Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Generation Hexed



Japan's economic miracle begat what I think of as its cultural miracle, where rural communities were given funds to build attractions in the most unlikely of places.  It is astounding the types things you come across as you travel around the middle of nowhere.  

One of these is Matsue's Kunibiki Messe, a post-modern behemoth that squats on the shores of Lake Shinji.  With a design plan seemingly based on a painting by de Chirico, it is a building far out of place in the old castle town that once hosted Lafcadio Hearn.  Yet for some reason it also had a cultural exchange office, which had an incredible number of Japanese books and films, yours for the borrowing.  Over the years, I read and saw just about everything.

And so it was that one day I borrowed a VHS copy of what became one of my favorite films, "The Ballad of Narayama."  I found the film's central concept horrifying, that of abandoning the elderly residents of a small rural village in the mountains when they became too physically unproductive to warrant any further feeding. (Like "Logan's Run" as set in 19th Century Japan.)   

Imagine my surprise when 20 years later I passed through a train station that bore the name of the mountain in Imamura's 1983 film, Obasute.  While the shooting location  was slightly to the south in Azumino, the train station stood at the foot of Ubasuteyama, these days referred to as Kamurikiyama.  I knew immediately I needed to climb it.  

It took me a few years, and in less than the ideal season.  I found myself in the neighborhood during the first days of December, and while I was concerned with early snow upon its 1200 meter flanks, I figured that at least the bears and the vipers would be asleep.  A quick look at Google Street View reaffirmed the station's remote environs, so I had a taxi meet my train.   The trip to the trailhead was meant to take 20 minutes or so, but about 5km shy we came to a gate that definitively closed the road for the winter.  I did some quick calculations, and figured that even with the additional 75 minutes it would take, I could probably be down again before darkness fell. I paid my somewhat anxious driver and set off.  

The sun shone down on the road as I wound through the turns.  There were a good number of bear warning signs which didn't help my enthusiasm.   Within ten short minutes I was happy to see a van parked at the side of the road, with two forestry workers resting within.  Thank god for lunch hour. 

With a little persuading I got them to agree to drive me up. I wished that I had something to give them, but they refused all I did have -- a mikan and a granola bar.  Instead it was they who gave me something, a canned coffee that they pulled out from a box in the back.  (If you are a taxpayer in Nagano, I thank you.)

Ten minutes later, I began walking toward the trail, through a well-funded campground composed of a number of tidy cottages and a large central dining hall.  Just beyond a small array of monolithic stones named after Buddhist deities, the path began to switchback mercilessly upward.  I found myself quickly winded, due probably to not having had any real lunch, combined with the elevation.   But before long I was reentering the sunshine at the top.  

The view on this clear day was incredible, not only of the Chikuma rivershed and Nagano city beyond, but also of Mounts Asama, Ontake, and all three ranges of Alps.  Fuji's flat-topped cone was well-recognizable out in the far distance.  I offered a quick prayer in the shrine, and tried to puzzle out the worn characters on the much older stones nearby, trying to see if they made any reference to the mountain's infamous role.  It was a lovely day made for lingering.  But after awhile I began to grow uneasy about bears, which the forestry workers had assured me were still lurking about.  So down the far side I dropped. 

It was easier going on this side (and I would recommend climbing from this direction, as a return trip from the carpark not far below).  Along the way, I startled something big which crashed down the hill below me, probably a bear from the sound of the movement.  Reaching a stone forestry road brought some relief, and my feet hitting pavement not long afterward brought more.  

Incredibly, a young construction worker raced by just at that moment, but unfortunately he was heading in the wrong direction to give me a lift.  My map showed that Kamuriki train station was only an hour away, and the day was still bright.  Long descending road walks relieve you from having to take care with where you place your feet, and the attention begins to drift.  The rhythm of my footfalls always bring songs to mind, and today it was "Her Majesty," by The Beatles," which went on much longer than the band's twenty-three second version on Abbey Road.   I was probably on my 123rd chorus when a trio of trucks rolled past, the last one driven by the worker I'd met earlier.  Happily he gave me a lift.  

