Saturday, October 28, 2023

Some Completely Uninformed Observations of Wales



How well can you really get to know a country and its people in a short week?  But it was a week of investigation, fueled as ever by curiosity.  Back home I don't believe I have any Welsh friends in my inner circle.  We are fed so many stereotypes about the Irish, the Scots, but little on the Welsh.   So I sought the history and culture of the country, not so as to generalize, but more in the spirit of wondering how it differs from that of the English.     


We begin at the rainy castle at Caerphilly, with its attractively wonky tower.   Restoration prevents us from entering the grand ballroom, which fuels a rant about the whole world seemingly under renovation, spurred on, and funded by, the lucre of overtourism.  The comfy pub lunch, subsequently walked off within the confines of the St. Fagans National Museum of History. I'm most intrigued by the row of Welsh cottages, each one set up in period decor of varying ages.  Moving left to right brings you into the present. Smoke drifts above thatch farmhouses here and there, moving up through the grey sky overhead.  The fires are fed by friendly but talkative attendants, who linger in dark corners.  They startle me more than once.  The old church that wasn't an old church but rather the Royal Court which the Princes of Gwynedd used during the 13th century.    



Cardiff in the rain.  Wet and dry wander through the city's Victorian arcades.  Beautiful shops, loads of colored glass, London culture brought over to appease the wives of the mine owners. Then a respite from the weather with a brief look at the market.  The following morning dawns blue, and we stand in the sunshine, waiting for the castle to open.  A tall South African and his son are the only others in the queue, in town for the rugby.  This explains the unfamiliar language we heard over breakfast at the hotel -- Afrikaans.  The castle is the usual handsome tower of bricks, which charms, but I am more drawn to the WWII era tunnels that ring the perimeter.  I move through them quickly, under the low lights and the recorded din of the war, which bring clarity due to having recently watched a number of war films, in order to get a better sense of history.  (Unlike when I first watched many of these same films when was a boy, I now tend to glaze over the battle scenes themselves.).  



The weather holds as we move down the shore to Mumbles, with all the feel of a middle class British beach resort.  It's timelessness is a far-cry from a self-conciously hipper Brighton of a week before.  



In Swansea, I quickly beeline to the Dylan Thomas centre, where another friendly but talkative docent gives me a rough idea of Thomas-related sights to visit.  Two of these are bars.  I feel a bit vibed-out at The Queen's Hotel, still patronized by those more at home standing upon the decks of a thousand cinematic ships.  I am more at ease in a more cozy No Name Bar, but would rather be there with a companion, for long drinks and attendant conversation.  I nurse my pint before the fire, dipping into my vintage New Directions volume of Dylan's verse, but more amused by the animated liquiform conversations of Swansea's living residents. I later regroup with Lai Yong back at our digs at Morgan's Hotel, for dinner at the harbor, passing as we go more of Thomas' characters, though these made of bronze.  And we look for more during a ramble through the quiet sunny Sunday Swansea streets, playing connect the dots with sites relevant to his history, or those left after the fall of Nazi bombs. It still feels a bit run down and abandoned, but for the charm of aging monuments.  (And charm is what I personally found lacking in a smarter, but somehow rougher looking, Cardiff.)   The last stop must of course be Thomas's birthplace, now run as a B&B, though only those willing to do multiple-night stays.  Two people are in deep, intimate conversation out front.  I take photos conspicuously, hoping to blag my way in for a quick look.  When the talking ceases, they both wander off, unaffiliated with the place.  Nothing left to do but hit the road, and move toward Thomas' grave, an hour's drive away. 



We detour broadly first, first for a ramble out the broad watershed of Three Cliffs Bay, beneath the dilapidated Penard castle on the hillside, where silhouettes take turns filling the ruined windows.  Large backpacks betray the figures of long-distance walkers moving along the Wales Coast Path, backlit by the sun as if on the cover of a hiking guidebook.  We arrive at a row of large stones that serve as a foot crossing of the broad brook, traversed by families, and completely ignored by their dogs who instead splash across. 



The higher cliffs of Rhossili are an absolute highlight for me, like a mini Seven Sisters, but scoring bonus points due to the long beach running below, and Worm's Head rising like punctuation just offshore.  A return visit is in order, to stay a few days, wandering the hills and the beaches.  Thomas had been here too, of course, stranded overnight on some rocks when he misjudged the tides.  I in turn find the world's best reading spot, nested into the smoothed rocks, a paradise with some tea and the view and a book.        



