AIU does something that I wish every university, college, and high school did: they organized field trips. Who doesn’t love a good field trip? Why don’t teachers do this more often? Because AIU was so invested in the international experience, part of our tuition money went towards bus trips during which the school took you to various tourist locations in Akita prefecture. Unfortunately for us, these outings, which were usually numerous, had either been cancelled or squished down to a meager two trips. This was due to fear of the frequent aftershocks from the big earthquake. Still, each trip was filled to the brim with fun, and although they were much too short, I was grateful to be on them at all.
The first trip consisted of three parts. The first of those parts was a visit to a Shinto shrine near a staggeringly beautiful river fed by a roaring waterfall. This excursion was the first thing I had really “seen” in Japan, and it left me with a sublime feeling I have yet to encounter since. The day was starting out perfect, with the first sunny, blue sky since we had landed. When the bus pulled up, we were all let out and set free to roam and explore. Before us lay a stretch of grasses, leading up to a mostly obscured river between two wooded hills, crossed by a bright red suspension bridge. Although the landscape was touched here and there with splashes of bright green, over all the colors were muted browns and pine greens, for it was still early spring. Northern Japan, like Colorado, wakes from winter slowly. Most people headed for the most noticeable landmark, an island-like precipice rising from the bank, topped by a few trees and a shrine marker. Justin and I made our way to the main shrine, into the pine trees toward a trail that wound up the side of the hills.
As we crept through the torii, or the gate of the shrine, a feeling of blissful calm settled over us. Justin and I said little, content to soak in the warmth of the sunlight, and watch as the rays burst through the trees to dapple the ground. Many people went up to the shrine bell to ring it and perform the claps and prayers of Shinto tradition. I wanted to, but we hesitated. We were unsure of whether we should partake for the sake of the experience, or hold back because neither of us actually believed in the Shinto religion. Out of respect, we chose instead to wash our hands with the basin provided, admire the bell, but move on.
(The little basin where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth to purify yourself.)
(A signpost at the shrine).
The path along the hills was actually quite green. Below us, we could finally see the river clearly, and I was startled by its beautiful and rich blue color. At times deep cobalt, at others bright aquamarine, I wondered at the mineral in the water that must turn it such a perfect shade. Understandably, I took many pictures, and some of my best work was found on this walk.
(The beautiful blue of the water. I wonder what makes it so blue, and so milky.)
The path was just as beautiful as the water. Every bend seemed to offer up a new gem of natural beauty. At one turn there was a small cave surrounded by new spring leaves. Justin and I crossed the suspension bridge, delighting in the bounce it gave to our steps. On the other side, there was a natural bowl-like groove in the stone that had filled with water, and someone had put a ladle there for drinking. The water was cold and clean and pure in taste. A cacophony of rapids sang below us. New tree leaves hovered silently in the golden air like sprites. Little springs trickled down the sides, teasing at the great spectacle waiting for us at the end.
(The little cave along the pathway.)
(A little spring falling down the mountain side, bathed in a column of light.)
For the most part, we had meandered down the path at our leisure, but then suddenly people were running past us in the opposite direction. Finally, someone paused to inform us that it was time to go, but that there was an awesome waterfall up ahead. “If you run, you can make it.” Not caring for the odd looks from other visitors, we instantly broke into a run, praying we would find this waterfall before we were dragged back. We made it. Although we were out of breath, it was so worth it.
(Roar, baby, roar!)
The photo above does not communicate how big and grand the waterfall was. Its powerful waters broke against the rocks and threw a cool spray over its spectators. Surely this lord of water was the inspiration for the shrine. Its proud turbulence belied the peaceful ascent we had taken to reach it. Thoroughly pleased, we turned back to that tranquil path, before boarding the bus once again, ready for the next stretch of our trip.
It may seem strange that such an uneventful experience could be among my most favorite memories of Japan. After all, we didn’t really do much at this river. But the scene was so picturesque, the shrine was so peaceful, and the waterfall was so amazing, that it has come to embody the essential beauty of Japan in my heart. Although I do not practice Shinto, I can understand why one would find such a perfect place worth worshiping.