Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XIII

09/13/09 was the first time in 5 days that we wore our packs. The rain of yesterday had stopped, though the train that we boarded at eight was speckled with drops. At Hiki, where we'd stopped a couple days back, we found that there would be no buses for three hours, despite what I'd been told. Across the street, the lone taxi in town was parked in a garage, its driver no doubt sleeping in on this Sunday morning. We tried to thumb it, but nobody seemed to be going our way.

A woman who owned the only shop in town noticed our plight and offered us a lift. She'd lived in this village all her life, and when much younger, had decided that the local people needed a place to shop. These days, hardly anyone came. Those who walked the Kōdō did so as day trips now. During our brief 10 minute ride, she stopped for a 5 minute chat with a friend riding a bike between rice fields. I truly love the unhurried pace of the countryside.

She let us out where the road stopped. The trail was narrow and overgrown, looking more like jungle as it hugged the hillside 20 feet above the Hikigawa. When it dropped again, we walked to the water's edge, into its clean smoothness. People used to cross here by walking across planks lain over boats tied end to end. Today a single boat was moored on the opposite bank, rides available to those who telephoned the owner.

The water looked inviting, but it was early and I didn't yet feel like a swim. A half-hour later I'd change my tune, after a quick calf-burning ascent to the pass. We rested awhile, then dropped down an incredibly steep pitch, my pack shoving me forward all the way down. Along here was a Fudo statue of such age that no one could remember when he'd arrived. Further down was an unusual shrine dedicated to the god of the Earth. Although there was a stone base, nothing was placed upon it, signifying that the object of worship was everything beyond: the trees, the rocks, the hills. I went down to the stream below to wet my head as the heat was coming up. Ayu swam freely by, seemingly untroubled by the fishermen who'd driven from as far as Osaka and Kyoto in the hopes of catching them.

We walked down this stream as it traced the long valley filled with shorn rice fields and the odd farm. There were more plum groves out here, and barrels tied to trunks of maples in order to collect the sap. Just after the noon chimes, we turned left at the town candy shop and arrived at Susami station. The lone employee sat in his office in a wife-beater shirt, brushing his teeth at his desk. Despite even this, it was a pretty weird place, one half converted into a museum dedicated to squid. There were dozens of photos on the walls, and as much kitschy squid crap as you could fill your car with. A large tank nearby didn't actually hold any squid, but there was a lobster, and two small sharks, and a particularly toothy eel whose mouth was perpetually open as if in disbelief that it was even in here.

We wandered up to the main highway and grabbed some pretty pathetic lunch fixins, made better by being eaten on a lovely stretch of sandy beach. We followed this with ice cream, eaten back at the station while looking at the wanted posters. Those pictured had all been on the lam for over 10 years, and the artist's rendering of what they might look like today were quite bad. This country produces some of the best graphic artists in the world, but these pictures here on display looked like those old "Draw Like This and Win!" ads in the back of the comic books of my youth.

We moved out of town, up a pass whose name translated to something like, "Pass That Even Horses Can't Cross." It was steep and crumbly and overgrown, in a day of steep and crumbly and overgrown trails. At the top was an open space with a single tall Kannon statue staring out to sea. We sat wearily on a bench beside her, sharing with her the view. Moving across this open plateau was like crossing the desert and my eyes automatically made the transition from looking for skinny vipers to looking for their fatter, rodent-fed, rattle-toting cousins. Just as I was thinking this odd, I nearly jumped at the sight of a snakeskin, moving with the wind.

We followed a road deep into the next valley. Midway up was the ruins of an elementary school, now used by the locals to store tractors and wooden planks. I walked across an athletic field now overgrown to a plaque that told me that this school had stood on this site from 1893 to 1973. Even the youngest of its final group of students are older than me. The remaining kids of this village must love the dolphin-shaped house nearby, cozy-looking and well lit. The trail took us off the road along a narrow grassy trail that ran up above the village houses and along the edge of the forest. Many of these people owned 3 or 4 dogs, each of them quite vocal.

We arrived at a large but empty shrine where we'd considered spending the night. It had water and toilets and shelter from the rain, should any fall. But it was still only 3 pm; we could easily get over the next pass by dark. This, the final big climb of the Kōdō, was lower than the previous two (388m), but the climb was short and steep. At the top, the trail was a squared off path that crumbled away on both sides. The twisted and gnarled maze of roots along the trail's length betrayed earth packed down by a millenium of passing pilgrim feet.

The final steep descent dropped us amidst a few houses and a small train platform, Mirozu. We collapsed onto a bench and quickly downed a cold drink vended from a machine. I looked at the top of my pack, turned nearly white from cobwebs. I must've busted through dozens during the day, the spiders harder at work than even the Japanese Construction Ministry.

The train platform was small and remote, a mere concrete shell with two long benches running the length of both sides. These benches looked wide enough for sleeping. The problem was that we had nearly no food. After a quick shower from the hose out back, I tucked into my dinner of slim jims and chocolate cupcake, washed down with the remains of the tea in the thermos. The misspelled English on the "Waitng Room" sign made me crave Vietnamese spring rolls. Later we went across the highway to lean against the guard rail, the sun setting into a Pacific ocean expanding and splashing onto the base of this concrete berm 30 feet below.

Back at our station lodgings, we read and wrote while waiting for the final train. There was one every ninety minutes or so, with no one disembarking anyway. But we'd wait until the final 10:22 train, before rolling out our sleeping bags and rolls and hoping that the mozzies would give some respite...

On the turntable: Tabla Beat Science, "Tala Matrix"

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