Dazaifu

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

When I woke up this morning, even I had to admit that it was time for some simple peace and quiet. A nice tranquil day at a temple and garden - that's sort of what I imagined Japanese tourism to be, and why not do that at least once.

Well, I got that. But like everything else Japanese, it shoved my expectations into a locker and took their lunch money to take their mom out to dinner and a movie.

And I don't have a photo to go with any of what happened. But that's OK with me.

To start with, someone at school mentioned I should visit Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, an 1100 year-old temple outside the City. A quick train ride and I was there. A 3-hour tour, I figured. A 3 hour tour.

On arrival I got distracted by a small path that lead off to the side of the main temple. The path was unmarked, except for some small flags with Kanji beyond my ability. So I followed it. For a long time. Long after it stopped being paved, or marked, or whatever. Unfortunately, the main shrine is a tourist trap, as beautiful as it is. The approach is lined with an attractive row of cheap tourist shops stocking food and souvenirs. It is pretty, but there you go. So when I saw the barely marked, tiny path off to the side, I set off where no one else was going.

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If I can describe my approach to Japan, it is this exact attitude. That I will just go somewhere or do something, despite how fruitless it appears, because I know deep down that Japan is going to reward me with something amazing. Finally, after I reach the peak, I came upon this beautiful, tiny shrine built directly into the mountain.

I felt pretty proud of myself for climbing to the top to find this place, until I turned around to find an elderly man who had done the same thing and was there to pray.

However, other than the old man, I have to say that much of this visit I was struck by one repeated thought.

The Japanese are idiots.

The main temple is fine, and all, but as I wandered I began to discover temples and shrines that were as stunning as they were deserted. Take Komyozenji Temple, for example.

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This zen temple is 800 years old and is astonishingly beautiful.

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And astonishingly deserted. There was someone else there - I saw shoes at the entrance. But I never saw that person, or anyone for that matter.

Not that I'm complaining. I wouldn't have had it any other way. I ask for some peace and quiet, and Japan gives me a moment of perfect contemplation. Wow.

At a certain point in this trip, though, I started to notice that my instincts are usually to avoid going down the unknown path, to defer risk, and to stick with the known. And every time I've defied those instincts, it's lead me in amazing directions. When I noticed that absolutely no one was following the road to "Kyushu National Museum" which, admittedly, was clearly a long hike up a mountain road, my mind said "that trip will be a complete waste of time."

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So, off I went to Kyushu National Museum.

A quick word about Japanese customer service. It is amazing, and they take it very seriously. At the Konbini (convenience store) the staff will cry out, in unison, at the top of their lungs, "Irrashaimase!!!" when you arrive, as will every shopkeeper and restauranteur in the entire prefecture. And woe if you are standing behind someone else in line. The 7-11 clerk stocking in the back will bolt to the front of the store to serve you so you don't have to wait 12 seconds to buy your pack of gum. I'm expecting to feel particularly empty when I walk into 7-11; many people have asked why Japanese people almost never emigrate to the US. I'm starting to understand.

Hell, last night when my schoolmates and I got lost on the way to the bar, we asked a guy handing out flyers for a different bar and he not only told us how to get there, he lead us there on his own.

But Kyushu National Museum is staffed better than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was entirely deserted in the middle of the day on Saturday. There were maybe 30 visitors in this enormous and gorgeous, modern building. Every exhibit room had a staff member who would quietly operate a video projector that presented information about the artifacts, some of which dated back 15,000 years to early settlers in Japan. The woman at the information desk was delighted to speak English with me, and I did not deprive her of the chance to use her English, probably for the first time all year.

Oh, and Myo Sim readers - Two Words: Muramasa sword. Amazing.

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Kyushu National Museum.

That done, I did want to see something more. The map I picked up was entirely in Japanese, save a couple of unhelpful words. So, off I went through the Dazaifu suburbs to see I could find some of the other ancient temples that were apparently marked on the map.

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A quick word on how you can identify a Buddhist temple in Japan. Japanese Buddhists do not shave their head in solidarity with neo-nazis. What you see pictured here is NOT a swastika. What you see on the left is a "Manji" or reverse swastika. It is an ancient Buddhist symbol that some parents still sew into their children's clothes to protect them against evil spirits. And dates with Western girls, I expect...

Anyway, armed with a map covered in swastikas, I began to wander.

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Boy did I wander.

I found a quiet temple at the top of these stairs in a Dazifu suburb and discovered that I'm not the only one who realizes how deserted these shrines are. I found two high school kids whom I clearly disturbed in a moment of awkward intimacy, made staggeringly more awkward by the appearance of a bearded American with a camera. Oops. Should have left a scrunchie on the statute of Kannon, kids....

But I digress...

I finally find what I thought to be a minor shrine off to the side of a street in town. It was quiet and, of course, empty. This shrine also appeared to be in operation of some kind, attended by a woman wearing all black. I asked if the residence is open to view and she happily directed me inside. After laughing at me while I looked at some statutes of musicians that she explained were part of her collection and decidedly NOT national artifacts, I ask her about the large shrine before me.

