Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Knowing Tranquility XII (Osaki Islands, Kamagari Islands)





The Shimanami Kaido makes a large turn on Omishima Island, extending southward to Shikoku.  This of course makes far better commercial sense, as a means to flow goods and materials to the larger population base there.  But geographically speaking, the road could have continued its gradual bend to the west, connecting across a chain of islands all the way to Kure.  It takes nearly as much time to pronounce the names of the islands as it does to traverse them:  Osaki-kamijima, Osaki-shimojima, Kami-kamagarijima, Shimo-kamagarijima.  You'll note the repetition in the words 'kami' and 'shimo,' upper and lower respectively.  The kami islands are closer to Kyoto and therefore considered the superior.  Yet ironically, they seemed the economically unhealthiest of the four.

There is still a boat service at least, and I arrive early, watching an inconceivable number of large trucks piling aboard like clowns climbing into a Volkswagon.  A small speedboat pulls up next to it, and I realize then that this little one is mine.  Perhaps this service won't last long after all; the boats get smaller and smaller until poof, they disappear.  I hoist my backpack over one shoulder and walk down the gangplank, whistling the tune for Old Spice.

This particular boat undertakes a commuter run of sorts, dipping in and out of coves to pick up and drop off.  After a while I notice a pattern.  Upon approach, they will cut the engine and blow the horn, then the pilot will scan the shore to see if someone waves him in to pick up a passenger.  Otherwise, they will bob a few minutes until the actual departure time, then rush off to the next stop.  Osaki-kamijima is was historically a quarry island though no longer, so the vegetation has grown once again around the cliff-like scars in the hills, creating an attractive landscape. With the rain clouds, it is not unlike a Chinese landscape painting.  On the more natural hillsides I see mysterious white rectangles amidst the abundant mikan orchards that climb impossible heights up to the tops of the mountains themselves.  Not high mountains per se, but it is said that you can see 115 other islands from there. 

We're pulling into the next port now, Kinoe, which in the Meiji period had been renowned for its abundant pleasure quarter.  Even the vegetation on the hillsides has a certain fecund quality, thick and exaggerated in size, but that is probably just the moisture in the air.  I walk down a narrow one-lane street, which is the only thing looking old enough to be Meiji.  These had all been inns at one time, probably the houses of ill-repute that Donald Richie examines in fine detail in his book.  Little wonder he gave sex such a high amount of word count, as it is a topic he was always interested in.  He seques from there into the texture of Japanese skin, which reminds me of an essay that he wrote about Japanese tattoos.  He goes further then to discuss the decline of local festivals, which have been stripped in the modern age of their physicality, de-sexed as it were, in covering up both the virility of tattoos and any hint of sex, even that masked as fertility.  

I wonder what Ritchie would think about the natural of festivals in today's Japan, awash as it is in the torrents of tourism.  All but the most local, most private festivals have become stripped even further, packaged for the bus crowd.   I find it not worth attending any in Kyoto anymore, and I wonder if the gods to whom the festivals were once dedicated feel the same way.    

The Anti-Prostitution Law of 1956 would certainly have had a profound impact on Konoe's economy, and from the looks of things it never recovered.  Likewise the population has declined to third of what it was then.  There was a brief spike in population when Yamada Yōji brought a film crew here in 2012 to shoot his film, Tokyo Family.  Judging from the abundant photos in the ferry terminal they did a lot of set dressing to bring life to the town.  But even that has fallen into decay.  There is no sign of life here but for a small dog laying in the doorway of a run-down house that looks a few years away from abandonment. Above the dog's head is a Confederate flag hung like a curtain.

Where this narrow lane comes to an end stands a squat four story apartment building, its paint faded, the metal grills on the windows rusting into pencil-thin spikes.  The weather, and time, have not been kind to this place.  Even the hospital has closed.

