I had no idea I’d be visiting Kyoto during my time in Shiga Prefecture, Japan last year until my Takashima City host mother gave me an itinerary sheet the day before our group was set to travel there.
Our tight schedule in Kyoto that day meant visiting the most obligatory must-see places: Kinkaku-ji, Fushimi Inari, and according to the Takashima City officials, Miracle Shopping at Don Quijote. What wasn’t on the agenda was Hidari-Daimonji.
The sort of person-shaped massive bald spot on the mountainside went unnoticed by my fellow American travelling companions. I knew what it was right away, but I kept to myself and soaked up the view. I only had so much time to enjoy Japan and I wasn’t going to waste it explaining things to others and silly things like blinking.
I snapped a quick picture with my phone, and continued gazing at the symbol to burn the memory into my mind the way it was burned into the mountainside. Had I arrived a few weeks earlier, I might have been able to witness the giant kanji (which literally stands for ‘big’ or ‘large) consumed with the sending-off fire (okuribi) for the ancestral spirits visiting during Obon. I wondered how difficult it would be to stare at a fire like that without blinking.
Our driver turned out of sight of Hidari-Daimonji long before my eyelids could get bothered enough to put up a fight to want to blink, but they dropped over my eyes like a couple of wet blankets anyway. There was a different kind of stinging in my eyes. The kind you get when you certain kinds of thoughts and memories scratch at them funny.
I thought of the loss of my dad when I saw first laid eyes Hidari-Daimonji, and seeing again in pictures now I think of the loss of my mom. The intensity of sending the ones you love to the spirit world feels like an okuribi burning in your heart. And grief feels like carrying around a big ass foreign mountain with a scorched spot where things used to grow.
And healing feels like wanting to stare long and hard the mountain and the scorched spot and all the other parts of your life and wanting to hold your eyes open until it hurts, because you only have so much time in this world and you don’t want to waste it on explaining things to others or on silly things like blinking.