We move across the Gower, bypassing the monoliths of King Arthur's seat, which I later regretfully find are closer to the road that I'd thought.  We do sneak in another quick visit with a King Arthur theme, Kidwelly Castle, film location for the Python's Holy Grail.  But momentum and my mind sped us onward toward Laugharne.  There is a little bit of a jiggle to get into Thomas' favorite pub, Brown's; it is Sunday, the roasts are done, and the cook wants to go home. I blag my usual blag -- travel writer on assignment, blah blah, blah -- which at least gets us a pint and some old but tasty chips.  We follow with a wander down to the waterline, then over for a quick visit to Thomas' Boathouse and his writer's shed, lengthened only by another friendly but chatty caretaker.  Thomas's grave was far quieter, the churchyard empty, leaving me alone to admire the views as the hills sloped down to the river valley below. 



We overnight in Tenby.  Our late afternoon stroll takes us through a much livelier beach town than Mumbles had been, with its busy little lanes, houses of multi-colored frontages, and steps descending toward boats stranded at low tide.  I am sorely tempted by the craft beer place yet resist, as St. Catherine's Island is about to get cut off by the rising tide. We climb up to the old prison there, which has a profound feel of The Man in the Iron Mask; little surprise since it had been filmed there.  But even the most talented set designers couldn't possibly add to the forlorn nature of the place.  The cold and the damp must have been truly awful to its guests.      



Morning brings a different saint, Saint Davids with its cathedral and ruins.  We are beginning to weary of ruined castles, for, as with Japanese castles, their appeal is with their outer architectural aesthetics rather than in meandering stone corridors leading to yet another featureless chamber. (This is true too of the massive and gorgeous Pembroke Castle along the way.)   We move onward though the incredibly narrow country roads lined with hedgerows, praying to not meet oncoming traffic.  This shortcut bypasses Fishguard, a mirthful name that later turns sour when I discover it was the filming location for Under Milkwood.   



Eleven bikers fill the pub in Rosebush where we hope to have lunch, so we decide to do our hike up Foel Cwmcerwyn, the highest point of the Preseli Hills.  The monoliths of Stonehenge come from here, mysteriously moved far away to England's Salisbury Plain, which the most intriguing theory suggests were carried along by glaciers. Our climb takes us up through what could be a Christmas tree farm, passing families with multiple children descending low grey clouds brought on by a strengthening wind. Luckily the rains never come, but we seem to get this same weather anytime we attempt a country ramble.  Later reading mentions two other nearby spots where the stones actually originated, one a much shorter hike away.  In hindsight, this would have been a far better choice as our own hike takes much longer than the 90 minute map time.  We race to make it back to pub before the service stops and we face yet another lunch of old chips.   And much like yesterday, I feel the need for a return visit.  



Photographs of Castell Carreg Cennen show the castle to spread majestically above the rolling Welsh landscape, but the weather is truly gloomy, and the shutter closes in.  We hurry on then to our base for the next couple of days.   About 30 years ago, I first read about Hay-on-Wye, and ever since, whenever I heard mention of Wales, this town of books was the first place to which my mind traveled.  I am finally able to make the pilgrimage.   The gardens of The Swan, where we stay, make a perfect perch with a beer and book.  Were I to stay again I'd stay at The Black Lion, due to its history and terrific menu.  After lunch there, we passed the rest of the day popping in and out of book shops.  I could easily spend thousands and thousand of dollars here, so like the man who turns away from a banquet in order to maintain his diet, I pick up only a few titles.  Because where would it stop, really?  I feel the need for a longer visit sometime, a week perhaps, in order to poke around the shops longer and to explore the area.  Armed with a very large budget.   


One greatly anticipated highlight for this trip would be the ramble up Pen-y-Fan.  Dawn is magical and blue, but the mountain's top is all socked in.  I was heartbroken when I later saw the views in photos online.  Due to the deteriorating weather, Lai Yong turned back, so I am proud of myself that I cut a full hour off a three hour hike, in order that she wasn't kept waiting long.  



