Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Most Beautiful Place in Jeomchon

The other day we were blessed with really nice weather, so I decided to seize the opportunity to get out of my apartment and take a walk. While walking, I noticed a little temple perched high on a hill. I spent much of that walk just trying to find the path at the base of the hill, and when I finally had I really had to go to the bathroom. The next day, I came back to discover this:

This is the rock that marks the entrance to Cheonhungsa. Just behind the rock, and past the small pavilion on the right is a stairway leading up the side of the mountain.

Keep climbing and you'll reach the temple grounds, which are cut into the side of the hill.

It's the most beautiful place I've found in Jeomchon. Granted, there isn't much else to challenge this title. In fact, I was surprised to find anything of beauty at all here. I will definitely visit this little temple again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Giant Encyclopedia of Ultraman Monsters: Monsters Charge!

In Praise of Laver

I came back from the Lunar New Year holiday to find a large box on my desk. It was big and yet very light. "What could be inside?" I wondered, but not out loud because talking to yourself is usually not a good idea. I carried it home on the bus, opened it up, and found:

Lots and lots of dried seaweed, or what is commonly called laver. No, I had never heard this word before coming to Asia, either. I always just called it nori, which is the Japanese. In Korean it's kim, as in "kimbap," or seaweed rice. See how that works?

Anyway, what would I ever need this much seaweed for? Don't get me wrong, I like seaweed. I've eaten it many times with sushi and even occasionally on spaghetti in Japan. But an entire box? Seems a little excessive.

Koreans eat laver in more ways than the Japanese do, it seems. Koreans eat it with rice, using their chopsticks to fold the seaweed sheet over some rice. They'll even eat it as a snack with alcohol, as is. All are good. But again, how am I ever going to consume all of this seaweed?

How indeed. These are, of course, the words of someone who has not yet consumed this particular brand of seaweed. Since opening a pack and eating the contents with rice, I have realized just how wonderful seaweed can be. I am now orienting my meals around the seaweed, it's so good.

I'd say come on over and have some with me, but I don't think I have enough for two. Sorry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Snake Cult of Beppu

Just a castle?
It was two years ago that I first heard rumor of a castle in Beppu. I was preparing to leave Oita after a year of studying Japanese there. Beppu, the next town up the line, was famous for its hot springs but it apparently also had a castle. Odd this, as it was never a castle town. Had some millionaire decided to erect his own castle and infuse it with his own, bizarre personality? Alas, I was too busy with preparations for leaving to find out.

Fate (and some time off from work) brought me back to Oita for a week, and I was determined this time to find that elusive castle. Whether historical recreation or vanity project, I just had to see it. Like Americans and their love for roadside attractions, the Japanese are not above building shrines or landmarks that bare little to no resemblance to accepted reality.

"Does Beppu have a castle?" I asked the woman behind the counter at the little tourist office in front of Beppu Station.

"Well, not a real one," she answered, a hint of disapproval in her voice.

"That's the one!"

With map in hand, I boarded a bus bound for Kifunejo, something like High-class Boat Castle. What would I find, I wondered. What lay before me? There was no way I could have prepared myself for what was to come.

I got off the bus at the stop marked on the map and started up the steep hill towards the castle. The bus stop was named for the castle, and there were plenty of signs along the way. This was a bigger deal than I thought. Strange that I hadn't heard of it long ago. Why the secrecy, I wondered.

I reached the top of the hill, huffing and puffing, and paused to take a look at the castle. Although small, with only three stories, it was indeed a normal-looking castle. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money to erect this here. Still wondering why, I paid my 300-yen entrance fee (around $3.00) and headed for the entrance.

I had paused there momentarily to catch my breath, as I was still wheezing from the climb, when a man started beckoning me inside. I tried to tell him in Japanese to wait a minute but he kept insisting. Strange to be so insistent, I thought. I took off my shoes at the entrance, not unheard of for original castles, and followed him inside.

