Tuesday, March 28, 2017
I board a bus on the shores of Lake Biwa, which climbs back into winter. Above the Self Defense Force driving course stands lone deciduous tree, its branches bare and splayed to look like a fossil.
I disembark in the village of Tōchū, where I left the Wakasa Kaidō six months ago. Whereas that day had been a late summer day tinged with the chill of autumn, today was a spring walk heavily wrapped in a shroud of bitter cold.
The road sign shows 2º C. The outermost of my many layers is a bright orange hardshell. This color is mainly used for winter gear and is completely psychological, as it symbolizes warmth. But I had chosen it for its practical purpose: to be completely visible to traffic as I moved through the series of upcoming dreaded S-curves with shoulders hardly wider than my own . I've probably researched this section more than any walk I've ever done, trying to find a way to avoid them. As I ascend, I scan the roadsides looking for anything resembling trail, but aside from one track that appears to lead into the wilderness, there is nothing. I do get a quick break in cutting across a forested section of one curve, and just beyond this I receive a little help by a surprising source: The Ministry of Construction. One of their newest follies is to reinforce the hillside by cutting away all the trees and laying the bare ground with string netting. I get in touch with my inner Spiderman and begin to climb, up a pitch that increased rapidly to beyond 45º, forcing me to crawl along on all fours like some bizarre humpbacked orange beast. This leads me to believe that this is the actual Wakasa kaidō, as the climb is too steep for people to climb straight up, they'd have naturally created switchbacks. Later on, the modern Route 367 would have been laid atop it.
I take a long rest at the top, taking a thick stick and trying to unblock a drain of a winter's worth of debris. There is a certain satisfaction to watch it begin to break apart and rush down the hillside. Not far above this I come to the old road which avoids the long tunnel and winds up and over the pass. The road surprised in having been recently resurfaced, which made sense when I come to the cryptomeria plantation, then bellies of most trees wrapped in a veneer blue haramaki. I'd taken a gamble in my choice of footwear, taking my chances in the risk of lingering snow in wearing my light trail runners rather than a sturdier winter boot. This proved to be the right choice as there were only a handful of patches here and there, including one surrounding the rusting hulk of a Suzuki Samurai victim of a duel decades ago. Mostly I moved across carpets of fallen cedar branches, a welcome relief from 26 km over hardened tar.
I move down the far side of Hanaori Pass, so named for the pilgrims who would pick flowers there to leave as offering at Myōō-in Temple a couple of hours further on. But to paraphrase the Japanese proverb, hana yori yuki, rather than flowers, snow. The old road parallels the river, and here I find long interrupted stretches of white a meter deep. Still, it beats to busy road above and its tunnels. I try to follow a single set of footsteps a week or so old, over crusty snow that gives under me. The footprints have packed the snow pretty well, but my shoe size is greater, and my weight certainly heavier, so again and again I posthole up to mid-thigh. Now and again the footprints cease completely, my predecessor having chosen another route somewhere. I try an old martial arts trick where I put all my mental attention on my belly and slide rather than step across. This works surprisingly well as there is no dramatic weight shift, though the moment I think about how well I'm doing, I crash through the surface. Weird ninja magic.
Luckily, and bizarrely, the snow patches are only in sections that curve toward the south. All are sections are clear. My feet are thoroughly soaked as I move along beneath the entrance to Ushi no Hana tunnel. (There are a number of passes throughout Japan with the same name, so called because they were so steep that they would have to coax the pack animals up by pulling the rope attached to the ring through their nose.) In the end I should have been a better a Buddhist and chosen the middle way and worn light hikers. But before long I've wound beyond the tunnels and come to the broad valley of Katsuragawa. I have fond memories of a summer day here, of a dozen bottles of Kirin beer cooling in a stream running fast before a ryokan.
