In search of civilisation

The sun sets over the Boso peninsula, briefly illuminating the folds of the mountains which stretch like crumpled linen all the way to the Pacific. We dash down from our outlook and through the darkening forest, back to the deserted temple which will be our home for the night.

In fifteen years this was my first visit to the mountains of Boso in southernmost Chiba prefecture. Chiba is to Tokyo what New Jersey is to Manhattan. Or so it seemed to me. Scrap metal yards and freeways compete with factories and soulless strip malls for space, the only seeming countryside being the tatami mat network of rice fields you see from the plane as it spirals down into Narita. Yet where the Philippine plate dives below the North American plate, mighty techtonic forces have conspired to fold, rumple and raise that old sea bed into mile upon mile of ridges and valleys. The result is that here, less than a hour’s drive from Tokyo, deer sing in the mist and hawks circle the firs and cedars which cover the hills. Hardly a soul disturbs us as we make the short hike up.

The temple itself is half built into a cave which has been carved out of the sandy rock below the peak. Just a single room with a small altar, a red tin roof and a statue of the Kannon which gazes sliently at the valleys below. A sign at the entrance tells us that this outcrop has been a stopping point for pilgrims since the 7th century. The walls inside the shrine are covered in neat charcoal grafitti recording the names and dates and hikers and pilgrims now vanished. There are many dates from before I was born, and there will be many more after I am long gone.

We light a fire in another alcove carved from the cliff.  Potatos mutter in their foil jackets in the coals. Garlic cloves and onion bulbs are roasted, matsutake mushrooms covered in soy sauce and grilled on green sticks. Aromas sweeter than incense drift past the cold nostrils of the Kannon. Before long my friends bring out hand drums and start beating soft Asian and Latin rythms into the night. I fetch the Hopi Indian flute from my pack and as the warm wine hits my head I can imagine myself to be playing much better than I probably am.

As the fire dies and I drain the last of the wine from my paper cup, it occurs to me that I’ve just spent the most civilised of evenings. It’s amazing how far from civilisation you have to travel in order to do that.

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