Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kumano Kōdō I

It's snowing when we awake. At least it's not rain. A little later we get off the train in Tenmabashi, and quickly find the stone that marks this, the true start of the Kumano Kodo. We have a lot of walking ahead of us this year. We move south down streets lined with curry shops and old Taisho buildings now empty, yet still proudly bearing the names of businesses decades gone. The street ends at a tree shrine, reaching up from asphalt. A faded wooden board tells of yet another snake legend. On the slope behind it is the birthplace of Naoki Sanjugo, whose name is now best remembered as a literary award. We find another tree shrine, this one next to where Chikamatsu is buried. We continue on, past an old school, and more buildings aging like ancient film stars, their beauty timeless but somehow anachronistic. We arrive eventually at Shitennoji temple, much bigger than expected. Here too, the structures that most dazzle are the old, unkept ones. The temple is busy on this three-day weekend. A few pre-teens are spinning the prayer wheels faster and faster, but I doubt they know what they're for. Before the temple's Southern Gate is a long stone marking the way to Kumano. There is an indentation at one end, carved out by centuries of prostrating foreheads. We pass through, and stop a few blocks away to buy a 551 butaman, famous down here. We step out into the wind again and find some relief in the bright sun atop the overpass, eating quickly with the view of Tsutenkaku
towering just over there. We eat again soon after, along the counter of a nondescript Chinese place partly hidden down an alley. There are many Chinese looking houses down here, and the faces we see are broader, more Asian. On again pointing south, through neighborhoods growing smaller, yet still keeping that unique Osaka character. We enter an area that is the birthplace of (organized) divination. At Abe Jinja, a spooky woman is lurking about, near a board where ema hang. On one, someone has written a prayer about wanting a girlfriend, with a beautiful amine style drawing of his apparent type. At another shrine nearby, a woman is pressing her hands hard against a tree. The stones on the lid of a well here are shaped like Egyptian mummies. I hear what I think is chanting then realize that it is someone's ringtone. Further on still, Sumiyoshi Taisha is much bigger, and in full festival mode. We follow the sound of flutes and drums to find the last throes of a miko dance. Food stalls line the main path, behind which, a pair of yamabushi are building their goma fire. A few more are throwing mochi to the crowd. My ridiculous height advantage allows me to quickly snare one, stamped with the character for luck. Little did we suspect it would soon change for the worse. We cross the Yamato River. This is Sakai now, a sprawling cluster of suburbs. The amount of metal factories seem endless. The walk is really growing bleak now, alongside these reeking hulks. At least there is life, creation, going on inside, moreso than in the suburbs in which we weave lost. Unlike Osaka, there are no trail markers here, and we begin to spend more time looking at the map and second guessing ourselves than actual walking. The only real bright spots are the burial mounds scattered around these plastic homes. Without these, this area would have no character at all. The granddaddy of all mounds is just ahead, that of old Nintoku, dating from the early 5th century and bigger than the pyramids of Egypt. We traverse the park, watching the crows hover over the grounds. It's truly a Hitchcockian sight, as there must be hundreds of them swirling around. It's getting colder now and our enthusiasm decreases with each wrong turn. We decide to call it a day. We're not too far from home, so we hop a train. Back in the Kyo, we bike home, in snow lightly falling across the face of the moon.

Around 10a.m. the next day, we're back in Sakai again, walking into a gusty wind. Some of the crows from yesterday are making a meal of a run-over tanuki. In death it almost looks embarrassed, its entrails out for all to see. We come across the Nanshūji temple we're looking for, but can't find any apparent way in. There are no signs whatsoever. Why is Sakai so neglectful of its history? After a few wrong turns and some vague directions by unfriendly locals, we eventually find our way in. It is a massive place, of smaller subtemples enclosed by earthen walls. These, along with the unkept gardens and uneven paths give the place a mournful atmosphere, which is perfect somehow. It's like we're on the set of Rashomon. We linger a long while, our first (and only) moment of happiness this morning. We exit through crumbling gates, then along a claustrophobic Nagaya neighborhood. This time the film reference is Yamanaka Sadao. The Kōdō here, though unscripted, is straight and easier to follow. We duck into a shrine dudded up for this weekend's Seijin-no-hi festival. I start to get a bad feeling about the place when I see a food stall just in front of the well for washing hands. I'm "Gaijin da'd" by a few middle-aged men huddled around a fire, which I ignore. What I can't ignore is the rude racist woman in the office. I was about to step into an apparent public toilet when she yells, "No no no!" as if to a child, and tells me to find a coffee shop somewhere instead. After nearly 15 years here, I have developed a pretty thick skin, and am not usually quick to play the racism card. But the way she used rude Japanese to my face, then switched to the politer form when she spotted Miki, leads to an obvious conclusion. I'd had enough of Sakai, with it's bad smells, rude people, and complete lack of character. What had started out as a walk on the Kumano Kōdō has now become a faster march to get out of town. Viewed from the train to Kansai airport, I'd always considered Osaka to be one of the ugliest cities in the world. But yesterday had proven the place to be charming, and I realize now what I'd been scorning all these years was in fact Sakai. So I have nothing more to say about this town, other than it is the obvious "afterbirth of Osaka." (The Chamber of Commerce is hereafter free to use that as their tourist slogan.) Hours later, inside Ōtori's covered shopping arcade, we stop for lunch at an old coffee shop. The owner stands proudly behind the counter in his tie, while his smiling wife serves us the food merrily, despite her hunched back. The shop has an old-timey charm, and Miki proclaims her nostalgia about a dozen times. The only other customer sits at the counter, he nearly as old as time itself. We are much happier now and warm, but we have to move on. This is Izumi city, and the road has the course stamped into the concrete beneath our feet. We climb up to Hijiri Jinja, the only shrine that we'd visit this weekend that wasn't dudded up in the festival spirit. Its remote hilltop location gives fantastic views of far off Kobe and Shikoku, and the planes banking in over the Bay to land at Kansai airport. The gods up here were old, their altars lurking in the dark forest. The two koma-inu flanking the torii were old too, syllables no longer emanating from faces long worn away by the wind and rain. We hardly fared better, the gusts increasing through the day. We'd left the spiritual world behind, spending the last couple hours moving along a busy road which links the bedroom communities out here. At Kishiwada, we decided to call it a day. Through the dark sky, we looked for the telltale neon of a love hotel. I spotted a motorcycle cop at an intersection, and asked him about one. It was pretty funny, him giving directions in such hushed tones. We headed to the area he described, toward a moon huge and full and orange. A few blocks over we spotted our cop again, him now with his buddies, quickly and conspiratorially pointing us toward the hotel without their notice. Pretty funny. The hotel was three times what we wanted to pay, so with the help of a phone book, we found the only vacancy in town, at a business hotel a twenty minute bus ride further off. It's pretty hard to travel on the fly in Japan.

