Godzilla isn’t the same for me anymore. As a child I loved the destruction and the excitement. But now, having been to Hiroshima, I also see the overwhelming, apocalyptic horror of the human experience crushed underfoot by the atomic unknown.
This is what is meant by the sublime. The monstrous face we are seeing is humanity’s own hellish shadow, magnified many times over by enormous natural forces into a radioactive blast that annihilates the human completely.
I can’t know what it is like (I wasn’t there), or comprehend much of the significance—I’m just a tourist, a voyeur, a poser who caught a brief glimpse of an old claw-print. But even having once seen evidence that Ancalagon is real, and we have the power to summon such enormous destruction against others, where can one hide?
I love the film deep and darkly, yet it is a heady draught I consume with caution and reserve.
This is the message the ghosts convey to me repeatedly for most of the night—that no one stands outside the shadow of humanity. I lie in my bed, the other students fast asleep, and I hear the rumble of otherworldly clutches. It might only be my conscience trying to open me up like a clam to the world, which I imagine to be the sounds of the dead.
I talk to them in my mind, twisting and turning hotly in bed unable to sleep. I imagine myself helping them, being there with them (which is just fantasy guesswork), and suffering for them. But these are all empty postures in the night. I wear myself out wrestling with their noise and I finally sleep.
My dreams are of swimming in a vast underground ocean of red flame and muddy slime. I am surrounded by people staring at me as they rot away into charred ooze. Then I am struggling through the streets of a deserted, burning city that gives off a cloudy, shadowed heat. I realize I’m asleep and I wake myself up, struggling to rouse my muscles and breathing out of the relaxation of slumber. It’s daylight out.
The next stop for us is Itsukushima, which is known as Miyajima the Shrine Island. One of the three holiest places in Japan. No one is allowed to die here—you get shipped right off as soon as you start to croak. People weren’t even allowed to live there until recently. As a result, there is still a primordial virgin forest on the island. Countless holy structures of all kinds shapes and sizes may be found throughout the island. Plus lots of squeaking deer, and monkeys who are the messengers of the gods.
It feels good to escape the city for a while. The sun is shining when we land, but the weather slowly changes as we meander through the streets. A light rain begins, followed by a growing mist. A few of us take the Miyajima Ropeway (a cable car system) to near the top of Mount Misen to snap some pictures, but by the time we get up there it’s useless. The entire island and surrounding sea is shrouded in fog.
After a few minutes of taking things in, everyone decides to descend for some lunch, but I decline. Taking my handy tourist map I figure I’m going to climb the summit and get some outdoor time to myself. The map makes it look like a hop skip and a jump. Scale, let me show you how not to use it.
I pass through a huge herd of monkeys and onto the fog-shrouded, forested mountain paths, which are well trod. There’s no one about, and likely with good reason. As I learned later, all tengu goblins in Japan gather in the forests of Mount Misen. They scare away intruders by making loud noices like wooden blocks being banged together.
This is a scene only a crazy gaijin would find themselves in, ignorant of all the hazards of the spirit world. Fools and little children protected by the purity of their motives, I suppose.
But I feel at peace, safe. This a sacred place, whether or not I get the local meaning. I know I’m an outsider, that I don’t belong, and yet I maintain a respectful thought at all times. I don’t hear anything but the wind and the rain. Even the monkeys are quiet, and soon I don’t see them anymore (probably all hanging out close to the ropeway station for handouts).
I reach a small wayside shrine and make an offering of incense. It takes considerable effort to light it in the light rain and wind, but I manage and place it in the proper place. I struggle with my request of the gods, wanting very much to grant me some good fortune with my then-girlfriend at the time. But all I can come up with is a request that my love for her be true, which seemed a cop-out, easy request to make in one’s prayers.
I ought to have prayed for the ghosts, or for an end to atomic weapons, yet all I can think of is my own needs at a time like this. I spend a long time in the rain agonizing over whether I made the right request. I tell myself that if the stick is still burning when I return this way, then I made the right decision. I walk up the slope of the final approach to the top.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the shrine I visited is the Reikado (“Temple Which Protects Flame”). There is a fire inside that is said to have been lit by a holy man and has been burning ever since. This fire was used to light the Peace Flame in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, which will burn until all atomic weapons are destroyed and the world is free from their horror.
That holy man is Kobo Daishi, founder of one of the major branches of buddhism in Japan. He’s one of the holiest holy men in Japanese culture, seriously big dude dinner stuff. They say he’s still chilling out, hidden from our sight until the return of the biggest Buddha ever. No messing around, seminal figure here. Ka-boom.
I take the path where you have to bow down and walk under a stacked boulder to continue on the path. It’s like a tunnel and a gateway at the same time. The trees break away, the path twists one last time, and you find yourself with a 360 view of the surrounding area. Boulders everywhere which the gods are said to rest upon and discuss/observe/contemplate the world.
Actually, I should mention that when I say “gods” I’m using it in the collectively neutral sense rather than say god/dess-s or divinities. Shinto has a matriarchal pantheon, with all the major deities being female (for example, Amaterasu the sun goddess is no joke, takes care of her bizness, watch out). The mother is everywhere in Japan, she’s what counts, but she’d insist harmony be maintained and everyone remain at the table, thus “gods”.
The actual summit holds an observation deck, which you climb a series of stairs to reach. It’s a joke, actually. You are standing on one of the most holy places you can in Japan, and there’s this ugly, cheeseball man-made structure to the side. For some reason I didn’t mind though, it felt appropriate, like one last step into the heavens. Taken on the stairway of ugliness, admitting our own human weakness.
This is the moment of enlightenment in the spiritual journey. Hard climb, long travel, then revelation as the world opens up all around you. At the top of the deck, I take in the four directions. The spattering rain and crisp wind buffet my body, dousing my heat and strength. Clouds and mist are rushing all around me. The nearest shores and islands are hazy outlines.
I speak to the gods of Japan, ignorant of their names let alone their ranks and stations. I tell them I don’t know what to say about what I’ve witnessed or how I feel. I don’t know what to ask from them, or what to tell them. I don’t even know if I should say anything at all.
It occurs to me I’m the only person up on this summit. I am meant to be here, doused in the elements, shivering with the feeling of being alive. A fragment of cultural relevance comes back to me from my studies, of how the Japanese consider themselves a “wet” people. That is, they are a deeply feeling people who understand relatedness. While outsiders, particularly westerners, are considered “dry”. They have little awareness of the feelings of others.
I recognize how supremely purifying a moment this is. Separated from the group and free to be myself, the gods are making me a “wet” outsider, if only for this moment.
Being blessed, I give thanks and take my leave, returning to the world of people with difficulty (harder to descend than ascend, and I’m low on energy).
The incense is still smoking as I shamble past the wayside shrine (if I can truly love, even after the mark of the ghosts, then the world grows). Marked, purified. Departure, return.
At the bottom of the ropeway station, at a food stand, the group is waiting for me. Waiting for the next ferry. I have just enough time to scarf down a deep bowl of steamy hot udon noodle soup.