Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The mountain and the graveyard

Kyoto sits in a valley. So no matter where you go, whatever direction, you are invariably in the foothills of a mountain. I sometimes find myself on streets in these foothill communities that end (or begin) at a mountain trail. I’m not a hiker, but these paths always beckon me. There is something intriguing about a path to nowhere. In the States such trails would be inhabited by homeless perverts, tree-hugging delinquents and axe-murderers. In Japan it is just you and the natural world.

I generally start down (or more often up) such a trail with no idea where they go or how long they are. Every 30 or 40 yards my American brain tells me, okay, you should turn back, this will be your demise. But I’m always so curious to see where it leads, what lies around the next bend, over the next hill, that I keep going.

I was on a walk recently, Tetsugaku no michi (the Philosopher’s Path) in Northern Higashiyama. I came upon a shrine and beyond the shrine was this trail winding up a fairly steep mountain. There was a sign in English: "Grave of Joseph Hardy Neesima", and an arrow. Who was Joseph Hardy Neesima? Why was he buried here? And why did his grave merit a sign written in English?

The mystery was too enticing. (I learned later that he was a 19th Century Japanese missionary and founder of Doshisha University.)

It had rained heavily the night before and the path was a bit slippery with fallen leaves and mud. It probably wasn't such a good idea to climb this mountain, but I did anyway. The silence of the forest was eerily deafening.

As promised, at the top was a graveyard. What a crazy and amazing idea! A graveyard atop a mountain, so close to the heavens. The most quiet place you could find for an eternal resting place. It was delightfully spooky. Me, alive, with hundreds and hundreds of dead people from centuries past high above the city, sweat beading over my brow, moss climbing over their grave markers.

The grave of Mr. Neesima was not a giant monument covered in wilted flowers, spent candles and empty sake bottles. In fact it was so obscure I never found it. And I wasn't inclined to search around, possibly disturbing the slumber of less famous and more irritable diseased.

Beyond the graveyard the stones of the trail disappeared under mud. There was a large swathe of cut trees. Someone with an axe...or chainsaw. I stood for a long while in the clearing watching my breath hang in the moist air contemplating my advance or retreat. I don’t know if it was hunger or fear of meeting the woodsman that had cut down all the trees that finally turned me around down the mountain.

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