I retrace my steps over to a more modern part of town.  A busy road leads through the heart of it, past all the old shops, and symbolically, out of town.  Fashion Shop Watanabe is missing the 'h' from its sign, as well as a lot of product, for half of its shelves are bare. What does remain would have no appeal to anyone under sixty.  And that is entirely intentional.  The old elementary school is missing but for its gates, the grounds beyond built upon by a care center for the elderly.  Sadly, the most picturesque thing in this part of town, a breathtaking, five-story abandoned inn, has been defaced by a large power pole directly in front.  Modernity is ruthless in its lack of aesthetic.

Over the last couple of days I've found that people down here love any excuse for a chat, even if that is simply answering questions or giving directions.  The replies are always detailed and dense and word-heavy.  It is thoughtful and certainly helpful, but certainly things could be easily condensed.  All part of island time I guess, "sit and jaw a-spell." (What do the Hawai'ians call it? Talk story?) Richie too experiences this, in a long convoluted explanation about a goddess whose name forgotten by the storyteller, who eventually becomes so obsessed with it that Richie feels disappointed at the breakdown of the pleasant chat they'd been enjoying up until then.

In that light, perhaps the saddest things I see are the benches in front of the shops on the main street, empty.  No longer enticing to the old, what with the fast moving traffic.  And the younger folks are occupied with individual pursuits, locked in a room somewhere, facing only themselves, reflected in a screen.

But that same screen later provides the name of the goddess that had eluded Richie:  Ichikishimahime, who decided ultimately to build her shrine on Miyajima rather than here, after a local bird shat on her head. Yet escape from this town is no longer so easy. A sign near the ferry terminal shows various routes, yet over half have been discontinued.  I wonder if any were those that Richie took.  Nearly fifty years later, it would be impossible to create his journey exactly, and I'm sure in another ten, I would no longer be able to recreate my own.

Yet things do progress.  From the boat I notice a couple of modern hotels, one shaped with a Chinese tower.  Similarly though not connected, from a distance the car ferries look like Chinese hats.  

Mitarai lies tucked away in a small bay.  I would gush about it, but Richie already had.  I approached with some trepidation, worried it would lose the charm he found here.  I too am lucky to find things unchanged, not only from the Edo period, but from Richie's visit as well.  Throughout these wanderings I keep wondering what he saw in his day, and for the first time I find us sharing the same view.  I crisscross the town a couple of times, following the lanes laid-out like the ribs of an open fan.  There is the usual decay, but here it has a certain beauty, especially the old school, and the crumbling temple nearby.  All the rest is vibrant and alive, the residents actually moving about.  I run into one woman twice, and another one, three times.

This town too had a pleasure quarter, but of a higher grade, the feudal period courtesans that once paraded the streets.  I begin to think how ironic it is that places with an Edo period look have been better preserved (a grand generalization in a country like Japan), whereas those from Meiji have been allowed to fade.  Do we value older history than new?  Or perhaps it is political rather than cultural.  After the war, the Edo period became fashionable, as if the bushido samurai code of ethics was necessary to rebuild the country, which the west picked up in the 1980s when all of Wall Street seemed to be reading the samurai classic The Book of Five Rings.  (Equally important, many of the samurai films of the early 1960s told stories of lone swordsmen fighting a corrupt Shogunate, in an off-hand criticism of the military government during the war, and even the modern Japanese government of the time.)  Meiji values, though they too had  rebuilt the country, did so in a way that led to an ultimate apotheosis in the war itself, and therefore, could no longer be trusted.  Funny, considering that most of what we think of as being "traditionally Japanese" was created at that time.  But as I walk, all I am concerned with is today.  In a most poetic metaphor, the hands of the clock hanging above the old clock shop no longer move.     

Had that clock been correct, it would have told me it is nearing lunchtime.  I duck into Shiomachi Kan, which serves as a souvenir shop and cafe.  I talk with the proprietor over a cuppa, talking about island life and asking questions that had arisen during my walk.  I mention too how disappointed I am in myself for not staying on the island, as recently I've been opting for cheap hotels on the mainland, convenient to early morning ferries.  Far better, in hindsight, to have taken a late ferry out to the islands themselves.   

