Saturday, May 08, 2010

Kumano Kōdō II


It made for an awkward start, rushing to finish with the house, then dashing to make the train. We handed our keys back to the landlady at five past 10, boarded the train 20 frenzied minutes later. Once aboard, I couldn't believe that we'd made it. A few days ago, even a day ago, I wouldn't have been able to imagine it, what with all that had needed to be done. And after awhile this feeling was replaced by fatigue, by weariness. Sleep pushed in from the corners, but I pushed back. Just not nearly hard enough. We sat on the platform at Tennoji, nearly missing our train resting further down the track, which we had hardly acknowledged until its lights came on like the opening of eyes. A conductor on the adjacent platform had looked over at us, but hadn't been able to extend the courtesy of mentioning that the train we were waiting for was just...over...there. After all that would have meant doing his job.

We detrained at Yamanakadani, fiddled with our packs a bit, then set up the road. We'd finished here on a cold snowy January day, me with aching achilles. Today I felt good despite the recent sleeplessness and stress, despite the greater weight on my back. On recent walks my right hip had complained, but today it felt solid. More surprisingly, my usually griping knee had little to say.

Miki, on the other hand... She began to have trouble within the first half hour. The pack she'd chosen -- the one borrowed from me -- wasn't sitting right. The way in which it peeled back off her shoulders was hurting her back; the way it rode her shoulders dug into some pressure points there. We stopped quite a few times to adjust things in order to ease her pain. This worked for awhile, but ultimately she'd have trouble again. I tried to feel compassion, but there was an element of schadenfreude at work here. During the stress of the move, we'd bickered a lot, me growing weary of her comments and her opinions. She'd really pushed her 'go light' philosophy on me, attempting to make me give up most of my possessions. Yet this current situation was proof that throughout the process, her mind had been so focused on this that she had neglected to properly prepare for the walk. This entire first day was now punctuated by her regrets and complaints. Not that there was much to distract her. The road was a busy one, made noisy by being wedged in between a train line and a highway. This continued for nearly two hours. Conversation was difficult, though Miki had little to say, hunched forward over, eyes on the ground.

Osaka is separated by Wakayama by a narrow stream, the site of the final battle of feudal Japan. Further on, a construction crew was widening the road, on a steep and quick curve. A questionable need. A few days before, the LDP, who supplies the barrels into which such pork is usually tossed, had been defeated most viciously at the polls. Their construction friendly ways may be on the way out. As I passed an army of construction flagmen of advanced age staring off into space, I began to hum, "Your Time is Gonna Come." In this too, I am witness to yet end of another phase of Japanese history. Descending the hill, I thought about how different the DJP victory -- admittedly historic -- had been compared to Obama's win last fall. Here I felt no jubilation, no sense of future promise. All seemed business as usual on the streets of Japan. I fear history will prove me right.

As the road descended, I immediately recognized the vast valley of the Kii-no-Kawa, whose path I had partially followed in the spring. We entered a village at the valley's edge, houses spaced by rice fields, their stalks heavy and bending toward the dry cracked earth which had spawned them. We stopped on the side of the road, to have snacks and tea, to the amusement of the occasional farmer bicycling by. Across the fields was a large temple, where Ono no Komachi had died 1100 years before while on her own Kumano pilgrimage.

Further into the village, a trio of schoolgirls looked shocked at the sight of me. We were a little uncertain about the road that we wanted, and after asking the girls, I overheard one of them ask her friend, "Was he Japanese?' Miki and I moved down the road to their elementary school and borrowed some shade out front for a rest. Turned out the girls had been tailing us, and the bravest one walked up to ask if I were Japanese. We talked with them for a while, let them try to pick up our packs. Miki learned a new Japanese word from them, a term basically meaning "stranger danger," which saddened us that they'd need to know this. This sadness quickly turned to surprise at finding that they'd never heard of Kyoto.

We moved on, through a sea of rice fields straight out of 'Lily Chou Chou.' I liked the way the trail zigzagged from village to village. A beautiful shrine made of earth and stone sat in a small clearing. As we rested nearby, a man came out to offer us watermelon. The locals knew exactly what we were up to, encouraging us with smiles and greetings. It gave us a feeling that we were doing something important.

As the day went on, Miki was having a harder and harder time. Not wanting to add to her trouble, I ignored my usual curiosities -- that beautiful old house with a tea room built over the canal; a shrine with an intriguing tree-lined drive. We finally came to the long bridge across the River Kii. Crossing took about 15 minutes, with multiple rest stops. When we got to the station on the far side, I didn't see any relief on Miki's face, which was by now a mask of suffering.

We'd decided earlier to go into Wakayama city to get her a new pack. Just off the train, we were chatted up by some friendly Mormons, but they didn't know any hotels. Miki wandered off in search of a tourist information stand. I spotted a pony-tailed taxi driver, who I was sure would know a cheap place to sleep. We checked in, then walked over to WaraWara which promised 'new' izakaya fare, like mochi tacos and tofu lasagna. Plus the all important over-sized beers. I slept very well...

On the turntable: Ken Nordine, "Colors"
On the nighttable: Brett Dakin, "Another Quiet American"


wes said...

Yamanakadani is the starting point for the Kisen Alps hike. I'm surprised that the kumano-kodo doesn't follow the beautiful mountain ridge, but I guess in the old days the pilgrims traveled through the valleys.

Sorry that Miki's pack was causing trouble. Looking forward to seeing if she got it sorted out and also to reading about the rest of the walk

ted said...

Hey Wes,

You touched on a point that we often talked about on the walk. On Kumano, we stayed relatively low, crossing 2 or 3 pass a day, none over 400m, taking reasonably gentle ascents. Definitely designed with pampered royals in mind.

Shikoku on the other hand was a true pilgrimage, and it was all about the pain. One minute you're in a pleasant village, an hour later you've just shot up to 900m. No shortcuts here...