A fresh memory I suppose is upon reaching the place, the sun finally appears. I sit on a log by the roadside and eat a rice ball, finding some feeling again in my feet. The sun is feeding an array of newly laid solar panels, which explains all the freshly cut timber I passed a kilometer before. Here the powers that be have decimated a section of healthy forest so as not to interfere with the panels with their shade. It reminds me of the time I was caught in a sudden squal with a friend who is very active in the Japanese antinuclear movement. Post Fukushima, Japan is now one of the greatest importers of fossil fuels in the world, and the offset of carbon emissions is creating the exact kind of weather patterns that had forced us to run for cover. More solar power is a preferred alternative, but at the expense of the forests? I begin to think that there are no simple issues to anything.
I carry on. There is a new petrol station I've never seen, called "Smile Oil." You'd smile too if you monopoloized by being the only service station along most of Route 367. I receive a true smile from a woman in a passing kei-truck, who asks if I'm going to Miyata-san's B&B a kilometer of so further on. I tell her what I'm up to, but that I'll drop by for a rest. Upon arriving, I find her and a friend having lunch in the sun out front of an old farmhouse. They are bith artists, and mention that this entire area is like a big museum, due to all the creative people living here. The woman in the truck, Makiko, mentions that she'd appeared in a Papersky article, photographed on one of her horses, which she rides along Kaidō from time to time. Her friend Keiko and I found some common ground in our connection with Kōdō, with whom she'd been closely affiliated until retiring out here. We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation, but I had ground to cover. The B&B is only an hour or so from my home by car, and I promise to return.
My GPS shows a parallel path on the other side of the river. I'm not sure whether it is the old path, but I've many time traveled Route 367 by car, and it looks a pleasant alternative. As I cross the river, I somehow find myself in the middle of a large tribe of monkeys, who scatter in the three directions at my approach. There are bear warning signs on the far bank, and despite the winter feel of the day, I am reminded that mother nature is rousing herself. She is all I have to accompany me, as there aren;t many houses or hamlets. I am convinced that this couldn't be the Wakasa, until I find the ruins of three teahouses, their wells obvious upon the forest floor. There is also a broad open spring which looks more at home in a high Alpen meadow. A sign tells me that the spring has been here since the Kamakura period. Perhaps I'm on the road after all.
The sky spits at me a few times, but mercifully isn't too serious about it. I cross the river again and move into my last hamlet, a mere cluster of log homes that are probably used by vacationers. Beside one is a long unused stand-up paddle board, and on the other, a handful of children's bicycles. How profound the death of hobbies when children appear. But even the kids have moved on, the rusty swings in the wind as quiet witnesses. I come to a cluster of small eateries, one advertising duck, another boar stew. I catch a whiff of hamburger for some reason, then see some men having a barbeque beside the river. Beyond them across the water, I see what might be an old overgrown trail, which would link the section with the teahouses with the road on the same bank further up. As I cross over yet again, from a closer vantage point atop the bridge I decide that it has been wishful thinking, and that my eyes have simply followed natural lines in the terrain.
Back on the west bank, I gradually enter the village of Kutsuki. High to the east is snowy Jyatani-dake, which nearly killed me four years ago. The fields below are wide and open and bare. But the day has warmed to promise spring and new beginnings, as I too have come full circle to where I departed in 2009, and my own walk upon this old road comes to a close.
On the turntable: Cowboy Junkies, "Black Eyed Man"
On the nighttable: Peter Frankopan, "The Silk Roads"
Friday, March 24, 2017
There is some discrepancy about what defines the Nikkō Kaidō. Some mark it from Nihonbashi in Tokyo, and consider it to include the first half of the Ōshū Kaidō. Others, like myself, think of it as just the 37 kilometer appendage that branches off the Ōshū to lead pilgrims to Tōshō-gū. That seemed like a reasonable, if not challenging, amount to tackle in a single day, so I set off early from Tokyo to Utsunomiya.
