Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Let Me Get Back to the Sea

It started with a photograph. It is captioned, "Just north of Kyoto, setting out to walk to the Japan Sea, late April 1961," and shows Gary Snyder doing just that. For years I've had that photo in my mind, and thought that I wanted to do the exact same thing. Miki and I had tried to do the walk last September, but a typhoon changed our tune. This time, she was busy so I set off alone, along the old Saba Kaido that once brought mackerel to Kyoto from the sea.

I'd start from Kuruma, since a previous walk had already taken me that far. I got to the train platform to find that the schedule had been halved, with Kurama bound trains going every twenty minutes now. Due to the sagging economy, Japan has ben cutting costs where it can, but at the risk of undercutting its legendary efficiency. The train finally came. At each stop, more and more kids got on, headed toward their kindergarten at the end of the line. An old man sat nearby, looking much at peace with the world.

Off the train, I walked beyond the village, up a paved road which climbed steadily to the north. It was a tough slog, but thankfully this turned out to be the most challenging part of the day. I could feel how out of shape I'd become in the few weeks since the Mie walk. The past ten days had been the worst, mostly sitting idle on the film set waiting, followed by a series of dinners with friends, loading up on too much food and beer. It was a punishing 90 minutes, but I eventually made the pass. I was happy to see a clearly marked Saba Kaido sign, which led me up a road that, while sealed, was narrow and felt more like a proper trail. I wasn't too worried about keeping to the proper route this time since my real goal was simply getting to the sea.

Atop the ridge now, I was rewarded with the view of a sliver of Biwa. The trail stayed flat for awhile, keeping to a road that was beginning to wash out. In more than a few places, the road had become pond, with tadpoles and water skimmers rippling the surface. Here and there was the obligatory illegally dumped trash. (I am now firmly convinced that I live amidst people who most definitely shit where they eat.) During the day, I also came across a dozen abandoned cars, including a white jeep far down the hillside, its grill and headlights rising from the mud like a grinning skull.

The road continued, tracks in the mud alluding to traffic of auto and swine. I finally came to an ancient shrine with a few people picnicking out front. This inspired me to have my own lunch near a small lonely farm. More and more homes began to appear, teasing me into thinking I'd come to village, but before long, I was in forest again. It wasn't hard to feel that I was truly in the middle of nowhere. I reached a junction, offering the choice of continuing along this road through the valley, or up a steep path to a pass. I stared at the characters on the sign. 'Valley' (), looking like a comfy monopoly house, under a cozy layer of snow. Or 'pass' (), all spikes and angles. A no brainer really. But my guidebook stated twice that the mackerel bearers (great blog title!) had come over the top, and so, by the grace of cod, did I, all the while muttering, "I'm gonna regret this." A hot sweaty ascent once again brought me to the warm fuzzy road, upon whose grassy fringe I sprawled awhile and stared at the sky. A trio of insects raced around my head in a crazy rendition of the Indy 500.

Along this next level part of the trail, I found a fully inflated balloon that had been launched from Mii-dera, a good 50km away. A note was attached, written by an elementary school student (judging by the handwriting, which was still favorable to my own.) and wishing for world peace. My needs were more modest, more lunch, so I stopped beside Hacchodaira, a very ancient swamp going back to the Jurassic. I wanted to lay on the ground again but the viper warning signs kept me in motion. Soon after I arrived at Ogurozaka pass, and faced a mercifully pleasant descent along long switchbacks. A black snake shot across the path, marking the only life I'd see today, barring the odd bear warning signs. Even the semi had little to say. At the bottom, I soaked my feet in a small stream, then moved down through the road to Kuta Village, where I'd sleep. It was still only 3 pm. I'd expected a 10 hour day but had done it in less than eight somehow. I had some trouble finding my minshiku but an old man had explained it to me as I tried desperately to sift through the dialect. I finally found it, a lovely old farmhouse under thatched roof. I read the afternoon away on the veranda, wondering when I could have that bath. The clouds came over to erase the day's course, backlighting a row of dragonflies queued along a power line. An old man armed with a fishing pole and optimism set off to catch dinner. Some younger folk from the city were dressed in a way they thought their country relatives did.

I finally got my bath, in a tub that was perfectly adapted to my height. While washing up, I found that my ankle was bleeding quite badly, and it took mere seconds to realize that when I'd soaked my feet in that stream, I'd picked up a hitchhiker -- a leech. This explains the strange stains on my socks and on the tatami in my room. The area where the leech's head enters the body takes the blood hours to coagulate. I can now better understand why many cultures used leeches as a way to release those pesky humours from the body. I worried now about my sheets tonite. In staying in a minshiku, you are basically staying in a stranger's home, and it always feels that that person is a distant aunt you hardely know. ("Don't touch the hummels dear.") To complicate things further, dinner came. The first course was fantastic -- deer meat and river fish. Then came sukiyaki. It never ceases to amaze me how even after 15 years here, I still encounter food I don't know how to eat. In those same years I've had sukiyaki maybe twice, and didn't at all pay attention to the process. When my hostess brought me my complimentary glass of blueberry liquor, she let out an audible gasp at the sight of me poking around in the bubbling brown sludge. Things escalated further after dinner. I read out on the veranda again and returning inside I saw that the 100 gnats I'd inadvertently let in were now happily crawling around the tatami. Thinking myself clever, I turned off the light, hoping that they'd migrate toward the lights of the room next door. But while brushing my teeth I heard a familiar sound. Before laying out my futons, the hostess started vacuuming up all the bugs. To the next foreign guest of Kunoya Minshiku, I am truly and deeply sorry.

On the turntable: Donald Byrd, "Blackbyrd"
On the nighttable: Kunal Sinha, "An Ordinary Traveler"


Al in Vancouver said...

Great photo Ted. I am a big fan of Gary.

Ojisanjake said...

That was the first serious hike I did in Japan..... new road construction over the last range of mountains stopped me reaching the coast :)