Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GW2 : Mountaintop Boogaloo

On Monday I headed up to Kyoto, joining the commuter drones unfortunate enough to have to work in the middle of what should be 6 consecutive days off. Due to the holidays, security seemed to be hightened. On the platform, I noticed I was being eyeballed by a policeman. I must've looked suspicious, being guilty of course of Waiting While White (WWW). Tearing a page from Sun Tzu, I walked up to him and asked him some random question about boarding. As he flummoxed, I said, "Oh right, you don't work for JR. Sorry."

Two hours or so later, I detrained in Tanabe, immediately catching a bus to Hongu Taisha. The two hour ride was fantastic, criss-crossing a trail I hope to hike, giving me a reasonable idea about where food and water will be waiting. It was a mild nail-biter of a ride, zigzagging along high mountain ridge roads best travelled by two wheels or less. Hongu Taisha was busy on this non-holiday day. I had been here for my first Golden week, 10years back. Once again, I went up the long steep steps to pay my respects to the appropriate dieties. After downing an ice cream, I hoisted my pack and set off up the road. It was nearly an hour along a busy highway before the trailhead. There was a box of sticks waiting, plus a map highlighting all the ups and downs. A few steps up the trail, I passed a hiker coming the other way. He'd be the only one I'd see on the trail.

The trail, now an UNESCO world heritage site, was unbelievably clean and wide enough for a kei car to drive on. I've hiked this area four times now, and was happy to see new signs marking the path at frequent intervals. It's a far cry from the bushwhacking and head-scratching of trips past. It made for a good day of hiking, along stone-laded paths giving rare views of mountainscapes not punctuated by power lines. The only disconcerning part was that despite UNESCO protection, there was still a large amount of tree felling going on. I thought at first they may have been trees downed in last year's horrific typhoon season, but fresh white saw dust was a dead give away. These trees came down in the last few days. Unfortunately, this scene would be repeated a dozen more times over 15 km. A few spots will no doubt see benches and tables and a shelter for picnicking. In one place, there was even a sign announcing it as a "Whistling Spot." (?) I was happy to find a man-made spring to refill my canteen, so I suppose human intervention isn't all bad.
Not far from the spring, something quite large moved down the hill off the trail. From the sound, it was at best a large boar, at worst, a bear. I'd rather not meet either. It was near 6 pm and the shadows were lengthening across the trail. I knew the last kilo was through a village, and I hoped to reach it by dark. Moments later, I saw someone had pitched a tent in the middle of the trail. Damn. The campsite's going to be pricey.

Thousand yen. Ouch. But it was full dark now. So I paid up and set up. The cabin here had beds and an onsen. I'd been told it was full, but strangely, was alone in the tepid bath. Dined solo in my tent, reading from Gary Snyder. Good stuff for a hike.

The next morning, after a night sleeping on the cold ground, I could hardly walk. Last night, on the final descent, my left hip had begun to ache. Now, the joint was incredibly stiff. I wondered if it was because I'd been using a hiking staff (which I never use) and favoring my right side. Today's hike would be higher and longer than yesterday, with more up and down, climbing to 900m. I decided it could wait. At 7am , I jumped a bus to Shingu where I stored my pack, then caught another bus to Nachi Taisha. The 1000 year old stone trail bisected some huge cedars. At the bottom was a small shop renting traditional pilgrim outfits for the final ascent to the shrine. For me, it was two hours down to the sea, through bamboo groves and rice villages. One small shrine was surrounded by high volcanic stone walls like I'd seen in Okinawa or Korea. Some of these same stones had also been used to line many fields. A man tended to his vegetable plot which lay just below a graveyard. Another farmer was spraying chemicals over his rice field, while a man in an adjacent field lower down looked somewhat forlorn at his inevitable "gift."
From Nachi station, it was five hours to Shingu. This was still the Kumano Kodo, but it wasn't as well cared for as higher up. Here the signs were shoddy and less frequent, the "trail" a busy highway with no real shoulder, or bland suburban streets. The few wooded spots were a delight, and the last hour into Shingu was along a black sand beach. Twenty-five km and without pack, my hip didn't even whimper. I thanked the gods at Hayatama Taisha, the last of Kumano's big three shrines, grabbed a take-away pizza then hopped the train north. I had to change in Osaka, and the Kyoto bound was packed, even at 10 pm. I squeezed on with my bag, drawing a few dirty looks. It was too crowded to read, so I looked over the driver's shoulder and up the track. Moving along at express train speeds, it was slightly unnerving due to last week's Amagasaki crash. But I arrived unscathed, climbing the last few subway stairs on quaking legs.

On the turntable: Moby, "Play-The B Sides"
On the Nighttable: "Drinking the Mountain Stream: New Songs of Milarepa"

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