We approached the clearing cautiously, snatching glimpses of the abandoned building’s interior through gaps torn in its sliding screens. There were frayed tatami mats covered in a thick layer of dust and a solitary paper lantern hung half-heartedly from the ceiling, its washi paper yellowed unevenly by prolonged exposure to the sun.
The evening air was still, without a hint of a breeze. It was clear that, apart from the occasional bird or squirrel, Robert and I were the only sources of movement in that quiet portion of forest, hidden high in the mountains of Kyoto. Every snap of a twig or rustle of leaves sent goosebumps rocketing onto the skin of our arms.
“I don’t want to disturb anything,” I whispered, imagining spirits gathering once the sun had set, equipped with spectral casks of sake for that evening’s festivities. But despite my over-active imagination, as we looked back at the abandoned building before rejoining the mountain path, it was abundantly clear that any sounds of merriment (human or otherwise), had long since dissipated into the chilly air.
We were treated to picturesque views of the surrounding valley on our way up to Jingo-ji temple. Huge trees with vividly green canopies and dark, gnarled trunks stood sentinel as we passed. In the distance an azalea forest bloomed, as intensely purple as the oncoming dusk and all around us lay great carpets of moss, wrapping the earth in a delicate shroud.
A red lantern bobbed into view as we reached the top of the stone steps. It leant precariously to one side and looked as though a strong gust of wind would knock it over. Yet despite its garish colour, my gaze quickly came to rest below it, where a statue of a tanuki stood. I felt it watching me through small, dark eyes.
Though I’d heard of tanukis once or twice before, I couldn’t recall what kind of place the raccoon-dog held in Japanese folklore. Was he there to help us on our path to the temple, or was he intent on distracting us from our journey? The intelligence that seemed to resonate from his black eyes contradicted the foolish grin spread across the lower half of his face. The more I looked, the more uncertain I became.
“I don’t trust him,” I said finally, speeding towards the entrance of the temple. But as we got closer we saw that the tall wooden gates were shut ― we had arrived too late to visit the grounds. Somewhere behind me I knew the tanuki stood, grinning, his fat white belly as round as the Moon.
With our original plan scuppered we sat as close as we dared to the rock face at the edge of the trail and gazed down at the tops of the many trees we’d passed on our ascent. A few crows flapped noisily through the air to our left, their guttural cries fading into the distance before I had time to even focus the camera.
Sat amongst that remarkable congregation of nature, the importance of time seemed to weaken with every beat of a bird’s wings, loosening its grip on us as surely as the wind released blossoms from their branches. On the mountainside we were witness to events that were at the same time ordinary and extraordinary, that were unaffected by our arrival and that would continue to occur long after we had departed. Our insignificance was strangely inspiring.
Although we’d leave no trace of ourselves behind, I smiled at the fact that we were fortunate enough to have been there, in that moment, enveloped in the wondrous sights and sounds of Japan’s nature in early bloom, half a world away from home.
When the staff at the ryokan asked if we’d enjoyed our visit to the temple later that evening, disappointment at it’s closure couldn’t have been further from my mind. Not knowing enough Japanese to enquire about the tanuki and finding ourselves with some spare time before dinner, I quickly searched the internet for information on the mysterious creature. The phrase ‘feigned ignorance’ appeared on Wikipedia.
I knew it.
About the Author: Georgina Miller lives in the UK and has a deep love for all things Japan. She knows she wants to be a writer, but isn’t sure which genre she’ll end up focussing on. For now, she is simply enjoying writing in various forms. She holds a joint degree in English Literature and Journalism.
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