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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Japan and Taiwan: Days 5 and 6 - Rain, rain go away

I knew there wasn't going to be much to do the Sunday after I'd completed the hike up to Gassan-jinja Shrine 月山神社 and down to Yudonosan-jinja Shrine 湯殿山神社. In fact, based on what happened back in 2006, when a typhoon washed out my plans to complete the Dewa Sanzan 出羽三山 trifecta, I factored in an extra day in Tsuruoka 鶴岡 in the event the weather would prove to be uncooperative again. As things turned out, the weather on Saturday was fine, and I completed the hike as planned, which meant I now had a Sunday that needed to be filled. I had hoped the temperature would be warm enough to go for a swim in the Sea of Japan 日本海, and had even packed a swimsuit, but Typhoon 18 was approaching the western part of Honshū 本州 and it would rain for much of the day in the northeast where I was staying. As it turned out, things were going to get much worse, but as I woke up on Sunday morning, I had to figure out what I was going to do that day.

Thinking things over during breakfast, I decided to take a bus to a village called Ōami 大網, where there were two Buddhist temples, both of which contained "living Buddhas", mummified bodies of ascetic monks. I had visited one of the temples when I was in Tsuruoka seven years ago, and so I thought I'd have a look at the other one. At the bus stop in front of Tsuruoka Station 鶴岡駅, I somehow managed to miss the bus, as it pulled up, opened it doors, closed them and then sped off before I could react. Not sure of what had just happened, I walked over to the tourist information office, where, after a long discussion between the two staff there over various bus schedules, it was decided that I wouldn't have enough time in Oami to see the mummy if I caught a later bus, but that there was another mummy right there in Tsuruoka that I wasn't aware of! This would be the first of many changes in plans over the course of this day and the next.

My lunch at a restaurant across the street from station. The staff suggested I eat there while waiting for the bus that would take me to Nangaku-ji Temple 南岳時.

Nangaku-ji. The temple itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but propped up on an altar in the basement was a mīra ミイラ, a Buddhist priest who, as the tourist office brochure put it, "as expression of his faith, entered a pit and gradually reduced his intake of food and water to zero." The result would be naturally mummified remains that would be presented as a testament to the priest's faith. This practice, known as sokushimbutsu 即身仏, was outlawed in the mid-19th century, and the remains of a half-dozen "living Buddhas" can be found today in several temples in Yamagata Prefecture 山形県. Photography wasn't allowed, so I found this photo of the miira online:

Leaving Nangaku-ji in the rain, I had the choice of waiting for the next bus back to the station, or of returning on foot. I chose the latter option, and almost immediately regretted it as my sandals soon became thoroughly soaked. Still, I plowed on, wondering what else there was to see in Tsuruoka. The city's main tourist sight is a collection of Meiji period 明治時代 buildings called the Chidō Hakubutsukan 致道博物館, but I'd already visited it the last time I was in town. So, free guide map in hand, I decided instead to check out some of what I didn't see here back in 2006.

Shōnai-jinja Shrine 庄内神社 was only of mild interest, but it least it provided some cover from the still-pouring rain.

The building next door to Shonai-jinja was of much greater interest. Taihōkan 大寶館 was a beautifully-preserved building, completed in 1915 as a local assembly hall.

Taihokan's interior is now a museum dedicated to local persons of note, none of whom I'd ever heard of but was impressed with the hairstyle of at least one of them. 

By this point the rain had pretty much stopped, and things would stay that way for the rest of the day. I next walked over to check out this Catholic church, built by French missionaries in 1903 and containing "the only black statue of Mother Mary in Japan in the chapel." I remembered passing by the church the last time I was in town, and was glad I didn't give it a pass again this time.

Tsuruoka was proving to be more interesting than I'd expected, as I walked from the church to the former Kazama Family Residence Heishindō. According to my guide map, "Kazama, a cloth merchant, became the richest merchant and landowner in Tsuruoka. This structure was built as both a house and a store in 1896, and still retains many characteristics unique to the merchant lifestyle." A pretty apt description as I wandered around the large home, checking out the various rooms and furnishings. 

The ticket to the Heishindo 丙申堂 also included admission to the Shakadō 釈迦堂, another traditional house that had been converted into a small Buddhist temple. It was noted locally for its small garden in the rear.

As things turned out, I was able to keep myself occupied on this "open day" in my itinerary, and I celebrated with dinner at one of those conveyor-belt sushi restaurants 回転寿司, followed by a couple of beers at a local bar.

Monday the 16th. My original plan for this day was to take full advantage of my JR Pass by first getting up early, checking out of my hotel and catching a local train around 7:15 for a two-hour ride or so to the city of Akita 秋田, where I would then stash my bags in a locker at the train station. Following a quick look around, I would then retrieve my things and get on the bullet train 新幹線 to Morioka 盛岡. There, I would do the same thing, before taking one more train to my final destination, Tōno 遠野, where I would stay in a minshuku 民宿 for the next two nights.

Watching the weather report on TV on Sunday, however, it was apparent that the Tōhoku region 東北地方 was not going to be spared the wrath of the oncoming typhoon's fury, and I decided it would be best to get from Tsuruoka to Tono as quickly as possible before transportation ground to a halt. So on Sunday evening, I made the necessary reservations. The new schedule had me going from Tsuruoka to Akita by a limited express train, changing to the bullet train for the leg to Morioka, before finally arriving in Tono in the late afternoon. I went to bed Sunday night knowing I could sleep in a bit and enjoy breakfast on the top floor of the hotel before checking out around ten.

Waking up on Monday, the weather was rainy, but it certainly didn't resemble a typhoon. I knew something was wrong, however, when, in this most punctual of societies, the limited express train was 18 minutes late in arriving. While in Taiwan this might not be too unusual, in Japan it's a sign that something serious is going on. The Sea of Japan was stormy as the train made its way out of Tsuruoka, and by the time we pulled into Akita, the rain had become horizontal and the wind was whipping up. Having missed my connection to Morioka, I quickly hurried over to the ticket office and reserved a seat on the next shinkansen heading toward Morioka. 

This was the sight that greeted me as I left the 緑の窓口, ticket and rail pass in hand. All trains had stopped running due to the typhoon, which was now making its way through Tohoku. I had a choice to make: stand around and wait to see when (and if) the trains would resume operations, or find a room in Akita for the night. I chose the latter. Following signs for the Hotel Metropolitan Akita ホテルメトロポリタン秋田, I made my way through an adjoining shopping center and found the front desk. It turned out there was room at the inn, so I made the reservation for that night, and asked them to book a room for me for the following evening, at their establishment in Morioka. Things were propitious all around, for not only did the Metropolitan provide a relatively classy room at a reasonable rate, it was part of the Japan Rail group, which meant that I was entitled to a discount by virtue of holding a JR Pass. 

Needless to say, it wasn't the most exciting of days. However, by virtue of the fact that the hotel, shopping center and train station were all adjoining, I never had to step outside and into Mother Nature's fury. On the other side of the station was another adjoining building that had an internet cafe on its second floor, so I was able to check my email and catch up on news while remaining dry. There were certainly much worse ways to ride out a typhoon, and I wasn't complaining.

The worst of the typhoon was over by the evening, and I capped off the day by enjoying a couple of microbrews 地ビール (Tazawako Beer 田沢湖ビール) at a restaurant on the second floor of the shopping center. A JR clerk assured me that the bullet trains would be running the next day, so I booked another seat on a Morioka-bound shinkansen and retired for the night.

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