Matsushima Ah! Part Two
In comparison to Entsu-in, Zuigan-ji was rather disappointing. But we were expecting this with all the construction signs around. We purchased our ticket at the vending machine–a first for temples that I’ve ever seen–but still had to present them at the gate thus rendering our own fumbling with the foreign machine rather pointless. We took what peeks we could at the main hall behind its fence and passed through the gate to the only attraction we were allowed entrance. A security officer stood guard which made me worried as he kept a keen eye that all guests removed their shoes. I’m travelling with my hardy boots and… well, let’s just say that the odour trapped in them after a full day’s walking could knock out an ox. Apparently, we hadn’t explored enough as the guard was still left conscious, but I did slip my boots off and shove them as far from any other shoes on the off chance someone called biohazard disposal and I had to return home barefoot.
The building we could explore served as the old kitchen and service building for the monks. Apparently the relics from the main hall had been moved for displaying here but all the signs were in kanji so we couldn’t read them. We took plenty of photos, snapping a few of the hall under construction out the window as we passed. There was a hooded passage that connected to a secondary hall in the back of the ground and here we came across a wide room with intricately painted doors. These, as it turns out, were replicas but were also a major feature of Zuigan-ji. At one time they had been gold leafed and brilliantly coloured with expensive dyes possibly as a sign of the prosperity of the sect. However, after centuries of exposure to the public and the elements, they were severely damaged. Thus, the temple decided that, after restoring them, they would store the original doors in a museum and put up the industrial printed ones instead.
The hall itself held statues of the founding fathers of Zuigan-ji, a statue of Kannon (the buddha of mercy) and some funerary repository for… someone important in history. We only learned this because a tour group came in behind us and we eavesdropped on their explanation. I also took the time to read the brochure that was handed to us at the gate.
After the tour, we wandered across a hidden street behind a low stone overhang. We skirted another temple complex (which I took a photo of before noticing the dreaded “No Photo” signs) and climbed a small hill up to a very ornate squat mausoleum. I recognized the momoyama style from my time in Nikko with its near excessive use of ornamentation and gold leaf. It’s quite the contrast to the often austere design of Zen Buddhism and the bright reds, oranges and greens (kept in top condition by the dutiful monks) really contrasts the unblemished black of its walls and supports.
Naturally, we documented every inch of it. Special detail was given to the “elephant” heads that looked more like some madman’s fevered dream than any animal which walked on earth.
We then doubled back to Zuigan-ji proper, wandered into the museum to learn the actual history and relevance of all the stuff we saw before retracing our steps back to the food trucks of Matsushima. Outside of two brief stops, we were nearly done and we still had an hour or two of touring to go. We crossed two bridges to a nearby island with a famous viewing spot. I was especially carefully crossing the second bridge which was reduced to two blanks left carelessly over the exposed cross beams beneath our feet. I wondered how many people slipped and dropped cameras and phones down the rather large cracks then tried to not wonder about that at all as I held my camera in a death grip.
This island was especially busy with tourists, all eager to get their photos at the famous spot. Kait and I took pictures of the small wooden and very weathered shrine that had a carving for each year of the Chinese Zodiac along its walls. I took ample time to sit and rest my sore feet as we debated our next move. After a good ten minutes, enough space opened for us to squeeze in and snap a few hasty headshots of the bay. We then wandered back the way we came heading for Kait’s much anticipated tea house.
It was remarkable only in how much it disappointed. Our guide paper said it was one of the few remaining original buildings from Date Masamune’s period but you wouldn’t have been able to tell if they hadn’t put a large sign at its entrance. We had to spend three dollars each to enter and there was basically nothing inside. There were to tearooms selling overpriced cups of steaming disillusionment brought to you by dolled up ladies in kimonos hoping that either they or the wide view of a bunch of private jet boats would distract you from your expensive hot water. A long table on the far side of the building sold the typical kitsch you’d expect from festival tents or seedy knock-off vendors. There was a “museum” of sorts that had a grand total of five displays. The only one of interest was a map of the bay with the standard lights and control panel to highlight the areas of interest. Of course, only half the buttons worked and everything was illegible. But what made the map most interesting was that it was painted and assembled at the bottom of a fourteen foot hole right in the middle of the room. Neither Kait nor I could guess why it existed and least of all in the dingy backroom of a tiny tourist trap. The icing on the cake was a security camera place prominently over the displays that gave you the sensation you had stepped into a deathtrap horror movie rather than viewing a collection worthy of even a locked door.
We left quickly.
By now we were ravenous and Kait was her usual indecisive self. So, I suggested that we keep an eye out for sushi places on the way back and, if we didn’t find any, we could go to the kaitenzushi restaurant that she knew of in the shopping arcade. Naturally, we didn’t find anything so we were back on the ear popping train ride through the tunnels to Sendai. We were nearly running to the restaurant, stopping only to confirm from the menu outside that this sushi would, indeed, be delivered by conveyor belt.
We were seated quickly and waiting with great anticipation as the first of the coloured plates rolled by. I had already instructed Kait on how these establishments work–the cost of your plate is determined by the coloured design printed on it. At the end, the server would come by and tally your bill by your dishes. Naturally, being the frugal creatures that we were, we opted to stick to the one dollar plates alone.
Except, everything that rolled by was upwards of five to eight dollars. I wracked my brain for how you would order a specific item on the menu from the chefs stationed right in front of us, but thankfully a few tuna salad rolls started to make their rounds. It quickly became apparent the reason for our drought of affordable options was due to a pair of high school students sitting further down the line. They had mountains piled by their elbows as they spoke and I tried not to glare with resentment as they snatched salmon sushi before it had a chance to even experience the world.
We probably ended up sitting there for close to an hour as options that we could actually stomach were eventually rolled out (and carried our way once the schoolkids packed it and left). Kait bemoaned how unfilling the sushi was as she glanced anxiously at her accumulating pile. I tried to calmly remind her that we usually go to sushi buffets back in Canada, so obviously it would take us a great deal to fill up on it. In Kait’s growing starvation and desperation, she grabbed one of the gray plates instead of the yellow. I commented on her expensive tastes as she realized with dawning horror that she had picked up a six dollar option.
She then tried to sneak it back before I yelled at her.
To assuage her guilt, she shared half of it with me. It was a fatty tuna sushi (easy to mix up with the cheap cut of tuna we were normally eating) but the one bite we had explained the difference in price. It was fresh, tasty and incredibly easy to digest. Oh to eat that by the plate would be kingly! Or it would, at the very least, take a king’s ransom.
However, because we were in the restaurant for so long, I was able to answer a mystery that had been plaguing me. While watching the same plate of squid roll around and around, I wondered what the store did with food no one clearly wanted. Eventually, the chef took the plate from the belt but instead of throwing it out, he swapped the offering to a cheaper plate. It was picked up within two passes afterwards.
It struck me that, if you truly wanted a fine meal, you would probably want to come when the place was near to closing. Perhaps the desperation to offload all their food (since sushi doesn’t really keep overnight) would see a lot of options at a significantly reduced price.
Either that, or all they’re making at that hour is egg sushi.
By the end, the damage was pretty light and about one thousand and five hundred yen apiece (about fifteen dollars). Course, Kait was still grumbling about how hungry she was so we packed things up and returned home so she could snack on goodies we had stored in the fridge all the while feeling guilty about eating so much.
Upon reflection, we should really do a better job of not skipping lunch on our trips.
Pauline Pearl – Shichi Go San was a festival created due to high rates of infant mortality so parents brought their children to shrines at ages 3, 5 and 7 to thank the gods their kid lived that long and appeal to them to make it to the next age.