Monday, September 26, 2011

Stretching the Truth

Three scenic locations in Japan have historically been considered the most beautiful sights in Japan. All three are celebrated in the country’s literature and have been rendered numerous times by artists. The first of these places is Itsukushima Shrine, specifically the giant torii, or gate built over the water located near Hiroshima. The second is Amanohashidate north of Kyoto, a pine covered sand spit stretching for two miles across Miyazu Bay, and the third is Matsushima near Sendai in northern Japan. Over the years spent in that country I visited each of these places in turn, looking each time for a fragment of the lost Japan.

A particular cluster of small islands off northern Japan’s Pacific coast have over the years been carved into various shapes by wind and waves and topped by the twisted postures of wind-bent pine trees. The islands are collectively called Matsushima and from bygone times have been described by poets and artists as the most beautiful place in Japan, one of the fabled Three Views of Japan—the three most celebrated scenic sights. I first learned of the place from the travel journals of long dead poets who made pilgrimages to such places, extolling in poems their great beauty. One of these short poems attributed to the great master Matsuo Bashô is clearly an expression of dumbstruck awe: Ah, Matsushima! / Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah! / Matsushima! Ah! I have my doubts that the poem is truly something written by Bashô, but his impression is clear in a passage from his travel record, Narrow Road to the Deep North: ‘Much praise had already been lavished upon the wonders of the islands of Matsushima. Yet if further praise is possible, I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan.’

In the mid 1980s I finally had the chance to travel to this celebrated place, first stop on a journey following the long and meandering itinerary of Bashô and his companion Sora 300 years earlier. Leaving the urban sprawl of Tokyo behind on a clear morning in early summer, my own companion and I were filled with the excitement of seeing a place so long imagined and only seen through doubtful retouched photographs in second rate guidebooks, both longing for air not grimed by exhaust and sights untainted by power lines. I even hoped we might sleep that night in rooms overhung by the droop of pine branches rasping against weathered eaves that framed a scattering of tiny islands floating in moonlight. Some journeys start out with unrealistic invention.

Arriving in Sendai, we wasted no time outside the station, but made an immediate run for the train that would after a short run to Matsushima-Kaigan connect us with a ferry out to the islands. At the dock a veil of hazy air blocked any view of the islands and we had to make do with conjured images of what we couldn’t see. The first crack in our rainbow glasses came when we strolled out to the dock’s end, looking down at the water to see a thick pall of garbage bobbing in the water, spread thickly around the pilings. A disgusting collage of orange rinds, soft drink cans, waterlogged Band-Aids, milk cartons and the sinister addition of a black wig curling around a drowned Styrofoam head. Who could help but wonder if it was a preview of Matsushima’s coming attractions?

The ferry was crowded and caused some concern about the likelihood of finding an inn with vacant rooms. No one to blame but ourselves for letting exuberance override the practicality of reservations. In a little while we landed at what was by no stretch of the imagination a picturesque island harbor, but undaunted we hoisted backpacks and struck out for the main street visible ahead. Uninterested in staying amidst the clutter of souvenir shops and ramen restaurants, we walked past the ‘town’ area looking for a ryôkan, or inn that offered views unimpeded by commercial signboards and flashing neon. We finally did manage that, but it was a place of mundane views and barely comfortable accommodation. The first night there I sat late by the window and at one point wrote in my journal: Snores from a nearby room / sleepless I sit / gazing at the hazy moon— 次の間の / いびききこゆる / おぼろ月

The plan was for two days and nights in Matsushima before heading farther north on a zigzag route. The truth is, it was hard to fill the time with the ‘wonders of Matsushima,’ a place of ‘legendary’ beauty that turned out to be most uninteresting, a spot made ugly by the blight of modern tourism. Though we walked until exhausted, the hikes turned up little that could be called either wonderful or scenically beautiful. Sadly, the disappointment went even further in my twentieth-century eyes. I was left to ponder what it was that travelers of another age found so appealing. Had it changed so completely over the passage of years?

Leaving Matsushima, a destination beautiful only in poems and old paintings, I passed a harbor-side souvenir shop and through garish windows spied a kokeshi doll of fitting expression. Today still, the doll sits and scowls from a shelf, reminding me that guidebooks as well as poets can stretch the truth when needs suit.

1 comment:

  1. Very evocative post of a journey not fulfilled. Sort of the anticipation of an unwrapped present often being the best part. Yes, sadly, I do think the scene changed so much due to man's nasty ways. And we do depend on writers to record something at a certain point in time--be it attitudes or an untouched island.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America