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She tried to explain what it is, but I didn't understand her words, save references to "Kannon,""priests,""old," and "child space robot pilots", I think.

After we talk some, she asked if I would like to see the inside. Of course, I reply, not realizing what I was asking.

She disappeared and reappeared with a key, leading me to the back door, a huge and ancient door secured with a padlock. A quick warning about "Shashin Dame!" (no photos) and I am directed inside, and then abandoned inside.

Even if I had been able to bring the camera, the photo and the words would fail what I found myself standing before after winding my way through the entry hall. The woman had left me alone in a shrine containing an enormous, two-story golden statue of Rusyanabutsu Buddah roughly 1000 years old. I cannot tell you how long I stood there. My sense of time and space completely disappeared as I stood in awe of the moment and this astonishing sight. Stunned, that is, until I heard the loud clatter of a coin offering behind me - behind me, and the locked gate that separated the rest of the public from this shrine.

The old man there to pray before Buddah certainly gave me a strange look - the same look you might give a Japanese man with the Declaration of Independence in his hands during your visit to the National Archives.

You see, I thought that I was at Kanzeonji Temple, which is a temple mostly made famous by the Tale of Genji. Not a particularly special temple, but according my reading of the map and my pathetic Japanese, that's where I was.

CHIGAI.

Wrong Again.

I was standing inside Kaidanin, which throughout Japanese history has been one of only three places in Japan where Buddhist monks could be ordained. This fact I realized only after I left and ran smack into Kanzeonji, next door. Oh crap...I should have bowed WAY more than I did and jacked up the politeness level to ultra-formal. Too late.

My feet were killing me. I was tired, now, and definitely had reached the height of my day. I decided there was no reason to go into the tiny Kanzeonji museum that lay hidden in the garden and ignored by all but a few picnickers. It was almost entirely unmarked and adorned in windowless concrete. A complete waste of time, from the outside.

I don't have to tell you that I went inside.

OK, first of all the guard was about 80 years old and spoke really good English. The entry was tiny and, by Japanese standards, a little run down. Kyushu National Museum this was not. In this case, I cannot blame the Japanese for ignoring this site. It appears to be almost deliberately abandoned.

How anyone was supposed to know that upstairs stood 15 of Japans most ancient and enormous Buddhist stautes, I don't know. I do know that someone went to the trouble of printing an English guide in a font that bespeaks of an issue of National Geographic circa-1974.

No photos allowed. That was OK with me. Annie might be able to describe the feeling of standing before am enormous, 17-foot tall 1000 year old image of the Buddhist god Amoghapasa cut from wood and adorned with gold. I'll just tell you that it takes the ground out from under you.

I found myself wandering the Dazaifu suburbs for a while after that. By 4 pm, it was time to go home. One thing was for sure. I had failed the one thing I had on my list the whole time. To visit a real Japanese sword shop. Well, that's OK. Bound to be that way.

I sat on the Japanese train reading my manga and eating my rice ball like a good commuter. By the time I reached Tenjin it was 4:45. I had an approximate location for a sword store, but there was no way I'd make it in time.

Impossible.

There's that word again, I thought. Impossible. How it was that a week into my Japan vacation I still believed that something wasn't possible I cannot explain. Well, if a fruitless journey was to be, then so be it. I found a bus thanks to a helpful old woman and off I went.

I did not find a sword store.

Again, my Japanese intelligence had failed me. The directions were not to a sword store at all. At least not a store like I had expected.

I found a sword making store. That is two say, I found two men seated on the floor polishing Katana blades in the manner that has been in place for over a 1000 years. There was a man there with an enormous book discussing, well, I don't know what he was discussing. It was definitely about Katanas and Kendo teachers. That much I got.

I just sat and watched for about a 1/2 hour, until closing. They must have thought me nuts, enraptured while they mixed clay and water and carefully polished their craftsmanship with the same stones I had seen in George Moody's basement before he was murdered. Other than the electric lights over their heads, what I was watching I could have seen 500 years ago in Muramasa's workshop.

I didn't even bother asking to take a photo.

Some things aren't meant to be asked.

So that's it. A quiet day in Japan. I could have spent days touring Dazaifu. I was limited only by time, hunger, and my lack of additional band-aids for my feet.

And the truth is, I could have spent another week in Fukuoka and still never have seen the simplest of places. When I booked this trip, I didn't even know that there was a place in Japan called Fukuoka. I found Genki JACS by accident while looking for a Japanese school in Tokyo and accidently running a google search without including "Tokyo." If they hadn't been the only school to allow a single week of study, I'd have gone to Tokyo in a heartbeat.

And I'm not the only one who feels that way - I saw maybe one foreigner a day, outside of school, that is. This is a city by Japanese, for Japanese. And maybe that's why it was so special. Maybe Americans and Westerners haven't ruined it yet. Either way, the only reason I'm sitting in this chair writing this right now is that I can't stand on my feet without feeling pain.

And it's the best pain I've felt in years.