Tanabata and Obon

Many festivals are canceled this year because of COVID but you can still go to a local shrine or temple and tie your Tanabata wish to the bamboo. It’s always fun to read what other people have wished for: good health, happy family or the very appropriate ‘go away COVID’.

In the old lunar calendar Tanabata and Obon came together, 7/7 and 7/13 respectively. The western calendar mixed things up in the Meiji era because both events herald the last hurrah of Japanese summer and fall during the western August when calculated by the lunar July. This is why the events are July in Tokyo and August in the countryside.

There are plenty of hot days after Obon but summer feels done, you can feel wisps of autumn in the night air. The Japanese enjoyment of seasons is never the full gaudy glory but in catching the first faint whispers of change.

Climbing Shichimensan 2020

My nephew passed away in January at the age of 36 from a diabetic coma. Ten years ago he came to Japan with his dad (my older brother), on a trip to Nagano where we visited several hot springs. After his son passed away, my brother said the trip had been a special memory for my nephew. I then promised to offer a memorial prayer when I climbed Shichimensan in the spring.

Then the COVID-19 crisis hit and going anywhere became a nightmare of hurdles: travel restrictions, reduced operating hours, limited transit schedules, getting enough face masks, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper as those items became hard to obtain. 

It turned out to be a memorable trip. This was not because the trip itself was difficult or long. Instead there was an otherworldly quality in attempting to do normal things in a world that just isn’t normal. Japanese authorities never enacted a “lockdown.” Instead, local governments requested self-restraint for businesses and the public in early April.

Throughout the month, wearing face masks at all times outside the home became routine while clear plastic barriers were put up at every store checkout. Cafes and restaurants reduced seats, then they closed altogether or switched to takeout only. Rush-hour trains and the Shinkansen started running empty. By Golden Week vacation, normally a peak time for travel and going out, city streets and major stations were nearly empty and looked like scenes from a science fiction movie.

Going to Shichimen seemed like it would be out of the question until I called Okunoin temple and discovered that travel restrictions were lifted at the end of Golden Week. The temple was open for pilgrimages, offered food and shelter, but the priest on the phone advised me to wear a mask when I was there, and to be careful of leeches on the lower parts of the trail. I decided to take the chance, packed extra masks and disinfectant, purchased a bus ticket online and made my way to Shinjuku bus terminal on a clear Saturday morning.

Anyone who has used Shinjuku bus terminal on a weekend knows how packed and hectic it is. However, on this Saturday morning, the terminal was empty except for the staff who checked and rechecked empty passenger lists. The bus to Minobu was empty, the expressway and rest areas were clear of cars and trucks. At Minobusan, the Kuonji morning service had just three local residents attended to by 20 priests.

And yet, things felt more normal in Minobu than anywhere else. People were running errands, schools were beginning to reopen, construction workers were busy. On the final taxi ride up to the Shichimensan Omotesando trail entrance, the driver pointed at the gravel road and said, “take a good look because this road is going up there soon.” He nodded up the hill where there was another road. “They need that road to remove rock as they bore the new Shinkansen tunnel.” The new linear maglev Chuo Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya will tunnel through the Southern Alps region very close to Mt. Shichimen.

I did a quick waterfall purification at Bentendo Temple along the Haruki River and then started to climb. There are five rest area “bo” on the climb up the South Sando pilgrimage trail. All of them were closed and quiet except for the sound of bees circling clumps of Rhododendron blossoms. There were also songbirds: wrens, flycatchers and robins. The month of May is the best time to hear them since they are so active.

Trail damage from two typhoons in the past two years was massive in places. Whole valley sides are missing along with pieces of the upper trail. There are new trail sections built around them. At the gate entrance to Keishiin Temple, I noticed something new. Deer had eaten away the bark of old trees seriously damaging them. Deer overpopulation is a big problem in Japanese mountains. Protecting high mountain forests and wildflowers is a growing challenge.

The next morning, the temple priest drummed and chanted the Odaimoku until the first rays of sun shot over the horizon. He then recited the famous Kenji Miyazawa poem “Ame ni mo Makezu,” “Not losing to the rain… Not fettered by desire.” I thought of the quote Nichiren Shonin included at the conclusion of Kanjin Honzon Sho, “When the sky is blue, the land is bright, those who know the Lotus Sutra can see the reasons for the occurrences in the world.”

After morning prayers were finished with a memorial toba for my nephew enshrined on the altar, I said goodbye to the priests and hiked down the North Sando pilgrimage trail. The forest on this side of Shichimensan was untouched by typhoon damage. Returning to Tokyo, I felt exhausted but also refreshed and grounded again. Nichiren Shonin lived in extremely challenging times, but now we are all living in our own challenging times, how comforting it is to follow in the wisdom of his footsteps.