We'd slept long and solid. We needed that rest to fight a long cold day, the most extreme yet. Snow teases us on and off. We are quiet most of the morning, having gotten off to a lousy start due to a bus driver's misdirections. It takes us a half hour to find the road again, only after hopping multiple fences beside a small pond and between apartment buildings. I am soon tired of the suburbs, how they'd draw you in, then wear away at your sense of direction with their meandering but altogether purposeless uniformity. Soon after this, I nearly fall over in hilarity at the sight of a cheap love hotel that we would've passed had we walked a mere ten minutes further last night. The morning leads us out of the bedroom towns, into a chain of villages linked by vegetable fields and small country train platforms. Many of the homes are still hanging on from late Edo, having served as lodgings along this Kumano Kōdō. Now and again we find markers commemorating the generals who'd fallen in the siege of Osaka in the summer of 1615. Amazing to imagine the tens of thousands of troops bivouaking here, marching on Osaka castle, way back near Tenmabashi and the start of this walk -- how long ago? The day is wearing on but we haven't found a place to eat and escape the cold's reach. When we find a shrine, we'll break out the trail mix, but we didn't bring our usual warm tea, much missed on this cold day. At one shrine a few miko huddle in the dark. Out in the snow, a mom and her young son play catch. I've seen this repeated many times during this walk, and wonder at the whereabouts of the dads. It makes me think of how back in the 90's, I'd often see working age men at afternoon film matinees, laid off and hiding out from their wives by pretending to be at work. At another shrine, we see three girls in kimono, officially women now on this coming-of-age day. Behind them is a broad patch of lawn from which the stubble of beams protrudes. Centuries before this holiday, a tremendous temple once stood here, the center of life for a farm community where girls became women much earlier. The day goes on, and in my hunger and fatigue I notice little but the mountains getting heavy snow off to our left. Each step brings them closer. We finally find noodles, in a town that has traditionally housed travellers on this route. It's nice to be out of the cold finally, but we're close to the end. Just after setting out again, the sun breaks free of the clouds, which takes some of the edge off the wind. We come to farm villages now, the lanes narrower, the residents more friendly. Rinshōji stands on a hill above one. We climb to the Atago shrine atop the hill behind. Most of the village is up here, chanting along with the purple clad priests sitting before a handful of yamabushi who are preparing a goma at the center. Most of the villagers have their heads bowed as they chant, but a few eyeball me as I step from the forest. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansai anymore. Miki and I are close now. We find a few hand-painted signs showing a route not on our map. We follow them into the forest to a spot where a famous Biwa player fell to his death, his instrument hanging from the tree out of reach. As the legend recounts it, spray from the waterfall just behind supernaturally strummed the strings for years. We carefully cross this treacherous hillside, then climb to the pass. The last kilometer is along the narrow lane of an ancient mountain village. Here, at Yamanakadani, we stop. The Kumano Kōdō has changed names many times since we left Kyoto -- Kyō Kaidō, Ōgura Kaidō, Kii Kaidō, -- but we have arrived at what feels like the real spiritual source. We'll leave the path for awhile, until August, when we'll pick it up again, to trace the perimeter of the mandala that is the Kii region, taking a few weeks to traverse its trails, before finishing at the Shrines of Ise. I hope the gods favor us.

On the turntable: The Pleasure Barons, "Live in Las Vegas"

On the nighttable: Anais Nin, "Henry and June"

On the reel table: "Drowning by Numbers" (Greenaway, 1988)

1 comment:

Ojisanjake said...

Excellent stuff!!!
When I come up to Kansai I'll get in touch. If you make it to Chugoku we will hook up.