VOLUME 2: ISSUE 3
WHF2002 – Recollections – Tim Hornyak
Through the Cloud Gate to Moon Mountain:
A Journey in Oku
I woke to the sight of a steel-blue Sea of Japan to my left under the white wing of the 8:05 JAL out of Haneda. We were flying low, descending over a tatami floor of yellow and green – the rice fields of Akita. They are legend in Japan, I recalled, the Komachi strain honoring Ono no Komachi, the Heian beauty and poet said to have been the scion of this verdant northern backwater of the archipelago. Sucking in the pure Tohoku morning air on the ground, I could see it was harvest time here in Yuwa town, far from Tokyo. The plants were lying down in the fields, heavy with seed. I thought of the adage:
koube wo tareru
The more they ripen,
the lower they bow their heads
the ears of rice
These paddies also produce the main ingredient for some of the finest sake in Japan, and the depths of snow that cover them in winter is responsible, they say, for the lustrous white skin of Akita bijin, as the local belles are known. I could see a difference in the faces of the Japanese at the World Haiku Festival venue near the airport, my first destination in the north country. They had broader bone structure, were taller and somehow more solid than the inhabitants of the capital.
Their protocol was more substantial as well. A reception for the foreign conference guests was held at the restaurant Villa Flora on a hill overlooking a valley of rice. The Yuwa councilmen, our hosts, were decked out in blue suits, Brylcreem hair and thick-rimmed glasses. An emcee announced when the party would begin and end, speeches were made by the mayor and representatives of several haiku clubs. There were entertainments of traditional Akita songs with drum, shakuhachi and samisen accompaniment as well as dancing by middle-aged women in kimono.
We were asked to recite a haiku of our own composition, and I recalled visiting Basho’s birthplace in Mie Prefecture a month earlier; Iga-Ueno was known as one of the two main centers for ninja, and before taking in a museum on the medieval assassins I had stopped at Basho’s home. The large reconstructed main building seemed out of character with my image of the wayfarer, but nestled among the banana plants in the yard was his writing hut, which he called Chougekken — literally, “Fishing Moon House”. A nail dangled country footwear by the bare mats, and I pictured him composing after weeks on the road:
Straw sandals hanging
tatami by tatami…
tools to catch the moon
The bus to Kisakata, the following day, took us through emerald glens. Someone said Basho allegedly embarked on his Oku no Hosomichi odyssey because he was really a ninja and was on an intelligence-gathering mission for the Tokugawa shogunate. I laughed at the thought of a ninja weeping, as the sentimental poet often described himself doing.
Studded with pine, the “islands” of Kisakata were floating on a golden sea of rice in the sun. The 1804 earthquake that destroyed the lagoons had also replaced the cranes of Basho’s day with crows. It was almost a Van Gogh painting. Amid the knolls, we could see hooded country women gathering rice cuttings and binding them to poles called haza. These looked like a row of people in traditional straw raincoats, the kind Basho and Sora wore while negotiating the muddy tracks. I later wrote the following:
Rice drying on poles…
a line of ancient pilgrims
frozen in the field
We were taken to Meiji poet Ishii Rogetsu’s grave at a small hillside temple. Graveyards in Japan have always fascinated me; their wooden touba markers inscribed with Buddhist death-names, regular cleansing rituals, food and floral offerings. One cinerarium seemed a hive of life.
bees crawl into cracks
in the family grave
That night, we held a moon-viewing party to honor the harvest moon. A bottle of the finest Akita sake, Hiraizumi, was brought along with pampas grass and other tokens. Our cheers finally coaxed it from behind a shroud of cloud, whereupon a toast was made. Later I repaired to a dark wooded patch away from the hotel lights and looked up; that magnificent moon seemed to be eyeing me through its veil.
Lying in long grass
I taste the harvest full moon
in my sake cup
I still had moon on the brain when I boarded an express train the next day for Tsuruoka, down the coast. I had long wanted to climb holy Gassan (Moon Mountain) in Yamagata, not because Basho had been there, but because of its association with the famed swordsmiths who lived on it and took the peak’s name. They continue to practice their ancient art, as I learned when I once interviewed Nara sword maker Sadatoshi Gassan, the fifth generation of smiths since the Gassan school was relocated to Osaka around 1830. Their accumulated expertise is reflected in the master’s prized blades, which seem living worlds in steel-silver dragons coiled around flowering plum trees, pearls floating over milky mists and the Chinese characters for “moon” and “mountain” engraved on the tang as a finishing touch.
I thought of the designs on the razor-sharp katana as I climbed the long stair through centuries-old cedars and mist to the summit of Mt. Haguro. The smith’s lineage goes back about 800 years to the Kamakura Period, when Buddhist monks in the ascetic Shugendo sect needed swords to protect their disciples here, one of the three sacred peaks of Dewa Sanzan along with Gassan and Mt. Yudono — said to represent birth, death and rebirth respectively. Sweating in the cold air, I reached the top of the stair at the shrine complex. The physical world seemed to dissolve at the gate.
beyond it nothing
They say a handful of yamabushi mountain priests continues to live on Haguro year-round, but I saw none. The museum had an exhibit of round bronze mirrors that abbots of old placed in a local pond as a sign of dedication; its one ancient Gassan sword was not on display. I enjoyed a burst of sunshine in a garden of Jizo statues, pathetically dressed in unkempt layers of clothing to console the spirits of aborted fetuses, then caught one of the last buses of the year to Gassan.
The mist thickened as we climbed into wind and rain. When I got off at the Eighth Station, a gale was raking the volcano, driving cloud and fog over its chilly northern flank. I had hoped to cover the 8 kilometers to Yudono that afternoon, and with regret decided to wait out the storm in a lodge at Mida-ga-Hara, altitude 1,445 meters. After warming myself by a kerosene stove, I set off on a stroll over the marshy plateau through the mist. The alpine gentians were closed, and purple thistles provided the only spots of color in the shadowless grey-green void. I thought of Basho passing here before me, “through the cloud gate into the courses of the sun and moon.”
Cold moor pool
grasses beneath the surface
move with the wind
The mist, confusing the visible and invisible, causing the mountainside to appear and disappear, hovered over the ponds like a spirit. I thought it was playing tricks on me when I saw two white, ghostly figures in the distance. As I approached, I could see they were sitting in the lotus posture and looking off into the moor, motionless in the rain. Were these phantoms of smiths who had tempered their swords in holy water, or shades of Yudono ascetics who fasted to death to become mummies? In the moment before I realized they were pilgrims practicing austerities, I felt as though I had passed through a gate into a Moon Mountain spirit-world where time itself does not pass.
Women chanting sutras
had seemed Buddhas from far
on misty Gassan
The storm didn’t let up and I never did reach the summit. I accepted an offer of a lift back to Tsuruoka the next day from a worker at the lodge. The sun was shining in the valley below as we drove under the massive torii at the foot of Haguro. Behind us was Gassan, rising out of the cedar forests and vanishing into cloud.
Artwork, “Torii, Yudono-san” by D. W. Bender
“Through the Cloud Gate to Moon Mountain: A Journey in Oku” is an Editor’s Choice selection in this issue