For some odd reason I am almost always racing for a train at the end of my walks, but today I had about a half-hour to kill. The sun had begun to drop toward the end of my walk, replaced by the chill.  I was dying for a hot drink, but a railworker told me that there were no machines nearby.  On the wall of the old station were newspaper stories about the cat who was a stationmaster there, a not unusual, only-in-Japan phenomenon.  Unfortunately the "stationmaster" was in the hospital, but there was a stand-in, a stuffed cat that sat where the ticket-taker would be. 

I gave it a friendly little pat on the head as I stepped out, thinking that the concept of aging in Japan had certainly changed over the past century.  While the elderly have grown more physically resilient due to more ample resources, trite distractions like the stuffed cat are a sign that emotional grown has ceased long before.

On the turntable:  Icehouse, "White Heat; 30 Hits"

Friday, December 06, 2019

On the Great Eastern Road VII



Chigasaki's charm lies down by the beach, and not in its ugly upper reaches, as defined by Route 1.  Its true charm, for me in particular, is in friends that live there, so I was happy to share a quick coffee with David, before he caught a train into Tokyo for work.  I thought in doing the reverse journey at dawn I'd be able to get a jump on rush hour, particularly as I was moving away from the city. But as it was I found myself cheek to jowl, and though I had a seat my shoulders were curled forward for much of the way, as the sun rose out the window behind. 

I move off into the morning, as commuters race to work, and students make their way to school, the younger ones giving a high-five to a chain of retired older men who stand sentinel to protect them on their way.  I switch over to the side of the road that best allows me the most direct line of sunshine, which remains partially hidden behind herringbone clouds.  A framed Campbell's soup sign stands incongruously before a house that looks remarkably like the one where Norman Bates lived.  Nearby, in front of another bright suburban house, a man practices his golf swing.  He tricks me into thinking that he's launching them at full power into the front facade, but they prove to be foam practice balls that simply drift upward a bit before dropping harmless back onto his lawn.    

I come to a bridge and off to my left Fuji hovers above the water, her crown already covered with snow. The spot was captured in a woodblock print by Hiroshige, as it is unique that the mountain appears on that side of the old road, if one is heading to Kyoto.  (I've noticed too that there is a place on the Shinkansen line where the Tokyo-bound trains curl around a long stretch of Suruga Bay, and for a brief moment before Shizuoka, the mountain appears on the right.)

As I had a long day ahead of me I decided to push quickly through this section, to hopefully get beyond the roar of the incessant traffic. As usual, music through the headphones tend to help at times like these. The one positive of course is that I have Fuji in my view all morning.  Even amidst all the urban clutter, the mountain remains prominent, and I can only imagine how this all would have looked when the area was open plain.  It was easy to see why the mountain has such eminence, as it would have defined the landscape for a good number of days for the Edo period traveller. (I've elaborated more on this point in a Japan Times article found here.)     

I cross the long Banyū Bridge and out to my left I see the Pacific for the first time on this walk.   To the right is a strong layer of overhanging haze, but looking through it I can just make out Nantai and the mountains above Nikko.  More clearly visible is Takao, standing firm at the end of the Musashino Plain, as an array of peaks overlap behind.  In the center of the bridge is a marker letting me know that I've walked 62km since Nihonbashi.

Hiratsuka comes and goes.  I am finally diverted off the busy Route 1, but nothing along this stretch bears any hint of the past, barring a few historic markers of what once was. Little surprise that a town that cares so little for its past neglects to point out the old highway, as it diverts down an even smaller road.  The eye grows accustomed to these things, and finding the way becomes intuitive after awhile.  Though as ever, having a decent map of these old roads is almost crucial.  

The smaller spur rejoins Route 1, thankfully not as busy as before.  Off to my right is a small hillock, well known from the print by Hiroshige. While not tall, it stands like a sentinel over the town, most likely a volcanic vent emanating from Fuji not far away.  

