Monday, January 05, 2009

Kumano Prologue IV

It was a surprisingly warm day for December. The sky was cloudless, but the wind stayed in our faces for the entire 6 hours it took to reach Osaka. We left the overheated train at Makino, continuing southwest beside the Yodogawa. The walk took us along those thick strips of green that flank any major river in Japan. A person most often sees these spaces from a train as it passes over long iron bridges. What is missed when seen from above is that these spaces have an entire culture of their own. The dark shapes of walkers moving on the berm above us, silhouetted facelessly before the distant city skyline. Some people had cleverly erected a tennis court, using as a net one of those metal barriers which prevents cars from further entering the concrete. Others were playing baseball, having dug out bases and a pitcher's mound with their cleats. There were also a couple soccer matches, plus a rugby squad practicing in front of some university. Kids flew kites as spandex-clad adults raced by on racing bikes. A homeless man had overloaded his bicycle with boxes stacked up a couple meters, and was scratching his head trying to figure a way to get on. A lone boy kicked the ball up the grassy berm, to have it roll back down to him. There were the obligatory dog-walkers, nearly everyone of these poor pampered pooches dressed better than most children. One spastic dog zigzagged unleashed like a squirrel. A construction site broke the peace with the usual aural havoc. Many middle-aged men were fishing at the end of simple makeshift piers. But most constant of all were the hundreds of makeshift homes covered over with blue tarps. There was an entire city of homeless down here. Some of these were really impressive, with doors and windows and little gardens. One garden was massive, extending well down the river. A critic had spray painted, "No gardens!" on one of the walls, which seemed more a comment of his own programmed and uninspired soul, protesting at the creative freedom of another. This made me curious about the more physical attacks on the occupants of these riverfront "homes." One small cluster of families had about a dozen dogs, possibly as defense, possibly as food. The dogs had no clothes whatsoever.

We broke for lunch, sitting beside some wetlands hosting a vast species of waterfowl, in spite of the filthy water. The call of one type of bird sounded like the squeal of an excited prom queen. Hearing the unseasonal cry of a nightingale, I looked up to see a man blowing a bird whistle. As we sat on the concrete riverside, I found myself in an Ozu moment, looking across the water at chimneys billowing smoke above identical houses with clothes blowing from backyard lines. We continued on into this wind, into near identical scenery. It eventually grew monotonous, following the concrete line between the green. This had been an odd idea from the start. Years ago, Miki had biked this route, in a return trip from Kyoto to Osaka. She'd mentioned how dull it was. But I insisted, wanted to protect the purity of the walk, in that bizarre way that I have. The ancients bound for Kumano's shrines had ridden palanquin to the foot of Otokoyama, then boarded boats to follow the river to what is now Tenmabashi. I had insisted we do it on foot, though despite the good weather and reasonably interesting sights, a bike may have been preferable after all. Fifteen km over concrete and the feet begin to whine; over twenty, their complaints are deafening. Still, we pushed on, the both of us defiant and stubborn as always.

We passed under an old iron bridge shared by trains and pedestrians, finally arriving at a large stone marking the childhood home of the poet Buson. We followed the narrower Ogawa river south into the heart of the city. Planes bound for Itami extended their landing gear toward us as if giving an encouraging thumbs up (or down). The spectacle of the sun setting through the clouds took our minds off our feet somewhat, then the lights began to come on, their neon shapes go-go dancing across the water's surface. We arrived in full darkness at Tenmabashi, where warm coffee helped to rebut the cold, and the passing whiff of Indian curry gave a hint at what's for dinner.

On the turntable: Dave Brubeck, "Time Out'

On the nighttable: Kenji Miyazawa, "The Milky Way Railroad"

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