Encapsulated in that statement is a world of pissiness and self-pity. Believe me, I recognize it and I find it pretty boring too. You know you are in trouble when your own inner monologues are putting you to sleep.
Truth is, I stopped being grumpy about the time I got over the jet-lag. The worst country in the world is the la la land in your head. So I took a train out of there and found myself in a much better place: the Real World, which can be dark and dangerous but is also seductive and sublime. Or at least it can be all that when approached with passion and purpose.
Yesterday was one of the most magical days I've had so far in Japan. The intention was to "play tourist" and so we walked out the door with an itinerary and a fixed idea of what we wanted to see. In short, we had a Program.
I've been told that the gods find it funny when human beings "plan". And frankly we should laugh more at ourselves because we really are ridiculous when we try. Think of all the things that have to go exactly as we assume they should in order for our grand agendas to be realized. Contemplate for a moment just how few of these things are actually under our control. And then marvel at how well things turn out when we let go of the Plan.
That is what happened yesterday. Yes, we saw the things on the list but everything in between was pure serendipity - a series of happy accidents and good fortune that had us wondering if we should have bought a lottery ticket.
We started our day at the Fushimi Inaari Shrine - a very popular tourist area. It was indeed impressive and we dutifully trudged up the mountain under the torii with hundreds of other people, most of whom were just as irritated by us as we were with them. For a sacred place, it was surprisingly hard to feel any sense of peace at all. I didn't have anything invested in reaching the top and neither did my companion, so, halfway up the mountain, we gave up and took a side trail back down the hill. I was feeling jittery and was looking around for a place to sit and have a smoke, when we turned a corner and there it was: a quiet area with a table, a bench to sit on, and an ashtray. So we sat and watched the water drip from a stone frog's mouth into a pool of still water.
Refreshed, we got up, continued down the mountain, and with a sigh of relief walked out the exit on to the street. At that point we had a choice: look for a train that would take us to Fushimi Castle, or walk it. Feeling frisky, we decided to walk it - 4.5 kilometers (about 3 miles).
On the surface the neighborhood didn't look very exciting. But a few minutes into our walk, we saw a small shop with interesting art and we decided to go in. We ended up talking at length with the store owner. The art in the shop was a family affair: his wife made the small flower pins that went perfectly with jean jackets; he and his parents painted the beautiful postcards; and his son made the small whimsical clay figurines that drew us into the shop in the first place. I bought one I loved: a frog playing a violin. Just before we left, the shop owner/artist told us to take three postcards (our choice) as a gift. Now it just so happened that it was my traveling companion's birthday and she had been looking for something small for herself. And there it was, exactly what she wanted: a birthday card.
A bit farther down the road, we looked to the left and there was, of all things, a Catholic church. We noticed it because the architectural style was a bit out of place: a California mission-style building complete with stucco and statues of Mary, Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. My companion, a Buddhist, had already prayed earlier in the day at one of the Shinto shrines and so we figured that it would be a fine idea to cover the Catholic side too. A good dousing with holy water and four Hail Mary's later, we left feeling mighty serene. And I felt much better because I missed mass on Easter Sunday.
Nearing the end of the walk, our stomachs started to grumble and it seemed prudent to find a place to eat before continuing to the castle. The pickings were slim but we found ourselves in front of a small restaurant. The windows were dirty and opaque so we couldn't see inside and the photos of the food were faded so it was hard to tell what they served. But we were hungry beggars and this looked like our only option. We walked in with low expectations and felt the universe tilt as we gazed on the crisp, clean, modern, stylish interior decor. It was lovely and the food was good, too: hamburgers with curry sauce, french fries, and salad.
Fortified, we marched on, found the entrance to the park and walked up a long drive through a bamboo forest. This was bamboo as trees with shoots as thick as my thighs, and I realized that the thin spindly stuff that I used to buy at Truffaut's in Versailles was a poor deprived cousin of this variety.
Past the parking lot and through the impressive and imposing gate and into a large park where we looked up, up, and up again at these massive, but graceful, structures looming over us. And what a sight it was. The description of Fushimi Castle (also known as Momoyama Castle) I had read on Daniel O'Grady's site did not do it justice. Perhaps it was the word "reconstructed" that led me to believe that it was nothing special - made it sound like a Disneyesque attraction without Walt's budget.
The original castle was built, burned, built again and finally abandoned in 1625. This version was only constructed in 1964, and not even at the original site. How inauthentic. And yet, it had the power to mesmerize both of us.
Is the grand lesson of the day Skip the Shrine and See the Castle?
Not at all.
For me (and this is just my take on it) it was about renewing my faith in a basically benevolent universe where you don't necessarily get what you want, but you always get what you need.
All of the good things (and there were many) that happened that day came when we took our hands off the rudder and let something or someone else steer for awhile. And that led us to people and places in the Real World that I'm not sure we could have found any other way.