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The Dusty National Road UTSUMI Ryūichirō

When I was young I lived in Ichinoseki and visited Hiraizumi frequently. It was two stops by train, but I preferred to walk it despite the distance. I walked to Hiraizumi with my friends from junior high school, along the dusty national road.

This was before you could just throw some change in a vending machine and get a cold drink no matter where you are. We just walked, hatless, in the summer sun. At best we would receive a little well water from farmers along the road when our throats became parched.

We didn't go for the festivals, nor to study. We just gathered and went to Chūsonji and Mōtsūji on our days off.

In those days, Hiraizumi was a quiet town almost devoid of tourists. The halls and museum at Chūsonji were free for students, so we wandered in and out as we wished, gazing at the Buddhist statues and implements. At the time, Ichiji Kinrin statue known as the "the Dainichi of Human Flesh" for its human appearance sat in one corner of the museum. Though it is now treated as a secret Buddha, at that time you could reach out a hand and touch its flesh-like face. When I returned in later years and saw the black marks on its nose, I flinched.

After resting in the cool shade, we took the back path to Mōtsūji. Mōtsūji was free, too, and we went in and out as we pleased there also. We ran around Ōizumi ga Ike Pond, made the rock formations our forts, and laid out in the grassy fields. We didn't jump into the pond itself, and not just because the muddy waters were more than a little frightening—somehow we realized even as kids that this was not the sort of pond you went swimming in.

I have another memory of Ōizumi ga Ike.

When I was in elementary school, I went to Hiraizumi with my eldest sister. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had been sent along as the "chaperone" for my sister's first date. Of course, it was our mother who set everything up, but I really didn't understand what was going on. All I can really remember is some older boy I didn't know walking along with my sister, the two of them talking little.

I suppose we probably went to Hiraizumi by train or by bus. The dusty road wouldn't have been right for a date.

One thing I remember quite clearly was the water chestnuts. As my sister and her date walked around the pond at Mōtsūji, the boy suddenly pointed to the water's surface. Water plants floated there, and something brown and star-shaped could be seen beneath the water. The boy scooped up one of those brown shapes and removed the hard outer shell. A pure white water chestnut appeared. I wasn't sure whether to eat it or not, but it turned out to be surprisingly good. Not too sweet, but rich. A little like a soft cashew, perhaps.

This was still the early postwar, when food was scarce. That water chestnut was a magical treat. I kept asking that boy to get more for me. He did, and as he did more and more floated to the surface. And shells piled up on the ground around us.

Oddly, I can't remember at all whether my sister ate any. Nor do I remember her talking later about any fond memories from her first date. In any case, I can't really imagine a young woman like my sister munching on water chestnuts like we did.

Who was that young man? For him, he had probably done his best to please the little chaperone. I don't know whether this was the cause or not, but I think that was their first and late date.

At least, I don't recall seeing him again at my sister's side.

I looked for water chestnuts every time I went back to Mōtsūji, but I never saw one again. Back then, people cut the winter ice from the pond's surface for refrigeration, and it may be that the water chestnuts were destroyed during this process.

Even now, I dream of walking from Ichinoseki to Hiraizumi along that road. Now I doubt that there are many adults or children who take that walk. Everyone has a car, and those that don't can take one of the many buses running.

But for me, I'll never forget the feeling of walking along that dusty national road. Maybe that's the feeling of heading for the Pure Land. Or at least, that's how I feel now.

Excerpted from the Hiraizumi Cultural Chamber journal, Tōhō ni Ari, issue 1.

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