Nature’s Enclave in the Heart of Kariya

Tucking the still hot  U.F.O. instant yakisoba package into the plastic bin in the spartan kitchen attached to my bedroom, I pull open the door, pushing out of my host parents’ house and stepping into a small, verdant area lined with vines I never learned the name of and a yuzu tree, a sort of lime-flavored citrus fruit that masquerades under the yellow cowl of a lemon.

It’s another heavy day, thick with a visible humidity that takes whatever clothes you’re wearing and transforms them into something so tight and uncomfortable that you might as well be wearing a sweaty gimp suit as you walk. The sun climbs in a tortured crawl in the afternoon sky, painting my hosts’ garden of potatoes, peanuts, and green onions — a motley assortment  — in midday’s  fluorescence, reflecting a kaleidoscope of blues, oranges, and greens across the earth.

Making my way passed the garden through the graveled driveway, the salty-sweet scent of breakfast’s miso soup still floating outside, eliciting a tickling trickle of saliva across my tongue, I think to turn back for yet another morsel. Realizing that I’m not in the States anymore and that a full stomach means I’m good to go, I keep pushing through the fortified heat, stuck in the center of buildings that, with arching ceramic tiles, look distinctly anachronistic to the Subaru Impreza rally car parked in one of the driveways.

Picking up the pace to dodge the heat beginning to ripple from the coal colored asphalt, I take a sharp left at a four-way intersection, breathe deeply as I pass over a trickling stream that smells of soil and rain, breaking finally into rice fields reaching the horizon — well, almost. The industrial gray outline of a distant pod-mall is visible beneath the sky-spanning expanse of highway that seems to bisect the city. Making my final turn to the right and walking a hundred feet more, I reach a copse of trees that has been my target all morning. Taking one final step, the smells of humidity and heated tar fall away, replaced by the thick scents of woodland and charred firewood. This is Sobo Shrine, nature’s enclave in the heart of Kariya. (Google has gone through the trouble of providing a really poorly shot 3D image of the shrine.

Like most shrines, Sobo is purposely kept simple. A small shed built in the Kamakura style of a sloping roof, golden trim, and perfectly square  body sits off to the right. Its neighbor on the left is a full-size shrine kept in the similar way. For now, wheat brown doors remain shut to visitors. A bell hangs silently above wooden windows with a selection of box-shaped slots carved into it that wait for a prayer and an offering. Not looking to disappoint, I head toward the larger building, its arched corners seem to curve inward to enclose me in a welcoming embrace as I walk over the large fire pit full of last night’s charcoal. Dust scented of wood-smoked cheese kicks up enough to reach my nose as I reach the slabs of stone that form the shrine’s steps..

Ringing the bell to get the gods’ attention and tossing in a faded copper five-yen piece pocked with use into a slot, I bow deeply twice, clap the same number of times, and bow deeply once more, preparing my prayer. Now that I’m there, I struggle to think of what I should ask. With a gentle nudge from char-scented wind, it finally comes to me.

“Please,” I think, ” let these people who’ve treated me so well live in health,” or at least, I recall thinking something so noble. Though, it’s entirely possible I instead thought, “Kami-sama, please give me a new Nintendo DS.”


 Probably holding the bow longer than I need to and hoping irrationally that no one sees my display, I step back down the stone steps leading from the shrine, find a spot beneath one of the larger tree’s fan of branches, and sit. After this, it’s back to the buses, back to school, and back to a city that, just every now and then, becomes a little too loud for my liking.

I’m certainly in no hurry.

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