Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tokai Shizen Hoedown I

Having climbed most of the mountains in this region, and having completed the 60km Kyoto circuit trail, Miki and I have recently begun to walk some of Japan's ancient roads. Part of them have been paved over with busy thoroughfares, but quite often the simple act of taking the next street over will magically slide you centuries back in time. Much of their charm still remains in the form of small villages and old mountain trails dotted by statues and stone. These excursions have overlapped on occasion with the Tokai Shizen Hodo, a more modern trail that starts at Takao in west Kanto, meandering through the hills above its more famous ancestor the Tokaido, until finally coming to a sudden stop in Hyogo-ken. On weekend days of generous weather we can be found ambulating the loop that wends around southern Kansai. A far more ambitious plan is to walk from our home in the Kyo's eastern hills and down the true Kumano Kodo, following the 1000 year-old course which starts not from modern Tanabe in Wakayama but from Kyoto proper. Where the nobles used to take a boat from Heian's south end, riding the Yodogawa to Tenmabashi, we've decided to do this all by foot, taking the ten day route through Osaka and down the Kii peninsula's western coast into the mountains, before eventually ending up at the shrines of Ise.

We began our true circuit this summer. I've been long curious about the lights that are atop the mountains above my house, always beckoning me during my nighttime bicycle rides. They seem to be just out of reach, an hour's walking tops, I thought. We climbed our usual route up to Uryu-zan, then followed the Hiei-bound trail until it drops into a beautiful valley where a small stream curves away from Kyoto and begins to head south. The best picnic spot in the city. From here, the path shoots straight up with far too much enthusiasm. Our single-hour hike, doubled, then doubled again. At the top we found a hotel belonging to Seika University, whose caretaker had proven to be a rude shite when I'd tried to chat him up about hiking routes back in March. Across the road at L'hotel Hiei, we picked up the Tokai Shizen Hodo (TSH) Here the trail drops again, down the steepest staircase in the world. At the bottom, we were congratulating ourselves on not having to ascend them, until we saw an equally daunting set of switchbacks immediately ahead. Over this ridge then, and down a kinder slope, though one where a concrete fetishist had littered the narrow valley with about a dozen huge and pointless dams. Does it really snow that much up here? The ghosts of the ruined temples dotted about probably aren't amused. The stream we followed led us eventually to Biwa. Long lateral traverses are always much more difficult than relatively easy ridge walks, and although we hadn't covered a lot of space relative to the map, we'd exhausted much energy in crossing three ranges in a few hours. Tired, the train swept us in.

On the turntable: Fleetwood Mac, "Carousel Ballroom, June 1968"

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