The final drive, castle hopping down the Wye.  The first stop is at the medieval stone bridge at Crickhowell, followed by coffee at the former courthouse.  A friendly local walking his dog explains some of the town's history to me. More brief stops at Abergaverny's St. Mary's Priory, a mini Westminster Abbey with its marble grave markers covering the entire floor.   We get White Castle to ourselves, and we wander its single circular chamber, my mind never far from the burger chain of the same name.  Raglan is large and atmospheric and busy.  I'd earlier seen a photo of it standing gloriously above its river valley, but am unable to find where the photo was taken, far from the crowds and the carpark. Monmouth has another stone bridge, Monnow, fortified by a simple yet graceful arch tower above.  And the final castle, Chepstow, a sentinel overhanging the Wye, the first line of defense against those ever-encroaching English.



Then there was Tintern.  Upon first glance, I feel as if all the other castles we'd seen up to then had simply been warm-ups for this.  The Abbey and the lovely valley that surrounds it is a picturebook idyll, akin to something from Switzerland, from Bhutan.  Once inside, the similes lean toward the ruins of Southeast Asia--Ayuthaya, the lessor temples of Ankor Wat.  I relish a return, to overnight in the hotel above, the grounds beyond the edges of my feet.   

What of the impressions then?  The landscape rolls in a way that England's doesn't, broken up by the right angles of hedgerows. The sheer number of castles hint at a warrior people, but these were to mainly to keep the English out, most built by the Normans in a remarkably short time following the conquest.  Old William was shred in offering land grabs, and his barons (or rather their men), did all the heavy lifting.   It took the English kings two centuries to take control of the region.  In modern times, parking proves to be the headache.  Public car parks are like a grown-up example of what happens to children never  could color within the lines.   Paid lots were worse, each with its own unique payment system, universal only in their being counterintuitive and a waste of a good ten minutes in figuring them out.  (On one occasion we left a garage unsure whether our card had been received, so I stopped the car along the road just outside and I ran back in the rain to find that it hadn't.  The fee property paid then, only to receive a month later a ticket for illegally parking alongside the road.  For all of three minutes, with my wife actually in the car.). Overall, Wales felt more like a ruralized, poorer version of England itself.  The two main cities had a slight twinge of danger about them.  And the cliche'd rolling accent not as unintelligible as expected, except in the case of restaurant waitstaff.  

Again, I recognize these are immature, uninformed sentiments. But I certainly came away with a greater familiarity of the country.  Reading Chatwin's Under the Black Hill, and watching the film adaptation, was like viewing a slideshow of the trip:  Crickhowell bridge, the Brecon Beacons, Hay as film locations.  The beauty once again came through.  And 'return visit' continues to be the mantra.  Plus, the entire North awaits...


On the turntable:  Super Furry Animals, "Mwng"


Friday, October 20, 2023

Two Swathes across England.



Leaving the morning beach traffic of Sussex behind, crossing small rural towns and villages.  Brunch in Winchester with John and Charlotte before walking up to King Arthur's round table, which led to jokes about this, the knights' dart board, and Monty Python ditties in my head.  



Quiet days at the farm in Somerset, finding solace in reading on the bed beside the window, a cool breeze coming through the wooden frame.  The window stays open at night, allowing in the calls of an owl nesting somewhere on the property. 



The farm served as a base for exploration.  Wales Cathedral is perhaps the best I've seen, due mainly to its geometry.  The town gets bonus points for its olde sweet shop that feels more like a movie set, but is indeed patronized by lucky kids.  A short detour over to Wookey Hole, mainly to get a photo of the sign.



Glastonbury deserves at least a night or two.  Brighton's hipness has shifted with the times, where here it is still druids and star children both wizened and fresh.  A feel like Sedona, to the Mission district vibe of her cousin to the south.  The hippies are the majority here, the tourists the freaks.  The two sides are more evenly balanced across the lawns of the ruined Abbey, but it is all spirit in the visitors at the Chalice Well, sitting eyes-closed in circles as the waters trickle into the garden and down the slope. The tourists return on the short hike up the Tor.  The top is crowded, the summer afternoon hot.  Far better to do this on a sunny day in winter, the farms stretching away under what would surely be crisp skies.  We drive through this exact landscape as I look for a photo shot of a now distant Tor, passing very close to the site of the renowned eponymous music festival.  I find out later that my stepdaughter went to school with the granddaughter of the festival founder.    



