Okayama Castle (Photo: Noro Randria / JT)

The Taxi Driver in Okayama

Satoshi groks the natural truth of learning for oneself

Featured    - 10 min read

Date: April 19, 1988
Age: 13 years old

Satoshi and Toshiko were on the road again. Thus far, it had been a curious drive from Okayama Station. The gray-haired taxi driver, a veteran of the back and forth pick-up trade, had been brief and to the point when he inquired about their destination. However, the man’s supposed indifference did not match his unusual interest in Satoshi. Every time his mother mentioned the shrine and their plans, Satoshi noticed the driver glancing at him through the rearview mirror. Although the man looked like he wanted to say something, he never did. Instead, he remained silent. Satoshi wondered if silence was what adults meant when they said someone was being professional.

Satoshi was tired of chit chat. After traveling with his mother from one holy spot to another, he found it easier to say nothing and simply observe. He was good at watching and always paid attention. Well, he paid attention to his own ideas anyway. Personally, he thought people talked too much. Perhaps the taxi driver, who obviously wanted to say something, naturally understood his dislike for idle chat. Satoshi looked up at the driver once more before returning his view to the world rushing past him. If silence was professional, Satoshi decided that he liked it. In fact, Satoshi may be the most professional person he knew!

Satoshi’s mother, Toshiko, sat on his right. Earlier at the train station, he had lost count of the number of times she reminded him that their first stop wasn’t Mount Shintozan, but Munetada Jinja, the shrine of Kurozumi Munetada, who was the founder of the new Shinto faith he would soon experience on the mountain. “You’ll see, Satoshi. You’ll see.” she had said to him.

The devious side of Satoshi wanted to ask his mother, “So, we’re going to Mount Shintozan first, right?” But since he feared a lecture, he kept his mouth shut.

He turned his thoughts back to the taxi driver and watched him as he drove. The glances from the driver were so quick that when Satoshi tried to return eye contact, the man would immediately look away. Satoshi did not understand the conflicting gestures. Perhaps the driver had been to Mount Shintozan. Satoshi shrugged. He didn’t know what the taxi driver wanted and didn’t ask. Afterall, he liked silence. Even so, he could not help but wonder what the driver was thinking. If the man was a professional, he sure was a curious one. He would make for a great character in one of Satoshi’s imaginary stories.

 Taxi meter stop waiting traffic light, Tokyo, Japan
Taxi meter stop waiting traffic light, Tokyo, Japan (Photo: sattahipbeach / Shutterstock.com)

A direct trip to the mountain would have taken around twenty minutes, but to the shrine, it was less than ten. After they arrived, Toshiko asked the driver to wait for them until they finished their devotions. Since they wouldn’t be long, Toshiko thought it would be cheaper than rehiring a taxi. Satoshi offered to calculate the differing costs for his mother, but since he was unfamiliar with fares outside of his hometown Kawasaki, she thanked him, but calculated it herself. He was a little disappointed because he liked math and numbers.

Overall, Satoshi thought it was strange that his mother opted for a taxi. She was extremely careful with their travel budget. However, this morning, she said something about having a good feeling. He didn’t have any complaints. Taxis were a rare luxury.

As they started toward the shrine grounds, Satoshi noticed that it was busy. In fact, according to Satoshi’s mother, the shrine always had a lot to see and do. During the ride over, Toshiko told him about popular annual celebrations like the Hatsumode New Years, Tanabata Star and Shichi-go-san children's festivals. And though not the formal Kangakusai Festival to ‘encourage Shinto learning’, there were still plenty of school children with their teachers. Shrine priests were busily escorting everyone around the shrine complex. While watching the teachers and monks, Satoshi wondered if Munetada had had a teacher and unwittingly blurted out, “I wonder who Munetada's teacher was?”

At that moment, overhearing this, the taxi driver broke his self-imposed silence and called out, “Boy!”

Satoshi turned.

“You can learn by yourself!” the man exclaimed, before getting back into his car to wait. Satoshi, not knowing how to reply, simply stood there. What an odd professional.

Not noticing the exchange, Toshiko admonished her son to hurry. She was eager to earn a blessing for him and had to call out again before Satoshi finally began to move.

What a strange thing to say, Satoshi thought. “Learn by yourself.” How else could he learn? What prompted the driver to say that? As they entered the shrine, Satoshi began recalling some of Munetada’s story.

If what Satoshi had heard was true, Munetada had the dream of becoming a divine kami during his lifetime. That seemed like a big dream. Weren’t there eight million such gods in Japan? He knew that in the old days eight million had meant infinity. That was a lot. Satoshi closed his eyes. Infinity really was a lot, but wasn’t infinity also forever? A lot is different from forever, he reasoned. Forever can last. He opened his eyes again. He wondered what the taxi driver would have thought.