Oiso is next, definitively more suburban.  Though the traffic remains a noisy factor, there are a number of lovely old houses, one of them surrounded by an old stone wall.  When the road diverts again it is along a more rural section that could be a quiet street in any small American town, due in part to the namiki of pines that shade it.  I begin to notice that one thing that seemed absent from these towns are the masugata right angle curves that typically bookend them.  But I suppose you don't need masugata when the plentiful rivers provide ample security.  But due to the modern bridges, the rivers weren't holding me back, allowing me to make good pace, better than one ri an hour. 

 The far of end of town housed a collection of historic sites.  I completly missed the first, the house of Shimazaki Toson, one of the best chroniclers of the transition between the Edo and the Meiji.  It can be argued that the most important figures of that latter age was Itō Hirobumi, Japan's first prime minister.  Unfortunately his villa was hidden behind a massive works project noisily going on behind a high wall.  The villa of another prime minister was a short walk further along, that of Yoshida Shigeru.  While admittedly an important statesman who help shaped policy after the war, ever-hanging over the man was the question of the depth of his involved in the fascist regime that came before.   How more delicious the irony then that the name of the stream running behind his house could be translated as the 'river that washes away blood.'

The rest of the morning is spent in a slog-induced stupor. The post-towns to follow are of no real consequence.  A couple of signs bearing the name of Ninomiya are written in all lower case roman letters, insinuating that even the locals themselves find the town of little significant.   During this  entire stretch, my camera never once leaves my pocket.  I alleviate boredom by trying to decrease my times between ichirizuka, normally placed about an hour's walk (or one ri) apart.  

The road eventually drop down to the beachfront expressway, and the entire Sagami Bay is laid out before me.  A few fishing boats bob out on the waters, and one guy in waders and boots casts from the shore.  The pillars of the expressway perfectly frame the waves breaking upon the rocks.  When the towns begin again, one only has to look down the narrow lanes between house to be taken back in time, when these would have been small crowded fishing villages.  

Over another broad river, Fuji off to the side.  Down on the beach are perfectly stacked piles of wood, their squared corners resembling castles.  A real castle is not far away now, that of Odawara.  There is definitely more life here, more people walking beneath its covered shopping streets.  Hours before I'd seen mothers bicycling their toddlers to kindergarten, and here they bike them home.  Where Oiso had been the only attractive town I'd seen all day, Odawara has the most element of modern charm.  I am surprised by a sign telling me that an air raid destroyed the town between one and two a.m. on August 15, 1945, the final bombing of the Second World War.  Sad to think of the twelve lives lost, especially as surrender had been decided upon the day before, though not declared until 10 hours after the attack.

Beyond Odawara I move into the hills, and the ever-present cityscape I've been walking through for three days falls away for the first time.  The early winter sun hangs low, its light in my eyes.  I'm less able to make out details along the narrow road that runs between quiet villages.  Just as well,as I'd barely notice.  I've gone 25km and have seven more to go, and my feet are feeling it.  I arrive sooner than expected at Hakone Yumoto station.  I've already walked this next section up to the lake-front Barrier Gate, so will begin again from there.  As for today, all that remains is to hop the train for long journey home. 


On the turntable:  John Lee Hooker, "6 Chill Out"
On the nighttable:  Peter Orosz, "The Wilds of Shikoku"

Monday, December 02, 2019

Sunday Papers: James Hilton


"Many religions are moderately true."

On the turntable: Deep  Purple, "Deepest Purple"


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

(untitled)



Flickering warmth
Helps stave off up to
12 centuries of cold.


On the turntable:  The Charlatans, "Return of the Great Contenders"
 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Papers: W. Somerset Maugham


"To know a foreign country at all you must not only have lived in it and in your own, but also lived in at least one other."


On the turntable: Bill Evans Trio, "Consecration"

Friday, November 22, 2019

(untitled)



Trees speak of autumn.
But winter too has a voice,
Whispered on a slate grey sea.

On the turntable:  The Charlatans, "North Country Boy"

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Imbibling Bibliophile #92



Peter Fleming: A Biography by Duff Hart-Davis
   Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo by Gozenshu Brewery

On the turntable:  Linda Ronstadt, "Frenesi"