Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Asama-yama, 5

The next day, by way of consolation, you walk yourself over to Onioshidashi-en, Demon Push-Out Park. In the Shinto pantheon, oni are the red- or blue-skinned demons or devils or ogres who live in hell and carry out all manner of mischief. Oshidashi means to push out – it is also the name of the most common move in sumo wrestling, where one combatant grapples the other and simply pushes him backward out of the ring.

What the demons pushed out at Onioshidashi Park is a lot of lava. When Asama erupted in 1783, it blew out an avalanche of massive red-hot stone blocks, some as large as thirty-five meters across, destroying the village of Kambara on the north slope. Few of these blocks reached the village, but the dirt that they plowed up and knocked forward with their momentum was enough to bury it five meters deep. This explosion appears to have cleared an obstruction – essentially, popping the volcano’s cork – because Asama then proceeded to spew forth a flow of lava, lava which hardened into a five-kilometer tongue of black froth. This was Onioshidashi.

The oni who welcome you through the park gate seem incapable of any such violence. Dressed in caveman tiger-skins, with their cute little horns and fangs, and their wee clubs, they look more like Flintstones than fierce denizens of the underworld. In the middle of the park there is now a shrine with red pillars and a gracefully curved roof, and an immensely tall bell, rung with a kind of battering ram. The bell hits all of those atonal harmonies that Westerners attach to the mystic Orient, and its deepest undertone hangs in the hearing for minutes after the chime seems to have passed. There is a smaller shrine to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, presented in her fire aspect, a sort of Our Lady of the Volcanoes. Here and there along the path are eruption shelters, little concrete bus stops, in case Asama should decide to pitch a few more hot rocks into the middle of your family vacation.

And there is the lava. You have seen many lava-flows along this pilgrimage of yours, but never such a fantastically twisted and tortured landscape, pines growing through rocks, roots splitting them open. Shin’s brush paintings are remarkably faithful to the shape or inscape of the place, a few scratchy ink-strokes picking out the bristle of pine, the rough jag of the rock.

 

      While the shine-bell rings

            it’s quiet for a minute –

                  the sound of the wind

 

The sound of wind in the grass is not the same as the sound of wind tearing through pine needles. It is not the same as wind hissing across the lava-clinker, or strumming a telephone wire, or fluttering the knots of the paper prayers tied around the bars of the votive rack, or blowing across the opening of your ear. In each of these there is an exquisitely different note of desolation.

 

      The world is empty –

            see how easily the wind

                  can blow clear through it

                                   

Somewhere, a loudspeaker plays a carillon version of “My Darling Clementine,” and it is perhaps the best indicator of your current mood that you cannot marshal the curiosity to wonder why.

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