Wednesday, January 30, 2013


In case you’ve never heard of CouchSurfing, I’ll give a quick summary.

You use the website to connect with potential hosts (if you are traveling) or guests (if you are hosting), offer them a place to sleep at night, and ideally you both gain something from the encounter such as a fresh perspective or perhaps a new friend. If the idea of contacting someone you’ve never met with an aim to crash at their place sounds like a positively terrible idea, then you’re probably from the net generation that was raised to recall the possibility that whoever you are talking to may in fact be an overweight balding 40-year-old in his parents’ basement rather than the hip 24-year-old musician he says he is. You probably also think hitchhiking/picking up hitchhikers is a terrible idea.

I tend to agree with you. As a young lone-traveling female, couchsurfing seems on the surface to be the opposite of something I should try.

However, there is appeal. My favorite type of tourism, if you recall, was what I termed “tomodachi tourism,” or the kind where you go somewhere that you know someone, because then not only do you have a free place to stay, you also have someone to hang out with, and even better, someone who knows something about the area, even if it’s not a great deal. At the very least, someone to explore with (and if they don’t have time to explore with you, then hopefully they can leave you a copy of the bus schedule and tell you which corners to avoid after dark).

And as sketchy as the idea itself may sound, the website for CouchSurfing does a lot to make sure the people you are talking to are what they say they are (or at least to provide you with information regarding how much they check out). People get vetted and approved in various ways through their system, which sets some people on a level of being much more trustworthy, in theory.

Now, as a cheapskate, and a traveler, and at times a pilgrim on the trail, I liked the idea of finding a cool Japanese lady (or girl, some of them were college aged) to crash with. Bangarang ryokan like the one I stayed in for Hasedera are really nice, but especially post-contract I was living on savings. I signed myself up as a host just as an afterthought, and so as not to appear to be a total deadbeat. (Actually, when I think about it, some people don’t have the time to travel like I did then, so although at the time I thought surfing was ‘where it’s at’ and hosting was just the chore you did to pay it forward, many hosts really enjoy getting to know their worldly visitors and learning about their experiences!) I figured no one would ever want to stay in my middle of nowhere living room in no-trainsville, Japan.

Welp, wrong there too.

I actually got a request just in the short time I was signed up before leaving, and proceeded to host a Japanese guy for two nights. Hosting, I realized on the precipice of doing it, is safer than surfing because you are where you are, with your community around you, which is not the same as venturing forth and disappearing into the wild blue. I notified all the JETs in town that I had a surfer coming because I wanted us to all have dinner together, and because I wanted everyone to know I was about to have a stranger in my house. Again, this was all fine. He was pretty cool, and we got lost together going up the mountain on our way to Chikusa for dinner on day two. Since this was during July, I was already pretty busy all the time, but taking a moment out to just spend a moment with this guy was a nice reminder of how to enjoy Shiso. He spoke enthusiastically about how great of a town it was, and it was nice for me to see it, right there at the end, through the eyes of a first-time comer.

This.. this is the end of the road, right here.

Back on the right track; I brake for misty mountains.
He showed me a little drum circle and I showed him the mountains, and brought him to my adult English class (which confused them to no end because—he’s not your boyfriend? But he’s..staying.. in your house..?!), and I also felt like I was not at all a deadbeat in the world of CouchSurfing.

So anyway, fast forward to my own travel period, in August. I sent out a lot of requests to various people in areas near temples on my route, trying to get together a sort of schedule or setup to build travel around. I only ended up staying with one family, down in Wakayama. They appealed to me partly because of location, just a few stops from one of the temples I’d been looking forward to visiting since I began, and also because it was a family, not one person as a host. They had two kids, one in middle school and one in late elementary, and were very foreigner friendly. The 4th grader, their daughter, seemed to think my proper duty at their home was to play Doraemon games with her. She was not fully wrong in this.