Even straight forward journeys aren't necessarily that straight. This was proven by the circuitous route taken by a taxi driver who wasn't terribly familiar with his own city. The bends were straightened out by my voice raised in crescendo to correct him, a voice strained by fatigue and perhaps a minor cold. Luckily the crescendo ceased well before reaching the fortississimo of complete exasperation.
The initial hour through the outer city of Usunomiya wasn't terribly interesting, but I suppose I could expect that of a city destroyed both in the Bōshin War and the American bombings eighty years later. I moved along one of those dull bypass roads growing tired of the scenery immediately, having walked a similarly urbanized section of the Tokaidō just the day before. But sections of that road had had a little more charm. These regional cities all tend to look alike, as I've written here many times before, and I recognized that I could have been just about anywhere. The only things that captured my interest were the beautiful spring day, the unique kura storehouses made of porous stone, and the high peaks of Nikkō far to the northwest.
The city seemed to drop away abruptly, and the road narrowed to fit between twin rows of what was initially sakura, then eventually grew into the grand giants of cryptomeria. I didn't know it at the time, but I'd stay mainly within these rows for the rest of the day. I knew well these namiki, which in the Edo period had lined all the non-urban sections of Japan's old highways. These arboreal tunnels brought shade in the summer, and offered some reprieve from rain and snow. I've come across short segments on all of my walks, but never did I image that a section such as this one still existed, one that continued nearly uninterrupted for thirty whole kilometers. It gave one a sense of what the roads had looked like back in their heyday.
The initial hour or so was spent moving along a berm a few meters above the cars moving past to my left and the houses to the right. It took me a minute to figure out why this section was raised, until I recognized that beneath me were all the roots. It was a pleasant stroll, above the traffic, but every time there was a driveway or a crossroad, the path would dip down, only to rise again on the other side, like a roller coaster. It was very difficult for the feet to find rhythm, and it certainly woke up the hamstrings.
Spring was flirting with me. I could feel the warmth of her caress on my arm, could catch her scent on the wind. As the temps were triple the chilly five degrees of yesterday, I took off my jacket as early as 9 a.m., and walked in comfort for the rest of the day. There were occasional gaps in the namiki, but even here the landscape was rural farms and pleasing to the eye. A few sections had even been closed off to vehicular traffic, perhaps in areas where the flow was too great to fit between and rather than widen the road, a new one had been built to run parallel. These were by far the most pleasant parts of the day, where I could really feel the slipping away of time. Plus I could get a little reprieve for the feet by walking across the carpet of strewn cedar needles. The last section of namiki is the most famous, leading north from Kami-Imaichi, the path beneath an earthen floor packed firm by centuries of feet. The last few kilos into Nikkō were the least pleasant, as I once again shared the road with the rushing cars, with little shoulder to stand on. My feet were in agony by this point, but more worrying was the throb in my left instep. Little surprise after coming off a long lazy winter to take on 38 km over two days.
I kicked them up in front of Nikkō Station. Worse still was what was happening at the other end of my body. As I had moved through the day, infected by the charm and grandeur of the cryptomeria, I had unintentionally chosen a day in March, and was thus infected a great deal more by their pollen. My head and sinuses swarmed with these invasive spores, as they jockyied for position with the headcold that had alreay taken hold. I let them fight it out as I sipped coffee in a nice patch of sun, seeing no need to do anything else.
Most specifically, I saw no need to visit the shrines, as I'd been here a half dozen times already. In fact I don't really like them very much, in the same way that I don't really like Las Vegas. To me, Alan Booth had the last word on Nikkō, so I'll give him the last word here:
"Japanese guidebooks and brochures intended for foreigners rarely fail to quote the famous saying about Nikko: Nikko o mizushite 'kekko' to iunakare, which these publications invariably translate as 'Never say "splendid" until you've seen Nikko', but which might equally accurately be rendered, 'See Nikko and say you've had enough!'"
