Battling a Dragon
(A cloudless sky.)
It’s quite some time since I wrote. Last week, I successfully proposed a topic for my MA thesis, so I should be able to take it a little easier now, or so say some fellow students, but my mind is already full of how I might construct this massive academic text in the next few months. So, I’m sorry if this blog has fallen out of my awareness a little.
There is, however, a story I would like to tell about a small excursion I embarked on shortly before my thesis proposal. I was so overwhelmed with having to summarize all my thoughts in a page-long summary and with the crazy heat that is of course normal in this part of the world at this time of year, that I fled to a nearby mountain for a hike.
I left my apartment wearing hiking boots, jeans, a linen shirt, and a straw fedora. As always, I was lathered in sun screen, and the sunlight was so blinding, I had to wear sunglasses. By the time I got to the train station I was covered in sweat. On the trains, people waved foldable fans to bring the air conditioned air to their faces.
Not a cloud was in the sky, and yet my cell phone told me that the forecast held rainy weather in store for my destination. Looking out the train window, I could hardly imagine it would rain. Not a cloud was in the sky. Even if it rained, I reasoned, it would just be a small shower.
I was heading towards Takao-san (aka Mt. Takao), a mountain on the western edge of Tokyo graced with an old temple and in summer, a beer garden. A cable car runs up and down it, and on weekends with nice weather, it’s crowded with people escaping the city. I was there on a weekday, and was not wrong in the expectation I would see other people there.
As I got off the train at Takao, clouds had covered the sky, but by then I had decided that even if it did rain, I would climb the usual path to the peak. Only, at that moment, I had no idea how much it would rain. I headed into the forest and after a few minutes, a gentle shower started. I came to a place where shrines to Buddhist gods are placed in three little caves. A few people had taken cover there and one woman sitting on the ground at one of the altars was chanting the name of the Amida Buddha as she struck a gong on the ground.
When I came to this mountain for the first time a year ago with a good friend, we talked about the power of Japanese forests, the spirits that lived here, particularly dragons, which like three things, women, water (particularly in the shape of waterfalls), and wine (or rather alcohol in any form, I imagine). This makes sense, because dragons belong to ying as does water, and in that world view, women are also considered as being full of water. Some legends tell of a dragon palace at the bottom of the ocean, and they have also been worshiped as rain gods.
In any case, I pushed on. The rain wasn’t so strong in any case. I made it all the way to a shrine that’s built beneath a waterfall. At the fall itself, a middle-aged man in simple clothing made of thin white cotton was standing on one foot, his right foot resting on his right thigh, his hands pressed together, chanting incantations as the water cascaded over him.
Not wishing to get too wet myself, I took out my umbrella and pushed on, but pretty soon, it turned into a downpour, and I was instantly drenched. Once drenched, I can’t get wetter I reasoned and pushed on. All this water must mean a dragon was near, I thought, and smiled. Then I thought the rain meant he didn’t want me climbing the mountain, and my smile faded. Well, I would see how far I could get.
I got as far as a place where the path turns into stepping stones going up a stream. The stream had swollen and it seemed like a number of rocks were partially submerged. No one was around anymore, so I turned to climb back down the mountain. A few moments later, a mother and son came towards me up the mountain. I explained the situation to them, and they laughed, oh we’ll go through anyway, they said and passed by me.
I can’t have lost to the dragon yet, I thought, and ran after the pair. The three of us made it through to the top. Worse than the stream, a set of stairs near the top of the mountain had turned into a cascading waterfall, but we made it through.
At the top, there was no view to speak of, because of the clouds, but just as we headed down the mountain on another path, the evening sun came out and colored the trees orange. Was that perhaps a sign the dragon gave up in the face of our obstinacy? The woman laughed and said I put too much thought into it, and we headed down the mountain.