“What the FUCK!”
I was ahead of the group. The constant buzzing of hungry mosquitoes and the ever increasing denseness of the spider webs had caused me to speed up my pace and put some distance between them. Chevelle’s sudden cry brought me to a halt. I took a few cautious steps back.
“Did you see that snake?!” she said.
“There was a fucking snake!”
“Whoa! Where? I wanna see!” Anton chirped in as he caught up to us.
Alright. It was time to make an executive decision.
“Let’s head back.”
I never thought I would get scared here. This was the fabled orange gated jewel of Kyoto. The #1 must see attraction. A spiritual adventure! Only, there were no orange gates where we were. Those were long left behind when I had made the brilliant suggestion of “hey let’s see where this takes us.” We had been walking through the mountains for over 30 minutes and were in a part of Japan that few tourists, or I’d assume even Japanese people, ever see. This was a special kind of wilderness. Clean but still raw. Quiet, but possessing a this-place-is-not-safe-flee-while-you-can! type of aura. Spiritual? Maybe. But spiritual like those frantic moments in Spirited Away when Chihiro watched her parents turn into pigs and discovered that she was trapped in an unreal world. What did I get us into?
This trip had started off innocently enough. A leisurely bike ride under the midday sun brought us to our final destination in Kyoto. This was our last day here and there was a tinge of bittersweet mixed with our excitement. Ever since that short glimpse from Lost in Translation, Kyoto had been my city of dreams. A place to connect with the calm. It had taken me so long to get here, and we were leaving in just a few short hours. Oh well, at least we were ending on a high note.
The entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine was marked with a massive orange gate (starting the count at 1). Beyond was the main compound, standard with its immaculately maintained courtyard and buildings. Reaching the main structure, I stopped to admire a pair of fox statues. The Japanese seem to revere foxes (it’s one of their deities), and these two had a very regal look carved into them. A short walk further brought us to the base Mount Inari (named after the fox god). Standing there for a moment, we looked into the wild of the mountain, beckoning to us with its mouth of orange gates. It all looked so assuring, as if this bright tunnel was our protection from the dangers and spirits beyond. We stepped in.
You know those dreams where you’re climbing up an infinite flight of stairs and everything around you looks the same? Yea, I’ve never had those either, but now I know the reference. We had found the path again after returning from our foray into the wild. And with the path were those cheery orange gates, reminding us with their relentless continuity that we had so far to go.
Step after labored step up the colorful road. We made good progress and arrived at a checkpoint. There was a much welcomed break in the gates and finally some level terrain. We looked back and gained a sense of how high we had climbed. Stretching beyond the tree line was a vast afternoon view of the city. Content to rest here, we bought some ice cream (yes there was a shop) and pondered our remaining distance.
Another round of climbing brought us to the final leg of the trail. As we stepped on a landing we looked at the map that would show us what this last section of mountain looked like. This hand drawn picture marked the trail with a line of orange gates. Our eyes scanned for the final stopping point in the line.
Only, there was no break in the orange. It was a loop.
How appropriate. We came all this way to discover that there’s no definitive end. The line of gates circled around the mountain and ended where they began. While I expected a finish point with a smiling, congratulatory fox statue I got the “life is a cycle” lesson from my Japanese neighbors instead. Maybe that was what I was supposed to come all the way over here to learn anyway.
Okay. Let me celebrate my rediscovered enlightenment with cyclical conveyer belt sushi.