Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Noto's Broad Shoulder

I start way up in Fukui today, just out of view of the sea. The last of this morning's multiple trains lets me out at Imajo, a small village above a river. I make my way south from here along a highway that is heavily trafficked by huge black caterpillars and their brown haired yanki cousins. Easily the size of my pinkie, many have been crushed flat, so I dub this the "Caterpillar Trail of Tears."

It's a hot day walking this asphalt highway that calls itself the Hokkoku Kaido, one of the minor Edo period routes that connected this region to the Shogun's capital. I check my map, which shows that I'll be on this shoulderless road for the next 5km, before eventually turning off and being rewarded with a few highlights. My thumb wins the argument with my feet. I'm soon picked up by an old farmer in his 80s, who, after I tell him what I'm up to, drives the route slowly, explaining things as we go along. He shows where traces of the original Kaido remain, snaking in and out of the forest, covered with high weeds and barely passable. I think of all the other roads I've walked, and wonder how many of my footfalls have been compromises, falling upon newer roads running adjacent to the actual ancient paths themselves. Doesn't matter really. The farmer points out old landmarks that used to line the route. One of the newer ones is his own home, and he seems especially proud to have a drink vending machine out front. He doesn't know my destination of Hakusan Jinja, and stops to ask somebody working in a field. Old friends, they talk awhile. As we pull away, he points out another man nearby, and in a bit of local gossip, tells me that he is living in a kura.

My guide eventually brings me to the shrine, just a simple weathered building in the forest. There used to be a temple next door but it has been torn down by the locals due to lack of use. I walk up the road, my eyes now easily picking out bits of the old trail. One section is cobblestone and leads me between some incredible three-story kayabuki homes. Smoke pours out of one, the owners going about the traditional method of killing insects up in the thatch. I move above them onto a narrow paved road leading up to the ski area. It is very steep and switchbacked and as a car comes I see no point in using my own power. (I'm getting good at this 'kiseru' approach to pilgrimage.) The driver is a guy I'd seen out in front of the thatch-roofed farmhouses. A piano tuner, he says he spends most of his days travelling around the surrounding countryside doing his trade. He tells me that he is merely a caretaker of one of the houses, all of them owned by the local Board of Education. It's a good simple life he says, in spite of the fact that the winters here see two meters of snow.

He drops me off just above the ski lifts and goes about his business of picking mountains veggies. I continue up a small path and see a bearded man who doesn't appear happy that I'm here. I smile and ask politely if I can pass. He nods, still not speaking. His three dogs wait for me out in front of his home, a large teahouse at the pass. They all bark, and one of them is unchained. I talk to him softly but firmly in English as I continue up toward the peak. The path is narrow and overflown by the occasional bee. The whole forest is literally humming with them, like the disembodied ghost voices from a horror film. Beyond this, the trail becomes a narrow concrete strip that leads to a small lodge sitting near the top of the higher ski lifts. I walk across their boards and look across at Hakusan to the northeast. The last stretch of trail is wide and must accommodate skiers who come to the open clearing beyond, for the gorgeous views of Tsuruga Bay. It is hot and clear today, the sky nearly the color of the sea. Two massive oil tankers are anchored near a nuclear plant at the mouth of the bay. There is a large board with a marked photo explaining the landmarks, though it is about two meters up and hard to see from flat ground. I imagine that skiers would look down to read it. I sit and have lunch here, my eyes rarely leaving the sea. But the wind is picking up a little, making the high grasses move. More than once I'm tricked into thinking a big animal is coming up behind me. Spooked, I make my way back into the humming forest.

I pass the tea house again, and find a small well topped with wood carvings. The surly guy must be an artist, so he can't be all bad. I move down into kumazasa, which doesn't help with the uneasiness I had felt up at the top. I'm dropping fast down a narrow and steep canyon, lined with this bear grass and intersecting the many small streams which run into a river that I can hear somewhere below me. I can't shake the feeling that I'm going to run into a bear in here. For the first time in years, I pull out my bear bell. I'm about halfway down when I notice a large stone wall up a side canyon to my right. Based on the shape, I'm sure to find an altar there. I do, and I also find three woman out searching for warabi for tempura. I chat with them for a few minutes. I ask about bears and one of them mentions that there had been a sighting near here recently. Her friend smiles as she lifts up her pack to reveal a literal windchime that hangs down about 6 inches from the bottom. A bear that hears that thing would probably become too chilled out to attack, because it would be, like, too big a hassle man.

