Friday, May 08, 2009

Mysteries without any Clues

The train takes me to a bus, the bus to some steps. I'm far out of Omi Hachiman now, the bus having let out all the school kids much earlier. I find the steps that lead up to Chomeiji, number 31 on the Kannon circuit.. They're old and weathered, and I wonder how an elderly person makes their way up here. With great faith, no doubt. It's a beautiful morning and I have the steps and the forest to myself. I'm pretty sweaty by the time I reach the top, despite it being 8:30 on an April morning. The temple too is pretty quiet, except for a couple of pilgrims chanting before the main altar. The thatch roofs on all the buildings lend a further organic touch to the scenery. I get my nokyo signed, then wander the paths up and around the boulders that dwarf the buildings standing before them. I climb up one high stone near the temple's furthest reaches and enjoy the morning sun awhile. Biwa stretches away from my feet toward the high jagged mountains marking Nara prefecture. A tourist boat slices a white wake through the Lake's still water.

Back down at the road, I hitch a ride easily, from a young Osaka couple coming back from pre-dawn fishing. I'm not sure where I'm going exactly, so ask them to drop me at 7-11 so I can look at maps. I walk toward the unmistakable shape of a temple roof. Reaching it, I quickly realize it's the wrong one. It looks abandoned, with empty milk bottles stacked at the main gate, trash strewn everywhere. At the entrance, shoes look to have been kicked off, next to a wheelchair that lays on its side. I feel I don't belong here, and move on quickly. The temple I'm looking for is a block over. The doors are closed, but the chanting wafts through, like some ghostly noh chorus. Out back I find a marker for the Chosenjin Kaido, so called because it was the main corridor along which Korean delegations made their way to Edo. My goal is to follow this road for 30 km to Hikone, with a quick detour up to Kannonshoji, temple number 32. At first following this road seems easy, as the street is paved a different color, and there are frequent signs. But just beyond a collection of preserved historic buildings, the signs disappear completely. I move along what I think is the path. A guy in wheelchair passes, shadowed by his friend on a bike. From behind high walls I hear the sound of school kids, the boys playing baseball and the girls practicing some choreographed routine. During this walk, I stop whenever I find a combini, to check maps and confirm where I am. The more obscure I get in my wanderings, the poorer the trails are marked. This path is the worst I've yet encountered. There's a sign merely every 2 or 3 km. You can't just draw a line across a map and call it a trail; you need to mark it. And my book is no help either. I spend too much time trying to read the mind of the mapmaker. I look for jizo and shrines to ensure I'm true.

An old farmer I ask points over at an adjacent road and lets me cross his field to get there. Country people always know the old roads, a far cry from the suburbanites who rarely if ever know what I'm talking about. I come across a row of these moneyed dollhouses, passing a group of young dolls getting into a pair of trendy cars. Sure enough, I'm near a station, Azuchi, which is where I'll peel off toward Kannonshoji, which must be in those mountains over there. I try to hitch. The cars just pour by. One woman comes to a near full stop, looks me over, and tears away. I'm tempted to shout, Get a Life!, but I notice that that's the make of the car she's driving. I seem to have a tough time getting rides in this prefecture, inevitably getting lifts from traveling Osakans. I begin to question the character of Shiga's people, my generalizations getting grander and grander until I'm picked up by a kind woman from just around the corner.

I move up more wild, unevenly spaced steps. This is harder going than I had thought. I stop partway up, thinking how I rarely take breaks when traveling alone. Along the way, the temple has created 33 stages, each one with its own pithy expression. Breathing hard, I arrive at the top, , to a handful of new buildings in a large open space. There had been a fire here a few years back, which explains why nothing matches my guidebook. I find a perch and watch a shinkansen roll across the plain far below, a bizarre white snake moving oddly, quickly along straight lines.

In the parking lot, I hitch a ride back to Azuchi. The outskirts of town are zigzagged by canals. Beside one is a small park marking the site of a former seminary. Black-clad Christians are having some sort of picnic. Further out are some crazy buildings, like a mosque, a church. Azuchi castle ruins are on the hill above me, with wide ruined steps like the ones at the beginning of Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress." Much later, I take a rest beside a single small jizo under some trees. Near temples, there are often clusters of jizo, dedicated to pilgrims who died within the walls. This guy is all alone out here, and I wonder who he was. I watch a waterwheel turning, then continue with my own samsara.

I pass through little towns lined with buildings hundreds of years old. Many of these lose their quaint character with their bizarre looking train stations, shaped like UFOs. One town has annoying cheerful Stepford Wives muzak piped in. This varnish can't hide the town's secrets, betrayed in the form of a tall transvestite making her way toward a train.

I leave the side roads finally and find myself on a busy highway. My map shows nothing of interest for a while, and the traffic and pachinko parlors don't thrill much. I hitch a lift, giving the weird destination of 'that big hill up ahead.' This is the genkiest driver I've ever ridden with. His techno music is an interesting diversion from the snail pace of the day. He didn't seem to want me to go, offering to take me further, further. I eventually escape and walk over to a shrine marked by a limp rope. Silence again. But someone in the next village is playing piano, and ten minutes later, I hear sexy sax music in a greenhouse. The music, and my fatigue, are welcome because I finally get that damned Bob Seger song out of my head, which has been on repeat for about three hours. Ain't it strange how the mind moves, with summer closin' in. I walk beside a field of barley, backlit with gold, softly moving in the wind with such a nice sound that I wanna nap on top of it. But I have more zigzagging to do. After an hour, I eventually come to that long highway again, up which I extend my thumb. My next destination is even more bizarre than the last: "I wanna go to the second signal beyond the big river." The driver is a nice kid who once hitched around the Phillipines. I get out to walk the last half-hour. It's a nice way to finish the day, with the sun setting over the keep of Hikone castle, then later melting into Hira-san's right shoulder. I melt with it, but wonder if today's course was really worth it...

On the turntable: Kraftwerk, "The Mix"

On the nighttable: Brad Warner, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate"

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