Wednesday, April 23, 2014

THE SACRED ISLAND OF MIYAJIMA





The ferry that leaves from a little port thirty minutes north of Hiroshima, Japan transports passengers to another dimension where the city’s memorials to the holocaust caused by the Atomic Bomb are left behind in spirit if not in physical distance. A first glimpse of what awaited us on Miyajima Island came in the form of origami paper cranes, symbolizing peace and memorializing the end of World War II. They were gracefully given out by smiling and bowing students at the ferry dock. We accepted the gifts with what was no doubt an ungraceful bow as we embarked on the short ride to a place where there are no births or deaths, no felling of trees, and tame deer – messengers from the gods – wander at will.




This vision of Shangri-La is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, dedicated to the three daughters of the god of sea and storms. Founded in AD 593, the current buildings date from the 16th century based on a 12th century design. The shrine’s most famous landmark, the great torii gate, appeared to float upon the hazy Inland Sea, a fitting mystical marker where the divine begins and mundane daily life ends.


My husband and I disembarked for a leisurely stroll to the shrine, ready to dissolve ourselves in the aura of peace and harmony the buildings generate despite the presence of other visitors sharing the experience. We walked along the waterside on a path lined with stone lanterns representing 108 earthly cares, passed through a granite torii gate firmly rooted to the land, rinsed our hands at the stone trough and entered an alternative universe. The brilliant vermillion lacquer of the buildings and passageways, matching that of the floating gate, was reflected in the blue sea. A sense of serenity enveloped us.   


In one pavilion a white-robed priest was conducting a ceremony while an elderly couple kneeled on a tatami mat. We wondered if the ritual was to memorialize an ancestor, Shinto shrines often being used for that purpose rather than Buddhist temples. Shinto is Japan’s oldest religion, in existence since time immemorial. Deities, called kami, preside over all the things, living, dead or inanimate. Their shrines, large and small, dot Japan.



As the tide slowly ebbed, the shrine’s feet were no longer in the water and the earthly concern of time passing returned. With never enough of it to experience everything, we reluctantly left the sacred precinct to see the ornate 9th Century Daisho-in Buddhist Temple set in a wooded area beyond the shrine before admiring the Goju-no-to five-story pagoda built in 1407. It is enticingly set in the modern village filled with shops, inns and restaurants a contrast to the otherworldly feelings generated by the temple.



We wandered along the narrow street to look at souvenirs like the typical remembrance Japanese visitors purchase – rice scoops of all sizes. Of course, Hello Kitty in every guise was waiting too. Better was the chance to sample the island’s specialty food, momiji, bite-sized cakes in the shape of a maple leaf and flavored with various unexpected ingredients such as eel. But the most attractive of delights tempting us were the tiny stalls selling grilled oysters fresh from the surrounding sea. Delicious!




For those lucky to have time enough to stay on the island, there are backpacker hostels and hotels including romantic and expensive ryokan. The prospect of staying to walk the trails or meditate by a stone lantern in a soft rain overlooking a mist-soaked sea made us add a return to the island to our never-fulfilled list of places we wanted experience for the first, second, or third time.




An overnight stay was not to be this trip. Body and soul temporarily nourished, we returned to the ferry landing to await the next boat back to reality. Two young women looked up from their bento box afternoon snack to smile and make the typical Japanese peace sign. The deer wandered over, not delivering messages from the gods, but to munch on any paper they could find including ferry tickets for the unwary (maybe used to take messages from us back to the gods).



A sleepy child accompanied us back to Hiroshima and reality.


All photos property of Judith Works
An earlier version of this story appeared in Travel Belles, www.travelbelles.com, http://www.travelbelles.com/2013/05/japan-island-miyajima/

    

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

EARLY SPRING IN THE SKAGIT VALLEY: DAFFODILS AND QUILTS



After what seemed like 40 days of rain the sun came out, warm and spring-like. It was the signal to take a drive an hour north of home to the small town of La Conner, located where the Skagit Valley meets saltwater in the form of the Swinomish Channel. The town was founded in 1867 and many of the original buildings remain. But instead of housing banks, churches, and butchers, they are clothing stores, art galleries, antique shops and restaurants. The town was also formerly the home of a large flock of wild turkeys but we didn’t see any this time. Word has it that they were sent to a rest home after causing a ruckus for too many years but disappointing the many birdwatchers who come to the area.


The nearby farmland is famous for bulb production along with other crops. The waterfront is lined with working craft to bring salmon, crab, mussels and oysters to the table.


Completing the picturesque scene is a red bridge which would not look out of place in Japan. It leads to the Swinomish Indian Reservation.


The annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was beginning without the cooperation of the tulips, but the enormous fields of daffodils were a delight.


Old farmhouses, some of which have been turned into B&Bs, stood in the fields framed by the snowy Cascade Mountains and the hills of the San Juan Islands. In a week or so, the whole valley will be a blaze of color as the tulips reach their peak.


Our mission was specific: to visit the La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum (www.laconnerquilts.org) to donate a quilt made in the 1930s. The timing was fortuitous - the Winter exhibit of crazy quilts had been put away the day before and a new exhibit of quilts from the ’30s had just been arranged for Spring.


The museum is housed in the three-story Gaches Mansion dating to 1891, recently restored. After the curator looked at the quilt she showed us around and told us about the quilts displayed on walls along with an exhibit of suzanis donated by a local collector.


The curator decided to use our quilt as a table decoration for the three-month long Spring exhibit, so now it has joined many others made by farm women gathered together around a quilting frame to gossip and stitch fabric scraps from feed and flour sacks during the dark days of the Depression.


When it was lunch time, we chose the Nell Thorn Restaurant and Pub to sit by the water watching sailboats head out for an afternoon’s pleasure and an eagle circling lazily overhead. Across the channel, are three structures in the shape of  Swinomish Indian hats used to welcome the paddlers of more than a hundred canoes from coastal tribes who gather every July to rest, share songs and tales of their journey across the sometimes treacherous waters.


In keeping with the theme of "eat local," we dined on wonderful tiny oysters and local draft beer. Deciding to feed our minds after our stomachs were satisfied, we headed for the Museum of Northwest Art (www.museumofnwart.org) to see works by Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. A special showing of John Cole’s work took up much of the ground floor. Some of his work, particularly the figures of women, reminded us of Gauguin although the landscape paintings are on Northwest themes.


Later, we passed flocks of laggard Snow Geese who winter by the hundreds of thousands in the area. It was time for them to go north to their nesting grounds and for us to go south to our home, grateful a prized member of the family has joined its sister quilts to be enjoyed by other admirers.




photos by author.