Cheddar's two gorges, one walked in the early mist that eventualy burns off to reveal companions in sheep and cow.  One of the dogs scares up a rabbit from its burrow nustled between limestone slabs.  The larger gorge is deeper, more breathtaking.  We wander the cheese and toffee shops, marvelling at the variety, a great deal of the wares going on to debit our luggage allowance on the flight home.  

Bath now resonates as more than the hometown of a character in a Chaucer Tale.  The Royal Crescent is familiar from TV and film, the Roman Baths familiar from history and previous travel.  The town is small and charming and eminently walkable.


We break the journey again at the farm upon our return from Wales a week later. English evenings remind me of my youth in New Jersey, where the evenings hang on for hours. (Unlike Japan, where night falls like a curtain.)  Pizza is browned in the brick oven, as the dogs and chickens hunt belong the table for crusts dropped by toddler Roscoe. Afterward, I sit outside on a bench, reading short stories by Ian Fleming until the living daylight fades away.    



Multiple stops on the way back to Sussex.  Castle Combe is almost a hole in the floor of rural England, a warren of church, modest estate, and corresponding simple cottages.  Its quintessential English look seems more a film set, and it frequently is, most famously in Downton Abbey.  I definitively figured out that we;d gotten it wrong, this staying in cities.  Fine for a nightlife-seeking young man, but the quiet charm of the smaller villages has beckoned all throughout this roadtrip.  Cities will be busy regardless, but these smaller spots empty out at night, and a pre-breakfast stroll guarantees empty photos.



Malmesbury Abbey is itself surrounded by an attractive little town, with a central Market Cross topped by a crown of arched stone. The "newer" 16th century church behind is grafted upon its ancestor that preceded it by eight hundred years .  A lady minister walks briskly across the lawn, followed by a gaggle of kids, on the way to some summer hols activity.  And the hilltop upon which this all stands offers terrific views over toward the Cotswalds.  



Lacock too is a film set in its look, a charming series of narrow lanes running in right angles to one another.  The pub is perfect, the abbey perfect, the houses perfect.  But all is ruined by cars  parked all along the latter, around which large crowds of tourists weave.  Albeit incredibly picturesque, I give up on photography almost immediately, due to the visual clutter and overcrowding.  A victim of its own success as a filming location for Harry Potter, the town seems to doing everything wrong, but for making tourists park just outside town.  The parallels with Kyoto in its unthoughtful approach to tourism are too many to mention.  



A return to Avebury, specifically Windmill Hill, which I'd missed on my last visit here in 2016.  I shorten the hiking time by parking semi-illegally at a nearby Goat Farm (where Lai Yong opts to stay, for tea, cheese, and conversation), then power march up the hill, which is a very gentle incline, paralleling a fence and row of trees.  Goats approach me as I pass, expecting a treat.  The Hill itself has a few small raised circles, tombs of one of the oldest of the many Neolithic Avebury cultures that once lived and died here.  I sit awhile atop the most central tomb, listening to the quiet, and the wind.  I attempt to meditate, but the mind is too busy with thoughts of moving along.  Driving back through the town proper, I wish we were staying the night here, as we'd stayed last time in nearby Marlborough, and today's weather is far better.  I envy the people I see walking the stone circle, or merely sitting around town. 



Our slow pace means we still face a close to three hour drive home, much of it after dark.  We decide to take lodging in an old manor house, beside which has been built a small spa resort. On approach up the long meandering driveway we follow a fast moving Tesla, whose driver complains later to the front desk that none of the hotel's four charging stations are free. As he roars off again in a huff, I think that this is perhaps the most post-modern thing I've ever seen.  The spa hotel is busy for a weekday, due mainly to a wedding being held in the old thatch farmhouse on the grounds.  Luckily the noise of the reception that follows stays in the newer wing, and all is quiet in our 16th century digs.  Before setting off in the morning, we read awhile in the conservatory, soaking up the peace.  This would unfortunately wear off all to soon amongst beach traffic once we got to the coast, due mainly to clogged roundabouts. Some creative but frenetic navigation got us around most blockages, but that day too, grew long...    


