I recently spent a morning among the millennia-old, moss-covered Buddhist statues in Usuki, Kyushu. They were magical.
The statues of different deities are all carved into a cliff-face. In some places, it was hard to see where the rock-face separated from the statue. It didn’t matter. The weathered rock-face itself was worthy of worship. Animism might have something going for it.
Marching about alone in sandals in heavy heat of July was tiring. I was soon craving company and refreshment. By a field of blooming lotuses, I found a wooden teahouse at the entrance to a temple.
The proprietor was a lovable, leathery-faced lunatic. While he poured me tea, my eyes fixed upon a chart of wild plants on display above the counter. The plants were all English, most prominent were the pretty yellow flowers of the gorse bush.
“Where did you get that chart from?”
“Ah, my friend brought it back from England.”
What a strange souvenir, I thought.
Then, and I can’t remember why, the barmy proprietor started talking about his plums. He is a mad-keen plum-pickler. His shop is full of plums, all pickling away in pink plastic buckets in the corner. He spoke with incredible intensity and passion, like a salesman in a make-or-break pitch.(fuelled by a fair amount of sake judging by his breath).
In a curious moment, an old woman ambled in looking for a cat. He seemed very unhappy about the interruption. Quickly dismissing her, he got straight back into his spiel:
“…these plums are only 2% salt…….they will NEVER go bad…….foreigners BEG me to send them overseas……these plums make great medicine…..in the old days, everybody had their own plum trees…. put a cooked plum in your cup of tea, and it will cure your fever…..not many people know this…..fate brought us together…..that’s why I am telling you ….here, have a pack yourself…take them back to England”.
He made the moss-covered, millennia-old statues seem ordinary. The packet of pickled plums now leaking into my backpack seemed far more extraordinary.