Most castle interiors follow one of two plans: original castles are left as-is. They are largely empty inside, being built to withstand sieges and not for everyday living. Recreations usually have museums inside. You follow the museum plan up and up, eventually reaching the top. This was different. The entire first floor looked like the lobby of a mountain lodge, complete with exposed wooden beams, furniture like couches and chairs, and even European-style paintings hanging on the walls. One entire wall was taken up by an open stage, on which was placed a shrine. This was not your typical castle.
Just like home.
Take it to the stage.
The man made a beeline for a small door directly across the open room from the shrine stage. He opened the door, which was only a few feet high, and then started to descend a ladder into a kind of pit. I hope he doesn't expect me to follow him, I thought, feeling a little weirded out by all that was happening.
Is that an albino snake or are you just happy to see me?
And then he emerged with a snake. A large, white snake. It was some kind of albino python. Still sitting inside the little door, he placed it on the ground and let it slither around. He was talking non-stop in Japanese and I only caught the occasional, "This is a snake. Mr. Snake. You know snakes?" I smiled gamely and nodded.

"Touch it!" he demanded. I hesitated and he said it again. I reached out my hand to lightly touch the pinkish-white scales. "Touch it!" he said, even more loudly, and brought his hand down on mine, pressing my hand onto the hard, muscular snake. Alarm bells started going off in my head and I pulled back. This was decidedly odd and I really wanted to get away from this snake-obsessed man, so I backed up, a smile frozen to my face. He must have seen the panic in my eyes because he said something about taking pictures inside the castle being OK and then disappeared back into the snake pit.
The upstairs shrine.
I rushed up the stairs, happy to be free from the snake man. On the top floor was another shrine, this one with what looked like two massive, origami snakes draped over either end of a narrow table. There was a picture of an older lady holding an albino snake on a nearby shelf, the date marked 1990. They must really like snakes here, I thought. I walked around on the outside of the top level, a little concerned at how rickety the construction was, and then went back down to the first floor, ready to leave.

As I came down the stairs, I heard the voice of the snake man, praying. There, sitting on the ground in front of the snake pit, were four people, all in their 20s or early 30s. They were kneeling with their eyes tightly closed, their hands clasped in prayer. The snake slithered disinterestedly around their legs. I couldn't believe it—they were praying to the snake. I dared to get a little closer, hoping to maybe take a picture, and an old lady sitting to one side noticed me and motioned me to join them.

There are few things in this life I wanted less than to join them. I was overcome by the strangeness of it all and went into flight mode, my only desire to get away from this scene and outside. I rushed out, the sound of the man's intoning voice retreating behind me. At last, I was outside, the wind of freedom on my face. I kept going a good 30 feet away from the castle before I stopped and turned around.
Yes, that's a dead snake under the glass.
And that's when I noticed it. The shrine that was right at the entrance to the castle was no ordinary shrine. Sitting inside was a large glass case. And inside the large glass case was a very big, very white dead snake. My body shuddered involuntarily and I turned away from the castle, wanting only to get back on the bus and away from the insanity.

Riding the bus back down the hill, surrounded by the comforting sight of people going about their daily routines, it occurred to me that I may have witnessed a fertility rite. Certainly the color and shape of the snake suggested the male member. And I couldn't say for sure—I was too flabbergasted at the time to notice—but it may have been two couples praying over the snake.

Perhaps the snake man assumed I had come there not as a fan of Japanese castles but as a man wanting to increase his virility. I hadn't touched the snake with enough passion, so he pressed my hand down even more. I wouldn't say it was virility coursing through me at that moment, not unless virility feels a lot like panic.

Japan has quite a few "fringe" religions that combine elements of Shinto, Buddhism and whatever else seems appropriate, like extreme cleanliness or fear of lasers. With the odd hodgepodge of items in that castle, I wouldn't be surprised if this weren't some kind of cult. The fact that the castle was attached to a house is pretty odd. I guess the recruits need a place to sleep in-between praying to the pink behemoth.

The funny thing is, not a few hours after touching Mr. Snake I had a very unexpected romantic encounter. Coincidence? Only the Snake Cult of Beppu knows for sure.