Monday, June 07, 2010

Kumano Kōdō IX


We crossed the Tonda River, marking the barrier of the Land of the Dead. And the monocultural sugi forest through which we climbed was devoid of any life; no birdsong, no scampering insects.

We'd gotten a late start. On the bus along the way, my eyes had traced the route I'd walked back in '03, a year after my son had died. (Prior to setting out that year, my son's mother was certain that I would find happiness in dying out there, amongst the mysterious peaks of Omine. I'm sure she'd been right.) I remembered crossing that high suspension bridge, and the almost magical wave of sorrow that had overtaken me at Fudaiji Temple. Where last time I'd been turned back by lack of food, today Miki and I fared better. After buying big onigiri from a very genki couple near the trail head, we passed through a narrow opening in the rock representing the Womb. Officially within the mandala now, we moved up and up.

This trail was harder than I'd thought, sure to turn off a large number of tourists. I wondered if anyone has died up here, after the publicity explosion in the wake of the UNESCO status, expecting an easy day out and getting caught unprepared. There are certainly sections that would terrify anyone, the trail clinging to forested walls dropping of
f sheerly into cedars.

We came to Takahara Kumano Jinja, surrounded by ancient and immense kusanoki trees. One had three trunks rising out of an an enormous trunk base. Nearby was a small village, the first of many we'd come to here on the Nakahechi. (Had I pushed on six years ago, I wouldn't have been more than two hours away from food, despite what I'd heard from locals.) Each of the homes had a spectacular view of the mountains rising across the valley, the autumn sky above striated with cloud. I find myself strongly drawn to the peaks of this region, and all the lore that they contain.

At a rest stop here, an unfriendly group of middle-aged hikers was just finishing lunch, some of their women reapplying fresh make-up. We hurried to get out in front of them, climbing from the village, past a small A-framed structure rotting slowly into forest. On the ridge above was the lovely Koban Jizo, marking the place where a holy man had fallen. Above him was a spacious clearing where we stopped for lunch, near an impressively green toilet with recycled water. Leaving this ridge, we found a man dozing on the trail, and on two occasions ran into a single woman hiker.

We dropped fast then, to meet the highway and a small rest area. A guide told us that the hiking group we'd seen earlier had taken an overnight ferry from Kyushu, would hike half the trail, then return by another night boat this evening. Express-lane pilgrimage.

Climbing up again, we startled a large viper with bright yellow head. He was pointed toward Gyuba Ōji, an impressive stone figure standing in perpetuity amidst a grove of tall cypress. On the same mound were diminutive figures of En no Gyoja, Jizo, and Fudo. This was like a personal Buddhist greatest hits package, my three faves pow-wowing together. There was an unmistakable feeling of peace here, and the idea of having to leave was an agony. After a long while, we finally got the feet in motion again.

The trail dropped into Chikatsuyu village, laid out across a wide valley. I slightly bemoaned the fact that we weren't planning to stay out here, to stroll her narrow lanes after dark and swim in her rivers. A foreign woman drove past, her car bearing those familiar beginner's stickers. This mere glance was all I needed to guess her story. She'd be the only foreign face in town, a recent arrival judging by the sticker. She'd go into Tanabe to party with the other JETs. I've seen her story played out dozens of times, in the lives of friends back in the 'Nog, most long departed. And it made me instantaneously miss the community I'd had back there, and made me face up to the fact that, in a matter of weeks, I too would be gone.

We moved up again, along a road that hung high above the valley. I was well into the rhythm of the hike now, loving the scenery, the remote feel. Tsugizakura completed this sense of wonder, its stone steps rising between trunks centuries old. One elder was hollowed out with enough space to shelter a VW, and may have been standing here when the very first Kumano pilgrim strolled by over a millennium ago. Close by was a beautiful example of the classic Japanese farmhouse, hanging onto the face of the hill. I longed to pass a quiet night here. A bit further on, another farmhouse clung similarly to the slope, its roof long given away to the effects of gravity. My eyes strayed to a handful of graves on the hill behind, and I felt pity for those ancestors who, now that their homestead had been abandoned, will also fade into the forest and out of living memory.

We reached Kobiro Ōji, and then the main road. Clouds were starting to come over the ridge in strange formations, as if heralding the coming of autumn. We had a bizarre moment where our out-stretched thumbs simultaneously pulled over two cars. We jumped into the closest, squeezing in with three young women. The driver commented on the clouds, saying that this kind usually precede earthquakes. And we drove further west, toward a sky a color more like New Mexico than anything I'd ever seen here...

On the turntable: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, "Studio Jams"

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