On the turntable: The Scorpions, "Comeblack"

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Sunday Papers: Thomas Merton


“In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die.”
On the turntable:  Sarah Vaughan, "Hall of Fame"

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Sunday Papers: Robert M. Pirsig


"The whole Renaissance is supposed to have resulted from the topsy-turvy feeling caused by Columbus’ discovery of a new world. It just shook people up. The topsy-turviness of that time is recorded everywhere. There was nothing in the flat-earth views of the Old and New Testaments that predicted it. Yet people couldn’t deny it. The only way they could assimilate it was to abandon the entire medieval outlook and enter into a new expansion of reason.”


On the turntable:  Henry Rollins:  "Live at McCabe's"


Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Ballad of a Thin Road


Before I even got close to the lake I found myself bobbing along the current.  This was mighty peculiar in that this current flowed uphill.  Or more precisely, up the stairs of Hikone station.  I had purposely left early so as to avoid rush hour, and I was successful for the first part of the journey.  But eventually, rush hour found me, and the train filled up with businessmen and schoolchildren, all of them kitted out in the dark attire appropriate to the season.  I eventually left the flow upon arriving once again at the castle.  I paid quick respects to the adjacent shrine, my mouth down-turned at the sight of a stele marking aikoku, patriotism, a concept I've never really understood, or accepted. 

I traced the narrow trails along the old castle moat, passing fishermen, elderly walkers, and a man sitting in the bleachers above a tennis court, ready to launch a basket full of balls, atop which a racquet was laid.  Workers were hard at work on extensions to the soccer stadium.  These grounds on the castle's far canal were surprising in the their scale, an efficient use of ample land which had already existed.  

I moved to where I had last left the Umi no Be, but along the canal I was surprised to see an elbow bend marking the path. Before long I was led back to the bicycle course I'd followed last time.  As that had been a pretty uneventful walk, I had chosen a few Bob Dylan bootlegs to distract me from the steady and ever present flow of traffic hissing past to my left.  For the most part I kept my eyes turned right, out over the waters of the lake.  The peaks across were clear and well-detailed, and over my shoulder, the unmistakable shape of Ibuki loomed far to the north.       

Luckily, a path led me down into a another lakeside park, as I'd found to Hikone's north.  It was much more pleasant going, along a welcome promenade of trampled grass, and beneath sakura and pine.  They'd obviously had some pretty severe weather recently, with a tremendous amount of flotsam as far as three meters from the now quietly lapping shore.  The ground itself was sodden.  Must've been a hell of a storm

And there were signs; warning of kamikaze crows, warning off the playing of ground golf (although one area must've been okay, either that or this city had some pretty rebellious seniors).  I'd rejoin the road at river crossings, on one occasion startling a bicyclist zipping along.  I popped into a convenience store to stock up on lunch.  It was due to close in two days, though the remaining stock looked like it wouldn't last even that long.  Had it been an hour later in the day I would've instead stopped at a  tasty looking deli about fifty steps away.  As I stood in front perusing the menu, an elderly woman caught me in the act of singing Dylan lyrics out loud, something about a tax-deductible charity organization.  

I rejoined the grassy promenade.  Further on, I noted that the Umi no Be signs were oriented toward the shore.  Was the shale beach there the actual trail?  I walked along it awhile, but it slowed my momentum, as my shoes found resistance in the stones.  As feared, it ended abruptly at the next river inlet, forcing me to do a high-wire act along some sodden concrete wall slippery with moss.  

The main highway moved away to the east, and my road was all quiet suburb now, except for a small factory where large and powerful pleasure craft spent their winters.  My trail led me behind the houses, moving just above the beach, here too strewn with debris.  There were many vegetable gardens here, and a friendly old man greeted me from his.  Behind was a lovely deck with some comfy looking chairs.  In one of them he would surely reward the day's labors with a brew and a view.  He moved toward the shore, to rake the driftwood and detritus that had built up., telling me that this line of debris was about two meters further inland than usual.  He then bid me take care, and we both returned to the work ahead of us.     

A black robed priest bicycled past, wearing a construction helmet.  Obviously heeding the new helmet laws, or perhaps concerned by the crows the signs warned about.  The stretch of beach beyond him was lined by a meter-high concrete wall that apparently protected the houses within.  More of the land here had been converted to fields, and in one an old man in a conical hat squatted to pull weeds.  A few houses also had basketball hoops, in most cases the rims bent thirty degrees toward the ground.  These were obviously the homes of bigger, stronger kids.  