For this day at least I am through with boats.  A bus takes me along the rest of the islands in the chain, crossing high above the water on the bridges that interconnects them.  As the bus is nearly empty I moved from side to side, keeping the water close.  On Kami-kamagarijima, I jump off the bus, despite the driver telling me it is too far to walk.  Another sign of the times perhaps in modern Japan, where the elderly are advised not to walk a distance that Google maps tells me is a mere eleven minutes.  But the walk is a pleasant one, through the mikan farms and old farmhouses.  When I get to a busier road, I am able to hitch a lift for the final stretch to Kenmin-ga-hama.  This beach is considered one of Japan's best and it is easy to see why, with perfectly groomed gold sand, clear waters and swaying palms.  Beside the beach is a soccer pitch and a polo field, and further away from the water stands a row of small cottages.  Sadly the restaurant is closed due to some function so I walk back up the beach to neighboring Koi-ga-hama, a bit more down to earth with its camp sites sheltered by pines.  The heat is coming up so I roll up my trouser legs and wade into the cooling water, finding yet another reason to return to a part of the country which is quickly becoming one of my favorites.  

And Sannose on Shimo-kamagarijima completes the hat trick.  This simple row of houses near the inter-island strait has had a long and international history, formerly used as inns for the noblemen who once passed through.  The town was considered important enough to host a number of diplomatic missions in the feudal period, most notably the Koreans and the Dutch.  Evidence of these missions can be seen at the Shōtō-en, in the form of hundreds of artifacts from around the world. But it is the gardens themselves that most impress, awing even the Korean statues that bow reverently to the handful of buildings on site. 

It would be easy to spend a full day here, visiting some of the nearby galleries and proud Edo period houses.  But I have one last bus to catch.  Along the way to the busstI hear some great old classic jazz coming from Maruya cafe.  Overlooking the water, it is the perfect place to linger awhile, again to be tabled to a future date.  As it is, the owner makes a to-go panini for me, and as my bus rolls and pitches its way toward the final bridge toward Kure, I enjoy the taste of curry.  It seems fitting.


On the turntable:  The Band, "Across the Great Divide" 
On the nighttable: Diana L. Eck, "India: A Sacred Geography"

Monday, September 25, 2017

Knowing Tranquility XI (Takehara)





I jump off the train in Takehara.  The town is a bit of a misnomer as the fields of bamboo are long gone.  They have been replaced at some point in history by salt, which brought a wealth to the town that still remains, in the forms of large manor houses in the old part of town, now referred to as "Little Kyoto," a moniker given to any town that has kept a predominantly traditional look.  The flip side of this is that these areas become a bit of an island themselves, making the more modern towns surrounding them look unattractive and dull.

The old town is a short walk from the station, along covered sidewalks that survive from the post-war period and puzzle me as this area surely wouldn't get much snow, and these types of embellishments are usually found in colder climes.  The charm ends there however.  The town is quiet and lifeless, though then again it is Monday.  One house had noren from Takayama, which was another puzzle.  The nicest looking house in the newer town was a modern construction that didn't quite fit with anything surrounding it, but somehow it had a more classic look than the 1950s shops held together by lethargy and aluminum siding.   

The arrow-bearing signs lead me most of the way, but their absence at a crucial junction feeds me into the old town by the side-door, as it were.  I wrap around to find myself in front of the Kasai house, whose second floor is a large open space with a small stage framed in bamboo.  The woman downstairs tells me that they often do events here, both traditional and modern.  This I find is one of the highlights of a trip to the Japanese provinces.  Whereas Kyoto is better known for showcasing Japan's classical culture, the city reeks a fair bit of formaldehyde. And what it does trot out for the tourists is so same-same it borders on tacky, like when you pull out that old traditional lamp that Auntie gave you when she comes to visit.  People in the country don't seem to feel the same pressure, and can be quite creative when it comes to using traditional forms as a springboard for something new.  On this stage I can envision a woman in a kimono playing koto, or I can envision interpretive Kathak dance of India.  And I can envision them happening at the same time.      

