There was a smell in the air, a smell that David noticed the moment he opened the car door, leaving the air-conditioned interior to stand in the middle of the parking lot. It was the smell of sulfur. The smell of brimstone, volcanoes, geysers bubbling out of the earth.
To the west of the road they’d traveled by was a lake. “Lake Usoriyama,” Mrs. Yoshida had announced. “The lake of the spirits.” Beyond it on the horizon stood a range of mountains, their summits lost in the cloudy haze.
David and the Yoshida family stood in front of the entrance to Entsuji Temple. He stared at the grotesquely weathered stone of the three Buddha statues that reared up in front of the gate. Each of them had hands frozen in different arcane gestures, eyes in their pitted grey heads downcast, their expressions unreadable.
Around the gate milled a tangle of visiting tourists in sunhats and light summer jackets. On the other side of the waste ground sat the coaches and cars that had brought them, and a row of antique-looking wooden shops and stalls vied for the visitors’ attention.
In his guidebook, David had read that the Osorezan temple complex lay on the Shimokita Peninsula, where the northernmost tip of the Honshu mainland ended and the sea leading to Hokkaido began. The mountain was actually something called a composite volcano, with the lake inside the crater. Apparently only one species of fish could survive in the waters of the lake; the Ugui.
The guidebook had tried to describe the strangeness of the place; in David’s eyes, it had failed. Approaching the gate, David had the uncanny feeling that the stone heads of the colossal Buddha figures were watching him. He looked behind him, at the lake and the distant mist-covered mountains. The mournful sight made him think they had entered a place where natural laws no longer operated. Something just felt wrong.
At Mrs. Yoshida’s suggestion, they took a wooden bench inside one of the shops and asked for bowls of kakigori – finely shaved ice flavored with fruity, sugary syrup. The mother and father muttered their blessings and began to scoop out their bowls. The chilled sickly sweetness made David’s teeth ache. Saori picked at hers, saying nothing, looking pensive. She was out of school uniform today, wearing a black skirt and a light black cardigan over a T-shirt, jeans and sturdy-looking sports boots with thick white laces. As usual, she had only the slightest touch of make-up on her clear skin.
As David tried to finish the sticky confection dissolving in front of him, he glanced around at the other customers. Not many seemed to be below the age of sixty. He looked around at dulled faces stained with liver spots beneath almost identical cloth sun-hats, hunched figures with sticklike arms poking out of their short polo shirt sleeves.
“Entsuji Temple,” Mrs. Yoshida was saying. “It is the very famous temple of Osorezan, do you know? It was founded long, long time ago by the monk, Jikaku Daishi. He had gone to China and in the China, he had a dream. The very powerful dream told him to come back to Japan and walk east for thirty days, and he would come to a special place, a most sacred place. And so he did that.”
“So he discovered this mountain? Osorezan?” David guessed.
“Sono tori desu.” That’s right.
“One thing,” Mr. Yoshida confided, leaning over his plate of blueberry slush. “Gomen nasai, David. We are sorry but this place has no beer.”
David couldn’t stop his face from dropping its smile. “Oh.”
“A temple, you see. Buddhist. No meat, no alcohol.”
David nodded sagely, shrugging his shoulders. “Well, not to worry. That doesn’t seem to deter the crowds, does it?”
Mr. Yoshida followed David’s gaze to the line of elderly tourists with backpacks and walking sticks, standing in front of the cashier’s desk. “We have a saying in Japan. Heaven’s nets are large, and they catch everything.”
“Otsukare, David-sensei,” Mrs. Yoshida said. “You must be very tired! Let’s check in to the hotel.”
Leaving the shop, they wheeled their suitcases away from the main temple entrance, down a path that led to a modest three-storey concrete building. The path was lined on both sides with blue tarpaulin tents; something to do with the Itako festival, David guessed.
“I thought we’d be staying inside the temple,” he whispered to Saori.
“We are,” she whispered back. “Wait and look inside.”
The reception desk was manned by monks. Some of them had the customary shaven heads, some had hair with the short tidy partings of businessmen, but all of them wore the brown and orange robes of the temple.
Mr. Yoshida gave David the keys to his room. “Wash your face, David, and meet us here in the lobby.”
As he’d expected, it was a room of tatami straw-mat flooring, a low table coming up to knee-height set in the center. Floor cushions were arranged in a corner. Along one wall stood the wardrobe with sliding doors where he knew the futons were kept. He unpacked the change of clothes he’d brought, washed his hands, checked his hair in the mirror and returned to the lobby
Mrs. Yoshida was busying herself with the parasol that she’d brought. Even though the day was overcast, she wore clothes that concealed every inch of her skin; a thin cardigan that stretched to her wrists, a white skirt that went down to her ankles.
“David-sensei, shall we take a walk? While we try to make an appointment for tomorrow, perhaps you would like to see the grounds? Saori will walk and talk with you for while, desu sho? Jya – dozo.”
Leaving the hotel and turning right, Saori led him back to the main concrete path to Entsuji Temple. The path was lined by massive stone lanterns, each one twice the height of a normal human being.
In front of the solemn green pagodas of the temple, Saori stopped and pointed to the left. He saw an open gate of the same leaden stone, and beyond it canyon-like surfaces that blocked the view, and on the other side a steep narrow flight of wooden steps led up a muddy hill. A volcanic, sulfur-laden mist wafted through the air. There were no trees, just anemic-looking shrubs up on the hill. A sign in kanji told them this was the beginning of the walking course. David looked around and peered through the gate.
“Shall we go in?” asked Saori hesitantly.
“The Osorezan Legacy” coming soon!
Read more of Zoe Drake’s work here:
“Dead Hand Clapping” – a psychological thriller set in Shibuya, Tokyo
“Dark Lanterns” – a collection of Yokai-inpired short stories