We’re back in Kanazawa, but on our last full day in Niigata Chieko’s parents told us to scoot and go do whatever we wanted while they took care of the boy. We mulled heading to nearby Nagaoka, a city relative to Chieko’s hometown, to have lunch and catch a movie. In the end we decided to drive off into neighboring Nagano Prefecture in search of delights.
Our choices were heading to a mountainous area with nothing but a tram to the top of the mountain where there was a horticultural garden (my choice), or going to a temple that would most certainly be mobbed with tourists (Chieko’s choice). I have absolutely zero interest in temples, shrines, or any other religious old shit anywhere. But you know where we went.
The drive to Togakushi shrine was a nightmare that should have been a picture-taking bonanza — winding roads up and over mountains, through valleys and along rivers. Instead, it was a comically slow procession along recently mud-slid roads behind giant trucks going absurdly slow, followed by old people in K trucks going absurdly slow, followed by a train of tour buses going absurdly slow, followed by a little relief through some mundane, dying old Japanese town, followed by sitting at a temporary traffic light in the middle of fucking nowhere where there was some construction work going on, followed, finally, by a smog-belching bus going 15 kph up a damn mountain for 10 kilometers to the as-predicted tourist-infested parking lot of the shrine that I didn’t want to go to.
I find temples boring, as I mentioned — little interest in the history or mythology that lies behind them, how long they’ve been there, what famous ancient dude visited or founded the place, what gods are said to dwell there, what mystical powers or rumored to be present, where it ranks on the Japanese scale of important religious places. Togakushi was no different, and were I actually interested in these things I would have been disappointed because the structures themselves are nothing special, even by my low standards, because the saving grace of Togakushi (as far as I’m concerned) is that you have to trek about a mile into the forest to get to it.
There are two selling points to Togakushi that attract people to it. One is that it has been designated a ‘power energy spot,’ where one can tap into universal energy flows on cosmic levels. The other is that it has giant, beautiful cedar trees lining the path to the shrine. Put the two together and you lots of people touching and hugging the trees, and stacking symbolic piles of rocks (taken from the very un-cosmic walkway) around them.
The cedar-lined portion of the walk doesn’t really start until you get about 20 minutes into the woods, when you come upon a temple gate. After that, it sort of makes visiting another boring shrine worthwhile.
As mundane as the temple was, the trees were stunning. I had flashbacks of Ladybird Johnson Redwood Forest (or whatever it’s really called) in northern California — big trees have a way of making me feel small.
Shortly after we started heading back down from the shrine — the last 10 or 15 minutes is a pretty decent climb up to the shrine complex — it started to rain. Fortunately the cover from the trees kept up fairly dry until, just before we reached the gate, it started absolutely pissing rain. Our timing was impeccable and we scurried the last 20 feet to the safety of the gate roof along with 10 or 15 other well-timed people.
The forest took on a different beauty with the mist and raindrops mixing with hints of sun, thunder rumbling in the background and a slow but steady stream of non-umbrella wielding fellow tourists reaching the gate to escape the rain.
So in the end it worked out — Chieko and I had a lovely, Ray-less day even though she had to put up with a bunch of my huffing an puffing, but the shrine wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And I have to say that Nagano is the shit — if I packed up and shipped off to any place in Japan, it would be there, although it is the biggest prefecture in the country so that threat needs to be honed down. But really, big mountains, rolling hills, green green green…the only thing it’s missing is a bit of ocean.
We’re going to drive new cars this weekend and try to find something we deem worthy. More on that to come…