Thursday, 16 December 2010

Pieces of Japan: Day 11 - No Man is an Island

29th December 2009
Matsushima Bay, Tohoku, Japan

The famous saying goes that "No man is an Island", supposedly hinting at how desolate a man if left in a state of isolation; and yet, as I peered out into the sea and saw a spread of beautiful little islands that sprinkled the glistering blue waters, I couldn't help but find a little irony in it all.

Hailed as one of the "Three Sights of Japan"(日本三景 Nihon Sankei), as recognized by the poet Hayashi Razen in the 1600s based on his travels throughout Japan, short-listing breath-taking views across the land and arriving at the most awe-inspiring three, Matsushima Bay lives up well to its legacy and reputation, with a breath-taking 260 islands scattered over the span of the bay (also famous for her flavourful oysters).

Mostly comprising of coniferous pines which dressed the little islands in shades of light green that provided a pleasing visual complement to the sparkling blue waters, the sunny setting provided a sharp contrast to the rainy climb up Yamadera and the harsh snows of the Hokkaido region that we had just experienced a mere days before. In fact, the sunny weather reminded us a bit of our tropical home, as Winter seemed like nothing more than a tinge at the back of our minds, as we stood at the rear of the Cruise Boat staring up into the clear blue sky, with the wind in our hair.

Squint Hard and the Monk might Stare back at You

Cruises on different routes are readily available hourly at Matsushima Bay, as we settled for 50-minute one (after some convincing, on my part) that made a short round around the bay, highlighting most of her essential sights. Almost each and every island had a name, mostly historically-named based on their resemblance to certain people or objects. The most famous of which are Niōjima, which was named for resembling the head-shape of an old monk (squint hard at the photo and you'll notice), and Senganjima, Masamune Date's favourite island, which he joked about bringing back to his palace to his men while coasting the bay.

Seagulls followed the wake of the boat tirelessly, as they were probably conditioned to understand that a moving boat equates to a free meal, as the locals and tourists alike bought packets of prawn crackers and threw them skyward, only to be quickly swooped up by the agility of the following gulls. The flock of white slowly turned to brown, as the ratio between hawks and seagulls inversed as we moved further and further out to sea, eventually evolving into a cloud of brown with specks of white, before reverting to its original form as we returned to shallow waters.

And yet, the double irony of it all is thatthe admiration of the beauty and that each of these lonesome little islands provided when standing proudly on their amidst the wavering sea-waves, my inner reflections were more akin towards the beauty of their unity, patterns and spreads, reminding me on a conscious level, of the appreciation I had for the company more than surrounded me moreso than the beauty of isolation.

Creeping up on a Sleeping Duck, exactly what I mean

Through the last 11 days, though we've shared our ups and downs, our blames and shames; braved panic attacks, emotional mood swings, constant weariness and  the freezing cold; more than that, we had built many more unforgettable memories together, and while there is a joy to be had in travelling alone (which I was to validate in the months ahead), some things are simply better shared, and some experiences were amplified simply due to the presence of another - regardless of how distracted she could sometimes be, lost in her own world taking her photos, and just wandering off randomly. But more than that, the squeals of delight and the constant sense of wonder and amazement, or sometimes, just simply the knowing of her presence, definitely added much to the experience of travelling.

A long red bridge stood before us, sharply contrasting the clear blue waters that lay underneath. A splash of green lay at the other end, beckoning to us with its oriental bonsai-like shapes and luscious green leaves. Leading to Fukuura Island, one of the few islands in Matsushima that is open to the public, the local myth is that crossing the bridge with a partner in tow will eventually lead to a breakup. Fortunately, we were not local, hardly superstitious (at least not me), but most important, very much igonrant of this fact until very much later.

A fan of bridges, she was more excited about being on and crossing the bridge than anything else. I, on the other hand - while enjoying the salty sea-breeze in my hair, and  the change in pace of the foot-bound pilgrimage, as compared to our ship-lead expedition earlier -was my usual forward-looking self and sought the treasures that awaited us on the other end of the bridge.

And true enough, the memorial-treasures that awaited us on the other end were abundant enough for our long journey and much beyond that. Walking quietly around the island, sometimes off the beaten path, bathed in the golden sunlight seeping through the rustling tree leaves, the temperate flora and fauna created an impression of land and water unlike any of the typical coconut-laden beaches we had back home, and the sheer peace of the entire scene gave the impression that the island was made nicely just for two.

Sand and water still comprised the primary elements, but with drops of bright luscious green never too far away, and the unique oriental shapes of the darker green trees that presented themselves into the distance - as the islands got nearer and nearer to the horizon, silhouetted against the sun - they created an impression of a wholly different waterside aesthetic.

I walked to the edge of the viewing platform, tired from mapping and identifying the islands that stood in front of me based on the given map-like images; shelving extraneous knowledge aside simply to admire the Zen-like view of greens and blue, a perfect composition of trees, the sand, the waters and the sky singing in perfect visual harmony before my very eyes. Awe-struck and breath-taken, but hardly exaggerated or expressed; but rather, a simple and quiet type of awe that resonated deep within me as I looked on at nothing, and yet everything, clearing my mind and soothing my soul.

Rays of gold fell onto her soft, round face, as I took a moment off the sunset to look at her, with the usual child-like wonder in her eyes; smiling secretly to myself as I felt a sense of thankfulness amidst the entire setting. Reaching out for her hand, we sat there in silence, watching the golden setting sun slowly creep downwards, behind the silhouette of trees and islands that lay in the horizon, below eventually disappearing below it.

Matsushima Bay is said to have 4 different definite views to view the bay from, each supposedly providing a different perspective and aesthetic on the bay. I saw none of them, and yet, I didn't need either to justify or validate the beauty of the visual and mental photograph that I had just taken; an image that would rather surely be etched deeply in the recesses of my memory for a long, long time to come.

As we walked hand-in-hand, back across the bridge and under the pinkish hue of the dusk sky, I turned to look at her through the silence, and saw a silhouette of her face looking back at me, hardly being able to decipher her features within the silhouette, but enough to see warmness of a gentle heart smile smiling back at me. And through the silence, words rang out to me; words of wisdom, an age-old saying, indeed : "No Man is an Island".