Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Friday 26 March
'Into The Corridor of Culture’s Grove'

Shortly after 1.00 pm, the slow Kaetsuno bus from Ainokura, which today I share with other passengers, rolls into Takaoka. First impressions are of a city that has fallen on hard times. The shops seem closed. Is it a national holiday? (I wouldn’t know.) The city feels dark and it’s not just the weather. Perhaps other cities with the same long sheltered arcades stretching out from stations, like Aomori in the north or Kochi in Shikoku, cities that I have seen only in summer, also look just as miserable coming out of winter.

At JR Takaoka, school girls hang out around the Mcdonalds and I get an aggressive look from a stranger - rare here in Japan – just outside the main concourse. I think of Hounslow. The immediate challenge is to navigate my way successfully via the maze of dim, concrete tunnels beneath the station, a miniature Montreal ‘underground village’ of empty restaurants and clothes stores with names like ‘Bleu Bleu’, to the other side, where I have booked a room at the ultra-cheap Super Hotel, whose signs I can see but cannot reach. I keep going round in circles, below and above ground.

At least this brings me to Takaoka’s tourist information office. It always seems that the cities least frequented by tourists, or with the least to offer, pull out the stops to publicise their monuments - however ‘C list’ they may be - and supply the glossiest maps and pamphlets. The one I am given here hails Takaoka as “The Corridor of Culture’s Grove”, quite some billing to live up to. (Whatever it means.)

Not that Takaoka is devoid of sights. It has two notable ones, one of which is a listed ‘National Treasure’. The absence of visitors suggests their existence is not widely known. I didn't know of them either, not having intended to visit until a few days before. Then I hit on Takaoka as an ideal overnight stop, allowing me to cover the subsequent onward journey to Nagano on one day of my bargain ‘Seishun 18 kippu’ rail pass rather than splitting it into two. (Seishun 18 ticket: five days’ free travel on slow, non-reservable, local trains only.)

It snowed throughout the previous day and night at Ainokura, a small settlement above a steep-sided valley, where I had been staying in a traditional 350-year old gassho-zukuri, a house structure unique to the Shirakowa-Go region named after its hands-in-prayer-shaped roof, the upper floors of which were traditionally used in silkworm rearing. The snow had fallen so deep that it had covered a large stone in front of the gassho marked, according to my tourist map, by the ‘footprints of a long-nosed goblin’. A constant procession of lorries had been working throughout the daylight to carry away the snow and keep paths around these structures open to visitors.

Some stand-out memories of the last few days: as the only passenger in an aging wooden-floored bus from Otamachi, the principal city of Shirakowa-Go, to Ainokura, I had been treated to an impromptu tour by the kind driver, who gave me a largely incomprehensible running commentary of the journey in Japanese and stopped en route to allow me a glimpse of other gassho settlements and the green river at the foot of the valley. The snow. (As I move in and out of the Japanese Alps, I am dipping in and out of seasons). And being woken up at two-hourly intervals during the night by the electric heater (kanji instructions only) playing a bleepy ‘Love Me Tender’.

The approach to Takaoka’s first great cultural monument is – no surprise - undramatic. The short walk takes me past more arcades of empty shops. Turning the corner, there is the daibutsu, identified by Takaoka's inhabitants as the symbol of their city and historically considered to be one of Japan's 3 Great Buddhas along with those in Nara (which I have seen) and Kamakura (which I have not - but hope to soon).

(Why do tourist rankings always focus on top threes? Japan officially has Three Great Views and Three Great Gardens. Monuments of a kind always seem to be numbered, like Olympic winners, 1-2-3 or to form Triangles (think Rajasthan); rarely are there four or do they form a ‘square’. The next best, biggest, tallest outside that group is likely to be forgotten. So where and which is the fourth-placed Buddha, I wonder, and is it as under-visited as number three? )

[A couple of days later, in Matsumoto, I learn that that its castle is one of four listed as national treasures, which puts paid to that 'theory'.]

I walk around, get close up, see a few Bosch-esque pictures in the circular hall beneath the statue. There are a handful of other visitors but the sprinkling of souvenir and coffee shops around me remain empty. Perhaps the tour buses have already passed through.

The same rather forlorn atmosphere surrounds the approach to the second must-see monument, this one designated as a National Treasure. The approach to Zuiryuji is equally unremarkable, taking me along a slippery tiled path at the centre of a residential street. (I later read in Nagano that one should not approach Buddhist temples from the middle of the path.) At its end, however, I enter a beautifully preserved, peaceful, cloistered Zen Buddhist temple complex. (Was that the corridor? Is this the grove?) It deserves more than the few visitors it has drawn today.

Returning to the hotel, I pass the Pachinko Toyama salon. It has its own dedicated entrance from the station tunnel and it calls itself an ‘entertainment museum’ so I take it at its word and have a look. Inside, it's vast, and there's an army of attendants. The first real signs of (hypnotised) life in this city; the pulse of Takaoka.

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