Friday, June 27, 2008

Going Down the Country (Pt.2: Omine-san)

On the map, I notice I can follow a road due north from here to reach Yoshino. I think about hitching but I'm anxious about being late for my 5pm appointed arrival time. I instead take a roundabout journey by train back up the coast. On the trip down, I hadn't noticed all the hotel construction around Tanabe, the jumping off point for Kumano Kodo's western edge. Towering high over the sea, these will serve as temples to the new Gods. At Tanabe, I don't have to look up from my book to register that someone has finally taken the seat beside mine. When I do turn my head, I see a young guy grinning creepily at me. His repetoir expands as he begins to chew the skin flaking and peeling at the end of his thumb. He continues this for another 90 minutes. When I disembark at Wakayama, I half expect to see him gnawing the stump of a wrist.

I take a local train that drags itself across the waist of the Kii-Sanchi. Kids in track suits begin to load us up, until everyone funnels out somewhere. With a bit more space, I turn away from my book and crane my neck toward the window. While Wakayama has some beautiful spots, I think neighboring Nara the more beautiful of the two, maintaining a bit more self-respect. At Yoshino station, I take the cable car to the village which covers the mountain. It's a summer Saturday, but there is almost no one around. I have some time to kill, so I talk awhile with a couple of shop keepers. One guy teaches me the proper way to blow the Horagai, that giant conch shell heard bellowing throughout the mountains around here. There is only a single other customer here, trying out these shells as well. He shows some accomplishment in his chops by creating a series of notes; far more impressive than my own bovine imitation. The owner tells me how during the war an American bomber crashed near here on its way back from bombing Kobe. One crew member survived, only to be tossed off a precipice higher up the mountain. Tomorrow, I'll be dangled by my legs over the same precipice, confessing my sins and hoping for a kinder fate.

At 5, I go up the step of Kimpusen temple. It's a massive structure, the roof supported by tree trunks the size of redwoods. I am joined by 22 other men, to be led by five yamabushi in a couple days training particular to their sect. I've done some of this before, with their brethren up north in Dewa Sanzan. While the hiking doesn't faze me too much, I'm immediately confronted by something I'd should've seen coming but didn't: seiza. The chanting begins, tempered by the clash of bells and pounding of drums, and for some reason, I start thinking about Han Shan. The fervor of the chanting builds up steadily, paced exactly by the loss of feeling in my legs. With seiza, I'm usually good for twenty, twenty-five minutes, but this goes on for twice that. When it's done, I will some blood into my feet in order to stand. Another guy literally has to be propped up by his armpits like the wounded in some war film.

More seiza quickly follows, as we eat dinner silently, oryoki style. After which we're finally allowed to stretch our legs as we go through the usual round of self introductions. The temple's head priest comes down to give us a pep talk, emphasizing that one of the main goals of this training is to come together as a group and become one. (This same point comes up every time I do any kind of shugyo, no matter what type.) We all go off to the baths then. They are small and accommodate only two at a time. My neighbor speaks exceptional English, and is currently doing post-grad work for SOAS. He'd been doing research in Lhasa, until the current round of troubles got him deported. He's basically just killing time in Osaka, waiting for Tibet to cool down enough to return. The conversation is good, but we both seem preoccupied with the next day. I'm in bed before 9.

It's a terrible sleep. One man's snores soon had me dub him, "The Fourth Tenor." He single-handedly keep the rest of us awake, allowing us to quickly become one in our shared loathing of him. Naturally, this guy, the only one to get a sound sleep, turns out to be the slowest on the mountain.

We awake at dawn to board a bus, then drive an hour to a point far up a mountain road. It's a steep ascent to the ridge and it takes the group a good while to get there. At the top, we meet the main trail, which I recognize as the one that Nate and Tatsuhiko and I walked back in '96. We had some pretty scary weather that day. It's not too bad this morning, the clouds diffusing the soft, warm light, in which we sit and eat our breakfast rice balls. I look at some of the others and wonder about what brought them to the mountain. One old guy in particular intrigues me, he having told me that he's recently retired and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his days. A few men seem his junior, both in years and in attitude, sneaking of for a smoke under the pretext of having a piss. There are a few younger, more seasoned hikers, and a few that look like they work as civil servants. And of course there are a couple of wild cards in the group, but there always seems to be. Anything that poses extreme physical or emotional challenges tends to draw people who don't quite fit in polite society. Quite often, these people can be the most interesting. But on this day, the previous week's killings in Akihabara are a fresh reminder that there are other precipices to topple over if one isn't careful with his balance.

In front of us was a tall gate: the entrance to Omine-san itself. Beyond these gates there may be no dragons (none that I noticed anyway), but there were certainly no damsels. This is the last mountain in Japan that women are forbidden to climb. Apparently, some aren't so happy with this, judging from the defacing of the large sign upon which said rule is writ. We pass through, and make our way toward the top. Throughout the day, we'll take part in certain rituals that are plenty scary and some, outright dangerous. (I still laugh at the fact that no one was made to sign a waiver beforehand.) Like Basho before me, I am forbidden to disclose details of this mountain to other people. And again like Basho, "I will therefore lay down my pen and write no more." Not due to poetic pretense or fear of litigation. I simply don't need any wrathful deities coming down on my ass.

On the turntable: Jackie McClean, "Rites of Passage"
On the reel table: "The Naked Island" (Shindo, 1960)

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