Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Going Down the Country (Pt.1: Kumano)

I'm down in Kii Katsuura, a town having far too many vowels. I'm on a boat going across a bay ringed by islands resembling karst. Beyond these, is the village of Taiji, being for one, the pinyin romanization for the Chinese concept of Grand Ultimate, referred to by us yogis in the sound of "Om." In this country, however, Taiji is know as the place where whales are brought to die. I look away, toward the north. Dark clouds loom ominously above the high peaks that I'll attempt to go over the next day.

I'd been in town for less than a half hour. After dropping my bags, I wandered a little, trying to get the bearings of the place. To call this town sleepy is an exaggeration. It's only 4 pm, but nothing was moving. It had been a relatively fine day for this season, but the weather is growing bolder, making it seem later than it is. Through my headphones, John Prine tells me that "the night comes early on rainy days." So, I got on this boat.

I'm headed to Urashima Onsen, a name that lends itself to the sleepy atmosphere. In the legend, a fisherman named Urashima Taro goes to a kingdom at the bottom of the seas for what appears to be a few days, but turns out to have been 300 years. Hot Springs do have a way of making time seem slower. The hotel lobby itself seems dated, glittery and brashy like in a 60's Bond film. Beyond is a series of rocky passageways and steaming hot pools reeking of sulphur. It's all made more surreal by everyone wandering around in long robes. I find a pool in a cave which overlooks the sea. It's getting on dinnertime so I have the place to myself, except for a few crabs and those weird armored bugs climbing the wall over my shoulder. The sea crashes a few meters below me. There's a fence now, but I doubt it's been there long. Some drunken folks acting like children have led to means which treat us all likewise. Bath over, I wander the long corridors of maroon carpet. There are quite a few Chinese here, many greeting me with smiles which I at first think is shared camaraderie at being an "honorable guest," until I look down to notice I'm wearing my Bruce Lee t shirt. My face suddenly goes redder than those of the drunks going off to their next bath.

The boat brings me back to town. It's full dark now, and I'm looking over the view from the garden of a small temple. Though there's not much here, I'm bemoaning my late start today. Being a creature of habit, I frittered away the morning reading blogs, when I could've instead spent the afternoon walking the low hills ringing the bay. Growing hungry, I walk out the temple gate, passing a sign which tells how a 14 meter tsunami sent water up to this height. Down at the level of the sea itself, I look for a place for dinner. Prine's voice on my iPod really fits the scene, both with his lonely man on the road vibe, and the whole stranger in town thing, my form drawing looks with every passing step. I look at the menus outside the few shops open on a weeknight, bristling every time I misread ikura (salmon roe) as iruka (dolphin). One spot looks especially friendly, and I duck inside. The place is warm and friendly, the owner's wife flirtatious to a point just short of bawdy. She gives me a couple complimentary mackerel that she'd caught herself. And the maguro sashimi is so fresh it's like butter.

The TV in the room below mine wakes me at 6. With time to kill before the first bus, fuelled on sugary bread and canned coffee, I make my way over to the fish market. The fishermen are already back with the days catch, literally hundreds of tuna now lying on the warehouse floor in various stages of decapitation. The men with hoses wash the red back into the sea. Not long after, I leave the bay behind and head up into the hills.

This is my fifth trip to the Kumano area. After I learned that the region was going to get UNESCO's special status, I began to walk the parts that weren't protected, figuring that the World Heritage area would remain unchanged, but the surroundings would get ruined by the new hotels, restaurants, and roads made friendly to tourist buses. Cannon fodder for the Construction industry. It didn't take long to see my predictions had come true. In the three years since I'd last come here, they'd built a new highway and a whole section of forest had been converted to a parking lot. Most bizarre was a new handicapped toilet, complete with a ramp built midway up a set of ancient stone steps. (Here was Japanese political kata in action, obeying the letter of the law yet all but neutering the spirit.) I walk these steps to the temple at the top. There are are surprising number of tourists at this early hour, Koreans lingering in front of the unopened souvenir stands, Chinese taking photos with Buddhas. I find the old trail at the back of the complex and begin my walk up the Ogumotorigoe, (romanized menacingly as "Big Cloud-Catcher Pass").

The Kumano Kodo here is a stone trail with the earth pushing through. The rocks are slick with lichen, due to all the moisture trapped below the high sugi. I reckon I'm the first to have walked it in a few days, due to the spiderwebs I keep breaking with my chest. It's a beautiful day, the trail dappled with sunshine. I frequently see snakes warming themselves in these spots, looking for the same feeling I got from last night's baths. It's a nice trail, with markers every half kilometer. These markers are small and made of stone, nicely unobtrusive against the bushes and trees. (Many trail markers have the subtlety of vending machines.) Heading for the first pass, I scare up some quail. At the top, I reward myself with some rice balls and the view . Dropping down the other side, I'm startled by the yelp of a young fox. This descent is spooky, a place notorious as the haunt of the spirits of deceased pilgrims, whose souls are looking for new bodies to inhabit. The valley at the bottom is beautiful yet forlorn. In front of one large tree is a makeshift shrine, with a small sword lying across the stones and moss. It seems to have been there for centuries. Rushing streams overflow onto the trail at many places and the finding footing is a challenge. Atop the next ridge I find a road which follows the trail, both leading down to a small shrine and hut. I climb out onto a large stone in the river, soaking my feet as I eat lunch. The final ascent is quick, and there are many man made signs at the pass, pride in achieving the tough climb from the other side. I'm simply descending, but before long I find this the hardest part of the day; literally a long, slippery 2 hour, 4 km drop to the next valley. Climbing this must be like the Stairmaster from Hell. Ruins of old teashops and stone walls tell me I'm coming close to Oguchi. Near the 500 meter mark, I begin to relax and a minute later I fall on my ass. Not quite there, buddy.

Finally at the bottom, I grab a canned coffee and chat awhile with the manager of the camping hut here. Three years ago I camped in the grass out front after having come over the Kogumotorigoe (Small Cloud-Catcher). That day, a night-long conversation with my left hip scuttled any thoughts of going over the hills I have now just came over. Making that first ascent on that hip with a full pack would've been seriously grievous.

I walk upsteam, out of sight of any houses. Stripping down, I join the cold river, washing the day off my body. Later, it takes me 2 buses and a train to get back to where I started. The sea looks inviting, so I swim awhile. Then I walk in the shadows of abandoned, crumbling hotels until I find a good place for dinner. It's a Chinese joint, and they're quite creative with the local catch. I have maguro spring rolls, maguro gyoza, maguro with chili sauce. I've loaded myself with enough mercury to fill a thermometer. The oolong ice cream helps ease my pain...

On the turntable: John Coltrane, Meditations"

On the nighttable: Jan Morris, "Pleasures of a Tangled Life"

On the reel table: "Two Days in Paris," (Delpy, 2007)

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