After our morning events on that first day my bags are transferred from Aki's car into Shogo's (everyone has a car here - it's like the Midwest!), and he takes me on an afternoon orientation of this part of Ishinomaki - a sprawling city with not a few attractions and beautiful sights. I tend to think any mountains place potentially hides its wonders, and I couldn't be more right with Ishinomaki. This part of Japan's coast is marked with abrupt and dramatic hills like I've never seen before, undulating like water on the open ocean, dipping just as readily into pocket valleys or inlets large enough for a 100-person fishing village. It's defined a way of life here.
One of our first stops is startlingly close to the Kitakami Market - just around the bend in fact.
This is the Tsuriishijinja, or Fishing Stone Shrine. Well - the the pathway to it.
"Shrines are usually high up," says Shogo. That being the case, most of these incredible buildings avoided the tsunami. I'm eager to climb the stairs, although it certainly isn't necessary of visitors, and maybe half of the ones I saw there did not.
It's a decent workout. I don't think this incline is "to code," but then your scaling the side of a mountain, essentially. ("Hill" doesn't quite capture the gusto with which these landforms have shot out of the earth.)
And Lo, a gorgeous wood building awaits us at the top, protected by two stone lions and some more contemporary courtiers. I neglect to ask how old this building is - or how old the site is - but the Shinto practice is still very much alive in Japanese culture. Though I'd say it runs in a more secular vein.
No one enters a Shinto shrine - these are spaces reserved for Japan's various gods. "We have eight million gods" Shogo tells me matter-of-factly. He laughs at my reaction. (My face probably folded in half trying to figure out how anyone could actually keep track enough to know this figure with certitude - does each preist take a section, like at a record store? Aa-An?)
The respects paid are same as that to which you've already been introduced - two bows, two claps, one bow. And you can ring a bell if you'd like.
I do none of this - I'm not the kind of person to dive into cultural practices, or feign any kind of comprehension. I'm the lanky foreigner in the weird coat, I know that and you know that, and it's all right. Still, there was a magic in the air - a breeze pushes the pines about and a cascade of snowflakes and sunlight tumble to the forest floor. This is a spiritual place.
Following the ridge to its end we're treated to a sweeping view of the Kitakami River as it feeds into the Pacific ocean. The straight road bordering its north bank, towards us, grumbled with trucks hauling concrete units down to where they're building a new sea wall. In fact that whole road sits on top a sea wall - not nearly high enough to resist a tsunami, which has got the Japanese government very concerned.
Shogo indicates a sandy strip near the mouth of the river. "The tsunami rearranged everything over there. The land is completely different. Up the coast," he jerks his pointed arm left a hair, "there was this really nice beach - now people can't go there it's littered with glass and garbage."
"Hmm," I utter. There's really not much to say. There will be many many more of these moments.
Crossing back lead us to the invariable southern shrine.
Now we climb carefully back down the hillside. Opposite us, still in the sunlight, a small, flat valley pushed the hills apart - room enough for a village, but nothing was there but grass and a couple back hoes (a ubiquitous Tohoku infestation, those things). Shogo says housees used to be there - and crops of various kinds.
(He says "houses, grain fields, rice, vegetables." Google Maps says this was the location of at least three little hamlets, Hara being right at the base of the hill. Swept away.)
"These are actually for luck," Shogo indicates a line of hundreds of hand-sized wooden cards tied to a van-sized rock at the foot of the hill. Just up the slope an enormous boulder, seeming about to topple, was tied back by a thick red and white rope. This stone got special attention after the 2011 earthquake, when it refused to tumble.
"Now students buy a card, and write a wish on it. They want to pass exams, the wish to this rock." The cards clacketed together in the breeze, in a kind of communal fortune chatter.
The cards are purchased at a gift shop which is the first thing you pass heading to the shrine. Hiromi tells me you can also buy a portable god in a pouch called an "omamori," which I think is what these two gentlemen are doing.
Japan (well, this area at least) is peppered with shines. As continued on our tour that day, and all through the next couple days we were on the road to various projects, there would be a wooded mountain by the road, a stark red wooden gate, and concrete stairs leading into the trees. If if for some reason you see a person along the road heading to no apparent destination, there's a good chance they're visiting a shrine.
So far, Tsuriishijinja is the only one I've seen with a gateway made of river reeds. It may be a "transitional gate" where the original was washed away.
It was time to move on–there was plenty to see, altough I could have spent the whole afternoon here with the sparkling trees, the heying crows, and the distant roar of the world.
As we walked back to the car, the wooden cards clacketing in the breeze bid us adieu.