On the turntable: Chet Baker, "The Complete Pacific Jazz Live Recordings Of The Chet Baker Quartet With Russ Freeman"
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
The architecture series soldiers on after all. This time I profile Kobe-based architect, Tomohiro Hata...
On the turntable: Caetano Veloso, "Araca Azul"
Monday, March 20, 2017
This is one walk that I hadn't intended to do just yet, this Tokaidō. I still have a number of these old roads to explore, but I feel the need to do them in their entirety, over a series of days, in order to slip into the rhythm of the long-distance walker. (Only you won't see me doing it in straw sandals.) Yet I find myself in Tokyo with a number of days to kill, as I await a visa for a largish adventure next month. And a walk from Tokyo to Yokohama appeals.
I come to Shinagawa minutes before 9, and the speed of the flow increases dramatically, then begins slow. It is around this point that the Tokaidō begins to angle to the southwest, parallel to what had once been the coastline. Today it is still very much part of the city, though an older part, and bisects a shopping arcade that is a half century away from the glitz of the inner Yamanote. These places always strike me as being the bed-towns of the retirement set, where the vortices of life spiral them back toward an identity as 'villager.' This city has often been called a series of villages, and here it is easy to see why. I had left Tokyo, and had arrived in Edo.
For some reason, this street has an unusually high density of Thai massage places. In front of one, a sole ginkgo leaf sticks to the pavement, and on this March morning I marvel at its longevity. Not so the next section of the city, as the old shopping arcade eventually peters out and I am funneled onto a bland modern road that parallels a rail line. The orderliness of central Tokyo is gone, and here I find suburban monoculture, though one gray and urbanized. The apartment blocks towering above seem less like homes and more like places to bide time between trips to the office. I've never seen much appeal in the suburban 'life,' and even a short time spent passing through such places tends to induce boredom. 'Short' is a relative term however, and after more than an hour passing through this landscape, it is a tossup which will go numb first: my feet or my brain.
The Tama river no longer serves as such a distinct boundary anymore, as the scenery remains built up, though the Kawasaki side is more pleasant, a proper city with tidy tree-lined streets and attractive shops and eateries. There is order too in the vast homeless village in the river's reclaimed bed. Sturdy wooden shelters have been hammered together, around which are simple open kitchens and a few vegetable plots. As spied from the bridge above, it is the most lived-in community that I've seen all day.
Bars begin to appear near the station area, and beyond this there's a small but definitive Chinatown. In front of one restaurant, a Chinese uncle is trying to lure people in to eat. A few blocks on is a large stone upon which is carved a cryptic message: "Happiness can be found here." I am not sure where happiness can be found on this planet, it must be far far from here. I continue on through suburb for the rest of the day.
Tedium and fatigue are beginning to creep in. I even miss the stone marking the Namamugi Incident, now buried beneath a massive new flyover for the motorway. In fact the marker itself has been moved one hundred yards up the road from where the brash young Englishman Lennox lost his life. I knew the story and had long wanted to see this place, but like all too many things in Japan, the current physical environment is incongruous with how it had looked in the imagination. And imagined landscapes are inevitably superlative. I'm tempted to temper my disappointment with a visit to the Kirin Brewery nearby, but choose instead to stride on.
On walks like this one, I begin to lose enthusiasm after kilometer twenty, and after twenty-five, the body too begins to rebel. There is little here to distract from the pain in the hips and feet, so perhaps in my pain I am closer to the spirit of Lennox than I thought. I certainly share with him a stubbornness, one that drives me onward for an additional hour until I arrive at Yokohama Station, and journey's end.
I'm not sure when I will pick up the next section of the Tokaidō, a two day stretch from Yokohama to Hakone Yumoto, from where I have walked previously while guiding. What is more certain is that a pair of fellow imbibing bibliophiles live at about the midway point, and so it is in their good company that I will come to take my rest.
On the turntable: Charlie Parker, "Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve"