Pink polluted my eyes last week. The cherry blossoms in Kyoto were in full bloom. It is my worst nightmare: war parties of tourists wielding unwieldy cameras all seeking the best shot. With members of my group off on various excursions, I had a free day so I fled up into the hills, to chilly Ohara, where 3 is a crowd and the pink petals were still hibernating.
An hour bus ride from Kyoto, Ohara lies in a green valley, the last stop on the No 17 bus route. It felt good from the start. There were no conbinis, chain restaurants or pink in sight. Ohara is nodoka. My mobile translates nodoka as peaceful, calm, pastoral and mild – 4 meanings in one word, all very economical – if only I had not needed a paragraph to explain it.
What to do in on a Wednesday afternoon in nodoka Ohara? My options were: soak in a hot spring bath, eat local food, hike in the hills, tour the ancient temples or see the waterfall. All of them interested me except the bath – that can wait until Sunday. So I made a list of four: local food, hike, temples and waterfall.
I began with the local food, ochazuke, green tea poured directly onto a bowl white rice, served with pickles. It is a creative use of two Japanese staples, rice and green tea. The simple meal reminded me of a favourite breakfast of my youth, black tea poured over milk and sugar-coated Weetabix.
The combination worked. The variation of pickles gave bite and flavour to the green tea-soaked rice. Although I enjoyed it, slushy ochazuke would be a controversial meal for one of my tour groups, it certainly would not be everyone`s cup of, oh stop it, somebody hit me please.
After lunch I followed a path up into the woods. A stream was busy flowing alongside. I felt better walking near water, nearer to the noise, nearer to the action. In steep sections, the water ran white – perhaps impatient to sink to the bottom of the valley and slip into a steady trickle.
Surrounding the path were the bare brown trunks of cypress trees (I think they were cypress, they might have been cedar, or even cheddar – but definitely not cherry). The trunks looked harder than steel and longer living. 95% naked, they wore only green wigs.
Back down in Ohara, the temple grounds showed more decency. The path of the streams were channeled. Trees were staked and tied with rope. Gardeners swept clean the carpets of moss with bamboo brushes.
In Sanzenin, imported cherry blossoms, donated from all over Japan, stood idle and naked. I chuckled at them – they ignored me.
A scruffy gardener hailed me over. With greasy grey hair parted down the side, he only had half his front teeth. I had plenty of time to inspect them while he burbled a few stories. First, he told me about the 7th century Empress who lived out her life in Ohara as a nun, then he moved onto a concise history of Buddhism – starting with the Buddha almost starving himself in ancient Nepal, then came a summary of the coming apocalypse – “We are 5,000,000,000 years away from the end of the world. We`re almost halfway,” then he went for a pee.
Darkness was coming. I had one more task to finish the day: find the waterfall. Inside a wooden hut at a temple entrance, an old man was calculating the days takings.
“Sumimasen, where is the waterfall (taki)?”
My question disturbed him.
“Takiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii. Jikan nai wa!, ” he yelped.
No time for the waterfall then. Or so he thought. I knew the waterfall was only 10 minutes away. I still had an hour before dark. Plenty of time, yet I panicked – perhaps rattled by the gateman`s hysterical reaction. Like a bull at Pamplona, I charged without any idea where I was heading. For 20 minutes I scuttled up the hill, skipping over logs, skirting around a dam, tiptoeing across streams and scrambling up banks until the damp narrow path beneath my feet began disintegrating.
Suddenly doubt flooded into my mind. Trickles of sweat were seeping into my t-shirt at a steady pace. I was alone and nobody knew I was here. If I fell, help would be a long way away. I would have to scream tasukete! This would be hugely embarrassing for a tour leader (In my dream, tour leaders are superheros. We do not need saving. We are saviours. Note: I accept no responsibility for this dream. I did not ask for it).
I gave up on finding the waterfall. Disappointed, I pussy-footed back down the hill. Back down near the temple, I heard 3 university students laughing loudly. How dare they enjoy themselves! Angrily glancing over at them, I spotted a sign I had missed on my bull-charge up: Waterfall 5分. A 5 minute walk? Perfect. I still had just enough daylight, my day could finish with a ticked box.
The waterfall lacked majesty, more of an overflowing bath. Niagara has nothing to fear. But at least it was appropriately named: Otonashi no taki, the silent waterfall – it was no wonder I struggled to find it. I suppose all water falls silently until someone comes along to hear it. Ah, now I have finished as shallow as I started.