Yogyakarta, an ancient capital in the central part of Java Island, Indonesia, is one of the cities dearest to my heart.
On its outskirts lie the UNESCO World Heritage temple compounds of Borobudur and Prambanan, which fill me with awe every time I visit them.
Vestiges of Buddhist and Hindu dynastic civilizations, which prospered before the advent of Islam, are still much in evidence. The city also offers scenes of traditional culture, including the "wayang" shadow puppet theater, dance and gamelan music.
And the entire city is blanketed in a sort of mystic air.
The area has been hit, since time immemorial, by major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Every such event generated huge casualties and forced people to live in shelters.
A volcanic eruption also provided the reason for my first visit to the city.
Mount Merapi, a 2,968-meter peak about 30 kilometers from the city center, had a major eruption from late on Nov. 4, 2010, to the early hours of the next day. Another eruption had occurred some 10 days earlier.
I left Jakarta and entered the area on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2010, immediately before the major eruption, to cover the damage from the first eruption of Oct. 26, 2010. I interviewed evacuees at shelters dotting the foot of the volcano, sent my story, had a late dinner and went to bed in a Yogyakarta hotel. But a major explosion woke me up.
As I emerged outdoors, I saw a downpour of volcanic ash that resembled tropical snow flurries and obscured my view of objects only 30 meters away. That showed me what an eruption of an active volcano felt like.
As I rushed to the biggest hospital in the city, I faced an incoming flow of people killed or wounded by the lahars (mudflows of pyroclastic materials and water).
Volcanic ash was quick to build up on my notebook even as I interviewed rescue team members. I had to wipe the ash off with my hands to keep writing.
Mount Merapi had a "guardian" who communicated with its spirits. The charismatic Mbah Maridjan, 83 years old at the time, lived on the mountain and had presided over ceremonies of offerings to its spirits for the past 28 years. He was a well-known figure who had appeared in a TV commercial that aired nationwide for an energy drink.
His death in a lahar during the Oct. 26 eruption created a major sensation across the country. Disaster prevention authorities had advised him to evacuate, but he refused and stayed on the mountain, the reports said.
Rumors were already flying back and forth at the evacuation shelters at the foot of the mountain.
"Mbah Maridjan's body was found in a prostrate position of prayer," one rumor said. "He sacrificed himself to placate the rage of the volcano spirits," said another. "Without Mbah Maridjan, the volcano spirits will be even more furious," according to yet another.
Animistic views of this kind are basically taboo to Muslims, who account for the majority of Indonesians, but are common staples of conversation in the mystic culture of Java Island. The Javanese variant of the Muslim faith is so curiously different from Islam of the Middle East, which I have visited on business trips and other occasions.
A local legend says that the gods who created Java placed mountains on the east and west ends of the island, causing it to teeter this way and totter that way. At wits' end, the gods fetched a mountain from the South Seas and put it on the center of the island, which accounts for the origin of Mount Merapi.
Be that as it may, who on earth is the "guardian" of the volcano? I wondered. An elder citizen told me that he is a servant to the sultan.
A sultan, descended from a Muslim dynasty that once prospered in central Java, still reigns in the Yogyakarta Special Region Province. The successive sultans have lived in a palace and have doubled as the governor of the province.
Mbah Maridjan had served the sultan since under the reign of Hamengkubuwono IX, the father of Hamengkubuwono X, the current sultan. Raden Ngabehi Suraksohargo was his last official name, which had changed every time he was promoted.
Only after Mbah Maridjan's death and the other major eruption in November did Mount Merapi regain its calm. As I kept worrying about the fate of a volcano devoid of its guardian, I saw reports, months later, that one of his sons had been appointed the new guardian.
Taking over the post of Mbah Maridjan, who became a legend when he lost his life to the major eruption, was probably no easy task even for one of his sons, I thought.
Curious to know what he had to say about his new role, I visited him in June in the village of Kinahrejo, close to Mount Merapi's crater.
"Welcome," Mr. Asih said as he greeted me with a smile. The 45-year-old in a T-shirt hardly stood out from other middle-aged men.
Frankly, I had expected something more dramatic. "Is this really the new guardian of Mount Merapi that erupted so violently and repeatedly and killed so many people only one and a half years ago?" I said to myself.
"My father, as the gatekeeper of the volcano, fulfilled his pledge to the sultan and his duties until the last moment, even at the cost of his own life," Mr. Asih said. "Not just myself but the whole village suffered a sense of loss as if it had lost its father."
Mr. Asih was not the talkative type, but he told me stories that he said his father told him when he was a child.
"My father said Mount Merapi erupts to shed the filth attached to its body," he said. "The volcano wakes up from a long slumber and sheds filth in the form of lava and lahars. The ash it splashes to clean up its body fertilizes soil and helps crops to grow."
I asked him if he felt under pressure as a son of the charismatic guardian.
"My father had 26 disciples, and six of them perished in the eruptions," Mr. Asih said. "When I was named his successor, I frankly wondered whether I was really up to the job and whether I knew how to guard the volcano."
Mbah Maridjan had three sons and three daughters. Mr. Asih is his second son.
Mas Lurah Suraksosihono is the servant name the sultan conferred on him. He debuted in July last year at a ceremony to carry offerings from the sultan's palace to the volcano.
"I was familiar with the ceremony, which I used to watch by my father's side, but I did realize I was assuming a heavy responsibility," Mr. Asih said.
He also took over all his father's disciples who had survived the eruptions. Some of them are his seniors, while others are youths in their 20s.
"I would rather call them colleagues than disciples," said a humble Mr. Asih, who has two daughters, one in lower secondary school and the other in primary school.
Women are not qualified to be the guardian but are allowed to be his disciples. Mr. Asih said disciples' training involves a lot of mountain climbing and is physically demanding.
"What would you do if your daughters asked to be your disciples when they grow up?" I asked.
"I would let them undertake the training if they insisted they really want to serve the palace," Mr. Asih said.
However, that was one moment where he wore the expression of a concerned father.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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