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Friday, 30 October 2015

Kuroi Jukai – Black Sea of Trees

It was a beautiful october morning. The spectacular view of Mt. Fuji and the colourful canopies of trees from the hotel room made me feel an indescribable joy. After having our breakfast, me and my husband decided to go for a trek into the famous Aokigahara forest situated in the lap of Mt. Fuji. 

Aokigahara or the sea of trees is a dense forest growing on lava which had flown at the time of last Mt. Fuji eruption around three hundred years ago. In fact, there are trees in the forest dating back to that time. At the beginning of the walk, we could hear the chirping of birds, but as we entered deeper into the forest it was so strangely silent that even the sound of our footsteps seemed like noise. It was little odd to see a sign board at the start of trail saying “ Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Please think about your parents, siblings and children. Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk about your troubles.” 

Since it was autumn, the whole forest had become a koyo spot. There were Japanese red pines and colourful maples spread around. The forest floor was rocky and uneven upon which laid a thin layer of lava soil. 

From under the blanket of dried leaves and moss came out the roots of the trees giving the appearance of skeleton limbs. This imagination of mine is not entirely wild as this forest is notorious for being a common suicide site. There had been hundreds of suicides every year and the most dreadful part is that the body searches are conducted annually leaving a high chance of people discovering human skeletons and even dead bodies during their hike. Sometimes stepping on the soft roots of the trees scared the hell out of me. Since everything was written in Japanese, we could not much understand the signboards. The maps were a little helpful but not clear enough as to which path led to which place. In our confusion, we entered a particularly long trail of 3 kilometres and were having a good time in the peaceful ambience of the forest. But soon the sunlight started waning. The inside of the forest became dark although everything was dimly visible. All sorts of thoughts were crossing my mind. According to legend, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the custom of “Ubasute” was performed in the depths of the forest. Old and infirm people were left in the woods to die out of starvation and dehydration mostly at the times of famines. Folklore has it that the forest is still haunted by the angry spirits or yĆ«rei of the abandoned people. It is said that the spirits scream through the nights and their decomposed bodies move on their own if the corpse is left unattended. Spiritualists believe that there has been so much death in Aokigahara that the souls of the deceased have permeated the trees and prevent people who enter the forest from escaping.

We were walking as fast as possible in the shadowy melancholy. Somehow the trail did not seem to end. There were dark lava caves and caverns along the path. The inside of the caves were extremely cold and had a creepy appearance. I had read accounts of hikers who said that there was a tendency to get lost and move in circles within the forest as if being compelled by the forlorn souls trapped in the gnarled trees. The compasses and the cell phones also do not work properly in the interiors due to the large depositions of magnetic materials in the volcanic soil and rocks. The locals say that the unhappy spirits beckon the travellers and adventurers to join them and share the curse. In fact, forest rangers have reported sounds of wailing and crying while searching and retrieving dead bodies from the depths of the woods. 
While I was lost in my world of fear and anxiety, a ray of light fell on my face. Me and my husband both looked at each other at the same instant with a relieved smile on our face. I asked my husband if he knew that Aokigahara is known to be “the perfect place to die”. He said “no” but looked disturbed. He said “there was something very unpleasant in there, its kind of depressing inside.”  The saintly appearance of Mt. Fuji with white clouds forming the long beard and the moustache seemed like freedom from the evil grip of the haunted trees. 