They also had the coolest house, and were delighted that I could speak some Japanese (this made it possible for me to talk with the lady of the house, not just her husband all the time). They cooked for me; we talked about all kinds of things. I tried to show them pictures of my house, but we had to settle for google earth. They invited me to go with them to Shirahama, one of the best beaches in Wakayama later in the summer and I had to decline because my schedule by that late in August was getting pretty tight. In the morning, after father (school teacher and soccer coach) and big brother (JHS students have to report all the time, even in summer, for club activities, just like dad) had gone, mom and daughter walked me to the train station to send me off on my temple visits for the day. I was just delighted that these people I didn’t know at all and who had no need to take me in and be so good to me had done so, and all I could pay them with was conversation (which was all they wanted, I suppose).
Forgot to take this photo before brother was gone to basketball practice.
I only have limited experience with CouchSurfing, but they’ve always been positive. It isn’t something I’m sure I’m comfy with in the US (nor is it perhaps something I need here, as I tend to only go where I have people, these days), but it is something I recommend looking into, if you’re into that. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Osaka Temples: Soji-ji and Fujii-dera

August 22nd and undaunted by the previous day's trials, I rolled out to make my way from Kyoto down south to Wakayama, stopping at two Osaka-area temples along the way. There were two in particular that were reported to be very convenient to get to by public transportation (and from non-JR stations, thus I could use the heck out of my Kansai Thru-Pass), so I planned my route around them.

First stop, Soji-ji, Temple 22 of the Pilgrimage and the one from which the walking trail still leads to Katsuo-ji (visited the day before). Soji-ji is the size of an unassuming city temple.

There were some old ladies chatting in the shade of the garden near the pond, and I could feel them watching me.
I was proud that I was able to read the sign. It said you were permitted to ring the bell, but to please do so gently, as it's really freakin' old. I did.
Not all temples offer prayers, services, or amulets for pets, but Soji-ji does. It's principal image is a thousand-armed eleven-faced Kannon riding on the back of a turtle. The legend about this is that a nobleman was going about his daily business and saw some kids tormenting a turtle. He made them stop, and released the turtle into the sea. Later on, Kannon sent the same turtle saved this nobleman's son from drowning.

So I took a photo of a poster.
This turtle tale, combined with the story of the sandalwood of which the Kannon image is carved (said to have been dedicated to Kannon, ordered for the carving of the statue, then lost into the water along the way, but it washed up again in Japan), gave me the impression that this temple has something to do with being in the right place at the right time. The message is that things go where they are supposed to be.

Since it also had to do with pets, I had been looking forward to getting a couple of charms for the family's dogs along the way.

Buddhist Pet Cemetery.
Soji-ji is also famous for a dedication of knives that takes place on April 18th of each year. There is a fish-slicing ceremony related perhaps to a tradition that . There's also a statue of the Bokefuji Kannon we saw at temple fifteen. I said a prayer but didn't take a photo of her.

Image from:

Stop two was Fujii-dera, in the town of the same name, another city temple (as opposed to sprawling mountain complex) filled with the wisteria (fuji) plants that would make it absolutely gorgeous (and crowded, I'm sure) come early May. Fujii-dera is temple number 5 of the 33, and was the first for me of that opening sequence of temples that wraps around the peninsula of Wakayama Prefecture.

It was a nice little oasis of space, mostly empty when I was there at the end of the afternoon, with gates on all sides leading into the city's streets.

Can you imagine this fuji in May?
The Kannon image at Fujii-dera (I didn't happen to pass a poster with the image printed) is another thousand-armed Kannon, but this one actually has a thousand arms. Most of the representations of senju-Kannon have a good many arms, but most of them don't actually bear the full thousand.

A few blossoms persist through the August heat!
The image is put on display on the 18th of each month, and on August 9th for sen-nichi mairi, which conveys the benefits in one day of prayer that you would expect of a thousand (normal) days of prayer.

I love the fabric in this portrayal of the wind.
Fujii-dera was beautiful, but I didn't have a lot of time there, as it was getting on toward closing time. What made it peaceful also made it kind of lonely. Plus I'd seen a lot of temples in a few days, two per day for as long as I could walk it.
I was headed for Wakayama City and the end of my Pilgrim Trail....