Munetada’s parents had passed away from illness. Not long after, he himself had contracted tuberculosis and became terribly ill. For about three years he was a dying man–a physical and mental shell of his former self. Then, after some intense reflection, Munetada “swallowed the sun.” Satoshi didn’t know what “swallowing the sun” meant, but his mother said it had something to do with morning prayers. Whatever the technique was, it was successful and Munetada quickly recovered. If Satoshi understood correctly, Munetada had become a new man and created a new religion, all without a teacher. Hadn’t the taxi driver told him to learn by himself?

Photo: Munetadajinjya(Okayama City)Haiden – Hiroki Masaki / CC BY-SA 3.0

Munetada Jinja, located in Okayama’s Kaminakano district where Munetada was born, was not far from some of the prefecture’s most famous destinations. Even though he had never visited, he had still heard of Korakuen Garden. Everyone had. It was called one of Japan’s top three gardens. Next door was Okayama Castle. He’d seen photos of the castle and was impressed by its massive size. Like the garden, Satsohi realized that the castle must have required a lot of money for its construction. Meaning it needed lots of rich people to help. Satoshi didn't think that Munetada had been rich, and yet, he too had created something, like the garden and castle, that had lasted. Could Satoshi create something that would last?

After finishing his devotions, which he will admit, he was a bit distracted during, he followed his mother back to the taxi and the odd professional.

Satoshi locked eyes with the mysterious man, and the driver gave him a nearly imperceptible nod. As they drove to Mount Shintozan, the taxi driver did not look at him once.

Satoshi’s mood had soured a little by the time they arrived at Mount Shintozan. The shrine visit had been accompanied by a series of unprovoked lectures by an uninterested priest. As the holy man droned on, Satoshi noticed that only a few kids were paying attention. Most of the children wore distracted and bored expressions. It was obvious why they were uninterested, thought Satoshi. If the teacher didn’t care, how could the student? Munetada didn't need a teacher. Is that what the taxi driver had meant when he said to “learn by yourself?” Satoshi knew the taxi driver's words had a deeper meaning and that they were probably related to the priest who didn’t care. During the priest’s talk, his thoughts had gone back to the taxi driver whom he still believed was a professional. He just didn’t know what kind of professional he was.

As mountains went, Shintozan’s height at 146 meters barely made the list of the prefecture’s shortest 25 mountains, but its views over Okayama were certainly nice ones. Though the mountain itself had been the spiritual home of Munetada’s sect since it was relocated in 1974, the religion itself, Kurozumi-kyo, was officially established in 1846. The monks added, though, that Munetada had his experience in 1814.

At the mountain’s summit stood the Daikyoden Prayer Hall and the Marukoto Center, a museum full of classical Bizen-style pottery that was native to Okayama. Both were nice places to visit, and though he did not have any real experience with pottery, he agreed that the pieces he saw looked okay, if a little old fashioned and, well, to be honest, unfinished. Being unfinished was supposed to be a kind of popular art style though, right? Anyway, they were nice places to visit before he and his mother spent the night on the mountain. The accommodation was basic, but clean with a complimentary dinner and breakfast. Satoshi and his mother planned to get up before dawn to offer their devotions towards the sun in the proscribed way known as nippai. It was the first time he had heard of nippai and the priests here recommended an early night. Satoshi guessed he was going to learn how to swallow the sun tomorrow.

Photo: 津山城初日の出_234 – 津山市立図書館 Public Library of Tsuyama / CC BY 2.0

Sooner than Satoshi would have liked, he found himself facing the direction of the rising sun on the mountain’s summit in a traditional seiza position with his legs folded underneath him. He felt tired and stiff waiting for the sun to rise, and the brisk air was quite unpleasant. The prayers the group had all recited together had faded away from his mind. It didn't bother him that he had forgotten the words though. They were just words, and not even his own. Just as he was starting to descend into a downward spiral of boredom, the clouds parted and the morning sun brightened the sky. Satoshi’s mouth dropped. He mouthed a silent wow to himself as he witnessed the yellow, pink light of a new day framing the distant mountainscape and forests. What a sight!

Sunbeams warmed his face, painting his insides yellow. Satoshi smiled. Was smiling, “nippai?” Was this warm, glowing feeling what Munetada meant when he said he “swallowed the sun?” Yes, it must have been. Mount Shintozan was not at all what Satoshi had expected. His mother sat beside him, entranced by the formality of it all, a believer for the sake of believing. Satoshi’s mind went back to the taxi driver. “Learn by yourself.” The taxi driver must have performed nippai too. Learn by myself? Yes, Satoshi thought, I can do that.

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Sleiman Azizi a week ago
With its unique design, Okayama Castle is one impressive building.