A Pond Best Avoided?

Posted on Sunday, October 04, 2015, under , ,

It takes three minutes on foot from where I live to reach the south-western tip of Midorogaike pond – a modestly sized body of stagnant water, high moorland and a few islets of floating peat. The information board by the gravel footpath says, in both Japanese and English, the lake covers some 9 hectares with a circumference of about 1.5 km. About one third of the lake is made up of floating peat bog, which occupies the central part of the lake, itself practically unreachable. Apart from a couple of battered wooden dinghies buried in quagmire, as if to warn an adventurer as to the likely outcome of their potential exploit, there are no boats or vessels on hand.

One also learns from the info board that the lake is very unusual in Western Japan as it sustains a cool temperate zone, similar to upper marshland in the north-eastern part of the country. This means the lake is home to some rare aquatic plant colonies, as well as animal creatures, such as a subspecies of large hoverfly, or a diving bell spider (the only spider species known to live entirely underwater). At the same time, plants and insects typical of a warm temperate zone, are also in attendance: common reed, Japanese diving beetle, or the giant bullfrog – one unwelcome import from America.

Due to these peculiar features the lake’s plant community was designated as a national natural treasure back in 1927, the designation altered in 1988 to include the animals as well. Fascinating, I think to myself, as I walk eastward along the southern shore, secretly hoping a creature would crop up and pose for a late evening photocall. The footpath this side of the lake is well-lit by street lamps, so much so that the light spreads some distance making it possible to make out water lilies resting on dark-green scum, and even a couple of ducks mucking about in the shallows (there is a long and winding path on the pond’s surface which ducks have ploughed for their own passage through scum).

I am struck how exceptionally still it is around here. Nothing stirs. And when something does move, like a cluster of reeds swaying, or an occasional duck or carp rippling the surface, they only add to the sense of pervasive stillness. It is exactly this subdued, lusterless quietude that lends the lake the air of mystery and eeriness it is so infamous for. Rather than the pond’s extraordinary aquatic features, Kyotoites have known Midorogaike for its notorious image of one being haunted by ghosts. This fact alone puts the lake on the tourist map of places best avoided.

In local folklore spooky stories abound, old and new. Ask any Kyotoite about the pond and the odds are they will come up with a ghost tale of some kind. The oft repeated one goes something like this. A Kyoto cab driver picks up a passenger, a woman possibly in her late fifties. As the car approaches Midorogaike, the cabby turns back to speak to the woman. Lo and behold, she has vanished. All the driver sees is a damp blotch on the seat.

Another tale has a local resident who, while taking a stroll by the lake, comes across a pile of clothes discarded on the ground. At first she thinks it rude manners. Then a thought creeps in: could this be a hint of a suicide? As she does not immediately see any shoes, she instinctively starts looking for a pair (Japanese are expected to be considerate enough to remove footwear before taking own life). She is saddened, however, to discover a floating body instead. Once the police have put the case to bed, the woman returns home only to find a pair of shoes by her front door, filled with water.

I am now standing at the south-western corner of the pond. Here the gravel path ends. For the adventurous soul there is a mud path that leads up the eastern shore through the forest. As I weigh up my options, the screech of an eagle-owl pierces the air. 

A windless valley:
over the peat bog
a disconsolate screech

I walk home wondering if the horror tales about Midorogaike have been invented on purpose, with one thing in mind: to keep people away from the lake so as to preserve its unique habitat. Who knows.

Few days later I revisit the pond. This time I foot it along the east shore, a soft path of peat and clay. It leads through the woods, all the time close to water. At some places the path turns very soft, almost gooey, and if one is not careful one might slide straight down into the lake. The mostly secondary forest is dominated by Japanese red pine and deciduous oak trees that go by the name of bao li. Some trees produce beautifully semi-transparent resin that stretches down from tree barks, looking like a Christmas ornament, or an icicle.

After about a hundred meters into the forest the path abruptly ends, and with some sadness I realize that it is impossible to walk the whole of lake’s perimeter. The woods being too dense to continue (the thought of coming back with a machete crosses my mind), I start trudging back past some glistening ferns and moss.

Post scriptum

I have been meaning to post my blog entry on Midorogaike for a few days now, yet never got round to it. In the meantime I decided to pay the lake another visit – for no particular reason. I have just got back home from tonight’s outing. It is close to midnight. I am sitting in my room, still trembling with awe and astonishment at what has just taken place.

I am walking down a narrow street, approaching the lake’s southern shore. The rain drizzling, the full moon peeking through the fast moving clouds. I barely step onto the gravel that borders the shore, when out of darkness a hefty, four-legged creature is running in my direction. I freeze. In a split second I think it a mythical beast that has come to take my soul away. As the eyes adjust I am able to detect the beast: a massive stag with splendid antlers, most likely frightened by hearing my footsteps. Now he is charging just past me, hollow thuds echoing across the valley. It misses me by a meter or two, and disappears up the familiar forest path on the eastern shore.

Fast approaching
a pair of antlers –
I stand powerless

I am sitting in my room, trying to decipher my instinctive response during the close encounter. It wasn’t fear, that is for sure. It was closer to total astonishment, and acceptance. Acceptance of fate. Of whatever the stars had in store for me. I was ready.

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