Yesterday was the beginning of the O-bon holiday in Japan, during which most people go home to the countryside to visit their families and pray to their ancestors. That being the case, the population of Saijo has now doubled or tripled, and I enjoy grumbling about all the “damn foreigners” with their fancy out-of-state license plates overrunning the highways.
The island of Shikoku has a series of 88 temples that some people make a pilgrimage to on foot, which would normally take at least a few weeks. Not quite having that kind of time or energy to spare, we took a modest 12km bike trip to visit a few of the closest ones. There was quite a difference in size and style between the various temples in our small sample. The first was a lonely-looking, tiny offering near a train station; the second was an enormous concrete structure with an expansive Buddhist diorama and theatre seating; the third was an expansive collection of more tradiitonal buldings staggered up a hillside. Along the way we encountered several solo travelers apparently making the rounds on foot, which struck me as particularly dedicated given the intense summer heat. One guy was so old that I wouldn’t have expected him to make it to the temple from the parking lot, but off he went down the highway to the next stop after reciting his chants. For my part, by the time we were done with our relatively leisurely bike ride all I could think of was the giant beer waiting for me down the road at the noodle shop.
At home we burned dried asagara stalks outside the doorway to provide a beacon for ancestor spirits to come home. Then we provided the spirits with transportation by giving legs to a cucumber and an eggplant with pieces of chopsticks so that they resembled a horse and a cow. The horse is so that the spirits can come home quickly, and the cow is so they can leave slowly. I realize that an eggplant cow is exactly the kind of thing I’d normally be accused of making up, but it’s real, I promise!
The food has been great. Most of the time we’re eating at home or at the hospital in an effort to save money, but we’ve also gone out for noodles, yakiniku (bbq at the table), pasta (the Japanese do Italian food really well for some reason), and my favorite fast food joint, Mos Burger. For the most part food is not as expensive as one might expect. At the supermarket vegetables are reasonably priced and sometimes only hours from having been harvested, and most other items are inexpensive except for domestic beef and the occasional $30 melon or $4 apple. The beer market is a bit strange; my understanding is that there’s some kind of big tax on (canned) beer itself, which can cost upwards of $12 for a six-pack. In response, all of the major breweries also offer a drink called happoshu, which tastes almost exactly like beer but through some technical loophole isn’t subject to the tax, which cuts the price in half. Good enough for me!