Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mori no Panya, Takasaki (森のパン屋)

Takasaki, it must be said, is not a city of delights. There was just about enough to keep it interesting for a day. But not quite. To stretch it out, I was forced to do some things like visiting a temple in the countryside (and a local bath-house, but that's another story). Now, this isn't a total bust as far as temples go. Darumaji is reputedly the original home of the object? I'm not sure what to call it, but you'll certainly recognize it by picture if you don't know it by name. This being the countryside, everything runs on car culture (as the waitress at Machiya had reminded me). Being carless, my pilgrimage to Darumaji involved taking the train two (long) stops out to Gunma Yawata (to which I did not go, despite having a certain fondness for visiting Hachiman shrines other than the one right by my apartment) and then a confusing walk across the tracks, across the river, along the highway...

I wouldn't have gotten there if not for the half-dozen old people who got off the train with me. It turned out that most of them weren't going to the temple after all, but they still went the right way. By the time we got near the embankment leading over the river, there were only 2 of them left, and they started looking nervous and stealing looks to see which was I was going! I clarified that I was lost too, we had a good laugh, and as we were walking up this lovely roadway heard the bong of a big temple bell across the river, which we decided was the place for us.

Simultaneously, we saw the first Daruma along the way. You remember seeing them before, right?

It was still a long walk from there. I split off from the other two and went up the surface streets, through a little neighborhood and into the parking lot of the temple. This turned out to be faster but less dramatic; the way they went involved climbing a massive flight of stairs that eventually entered the temple ground under this bell tower. The frequent bonging was due to the public nature of the bell - anyone can line up and have a good old whack at it.

The yearly Daruma festival had finished only a few days before I was there, but there were still a lot of people stocking up. And in this case, stocking WAY up. Ever seen Darumas that big before?

Daruma was a famous Buddhist monk around the 5th century, sometimes credited with introducing Buddhism to China. I would think he's also mythical, given the resemblance of his name to Buck Dharma, of Blue Oyster Cult, who we all know is a real guy. In any case, this temple is ground zero for the red face-balls (technical term) that also bear the name. The point of the balls is to buy one, imbue it with some significance by making a wish and painting in one of the eyes (which are white when you buy it), or even better, pay the monks at a temple to paint the eye in for you with special mysical chanting, and then paint in the other eye when the wish comes true. As with most religious objects in Japan, you can't just dispose of it; you have to take it to a temple or shrine for disposal. These Daruma are outside the main hall of Daruma-ji.

As are these, but I thought this was a sad picture since the lack of eyes means someone's wishes didn't come true. If they were wishing to get a puppy, I have limited sympathy, but if it was something serious, it's pretty sad. Like last week when I saw a middle-aged couple stop on the street to pray at a Jizo statue, but that's another story.

Rouding out my half-articulated religion-bashing, I'll just point out that when the Darumas get too piled up out front, the monks throw them in a pile out back. For careful and religiously-compliant disposal.

There's a cool little museum with Darumas from all over Japan.

And I do mean all over. Some of these more anthropomorphic carvings were quite menacing, and surprisingly dark skinned as well. On the other hand, I've recently learned that Daruma is actually mentioned as being South Indian in some of the early texts that describe him, the buy at left would probably be too pale if anything.

You're wondering where the food is in this post, aren't you? After leaving Darumaji, I walked down the hill and came upon a witches house in the woods, with a chimney pouring out smoke. And it turned out to be a little bakery. Who can resist fresh witch-baked bread?

Here she is, getting her pretties from the oven. She was a friendly witch in spite of her big black turban.

I bought a bread nugget to tide me over on the walk back to town, figuring that it was faster than 20 minutes back to the station, a potential 1-hour wait for a country train and another 15 minutes riding. We had a fun discussion where she tried to remember how to say kinkan in English (kumquat) since this was a kinkan roll. It didn't help that I knew both what a kinkan was and how to say it. And it didn't matter, because this turned out to be a wheat roll with cheese and a whole green olive inside. It was good, especially because it was right out of the oven. Her pricing was cute too - 237 yen, exactly. No rounding off for convenience here, my pretties.

I was going to make a clever joke about not having a witchy web site, but now I see that wherever I go, Tabelog has gone before.

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