Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Power of Letting Fuji-san Decide

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

A Japanese proverb says: You cannot decide to see Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji decides who gets to see him.

All the traveler can do is show up and hope the mountain wants to be seen.

During my travels abroad, I've always tried to prepare a careful itinerary, but also keep myself open to whatever experiences the trip and the country might also have in store for me. I don't believe in coincidence, and I do believe that keeping your eyes, mind, and heart wide open often result in experiences we never could have planned on our own account.

Last year's research trip to Japan is a perfect example of what happens when you decide to "let Fuji-san decide" what you should see.

Six months before that trip, my son sent photos of coffee jelly he enjoyed while studying in Kyoto. I'd never tasted coffee jelly, and envied his experience--especially when he told me how delicious and refreshing coffee jelly was with cream.

I hoped to taste it in Japan, but neither he nor I knew how to track it down (he had it in his college cafeteria, a place I could not go). On our first morning in Kyoto, we went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and guess what I found waiting for me in the buffet line?

Coffee jelly. With cream.
It proved exactly as delicious as my son had said that it would be.

While in Kyoto, we walked the Philosopher's Path, a road that runs along a canal in the northeastern part of the city. The path is famous for its lovely scenery, as well as the many shrines and temples that lie along the way. My son and I visited each of them, including a little temple called Ootoyo Jinja that lay about five minutes' walk from the beaten path. (In fact, we almost missed it.)

There, I discovered the shrine is dedicated to Okuninushi--a Japanese god whose story I first read and loved as a child, when my mother gave me a book of Japanese myths. In the story, a field mouse saves Okuninushi's life and helps him win the hand of his true love, Suseri-hime, daughter of the storm god Susanō. (If you want to hear the entire story, I blogged about it here.)

Guardian mouse at Ootoyo Jinja.
The shrine even has two statues of guardian mice, symbols and messengers of Okuninushi. 

But for my willingness to step away from the path, I never would have seen this childhood favorite come to life.

While climbing the slopes of Mount Inari (at Fushimi Inari shrine), I once more left the beaten path to follow an unmarked trail into the trees. Though clearly meant for visitors, it wasn't the pilgrim trail up the mountain, and I was the only one who took the route.

A quarter of a mile ahead, through an old-growth bamboo forest:

The road less traveled, Japanese style.

I discovered a hidden dragon shrine I didn't know was there.

Dragons are excellent hiders.

It was clearly set up for visitors, but none of my research and no one I spoke with told me it existed.

The "coincidences-that-aren't" continued to follow me throughout my trip, from the crows that appeared ahead of me when I approached important spots (in Shinto belief, the crow is a messenger of the gods and a harbinger of their favor):

Waiting for me at the entrance to Kasuga Shrine (where I plan to set a novel).

To my tearful arrival at the base of Itsukushima Shrine's Great Torii on the eve of my mother's 70th birthday (she went to Japan with me last year)--where I'd reserved a once-in-a-lifetime evening for us without fully realizing which night I'd booked it for...

... to the magical moment the following morning, when I arrived at Itsukushima just after dawn, as one of the Shinto priests began his morning meditations by playing a shakuhachi (flute).

(I tried to upload the video, but Blogger wouldn't let me - so I posted it on Facebook instead)

The Great Torii at dawn.

Some people may call these random events, but I see a larger plan. Each of them gave me something I had always wanted, but didn't even realize I did. Each of them added magic to an already spectacular trip, and gave me memories I will carry for a lifetime.

Even without these experiences, my journey to Japan was amazing, but remaining open to the adventures that might come along (instead of gluing myself to a plan that left no room for improvisation) the journey itself truly became more important than any given destination.

Sixty-four days from today, I'll board a plane to return to Japan. I'm teaching at the Japan Writers Conference in Tokushima (on the island of Shikoku) October 28-29 and then spending 17 days traveling across Japan to research the next four Hiro Hattori mysteries. Although I'm going with "things in mind" and a detailed itinerary of places to do and things to see, I'm also determined to remember that, when it comes to travel, amazing things happen when we release our grip on "the plan" and just let Fuji-san decide.

(And, since I'm actually planning to visit the Fuji region on this trip, here's hoping Fuji-sama appears for me, for real, this November. If he does, I promise to bring back pictures.)


  1. I love the way you bring us along to discover alongside of you so much more about a culture you truly adore. Two questions: Do they do a decaf version of he jelly? And, did you know that I play the Native American flute, especially when the neighbors are rambunctious at night--and yes I watched and enjoyed your FB video.

    1. I love that I have the chance to bring you along with me! They actually do make decaf coffee jelly (surprise - it tastes exactly like the original) - and I had no idea you played the Native American flute! That's really cool . . . Now I'll have to figure out a way to be rambunctious enough to earn a performance.

  2. Susan, How beautiful! I see your soul in this. Thank you for this joy, my friend.

    1. Thank you Annamaria! I love this blog so much, because it feels like I get to see everyone else's soul in their blogs too, and I'm so happy that I can be a part of it.

  3. Lovely, lovely column, Susan. I feel like you've just described most of my life which has been one long string of amazing coincidences occasionally perforated with moments of misbegotten planning...

    1. Thank you Everett. It's the story of my life too - and how wonderful that we get to go along for the ride.

  4. I have a friend like you Susan. We have learned to be wary of him. Three mile hill walks turn into thirty mile hikes. Instead of back at the car, we end up in somebody's back garden. Or in the emergency room. And once in the wrong country. Maybe I need more friends like you , and less like him.

    1. Caro, everybody, no matter how many friends he or she has, needs more friends like Susan!

    2. Yep, Caro...I'm ABSOLUTELY that person. Haven't ever ended up in the wrong country (yet)...but next time we're all together, ask me to tell you how I accidentally led two friends into a secret Soviet military installation in Moscow at the height of the cold war. (Spoiler: I THOUGHT I was showing the way to the hotel restaurant.)

      True story.

  5. Love coffee jelly! Can we hear the Moscow story at Bcon?

    1. Absolutely, Cara. :) Are you coming to dinner Wednesday night?

  6. Love the blog - but coffee jelly is not exclusive to Japan - my grandmother taught me to make it. You just make up your coffee as you like it - black, white, strong , weak with or without caffeine, and while hot add gelatine (or vegetarian substitute. Pour into mould - her method - or glasses to look like your piture, cool and let set. If you do it her way - decant from mould when set and decorate with whipped cream - in glasses just add on top. Makes a nice dessert.

    1. Thank you!

      Coffee Jelly is not exclusive to Japan, for sure - though the Japanese serve it cubed into bite-sized pieces, with a cream to top it, while the European versions seem more often to resemble a Jelly mold. It's intriguing to me that so many cultures enjoy variations on the same dishes - I love seeing how they play out in different cultures. Thank you for sharing your grandmother's version!