I got up bright and early on Monday morning and promptly went back to sleep. I gently rolled out of bed at the much more reasonable hour of 10:30. I threw open my curtains to see a bright sunny day, perfect for traveling. Wanting to take advantage of the sun, I grabbed some laundry I did the day before and had hung up in the corner of my room. It wasn’t quite dry yet, so I put it out on my balcony to finish drying. I had a quick breakfast of corn flakes and put on my jacket. I grabbed my camera and stuffed it into my pocket. Ever since my adventure to Mitsumeniguchi, I had been making it a point to always take along my camera when I go someplace new. I did a quick check and realized that my camera needed film, so I stopped at my corner convenience store to get a roll of 12 exposures. From here, I strolled over to my bank. Naturally, on a trip like this, you need some cash. With money in pocket, I was ready to go! I walked over to the train station and saw that the next train left at 12:20. It was 12:15. I bought my ticket and jogged down to the platform.
Since it was early afternoon on a workday, the train was pretty deserted. I counted myself lucky as being able to get a seat. I sat down, removed the new roll of film from my pocket, and loaded my camera. There was the familiar hiss of the doors closing, and with a gentle tug, the train was off. At first, it was a little odd. I had never gone very far down the line before. Within 5 minutes, we reached the first stop on the line, Kagohara. This was the farthest I had gone, as I have a co-worker who lives in this town and I went to visit her one day. The doors hissed again and again we were off. Next down the line was Fukiya. This is where my most remote students live. Another hiss and I was off to unexplored territory.
The names of the stops began to be unfamiliar, and the spaces between towns began to get wider. There were moments where I could see whole fields before the next station. Nature has become such a rarity for me. Often, the Japan I see manages to be just one massive city. Somehow, I’ve become trapped in an urban environment. I guess I need more nature than what I get on day trips. The train continued to roll down the tracks. It wasn’t long before I saw a city looming on the horizon. I determined that this must be Takasaki. I soon heard the announcement that I’ve come to understand means, “End of the line! Everybody off!” I stepped into Takasaki.
My mission before me was now clear: find the Kannon. I knew that, this being the train station, the bus station was probably also incorporated into the complex. As much as I hoped the Kannon would be within walking distance of the station, I kind of doubted it. A lot of folks often wonder how I can find my way on buses in Japan. “But…you’re not learning Japanese,” Chuck lamented when I was visiting him in Sapporo (and finding my way on that city’s buses quite well). “How do you know which bus to take when you can’t read the names?” I politely pointed out that yes, the bus’s names are in Japanese, but they are also numbered, and Japan, like most of the world, uses Arabic numerals. It was a fact I was grateful of as I looked over the Takasaki bus map and deduced that I needed to take bus #14 to get to the Kannon. Many people wonder what an education in math can get you, but I know for a fact that it lets you read the simplicity and elegance of “14.” I now knew which bus to take, and now I had to find the bus stop!
I wandered out of the back of the station towards the bus stops. It was quite a modern affair. I was standing on a concrete platform, with the bus stops beneath me. There were signs saying which buses stopped at which stops below, so all I had to do was find the appropriate stop and descend the appropriate staircase. Nice, simple, logical, if not for one fact. Whoever designed the signs for these bus stops neglected to include the bus’s numbers! I was presented with list upon list of Japanese names. Oh, why do people reject the simplicity of numbers? I was starting to get a little panicked, and my logic was failing me. So, I decided to do the only reasonable thing: have lunch.
This has become my new strategy whenever I start to get lost and panicked in Japan. More often than not, panic leads to hunger, and I find that you get less panicked when you’re not worrying about when your next meal is. I spotted a nearby fast food restaurant and got a hamburger for lunch. It’s a strategy that seems to work. Once your belly gets full, and you’re nice and comfortable, you can analyze the situation, pull maps out of your pocket and properly deduce your next move. My next move seemed remarkably simple. It appeared that there were more detailed bus schedules down on the street level, so I’d just have to walk up to all 10 bus stops and read the more detailed schedules. I walked out of the restaurant, up to the first bus stop, and lo and behold, it was the stop for bus 14. I had also just missed the bus by 10 minutes, and the next one was in…an hour and a half. How was I to kill so much time? Why, window shopping, of course. I spent most of the time in Tower Records, looking at CDs I can’t afford, simply because they’re so friggin expensive in Japan. When I left Tower Records, the sky had become overcast, and it started looking like it could rain at any moment.
The hour and a half went by slowly, and soon bus 14 came lumbering up to the stop. Bus 14 seemed somewhat odd. It was lot shorter than other buses, and brightly coloured in green, making it stand out from the rest. Only two people got onto it: an old woman and a schoolgirl. Now, although I had never encountered one myself, I had known that there are special buses in Japan: buses only for the elderly, only for women, and such forth. With only two women on this bus, and it’s distinctive markings, I started wondering if maybe this was a women only bus. It was getting pretty late in the day now – pretty close to 3:30 – and I knew that this might be my only chance to try it. And hey, if it were a ladies only bus, I could blame it all on the gaijin innocence. I jumped on the bus. The male driver didn’t bat an eyelash, and we were off.
The bus began winding through the narrow streets of Takasaki. We were leaving the streets and heading towards the hills that surrounded the city. The information I got from the Internet said it was around a 20 minute bus ride, so I thought I would just ride the bus for 20 minutes and get off. I kept looking out the window for signs of the Kannon, and there, just over the hilltops off in the distance, I caught a quick glimpse of her. She was huge. And then, the bus turned away from her, down another winding street.
I soon figured out why the bus was so small. The further we got from the downtown core, the narrower and more winding the streets became. The houses became fewer and further between, and we were soon on mountain roads. I kept peering out the windows of the bus, wondering if we were getting closer or not. We had been going for 20 minutes, but I could see no Kannon out the windows. We kept going and I kept looking.
There! There she was! On the other side of 100 foot deep ravine. I didn’t think this was my stop, as there was no visible way across the ravine. I sat on my hands and we kept rolling down the road. We soon passed an amusement park. This park had been sitting there for a few years, and its centerpiece was a rusty old roller coaster. It reminded me of the abandoned theme park from Spirited Away, but this one seemed like it was still in use. The bus continued down this winding mountain road, further and further from the Kannon.
I began to regret my decision. That must have been my stop…back at the theme park. If I had gotten off and walked around, surely I would have found some way across the ravine. The bus began following a switchback down into the ravine. I had completely lost sight of the Kannon again. The bus started climbing a switchback out of the ravine. So many twists and turns on these mountain roads. So easy to get lost. It looked like I had missed my chance to see it. I’d have to come back on another day. The bus made a sharp left and we started climbing a hill. I sunk down in the back seat, lamenting my inaction from a few minutes before. The bus levelled off at the top of the hill. I wanted to try and glimpse the Kannon one last time. I craned my neck to look out the window and…we were right under her!
My hand flew up and hit the button to tell the driver to stop. With the bus stop being just 10 feet in front of us, the driver slammed on the brakes. He exclaimed something in Japanese, which I’m sure was, “Whoa! Who the hell hit the button?” I jumped to my feet and sprinted for the door, slowing down just enough to toss my money into the box. I got out of the bus and looked up…looked waaay up. The sky was now completely overcast, having turned a light grey. But, standing out, in a darker shade of grey, was the great stone face of a Bodhisattva. I had made it.