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Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008

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Paying one's respects to the sea god


It's winter on Shiraishi Island, and there's not much to do. So most people spend their time storing up luck for the year.

Hatsumode marks the first shrine visit of the year when we pray for a lucky year.

Then there's the Tondo Matsuri when the New Year's offerings are burned in a special ceremony and the island kids sacrifice their first calligraphy of the year hoping that the gods will bless their calligraphy writing ability.

And on the second Sunday of January, there is the annual trip to Kompira-san shrine in Kotohira, Shikoku, to pray to the deity of the sea.

On the small island where I live, most people make their living from the sea, so two boatloads of us set off for the hourlong journey through the Inland Sea to pay a visit to Kompira-san. There we pray for another year of safe passage through the sea.

Now, you'd think that a sea god would live at sea level, or under the sea. After all, Davey Jones' Locker is at the bottom of the sea and King Neptune, ruler of the seas, lives in the sea. But not the Japanese sea god. In Japan, the gods live on top of mountains.

Then again, the sea god probably couldn't afford the expensive real estate at the bottom of the mountain. At least not on just the coin offerings left by pilgrims. No, the bottom of the mountain is reserved for over 100 souvenir shops.

Getting to Kompira-san shrine is not a simple task as it sits on top of Mount Zozu and is the highest shrine in Shikoku. Just like in order to talk to the Wizard you have to follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City, to ask for safety from the sea god, you have to climb a stairway to heaven for about an hour. It's 1,368 steps.

The good thing is that once you get there, he is bound to grant your wish, if anything, just out of pity. "You poor ragged sod," he'll say, tossing you an amulet to hang inside your boat for another year of his protection.

But I count myself as one of the faithful, since the sea god saved me once on a foundering ship in the Pacific. I owe him big time.

In the old days, when not everyone could make a pilgrimage every year to Kompira-san, people would send their dogs instead. Yep, they'd attach a pouch of coins to Fido in hopes that he'd take it to the gods. (With a knick knack paddy whack give a dog a loan. . .)

Another custom, for those whose dogs had embezzled the money for dog bones I guess, was to toss barrels of rice and money into the sea, in the hopes that sailors would find them and take the offering to Kompira-san on their behalf. These days, however, they just send Kompira-san e-mail.

And, while I was at it, I prayed for you as well, thinking that you might not be able to make the trip yourself. Besides, you just can't trust dogs these days.

I did make a point to wear proper footwear, as this is not just your average flight of steps, but 1,368 uneven, stone steps at various heights.

Soon, I was among the throngs of the faithful climbing to the top. There were the traditional pilgrims in white clothes, wearing coned straw hats and carrying proper walking sticks, there were the tourists who wore regular clothing and rented walking sticks, and then there were the clueless, who had no idea they were going to gain some altitude today and climbed in high heels or 15-cm-high platform shoes. Or who knows, maybe they were just trying to get closer to god.

There were dogs as well. Some let their leashed dogs drag them up the steps, while others chose to carry their dogs.

There were those people who made the climb properly Hello Kittied in accessories of cell phone straps, boggles and bells.

One guy climbed carrying a golf club and wearing a golf cap. Guess he was going to hit up the sea god for a game or two.

Nothing really explains the guy who did the climb in Hello Kitty slippers. Perhaps he was trying to one-up the woman climbing in tabi socks and geta sandals.

You'd think that the higher you got, the younger the people would be who chose to keep climbing. But, no! After reaching the main shrine at 785 steps, many people posed in front of cameras by giving the peace sign and saying "Cheese!" Why the Japanese think peace and cheese go together, I'll never know. But young and old also went on from there to finish the rest of the 583 steps to the top.

It was touching to see a woman towing her mentally challenged son up the steps, a guy climbing with a gimpy leg and a man accompanying a blind woman.

The very top of the mountain was a refreshing blend of camphor trees, firs, oaks, and elms. It was a Japan away from Japan. And at the top of all that beauty was the sea god.

"You poor ragged sod," he said, and tossed me an amulet for another year of his protection. And just in case, I got an amulet for you too.



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