and Buddhism), two levels and about twenty-five feet (8 m) tall. Walking through, one sees the elaborate wood carvings and statues usually found in these gates, but beautifully done--and here unpainted and aged to show the character of the wood itself. One also sees a straw mat spread out with mountain vegetables and mushrooms drying out of the rain (I could picture the groundskeeper/priest who'd greeted me pulling plants encroaching on the grounds saying to himself, "Weed, weed, weed, food, weed"). Anyway, you can find gates like this--and much larger--at all the usual tourist temples, but to find at this deserted shrine in a completely forgotten corner of my own town really surprised me.
I got the impression the shrine was built for some impressive function (its construction or improvement were somehow related to the Meiji emperor, according to a dedicatory sign outside)--it looked like an important shrine for some sect; it certainly wasn't put up for the tiny village at its feet--and then bypassed or forgotten. Modern Fukui came along and recognized its historic importance, widened the road, added another torii (stone gate) in front, and sprang for a little drainage "improvement" and some spiffy granite stairs, and then the shrine was forgotten again--except by the old priest who keeps up the grounds, lives in the very old house off to the side, and doubtless performs priestly duties whenever there's a call for such.
Takefu is said to have over three hundred temples and shrines, not counting the thousands of small shrines to extremely local spirits and watchful gods along the roads and paths and at unexpected places where roads and paths may have been hundreds of years ago. I've started to think that must be a serious underestimate. After three years, I still find three or four new ones every time I take a different turn or try a different road. It's amazing that there's so much to find in a place that, in every way, seems so typical.
Plus the sake's good.