Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Kumano Kōdō XIX: Nisaka-tōge


   
The wind off the sea conned me into believing that I'd finally escaped the heat of summer.  But a few minutes outside the station I was enwrapped once again by the wet blanket that is August. I'm not sure what expectations I'd had for this express train stop, but Kii-Nagashima had no coin lockers, and much more tragic, no taxis.  I was able to store my bag at a shop selling milk across the road, but that didn't solve the problem of transport. So it was, I walked briskly through town with head down, out to the main bypass in the hopes of hitching a lift.  Along the way, a crab matched my step, a little sphere of red, white claws raised at my ankles. 

I raised my own appendage at the oncoming traffic.  It was the perfect spot to catch a ride, with a large turnout behind me, and about 100 meters before a traffic signal.  Despite this, I stood watching a few dozen cars pass, the driver inevitably with a bemused smile.  I've griped about Mie before, and its lack of decent signage.  I'll extend the metaphor that a lack of signs implies a certain lack of hospitality, an unwillingness to assist those from outside the community.  Here it was playing out in people's unwillingness to assist me.  As I was beginning to wonder if the increase of foreign tourists was leading to a circle-the-wagons mentality with the locals, a white kei truck skidded to a halt in the dirt behind me.

Those who stop for hitchers tend to fall into a interesting dichotomy: either old and kind, or young and a little bit rough, having fallen through the cracks of Japan's well-oiled society.  My driver was of the latter sort, his truck reeking of cigarettes, and an open can of Chu-hi was in close reach. But even guys like this tend to be somewhat shy. I was with him for only ten minutes or so, and it took him at least half that to warm up to asking questions.  His beat-up little work truck too had a difficult time getting going, straining upward toward the pass with a high pitched complaint.  He told me that his father-in-law had helped build this road 50 years before, no doubt tough work, in an area known for its stubborn weather.   

I walked back up the way we'd come.  It was pretty easy going, the degree of the climb barely noticeable.  My legs had an easier time of it than the truck had earlier.  I finally left the main road, down a parallel path that led to an abandoned love hotel, with roman statues keeping sentry at the entrances.  The road becomes forest, and I was not long down the moss-cover path before I saw a sign pointing toward the grave of a pilgrim.  I followed a side trail toward it, coming to a rickety bridge that bounced as I crossed, allowing me to draw immediate parallels with the film Sorcerer that I'd seen a couple of nights before. (Spookily, my camera seized up and prevented me from getting a photo.) I hoped then that the grave referred to the past, and not to my own unsuspecting fate. 

The grave was a small stone many centuries old, yet its proximity to the road just above let me muse that the pilgrim could have been the victim of hit and run.  I had my own near miss back on the main path, as a long snake darted out of the way of my encroaching legs.  I didn't get a good look at it, but soon enough, mamushi warning signs greeted me at the trailhead for the pass. Similar signs are ubiqiutous throughout Japan, but this one hds the best likeness of the viper that I'd ever sign.  The sign was one of a literal forest of signs, close to a dozen, in a relatively minor site.  I was immediately reminded of Alex Kerr's warning about Japan's love of signs, 'helping' tourists to stay within the acceptable channels of omotenashi.  

The trail dropped, dropped, dropped immediately, which worried me as I had a pass to cross.  Eventually I began to see those mountain signs with fractions (the locals love to mark of the increments during a climb), and realized that I'd been heading down, and the pass itself had been marked with all those wonderful signs, barring one telling me that exact point, and the height for that matter.  All that remained then was this descent through the forest.  I was beginning to wish I'd brought my trekking poles, especially as I was now hiking a steep trail slick with rain.  I'd earlier seen one of those pole boxes that exist near trail heads, but this one had been empty, something I'd never seen before, a testament to the fact that most people hike it in the same direction I was, the reverse well known as being tougher.   So I went on without poles or rain gear, this being a pretty impromptu trip.  Most of my intended walks this week would be over tarmac, and my choice of shoes and gear reflected that.     

I came to a scenic overlook of the sea, all below me lit up with sun.  Not long afterward, I came to a choice of trails, one from the Meiji, the other from the older Edo.  The former took a long meandering zigzag down the mountain face, while the older road more or less led straight down.   They were hardier folks back then.  