This fusion of elements old and new, native and foreign, can be seen in other places throughout town, in the form of cafes and galleries.  The most profound manifestation of this blending can be found in the form in a statue of Takehara born founder of Nikka Whiskey, Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita. (The couple were featured in the popular TV drama Massan  a few years back.)  The adjacent museum is a lovely two-story house from the Meiji period, which detracts nothing from the Edo-period look of the rest of town. 
   
I wander the narrow high street, duck down interconnecting lanes, and climb up to Saihō-ji temple to look out over the town from an unusual deck that is meant to resemble the real Kyoto's Kiyomizudera.  Here and again I spot yet another reference, though this one doesn't technically exist.  A popular comic called Tamayura about a group of high school girls in a photography club here in town. This has led to an increase in domestic tourists, though not today as I have the town more or less to myself.  I sit in an older-looking coffee shop to have a drink to cool myself on a very muggy day.  Above me are photos from yet another production filmed here, 1983's "The Woman who Writes Time."  In Takehara, time follows a loose script, overwriting itself across multiple eras, but somehow finding a cohesion of plot.  And the filmmakers are lucky in that they have a variety of narrative threads to follow up.   

We are already a third of the way into September now, but the humidity stays high.  There is a typhoon brewing out to sea somewhere, but it is holding all the hot air over the mainland.  It reminds me how lucky I have been so far on these island wanderings, and these flat, overcast skies above me are the first signs of bad weather.  Naturally, the very moment I think this the rain begins.  I take refuge in the Mitsumoto house, whose annex showcases the works of the Imai family, with their weird looking creatures entrapped in glaze.  They are the not the only things trapped here apparently.  I presume the woman working there is part of the family, and when she stamps my ticket, she has to first change the date on the stamp itself. So late in the day and I've been the only visitor.

I finish my visit at the Morikawa house, a large sprawling estate with copious tatami rooms.  This surfeit of empty rooms is a common feature of old Japanese manors, the architectural equivalent of a glass museum, where the joy comes from discovering minute details.  The most interesting features are usually the kitchens, where the visitor can play guessing games at the old utensils and cooking implements.  The gardens too delight, and this one has a long maple tree being tricked into color by the cooler nights of early autumn. The light red holds a fine middle ground between the dark of wood and the light patina of tatami.  And red also means stop, so I sit a while on the veranda, feeling the humidity lose its hold on the day due to the rain, and the breeze bringing yet another change.  As it always does. 

   
On the turntable:  Jovelina Perola Negra, "Luz do Repente"
On the nighttable: Wendy Doniger,  "The Hindus: An Alternative History "

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Papers: Jean Cocteau


"I've always preferred mythology to history. History is truth that becomes an illusion. Mythology is an illusion that becomes reality."


On the turntable:  The Cranberries, "No Need to Argue"

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Papers: Robert Louis Stevenson


"No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, à la belle étoile.  He may know all their names and distances and magnitudes, and yet be ignorant of what alone concerns mankind,—their serene and gladsome influence on the mind.  The greater part of poetry is about the stars; and very justly, for they are themselves the most classical of poets."

On the turntable:  Depeche Mode, "Black Celebration"

Friday, September 08, 2017

Dotting the Eyes





"Where the bloody hell are you?"  Such was the tag line in an A$180 million Australian advertising campaign, which hoped to lure back the Japanese tourists who had once flocked down under.  Not a race known for irony, the Japanese didn't bite. 

I felt the same call every time I rode a train past Mt. Ikoma.  Wes and I had left our north-south traverse of the mountain unfinished for a surprising five full years.  And even getting back to the funicular station was a challenge, due in part to Kintetsu railway taking great pride in their passenger's skill in orienteering train stations devoid of signage.  Bizarrely enough, Wes wound up on a train I would have taken had my ESP skills been better honed, and up the funicular we went.  

