A sunny Saturday afternoon and the Nobidome canal walk was deserted. In this polluted, densely crowded city it was surprising so few people wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to tread on soft soil, breath crisp, clean air and look at titillating trees.
I have failed to persuade many Japanese of the virtues of walking. Perhaps something in their subconscious associates walking with working. It is as if walking=working. Free moments from work are for consuming, bathing and sleeping. Strolling must be avoided at all costs. Even when circumstances dictate nature must be enjoyed, it is best enjoyed from a cable car window.
The Nobidome canal walk is in Saitama prefecture, starting near Niiza station. The canal, used for irrigating the fields in this dry region, was a present to the local Lord in the 17th century, part of a reward for his work killing Christians in Kyushu. An odd present you might think, I`m sure he`d have preferred the cash.
The walk starts next to a busy four lane highway, near a drive-in steakhouse called Bikkuri (Surprise) Donkey. The depressing start makes you appreciate the better sights further on. The canal trickles through fields, now planted with cabbage, daikon radishes, nashi pear and persimmon trees.
After a short while, I reached some titillating trees. Yes, titillating. An unorthodox use of the word perhaps, the dictionary tells me it means creating excitement and the trees certainly did that – they were all wearing negligees.
What trees wear clothes nowadays? I looked around for help. Standing next to me, an old Japanese man was photographing them with a zoom lens – the dirty swine; he was as titillated as I was but he could not enlighten me. I left with my curiosity unsatisfied.
Walking further along the canal I came across a small Buddhist statue. At its base behind fresh flowers was an inscription. I tried to read it, the only etchings I could make out were 25 people, February, Kyoho period and seshu (chief mourner). If I was with a tour group, that would be more than enough to ramble a story together I thought, but one of my new year resolutions is not to bullshit. I moved closer to it, inches away, yet I could still barely see what the statue looked like: It was wearing clothes.
Now dressing up trees maybe unusual but it is at least an understandable: living creatures get cold. But once you start dressing up stone statues where do draw the line? Vending machines in long johns? The Sun in a bobble hat? Swordfish in cardigans? And you can`t turn back once you have started clothing things. People start demanding modesty all over the place. The thought of a bollock naked swordfish horrifies me now.
Unenlightened, I left the statue. Perhaps I was looking too hard. My final stop on the walk promised more answers.
Rule No 1 of tour leading in Japan: All walks must include a temple. The Nobidome canal walk is no exception. Heirinji, a Zen temple, was the family temple of the Christian-killing Lord. Originally founded in 1375, my guidebook called Heirinji the highlight of the walk. Impressive temple buildings, nestled in a glorious mix of evergreen and deciduous woods, await all weary travellers – provided they get there before 4:30.
I ambled over at 4:25, after a leisurely udon soup across the road. The kind man at reception indicated I`d be unlikely to find much enlightenment in 5 minutes. So instead of seeing the temple, I chatted to him about its monks.
Heirinji is a Zen training temple. 25 university graduates live in there undertaking 3 year courses to become a Zen priest. Surrounded by forest with homegrown vegetables for dinner every night, the course sounded vaguely appealing, until he explained the monks can`t drink alcohol or eat meat and they get hit on the head with a stick if they fall asleep at prayer time. He recommended I come back in March – and not at 4:25pm.
Unenlightened but not disheartened I headed back to the station. Passing a batting centre and soil recycling centre, the veiled trees appeared in front of me again. I still did not know what they were. Suddenly a man in wellies walked out of a gate in front of me. My Dad`s advice came flooding back to me. “When in doubt, always ask the man wearing wellies.” This was my chance.
“Sumimasen,” I shouted out. “What are those trees?”
“Mandarins,” he replied.
Brilliant, I thought. I had enlightenment when I least expected it. You really do learn something everyday. Then you forget it. Then someone in your tour group asks you about it. Then you give up and go and live in a cave.