I reached the bottom, and was immediately among rice fields.  As I was fiddling with my gear, a farmer drove past, shirtless in the heat.  Where the fields left off I found a michi-no-eki, which offered shark meat grilled on a skewer.  I took a few and sat beneath a tree at the water's edge, the scent of the muddy estuary rising up. In a few days it would disappear, beneath the surging water of the encroaching typhoon.  Earlier, an announcement came over the loudspeaker far off, warning the residents to prepare.

The road led through a small village, many of the house with anti-Abe signs in their windows. This progressive attitude couldn't save the place itself, and it felt as if one in every three had been abandoned.  One house was currently being used as a boat shed, the prows extending out from the broken glass of what had once been a living room.  There were also some strange bricked up caves in a high stone wall at the foot of the hills, and I wondered if they had been used during wartime.  

Back at the station, I had two hours until my train, so I settled in at a coffee joint that doubled as a folk house at night.  The master was a funky character, with his beard and sunglasses and hipster way of talking.  I only partially allowed myself to be drawn into conversation, preferring to escape to a quieter place with my book.  

I'd prove to be more pliable that night. I learned of an izakaya from the tourist burueau, and it proved to be a good choice, with an ample choice of sake, about which the friendly master was willing to enthusiastically explain.  Two of his classmates were there, a pair of working men in their sixties, who drew me into conversation.  As is often the case with Japanese men, one will be chatty and exuberant, the other smiley but saying little. This went on a while before I was invited for one more glass at a bar nearby.  It turned out to be a snack bar, my first visit to one in at least two decades.  The girls, the guests, and the mama-san were of course surprised at my appearance, but I was amenable and allowed myself to play pet gaijin, a role I usually hate.  Once the usual round of questions ended, the mikes came out, and I was of course expected to sing English.  And a few others followed suit, one song even sung in Tagalog.  It was a fun evening of sorts, but one I can probably go another two decades to repeat.  The pouring of alcohol was a bit too free, as were the inhibitions of the customers. (And I am never comfortable being pampered by the staff.)  Loneliness tends to hang over these kind of places, and I prefer to spend my loneliness alone.  


On the turntable:  Bob Marley, "The Birth of a Legend"

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Knowing Tranquility XXII (Washuzan, Shimotsui, Kojima)



The landscape has aged 50 years, but I imagine it is much as Donald Richie notes in his Inland Sea.  The industry never lets up, and it also takes me an hour to get from Uno to Shimotsui.  But unlike him and his bus, I have a car, and therefore mobility.  My daughter is with me, and as it's her school vacation, I want to treat her to a little beach holiday.  We stay over in Tamano, close to a pair of water parks, which serve as a prescription against the killing heat, which has taken the lives of 80 people already this summer.  

As I drive west toward the great bridge, I felt pretty fatigued, especially in my shoulders, after a morning chasing my eight-year-old around a system of inflatable docks that allowed one to engage in some low-risk mountaineering, hoisting oneself up and over a series of obstacles, with nothing more to worry about than a mere meter drop into the refreshing sea.  My legs too are heavy, as we slog up to the peak of Washuzan. I am a little worried about my daughter in the heat, but she is in playful good spirits, and the climb should only take about 15 minutes.  

Richie was funny here, saying that he wasn't interested in ascending heights on what was intended to be a sea journey, but then he goes on for five pages about a previous visit.  What most certainly had not been here then was the Seto Ōhashi Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was opened in 1988.  I feel an almost sentimental connection to it, as I arrived in Japan a handful of years later, and many of my initial rambles had me continually heading down in its direction.  I remember lots of museums and displays on the then-new bridge, and those that still exist are rusting and look neglected.  Hopefully the same can't be said for the bridge itself.  

It looks pretty sound from up here, stretching away from island to island before disappearing into the industrial clouds of Shikoku beyond. One of those islands has an interesting parking area, where the traveler is led to food and shopping down a spiraling off-ramp, a necessity as the land itself isn't ample enough for a longer ramp.  It is funny how the nearest tower keeps reappearing at every vantage point, as we climb toward Washuzan's true peak.   We rump from boulder to boulder awhile, then sit with to drink our cold water.  A train rumbles over beneath us, and from further below comes the whine of small engines, from the boat race course we'd passed on the drive in.  We watch a couple of races, trying to pick the winners.  Then the heat defeats everything, and we descend.