The Ikoma sign posters must also subcontract with Kintetsu.  It took us a few minutes to find the trail, and over the next hour, we were constantly second guessing ourselves.  It had been a while since I had hiked this close to a major city, and the sheer density of trails was labyrinthian.  We circled a cemetery so long that I worried we'd eventually join its population.  

Our time under the trees proved too short as we were eventually fed onto a paved road that would lead us all the way down to Takaida station at the mountain's southern extreme.  Luckily there was little traffic, but for the cacophonous campaign cars politicking, including one guy on a bull-horn mounted bicycle.  A woman shrieked "Please support me!"to us in passing, and overcome by the absurdity of it I turned and rebutted, "But you people won't let me vote!" 

We'd only walked for two hours but it was time again for the train.  A long sit in the middle of a hiking day is dangerous, as the laws of inertia make it difficult to start up again.  We debarked listlessly at Ikoma Station to begin our true hike of the day.  A series of steps led from near the station all the way up to the Hōzan-ji temple, one of the more sacred sites in the area.  The traces of this route's long history were easy to see, in the form of older inns and tea shops that had once been part of the pilgrimage.  But as is often the case in Japan, change was being enforced upon the area, and the perfectly sufficient older stones steps were being given the root canal treatment, replaced with concrete.  Wes railed at this awhile, as this was his home mountain, and this route one of his favorites.  Thus we continued to huff and puff up the hill, Wes' exhalations taking the form of colorful words. 

Thankfully the spiritual foundation of the temple was still sound.  It truly was one of the most picturesque in the region, one still mercifully free of the tourist invasion.  The handful of people about were sincere in their devotions, which was equally true of Shigisan Temple which we'd skirted earlier on.  The scent of incense lay thick on the late summer air, the song of cicada heavy in the forest.  The temple grounds were rich with history and symbolic statuary, its centerpiece being the main hall with its overlapping gables, all crowned in cypress bark.  There was also a puzzling European building from the Meiji period, apparently a guest house.  

We continued up the steps in a light-falling rain.  The mountain was infamous for the amusement park on the crest, itself hemmed in by a new forest of cellular phone antennae.  We found the marker for the true peak, ringed as it was by a kiddle train. The attendant was kind enough to allow us to literally step over the train and even shot our summit photo for us, Wes and I looking quite the couple in our (unintentionally) matching T-shirts and backpacks.       

The ever increasing rain and  the idea of an early train home spurred on a rapid descent.  A bit too rapid perhaps as Wes took a hard fall midway down.  All appeared intact, including his sense of humor.  Despite being popular with hikers, the trail was steep and rocky underfoot, and overall, rather bland.  Here and again I'd catch a whiff of the sweet smell of decay, which, in a bizarre parallel to our walk five years ago, sent me on a Proustian journey into childhood, to memories of picnics and sticky soft drinks spilled in the sun, and the accompanying attraction of bees.  I thought that Japanese children could never have such memories, as the people are so tidy, and would mop up such a spill as it occurred.

Our finish line for the day was Hiraoka Shrine, its main torii gate in particular.  A series of workmen were laying a new one into deep postholes, shoring up the foundation with sand atop which concrete would later be laid.  The foreman explained that this will make it easier for the eventual replacement, one hundred years further on.  I found this optimism refreshing, as I looked back at the mountain, a once sacred relic heavily fondled and abused.  The question remained:  Will there be a Shinto in 100 years?  And more importantly, will there even be that many Japanese?  

And then we all will be the ones asking, "Where the bloody hell are you?"


On the turntable:  The Band, "Music from Big Pink"         
On the nighttable:  Harry Ricketts, "Rudyard Kipling:  A Life"

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu IV





It is a quiet Sunday, but I don't like how it has begun.  My taxi driver doesn't know the way, and each of his U-turns costs me fare money. I point this out to him, and feel badly immediately at being so petty, so tell him the girl in the photo on his dashboard (a grandchild obviously) is really cute.  He then turns off the meter.

