Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown X (Yama-no-be II)

Awoke Saturday to snow gently falling. If there's snow, it must be a day for tramping. We had intended to walk from Yagyu into Nara in time for the burning of Wakakusa-yama at dusk. There are only a few buses a day heading out there, leaving from Nara. As we made our way south, we nearly missed our connection since I hadn't noticed that my train pass had expired. Made the train in seconds flat, and later in Nara, walked up to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare, even more so when we saw that our 10:20 bus had left around 9:30, the next one leaving after lunch. Shit. As a friendly bus company employee led us through our alternatives, I thought that we could walk back to town from Tenri instead, if we could catch a train due to leave in three minutes. We sprinted through the station, me hurdling one of those wheeled suitcases as if in tribute to an old OJ Simpson Avis commercial. Ran up the platform in time to notice that the waiting train was finished for the morning. Huh? Are we not supposed to hike today?

The next train got us to Tenri. The rest of the day was a slow, pleasant walk along the Yama-no-be, darting in and out of the foothills. We once again passed through the arcade that time forgot (quite bustling today), bowed to Tenri Temple, where the metal on which banners wave groaned like the Sho pipes of Gagaku. Ate rice balls amongst the chickens at Isonokami Jingu. The northbound Yama-no-be wasn't as nice as the path we'd followed south of here, but it did keep us in the forest more. Unfortunately, we also spent nearly as much time on roads, though none particularly busy. Deeper in the hills behind Isonokami Jingu, a beautiful set of stone steps flaked and crumbled with age, leading to a shrine nearly invisible in the shadows. We'd pass many shrines, all small and well cared for like prized antiques, their histories going back to times inconceivable. I love Nara for this, the resonant history, not heavy with the veneer of Kyoto, but light and weathered, with a quiet dignity that is eternal. The forests and fields that surrounded these beauties were even quieter in the snow, falling with the consistency of powder, as if in our presence the shrines were throwing off their long accumulated dust.

Just beyond a strange art installation masquerading as a greenhouse, we came to a lake, where a few die-hard fishermen were braving the intense cold of the day. Just down the hill was a baseball field. As I walked by, about two dozen kids turned to me in surprise, the brims of their baseball caps the bright yellow bills of young duckings. They quacked out a greeting as I passed. Further off we could hear the singing of their older siblings as they began a game of their own. A valley away was Kōninji, the ancient path passing between buildings over a millenia old. The snow was doing some fantastic tricks in the light, so we sat awhile in admiration. This temple has some shugendo ancestry, with many esoteric symbols and statues dotting the grounds. We enjoyed the weather and the quiet, until a group of old timers came and broke it.

We walked on, past farms and villages. The entire walk was a love affair with Nara, in deep infatuation with her proud silence and faded beauty. In the Japanese language, few phrases are as misunderstood as mono-no-aware and wabi-sabi. These are concepts better felt than defined, and Nara is an excellent teacher. We wandered into the park, the deer napping and grazing while watching us with hopeful eyes. The sun ducked behind the ridges to entice the cold, which began to play with our cheeks and noses. We escaped into an Italian place to warm up with an uninspired meal of pasta and wine, then climbed back up to Kōfuku-ji, a good vantage point from which to see Wakakusa burn. Back in '96, I'd followed the Takisaka-no-michi into town in order to watch this annual event, but sudden rains called it off that year. Long awaited, it didn't disappoint; plus I hadn't expected fireworks. They went off with dull thuds, nowhere near the chest thumping bursts of warmer, thinner summertime air. After they were done, atop the mountain we saw a few flashes of light, and after a minute or so, flames began to reach up here and there, finally becoming a ring that burned up the hillside like a monk's tonsure. Miki and I hugged against the intense cold, watching the roof of the temple's main hall glow, backlit as if it too were ablaze, and the iron bell just behind us ringing and ringing...

...after the flames, we boarded a train home. A few stops on, a young mom pushed a pram onto the train, then gets busy with her keitai. Her baby looks at me, at her, then me, then her. Then bursts out crying. I nearly apologized for my face...

On the turntable: Double Famous, "Souvenir"

On the nighttable: Richard Rosen, "The Yoga of Breath"

On the reel table: Little Big Man (Penn, 1970)

1 comment:

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for posting this - how excellently you characterise rural Nara. And I've always wanted to but never managed to see the grass burning on Wakakusa hill. But reading your graphic account is the next best thing to being there. Maybe better, given the crowds!