Shimotsui lies in the shadow of the bridge, cut off now from the water by a dogleg of concrete built to protect the harbor.  These walls had gone up with great haste after the 2011 tsunami, forever severing the people for the waters that had always provided sustenance.  Even the sky is gone, under the great span.  Not much is moving, but for a handful of travellers on this, the first day of the long Ōbon holiday.  We've all converged upon the old Shipping Agent's house, whose white and grey wattle-wall stretched for an entire block.  It is a courtyard more than a house really, a half dozen two story structures interlinked.  

We climb up and down the stairs in each, exploring this extended folk museum. I love these kind of places, with their physical manifestations of a time long gone.  The old warehouse has been converted into a restaurant that bills itself as Italian, but aside from a single aglio e olio pasta, the menu is all Japanese.  I settle in to a nice pile of sashimi, and the heat of the day makes me unapologetic about the accompanying beer.

I drive cautiously through the town's narrow lanes, before winding up and over the castle ruins to Kojima.  I had been here a couple of weeks ago, leading a family of clients who wanted to daytrip from Kyoto to get custom-made jeans.  It is amazing what I learn from my foreign guests, and how there seems to be an entire Japanese subculture of things famous abroad that don't touch the lives of myself or anyone else I know here.  

To call Kojima sleepy would be generous, and unfortunately that slow speed is impinged upon by heavy and unattractive industrial progress.  Oddly enough, the fading shopping arcade had been colonized by young jeans designers, and there must be three dozen shops spread over a few blocks.  I have no interest in jeans (much preferring khakis), but I am interested in this new life.

I park in front of the visitors center, which proves a delightful surprise.  The day after I first arrived in Japan, a group of us were in Okayama for teacher training for AEON, and having a day off, decided to go to Kurashiki.  Being newbies, we got on the wrong train, an express bound for Shikoku, and realizing our mistake, detrained in Kojima. We wandered around, and eventually wound up on top of this building, whose arched staircases mimicked the span of the Bridge.  Since then, I've been wondering about this place, and for 25 years have been curious where/what it was, assuming it long ago destroyed.   

But no.  It has faded and the roof is now off limits, and what I hadn't seen that long ago Sunday was the interior, which contains an entire antibellum Southern plantation of sorts, beneath of checkerboard of murals lit in neon.  

The sunlight outside is harsher, and keeps the number of visitors down.  Shop begat identical shop, but a couple of older Meiji period structures stand proud, their former incarnations once banks or public offices.  Beyond all these is the Nomura house, with the usual array of empty tatami rooms that at least offer a bit of shade.  The family made its fortune on salt, and it is the kilns and the kitchens out back that provide a bit of variety on the theme.  Amongst all the usual kitchen implements seen in all old houses of this type, this one has a tall wine rack that resembles a trebuchet. (Intriguing possibilities!)         

While a nice glass of white would later bring relief to the heat, to a child's palate only a shaved ice will do.  Thus we forego the denim soft cream, though the color of her Blue Hawaii is of a similar hue, and brings to mind a certain entertainer whose fame with the Japanese began at the very same time as the jeans industry that still flourishes.  


On the turntable:  The Charlatans, "Live at Delamere Forest" 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sunday Papers: Rudyard Kipling


“One of the many beauties of a democracy is its almost superhuman skill in developing troubles with other countries and finding its honor abraded in the process.”


On the turntable:  Little Village, "Little Village"

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #85



Magic Bus by Rory Maclean
 Purple Sky Pale Ale by Y. Market Brewing

On the turntable: Tones on Tale, "Everything"  

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #84



Goin' Down the Road by Blair Jackson
#393 U! Umeeeee IPA by Ushitora Brewery 

 On the turntable: Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings The Flood" 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #83



Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis
  Hitachino Nest Yuzu Lager by Kiuchi Brewery
 On the turntable: Doobie Brothers, "Best of The Doobie Brothers"

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sunday Papers: Edmund Wilson

“No two persons ever read the same book.” 

 On the turntable: Led Zeppelin, "White Summer"