I look for my farmer chauffeur but don't see him.  I'm hoping the neighboring beasts are similarly sleeping in.  Within minutes, I'm already in the forest, facing a steep uphill push.  The can of coffee and single piece of bread are quickly proving insufficient as fuel.  I'm already exhausted when I come to a Youth Camp at the top of the mountain, the middle-school boys eating noisily and excitedly, the girls jogging along in a wide variety of heights.  Like my energy levels, the signage soon eludes me, so I walk to a tall building to ask directions.  A man in the window cautions me against bears, which have become more active the last few years.  I take this information with me, fear newly fed.  

There is a tourist farm of sorts adjacent, with cabins and a few families milling about. It makes me miss my own daughter, so I have a quick chat with her over another can of coffee.  The road then drops me a long way before entering forest again. Each step downward will eventually be paralleled by another one up.  It is a roller-coaster day, crossing laterally a series of ranges.  Up and up to a pass, then down again to bisect a forest road. And repeat, and repeat.  And repeat.   This is the nature of the TSH, designed as it was to take in as much of the natural landscape as possible.  I mean, the thing actually detours in order to climb the steepest parts.  

That said, I would consider this particular sections to be one of the best.  Granted, a lot of the forest was cedar, but that too is part of it.  Nature, albeit with a lower-case "n."  So too were the views, of electrical towers walking the hills much like I was. Boy, do I envy their stride.  

And in the hills I remain, the ground alive with leaping insects, the narrower grassy sections the abode of spiders, awaiting the next home-delivered meal.  The constant shifting of elevation is doing a number on my legs, and thus inspired, I pull out my poles at some point, speeding along demi-arachnid style.    

I reach something called the Ise Pass, which has an elaborate torii framing the direction of the Grand Shrine itself.  My map shows that another farm was coming up, which promises a cold drink.  But it has closed long ago, so onward I push, through a mixed growth forest, the varied leafy vegetation punctuated with signs warning of bears.        

And finally, the morning side of noon, I reach the base of the stairs leading to my final peak, Nebiso-ga-take.  Despite all the up and down, I have stayed relatively high, but still face a good 400-meter vertical ascent to its 1120 meter summit.  I sit and eat rice balls, day-old and slightly crunchy.   Just up the road from me is a carpark with a dozen vehicles. This is good luck for me, as I plan to return to where I am in order to thumb it to a train station.  I have three to choose from, each about 45 minutes drive away, and in a different prefecture.  I hope to go north, back to Akechi, in order to visit the Taishō period buildings I saw yesterday.  But first...

I push wearily up more stairs, leaning into my poles. I begin to pass people heading down, each a potential ride.  Most painful is meeting a groups of twenty old-timers, who chat with me awhile amidst a worn away section of eroded steeplechase steps.  I accelerate away through the beautiful forest, using the root system of deciduous trees for traction.   

I arrive in a sweaty mess at the top.  A chubby guy sits smoking over his camp stove.  Apparently Fuji is visible from up here, but he's never seen it despite three attempts.  A young couple tries to sit quietly not far from the summit marker, but they're interrupted by a group of chatty women in plaid who've come up the TSH from the Aichi side. I too will follow suit and try my luck with the Fuji view again, but that day is long off.  For now I have a ride to catch.

I fly down, using my poles as if skiing.  I am happy at each person I overtake, but the holy grail is the bigger group.  The descent should take 30 minutes, but I'm cutting well into that.  Suddenly, an ankle rolls, and I'm down.  Structurally I'm sound, but the dust and dirt have muddied an already sweat soaked body.  I dry as I go, and reach the carpark to find the group stretching out their goodbyes, as is customary.  

Just up the road is a small van, and stepping behind it, I change my clothes into a clean set from my pack.  I always take this precaution on summer hikes, as I don't want to revolt a potential ride.  But no one comes.  One by one, my group all turn west toward Nagoya.  The one vehicle that does pass is a younger man I'd met who leaves me by the side of the road.  Shit.


I walk east, knowing there is a turn off toward Akechi, which might be easier.  It is only about 15 minutes away, but no one passes in my direction.  I find the road to be a small one, which isn't promising.  Along the way is a bus shelter, which I approach optimistically, to find that the one bus a week leaves on Wednesday.  

Just as I have talked myself into giving up and thumbing toward Nagoya, a sports car approaches and stops.  The snaggle-toothed driver takes the turns quickly, his wife looking less than pleased with him for picking me up.  They drop me at a michi-no-eki on a busy road, telling me that my "chances are better here, that is, if anyone stops."  I frown at the pessimism and think as I always do, "Well dude, you stopped..."

It acts as a jinx, and I stand beside the road for nearly an hour.  I walk in the direct of Akechi, cursing snaggle-tooth with every step. My curses are eventually directed at each passing driver.  By the top of the hour I've convinced myself that the people of Inabu are the least hospitable in Japan.  Drastic, I know, but this it is the first time in over twenty years hitching in Japan that I am looking to be denied a ride. And I am really stuck, as I am far from trains or any alternate form of transport.  

Finally, a logging truck surprises in pulling over.  The driver, a logger, is young and friendly, and we exchange mountain stories over the next hour.  I've given up on the idea of any further sightseeing, which suits my feet fine.  I arrive finally at the train and once aboard, I gently sway along the border of seasons, as the cool of autumn blows through the window.


On the turntable:  The Clash, "Elvis has Left the Building"

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Tokai Shizen Hoedown: Chubu III







I've noticed over the years the fear creeping in, the anxiety about the wild that hangs upon me more heavily than my backpack.  Granted, there has been an increase in animal encounters in Japan recently, but it doesn't warrant the fear.  The day's hike brings with it more worry than usual, as I am forced to undertake a late start, one that will guarantee the final hour will be walked in full darkness, and in a mountainous section to boot. The past few days have brought a taste of autumn, a time when the pre-hibernation beasties are most active, gorging themselves on the all you can eat banquet that is the Japanese mountainscape.  

Luckily I check my flashlight, and replace the failing batteries.  I dawdle when I reach Ena station, as I know that the train company has changed their schedules, forcing me to kill an hour.  The time allows me a rethink, and I decide to fork out for an expensive taxi ride in the hopes of getting to my inn before too late.  

I begin my walk a half an hour later in Akechi, an attractive little town that bills itself as "Taishō town,"  since a handful of buildings dotting this small valley were built in that early 20th Century era.  I cover the section I missed last time, following not only the TSH, but also something called the 'Taishō Walk' which leads me past a few of them, then up and over a small pass out of town.  

It is a pretty day through a series of attractive rural villages.  I'm fed now and again onto narrow forest roads that bisect short sections of plantation cedar. With each step I am getting more and more remote, but there is an annoying number of roads out here, which twist and spiral atop one another. Apparently the LDP has spent a lot of money in the area.  Multiple roads mean multiple places to go wrong, and I really don't have the daylight for it today.  I am (and will continue to be) lucky with the ample signage, but one sign has been scratched out and the directional arrow redirected.  It contradicts the map in my book, so I go with the devil I know, assuming that the 'corrected' sign is a prank.  After a nervous 20 minutes or so, I find that I made the right choice. 

I suspect 'road demons,' for the prank, especially after I pass a turn off for one of their race courses.  What is it with Gifu Prefecture and its Speed Kings?  Moments after thinking this, I hear the sound of motorbikes shrieking through turns somewhere above me.  The sound follows me well into the forest and never grew any less annoying.  

Bizarrely enough, members of that tribe come to my rescue.  I find myself walking up a newer section of road, one that is climbing steadily and beginning to compress into hairpin curves.  I've been diligent about walking every meter of this TSH, but I see no reason to be on this road, which brings a feeling of redundancy in the way it curls back on itself.  I turn to thumb a ride with the first car passing, its lowered frame nearly flush with the ground.  My heroes, a pair of Speed Kings, scream away in their usual noise, but prove to be polite in conversation, deferent in their choice of verb tenses.  I'm in the car less than five minutes, but they've saved me a tough climb and helped add fifteen crucial daylight minutes to my day.

I keep to this road awhile before it peters out in a picturesque village at the end of the day.  The sun is still bright and brings out all the shades of green.  The rice harvest is not long off now.  And above wells up my last set of mountains.  I have about an hour of daylight left, but need at least that to get through.  I push hard up the stairs into the trees.  My legs are drained and don't appreciate these concrete 'logs' that are a prominent feature of the TSH. While I appreciate the attempt to improve the trail, the earth beneath them gradually erodes away, and after a few years they are too high to comfortably ascend.  A few years after that, the hiker faces a steeplechase.  I'll take a gradual slope any day.

I arrive atop the pass winded and covered in a poultice of sweat and spiderwebs.  I've made good time.  The descent will take a full two kilometers, into the setting sun. The light is welcome, but it blinds me somewhat, and I can't get a good look at where I place my feet. What's making things worse is my state of mind.  The Japanese believe that telling ghost stories in summer helps to bring chills that ease the heat.  In that spirit (no pun) I've read a half dozen books of spooky tales over the last week, and my eyes are bringing new definition to the shadows.  And as the sun begins to leave the sky, the birds and insects seem to protest its going in a noisy cacophony. 

I pick up my pace as I turn through a long series of switchbacks, scaring a pair of deer whose footfalls echo away in a rhythm graceful and light.  Deer of course are not very bright, but can bears and boars become habituated to man's absence in the night?  Pigs are famously smart (though not enough to fly), and Russian bears can be taught to ride bicycles.  Do they know that after dark, man goes away, and the forest is essentially theirs? 

I reach the road again in the grey crepuscule.  I walk a short distance over to a bus stop, the one and only bus having left hours before.  I can't figure out the kanji for the village's name, so I take a photo of the characters to show my taxi driver for when I return tomorrow. I notice a farmer standing there, who seems on the verge of saying something, but chooses instead to turn toward his house. 

I face a long 8 km walk to Odo onsen, and my inn.   This is the only accommodation along this whole section, and had forced me to cover the distance I had gone.  But it ensures an easier day tomorrow.  I plod along the wide road, hoping for traffic, but everything is going in the wrong direction.  A single car passes in a half an hour, and doesn't even slow.  I know from experience that after full dark, no one will stop.  I call my inn to ensure them that I am still coming, and will be later than expected.  They seem less than happy at this news.  And at that very moment, a car pulls up, with the smiling face of the farmer.

He must be in his seventies, and built with the usually wiry gristle of his occupation.  I worry that he drove out this way simply to give me a lift, but he says that no, the only food around here is at the convenience store in town.  (Funny concept for a farmer.)  My inn happens to be next door, and the old woman in charge is surprised that I arrived so quickly.  So soon in fact that the bath is still tepid.  I sit as close as I can to the faucet, seeking the balance between full relaxation and a painful scalding.  Dinner too is a similarly lukewarm affair, taken alone in my room.  I had hoped for a bit of social hour in a common room, where the foreigner is the night's entertainment.  But I seem to be the only guest.  And the woman looking after me (probably the daughter-in-law) seems a bit anxious.  I ask if they ever get any foreign guests, and she tells that they had one once.  I do my best to be a good specimen, eating all my food, and replacing the futons in the morning.  I've pulled all of them out to build a high-rise bed platform, far more inviting than the single rock-hard layer provided.  But good manners aside, I pushed hard today, and need good rest for the 18 kg to come, all of them in mountains... 


On the turntable:  The Dubliners, "Greatest Hits"
On the nighttable:  Robert Byron, "The Road to Oxiona"