Sunday, 25 October 2015

The unusual friend

In a big city where you know nobody, it is difficult to find a place of your own. A place which will be home away from home and will provide you the comfortable corner. Being in Kolkata for almost three years, I still felt like a stranger. Among all the acquaintances, the count of friends is always a small number. So the journey of survival is in most parts a lonely one. 
During the time I studied in the university, I lived in a hostel just across the road which belonged to a government aided institution meant for poor children named after a prominent social worker. It had a school within its premises, a hostel for the students who studied there and a dormitory for few college students. The rent and the meal charges were modest and so was the living. The dormitory was shared by six girls along with the caretaker who was almost deaf so didn't occur as an obstacle in the path of parties, celebrations and events which entitled us to scream at the top of our voices. There was a huge study hall and a dining space, both in want of repairs and reconstruction. Though everything looked so dismal, there was a coziness about the environment which metropolitan cities can rarely offer. Just outside the hostel there was a tram line on which moved the trams in their unusually slow speed alongside a fast moving traffic. I used to sit on the stairs outside the hostel building and dream away while staring at the advertisements on the body of the tram cars. 
The university campus was smaller than usually expected and had four to five buildings. In one such building at the rear end of the campus was my department. There were some classmates who became good friends of mine and could instil the illusion of belongingness in the unfamiliar circumstances. Most of the days, after the classes, we would go to a small canteen just beside our building and have hot tea and delicious samosa accompanied by long discussions, heated debates and lively chats on all possible topics under the sun. 
Although there was a lot happening around, I felt a vacuum inside me which never seemed to diminish. Sometimes I used to take a stroll along the sidewalk of the university campus. There were vendors of street food, a cobbler and also a small stationery shop. The last one was almost a tin-wooden cabinet where the pen seller seemed to be permanently installed with no way to exit or enter the shop. Most of the days I used to stop by this shop and looked at and tested the various pens for hours together. The man although had a frightening look, huge built and red eyes, he never showed any irritation towards me. He kept taking out the pens from the behind the glass cases and sometimes also from his hidden stocks. After seeing and scribbling with almost all the pens I would only take a three or four rupees pen, which at that time were the only ones I could afford with my meagre pocket money.  I sometimes felt a little afraid that he would shout at me for wasting so much of his time. But throughout the 2 years I stayed there, he never ever spoke a cross word to me. 
One day, it was raining heavily and I didn’t have an umbrella. I had just got down from a bus and had to walk a short distance back to my hostel. I started walking in that direction, when I heard somebody shouting, “sister”, “sister”. I looked back and saw the stationery shopkeeper. I went to him and asked what was the matter. He said that since it was pouring heavily, I could sit in his shop, check-out the new stock of pens and go back to hostel when the rain stops. For a moment I hesitated, but the prospect of getting to have a look at the pens made me respond in the affirmative. To my surprise, I found out that the shop was larger than I thought and had a small lobby behind. He offered me a chair and took out the pens for me. Once while I was scribbling with one of them, I took a quick glance at the man and found him smiling at me. I quickly kept the pen aside and put up a poised look on my face. But then he suddenly left and I was sitting all alone with my eyes wandering here and there when I caught sight of a parker pen. After a little while he came back with a steaming cup of tea and offered it to me with such a gracious gesture, that I couldn't deny, although I felt odd. I asked him to show me the parker pen. It looked so elegant and wrote so smoothly that I wanted to buy it with all my heart, but as expected it was very expensive. I think I was holding on to the price tag for more than a minute when the shopkeeper said, I can give you the pen for rupees ninety five instead of hundred. I looked up and thanked him for the offer, but declined as it was still quite costly for me. By that time, the rain had stopped, and after appreciating his kindness, I briskly walked back to my hostel. 
After that day, the shop had become my favourite place to hang-out. He used to sell me the pens always at a discounted price and very often also offered me tea. He had a lot of information about the various types of pens and other writing instruments. Although both of us knew nothing about each other, we had a deep friendship based on a common liking towards pens. 
At the end of two years, I went home for preparing for my final examinations. Immediately after my exams got over, I went to the shop, only to find it shut and locked. I looked about but couldn't find anybody around. Suddenly the cobbler sitting on the footpath called out to me and said that the pen seller had sold his shop and went back to his village. When I asked him what happened, he couldn't give me any exact information but said that there was some kind of an accident and a death in the family. I felt very sorry for the man and went back feeling sad. I had to leave for my home next day, so I started packing my things. While arranging the books and the stationery items into my suitcase, I found hundreds of pens, all bought from that stationery shop. I took out one of the pens and thought to myself, how an insignificant acquaintance becomes a significant part of your life. I wanted to meet him one last time and thank him for giving me company during the last two years. I think that small shop was more dear to me than all my friends. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Incense Sticks

The fragrance of the incense sticks filled the air and my mind. I was in my childhood again. Most mornings I used to wake up with the soft aroma of incense. My mother after taking her early morning bath and draped in a cotton sari would sit for her “puja” in front of her small temple. By small temple, I mean the small cabinet in the wardrobe of my bedroom. In that cabinet sat her miniature idols of gods and goddesses, in front of whom she placed small bronze plates containing the tiny sugar cubes, “mishri”, as we know it. Then with the pious look of a devout on her face, she used to move the incense sticks in circles in front of the idols and end the session with the blowing of the conch shell. Often after her prayers, I used to smell her sari for the sweet smell she carried throughout the house. Today while walking on the streets of the historical city, Asakusa, my nose was tickled by the same smell. The city dwelled on the west bank of Sumida river and had many old houses and hand-pulled rickshaw, relics of the past. Some of the iron shutters of the shops had colourful paintings of popular folklore on them, which was queer to me.