The houses began to get further from the shore, and my path was once again shaded by pines, much welcome as this early May day grew warm.  Summer wouldn't be so far away. Finally the houses themselves disappeared altogether.  I now walked through the grass just above the shore, amazed at the various shapes and sizes of detritus, at the forms trees and branches and twigs could take. Then it occurred to me that the patterns in which they lay were the actual shapes of the waves, which mimicked the shape of the underwater line further out where the deep becomes the shallow.   

Ano benchi was listed on my map as a historical landmark.  I imagine this is tongue in cheek, this lone bench sitting at the side of a carpark, denoted by bicyclists and bikers, and people out driving on a Sunday.  The parks continued, broken now and again by inlets and bridges.  Thus went the day.



I finally left these altogether, tracing the peninsulas covered by farm houses and their corresponding plots of land.  I began to hate these, as they offered little by way of scenery, or variety, and simply meant more kilos walked under the hot sun.  Most of the fields now surrounding me were wheat, and a couple of combines were making the rounds.  Adjacent fields held green onions.  Two workers sat pulling bulbs on overturned milk crates, faces unseen due to conical hats and unhealthy postures.  I assumed from the tough physical work involved that they weren't Japanese.

I moved back along the beachfront now.  Cars were parked in the intermittent pullouts, men lazed behind their vehicles in folding camp chairs or even hammocks, shirtless in the sun.  One small section of shoreline had been cleared of debris, forming a clean sandy approach shaded by a table atop which were drinks.  A trio of vehicles were parked above, filled with paddles, lifejackets, SUPs.  One of the drivers was reclining along the length of one board, his own hammock of sorts.  This stretch of the Umi no Be certainly was bucolic.   

The beachfront was eventually replaced by a grove of trees that lined the shore.  Through one break in the foliage I saw a half dozen people on SUPs, slowly paddling along the coast.  Which explained the trucks, and their sleepy drivers.  

I followed this frontage road to where sand hit rock, and finding no trail into the forest, I moved along the face of the small mount now looming above.  There was a gate, which contrary to similar gates that break most country paths, was impossible to open, fixed as it was with three sets of thick, Gordian-knotted wire, the whole works smothered in cobwebs.  Luckily someone had knocked down a small section of adjacent fence, which solved the problem of getting through.     

In the carpark ahead I found a marker for the Umi no Be, the first I'd seen in awhile.  It pointed me up a forested path toward Isaki-ji temple, which I was assured was 900 meters away.  The trail was broad, lined with railway ties and covered with gravel which made for easy walking.  But the slow steady incline gradually brought the rhythm of my breath into pace with that of my footfalls. 

The temple hondo was an attractive wooden structure perched atop rock. A smaller Fudō hall further down by the shoreline was a mix of wood and concrete, which though less aesthetically pleasing, made sense I suppose, considering its position on the windward side of the lake.  

Doubling back to rejoin my trail, I met the temple priest in the garden, the color of his work clothes matching that of the weeds he was pulling. He confirmed for me that people once traveled here strictly by boat, a fact made evident by the stones steps descending through an elaborate gate and to the water's edge.  

But I moved away from these, up a path steep and overgrown and pointed due south.  I kept my eyes lowered, ever aware of snakes.  More active were the wild boar, who'd torn up sections here and there.  I moved along, climbing and puffing into the dappled sunshine, quite pleased that, after days of trudging on tarmac, the Umi no Be would draw to a close in the hills. 

Or nearly.  There was a final short meander along a shoreline road, which terminated on the beach of the Kyukamura resort.  All was quiet, but for a guy whacking weeds somewhere, and the occasional car drifting by above.  I was able to thumb a lift from one, which brought me into Omi-hachiman proper, to celebrate with a pint (or two) at the local Two Rabbits brewery, an activity made more auspicious in this year corresponding to the same animal of the Chinese zodiac.    


On the turntable:  Grateful Dead, "1995-04-05, Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum"

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Wherever you Roam



I should've called a taxi.  I'd arrived at Kawake, granted a small country station, but as it displayed within a regional museum, I'd somehow assumed there'd be taxis waiting to meet arriving trains.   I know better than to assume such things.

