On Our Way to Tanigumi Kegonji: Part One of Five

Today fog clings to the earth. Tile roofs, spent vegetables and recently-cut stocks of rice dotting the fields, even the hills and the sky lose their edges in smudges of pewter, dun, and dirty wool. Bone-coloured smoke from fires at the edges of the rice fields rises like incense and weds the mist. Silken heads of susuki grass nod in polite greeting as we pass.

Fog over the Japanese hillside. Photo credit: Rei at en.wikipedia.

Fog over the Japanese hillside. Photo credit: Rei at en.wikipedia.

We are lost. Not exactly lost as our driver and the rest of us know we are in Gifu on our way to Tanigumi Kegonji.  However, after several wrong turns we all hope this present road is the right one. As there is no English information, I have no idea where I am being taken.

All I know we are travelling to a region in the prefecture renowned for “chrysanthemum stones” or kika seki. Apparently there is also a very famous temple we intend to visit. (However, as almost every little thing in Japan is “very famous” I’ve become a bit blasé. Whatever it is, it’s new to me and that’s enough.)

Cut and polished from basaltic rock which contains xenotime (a phosphate mineral) and zircon, kika seki contain flower-like configurations resembling chrysanthemums (as well as other designs). As the chrysanthemum is the Imperial flower of Japan, such stones are prized.

Not wishing to over-burden my companions with English as well as muddled directions, I have plenty of time to think as we drive. Perhaps that’s why I notice our journey has taken on archetypal and mythical overtones. In spite of a GPS system as well as an old-fashioned map from the proprietor of the onsen where we spent the night after travelling from Nagoya, we’ve driven from the east and gone too far south. We corrected our mistake by heading west before turning north toward our ultimate destination.

Using old and new knowledge, we have circled the four cardinal points of the compass or the medicine wheel—an archetypal symbol that marks the space as sacred. These points also correspond to the classic elements of numerous traditions: air, fire, water and earth. A fifth element from Japanese tradition is missing: mu, the void.

About three kilometers from our destination my skin begins to prickle. I have a powerful, intuitive sense that I have been brought to this remote place for a reason that will be revealed. We turn a corner and ahead of us is a bridge over the Tanigumi River. More symbolism with powerful mystical connotations: the division of mundane and sacred space.  We are crossing over to the other side.

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