Friday, March 3, 2017

Monkeys in the shadows

A few heavy snowstorms pushed me down the west coast into balmy sea breezes in a few hundred kilometers - out of winter and full into spring.  I spent some days in sparsely populated mountains and then along a beautiful rugged seaside between Akita and Niigata.  Beautiful as I see it, but the long distances between even small villages suggest it's something of a national secret.  The low density of people pushes me to find shelter every night beyond the world of Catholic churches...Protestant churches, Buddhist temples, and gracious families have opened their doors to me, and stamped my pilgrim credential, of course.  I move south, gaining light on both ends of the day, toward more population, more options for where to stay and what routes to take. Crocuses are erupting and plum blossoms are unfurling and birds are chirping everywhere. Every day's a new day in pilgrimland.

One exciting morning, leaving a family home with four generations and an impressive display of traditional dolls (one of the photos posted earlier), I announced that I felt certain I would finally see some of the elusive monkeys that day. After a long and solitary walk on the beach and among the cliffs, I reached a fishing village.  In a corner, tucked against a  mountain, I found an old Buddhist temple with a young priest - Zen, I was informed but couldn't detect on my own.  In the chill of the reception room, sipping the bitter tea and nibbling sweet bean-filled little cakes, the priest pointed out the thin glass of the sliding doors to the well-groomed garden...a family of monkeys parading along the edge of the garden for some extended minutes before disappearing into the mountain rhododendrons.  I was satistisfied indeed - monkeys! Finally.

The next morning, I started out early with the hope of reaching a town of size before dark. In the quiet just after dawn, alone on the serpentine seaside road, I heard some strange noise on the steep mountainside. I stopped, the noise stopped; I continued, the noise resumed. A game was afoot. They were well camouflaged, but I saw them eventually, scattered on the hillside walking with me and looking my way - at least five or six monkeys, and when I stopped walking, each stopped as well and turned its back to me, nonchalantly mimicking a tree stump. Companionably, we walked for a few kilometers together until the topography changed and I crossed over a bridge as they went up a side valley.