Hitching a ride saved me from repeating the dull 90 minute slog I'd undertaken in late 2021 when I climbed the ridgeline south from Shizu-ga-take.  I'd followed the Umi no Be on that day, yet descended from the castle ruins at Yamamotoyama east toward the station, rather than west along the actual route.  Ever the purist, I raced back up the mountain in three-fourths the map time, tapped the summit marker, snapped a couple of pics, then shot back down the other side along a very steep trail. The electrified fence at the bottom was hung with a drawing of a ferocious looking bear of the type that doesn't exist on these islands. 

The Umi no Be led through some quiet farm villages, then out to Biwa's eastern shoreline.  Here, near the waterfowl park, trees rose from the waters themselves, as well as along long, pencil-thin islets.  Tiny waves gently made their way to the shore,  and dotted here and there were the top-heavy white figures of cranes.  I stood on a bridge, watching cormorants fish, seemingly unbothered by the trucks roaring overhead, shaking the entire structure. 

My ex-wife used to often ask me what I am looking for on these walks.  I guess today it hit me that I'm seeking melancholy. And melancholy is everywhere in the Japanese countryside.  Its in the gradual physical decay and loss of memories that accompany population decline, perhaps Japan's greatest manifestation of mono no aware, the pathos of things. It is during these moments, particularly in autumn, when I am most happy while out on the road.  I don't know, maybe it is that I'm looking not for the ghost of my late son, but for the ghost of the melancholia that accompanied the deep mourning from that time.  

Again and again, I spied caterpillars crossing the tarmac.  With the bicycle lanes it is basically a four-lane road, so they have a long way to go.  It is almost like a scaled down version of what I'm doing.  I too simply keep my head forward, seeing nothing but grayish blue tarmac stretching out before me.  

I took a short snack break beside a small lake into which retired men fish, then its back to my long, straight trudge.  The land jutted out at one point, and my feet were finally able to move along a softer surface, the path now connecting a series of waterfront parks and campsites.  These led me into Nagahama.  

I did a quick round of the city, up the castle for the view, into shrines and temples for the history.  I'd twice visited here while walking the Hokkoku Kaidō, but warily passed through rather than visit.  And again that was more of my focus here, admiring the old architecture and the well-preserved streets.  I couldn't help but feel that tourist sites I paid to enter didn't quite live up to expectations.  The best highlights were the last two: the railway station (where I spent a fair bit of time admiring the old photographs), and the Keiunkan villa across the road with its vast garden.  The view from the second floor revealed a little too much of the borrowed scenery of Showa and Heisei Japan.  As I left, I passed a group of quite elderly women admiring the azalea bonsai exhibition. I was reminded of Dylan, "your old road is rapidly aging."    



I took a long rest with lunch and beer at Nagahama Roman Beer, to fortify myself for the final 12 km to Hikone Castle.  Perhaps I'd waited too long, as the weather grew heavy, with dark, dark, overcast skies.  Gone now was the beautiful blue waters upon which the sunshine danced.  A set change had replaced it with the slate gray lake surface which mirrored the colors above. I preyed that this was merely a staring contest, and that the clouds wouldn't blink first.    

When the rains did find me, about halfway along, I swore a bit. Not at the sky or the weather but at the meteorological team who seemed to have grown far less precise after the very expensive technological upgrade that the government had been so proud to announce not long ago.  All remained a mere drizzle, mercifully. I was occasionally led into more of those little lakeside parks, but for the most part I was up on the main road, devoid even of a bicycle path.  As such, it was a walk to get through, rather than enjoy.  The rains slowly increased, and when I finally pulled out my umbrella, they ceased.  I guess it was I who blinked first.  

Slightly higher waves now brushed the shoreline, here and there decorated with a surprisingly large number of dead fish. Large brown kites feasted on the more fresh, showing that they too have an affinity for sashimi. Further out, what must have been one hundred cormorants, flying and diving, flying and diving, stalking a massive school of fish unseen beneath the water. 

The final section in town was down a smaller, quieter road that hugged the shoreline.  I remembered swimming here two summers back to wash off the sweat, after climbing some peak further north.  I liked then the look of this little lane, the tidy little vacation houses across whose frontages leaned the toys of summer: kayaks, inflatable rings, SUPs, and small boats.  A few sailboards lay along the water's edge, and a handful of people were taking advantage of the winds that the rain had brung.     

A short walk away, I turned the corner to find myself face to face with Hikone Castle.  


On the nighttable:  Ian Buruma, "China Lover"

On the turntable:  Bob Dylan, "Rundown Rehearsals"