The trail widens out to become a track layered with soft pine needles. I finally hit asphalt again and weigh my options. The trail becomes unmarked as it nears Tsuruga, but I can pick it up again farther south at Kinomoto. My choices are to hitch down to Tsuruga station and take a series of trains. Or I can thumb through this big tunnel right beside me to a junction on the other side, and try to flag another ride south from there, which should take far less time. I'm lucky to catch a lift with an old couple who are, amazingly, going all the way to Kinomoto. This ride is the antithesis of the first. The driver didn't engage me much in conversation, except to complain about things he saw along the road. The woman beside him never said a word. As we head south on a smaller mountain road I realize the difficulty I'd have had trying to thumb it, there not being much traffic. It's a pleasant half hour, not having to entertain and make conversation. I'm free to admire the view of the blue steep-pitched tin roofs that protect the old thatch beneath. The flooded rice fields are green-flecked glass tabletops.

I get out at the station and head up a street stuck in a time soon after the war. At the top is Jizoin, which has an interesting maze that runs beneath the floor of the Hondo. It is a fun diversion to spend a few minutes in complete darkness, my hands running along the walls which curve at the corners in a way that protects noses and eyeglasses. I pop back out to follow the main street lined which a dozen old-timey sake shops. Must be big drinkers up here, with good rice and clean water. A trail marker at the far end of the street helps the drunks to stumble toward right toward Edo, or left to Kyo and Ise beyond.

I choose Edo, and spend the rest of the day walking quiet paths between rice fields that connect a series of villages that are famous for their waterwheels. The first, Amemori, is the most impressive. A dozen wheels dot the moats that run in front of all the houses. Planters in the shape of boats wear flowers that rival the color of the carp that swim around them. This is all overshadowed by the huge tree groves which hide shrines and old stone markers. The village is right out of the last section of Kurosawa's "Dreams," that penultimate Japanese scene which helped inspire not only my moving to this country, but the wandering ways I've acquired since. Yet ironically, there is a distinctive Korean flavor here. I find out that a major Korean statesman had made his home in this village, and the history is strongly Korean. At a small museum, I find out that the Korean diplomatic contingent made its way down both the Chosenjin kaido (of last week's walk) and along this Hokkoku Kaido, going beyond Edo to their terminus in Nikko. This goes a long way in explaining the distinct continental look of Toshoji, which I had also visited this Golden Week, along with a few thousand of my closest friends. Somehow, I've unwittingly chosen a Korean theme to pervaded my holiday, all the way down to the choice of restaurant the night before.

While pondering this, I suddenly notice a long snake swimming up one of the moats. It can't climb the steep stone wall, and lashes itself to the wheel, trying to climb to the top. Yet every time it does, it quickly finds itself back under water. The body twists and grasps one of the spokes, going up and around, up and around until it looks as if the snake might actually tie itself in a knot. (Is that even possible?) If it could move across the shaft at the center of the wheel it would be fine, but it never quite figures that out. I watch for probably 10 minutes, breathless with anticipation at how it'll turn out. Finally, it lets go, and swims down river again, slowly, as if trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

I move out toward the river, overhung with trees. This is an area right out of the American South, with the birdsong, the kids on bikes, and the shop keepers napping in chairs in front of their stores. I finally finish the day at Otani temple, a haunted place that sits below Otani Castle, which fell in one of the more vicious battles of the Warring States period. Another snake greets me as I enter, just above a field known as the Plain of Blood. I catch my final ride of the day with a French guy and his friendly Japanese wife. Along the way, I pester the girl's poor mom with questions about kanji I saw during my walk, trying to figure out even more of the multitude of elements that made up one very rich day.

On the turntable: Muse, "Hullabaloo"

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