Hand-pulled rickshaw

Painted iron shutter

I reached the main gate of Sensoji temple, which is the oldest buddhist shrine of Tokyo dating back to the year 645. According to the legend, two brothers while fishing in the sumida river, found a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy and even though they put the statue back into the river, it kept returning to them time and again. Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon by the chieftain of the village. It is said that the statue was so radiant that it was buried deep inside the temple afterwards and no one has seen it since then.
After entering through the Kaminarimon or the thunder gate (big main gate), I reached a shopping street, Nakamise, which led me to the second gate of the temple, the Hozomon. Some of the shops are hundreds of years old and had been constructed during the Edo period. Here you can find typical Japanese souvenirs like the folding fans. The temple walls had beautiful paintings depicting the ancient folktales with pictures of ascetics and kimono clad women. After walking a little more I found the great burner where hundreds of inflamed incense sticks were planted. 

 Kaminarimon (Main gate)
Nakamise (shopping street)

Beside the main temple was a five-storied pagoda, a structure very similar to the buddhist stupa, which is supposed to be a ‘reliquary’ or the store house of actual physical remains of saints, objects associated with them like pieces of clothing etc. Entrance to the pagoda is prohibited, so I could only take pictures from outside. One thing that catches the eye is the bright colours used for the decoration of the temples and the huge red lantern with inscriptions of the deities in front of the temple.


The red lantern and the incense burner

Inside the temple there was a priest wearing a blue loose fitting gown. He was chanting prayers to the ‘swastika symbol’ on a golden throne. As you may know already, this symbol was derived from Sanskrit and has spread over several religions and continents. The worship is that of “goodness in all beings”, one of the central ideologies of buddhism. The ceiling of the temple was covered with the greatest artworks of Sensoji. There were intermittent bell ringing and drum beats. A huge crowd of worshippers with folded hands and solemn faces and tourists with wonderstruck eyes and ever clicking cameras filled the high-ceilinged hall. In my opinion, the aforementioned picture is a constant factor for any historical religious place. And I am no different. I kept clicking on and on. Outside the temple was a place where you can tie a wooden wishing plaque called ‘Ema’ in Japanese. This is an ancient shinto custom, but in Japan buddhism and shinto have mixed a lot, so you can find them in most of the temples and shrines. They are cards to ask for your wishes to come true but as everything else in the world, has a price tag, though a nominal one.

Sensoji temple

Golden throne and Swastika

Ceiling paintings

Just beside the Sensoji temple is the ‘Asakusa shrine’ which is a shinto worship temple where the founders of the Sensoji temple, the two fishermen and the chieftain, are venerated. The crest of the temple symbolises the net with which the statue of the goddess was fished.
Asakusa shrine

While I was engrossed in observing the huge bell installed in the Edo period i.e in the 1600s, an old japanese man approached and asked my name and the country I belonged to. He said that the six-hourly bell was a common thing in the Edo period and can be seen near every shrine. Though now it is struck only at 6 am. He offered to click photographs for me and my husband and told me that in the month of May, ‘Sanja Matsuri' festival is held when the three founders of the shrine are carried on a palanquin to every street and corner of Asakusa to bring prosperity and good luck. I told him that it was very similar to ‘Rath yatra' in India, where three deities, Jaganath, Balram and Subhadra are carried in a similar way in chariots on giant wooden wheels pulled by devotees through the streets. 

During Sanja Masturi festival

After the man left, we went for a walk along the Sumida river. The glittering sunlight and the slow breeze was quite refreshing after the crowded premises of the temple. On the other side of the river was the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower of the world. 

Tokyo skytree

There were a variety of cruise boats leaving for various destinations on the Sumida river. Since it was equally crowded we did not opt for a tour. Instead we sat there on the bank and enjoyed the splendid sunset. On my way back home I felt tired and yet fulfilled to have gathered so many magnificent memories.