Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kumano Kōdō XVI


...it had rained all night but the morning was blue and clear. I looked out the window at the inlet just below, the tide dropping by the minute. In the bathroom, I noticed a small shrine to Fudo. He is the god of immovability, but the toilet is the one place where I most hope for movement to occur.

We checked out and within minutes are out of town, threading hills bathed in mist, as the trees slough off the night's moisture. There is a Zen training center out here, as well as a charcoal processing plant. The fog creates an otherworldly atmosphere to the morning. We move through it to a low pass, watched over by a small Jizo, as is common. It isn't long before we're in a village, long and open and lit by the sun. As we walk out of it, a farmer pulls over in his truck, warning us that the next pass might be tough going after all the rain. I tend not to heed these warnings too much, as much of the worry is usually over-exaggerated. The Japanese can be such world-class worry warts.

At the base of the next pass were a tall Jizo flanked by two stone giraffes. There was also a proper traveler's rest house here, containing a sofa and a cot. A house stood above it all, and in the front entry way, an old woman sat with her scruffy dog.

We went over the pass and on the way down, met a construction crew. They'd spent three weeks constructing what looked like a long rollercoaster that transported the telephone cable that they'd eventually lay across the hilltops. We stopped to talk to them a bit, one guy saying. "The mountains of Nachi sure are beautiful, aren't they?" I strongly suppressed the obvious refrain of , "They are, so why are you guys so gung ho about fucking them up?" Just a short while later, we surprised a tanuki on the trail. If you've seen the film "Pompoko," you'll get the irony of finding one in the section of the Kōdō where man has done the most damage.

The adjacent parts weren't much better. During the bubble, they'd built a series of bungalows around a man-made Edo-period lake. Now abandoned, the cabins are still in good stead if you need a place to sleep and are into a little creative B & E.

We rested atop the next section, beyond where both our guide book and frequent trailside signs warned us about the vipers that we never saw. The trail began to descend, and a moment after Miki said, "this isn't so bad," it shot straight up those frustrating faux-wooden steps, traversed a very narrow path over a high cliff, then dropped down a stream bed. In bad weather, this section would be very tough indeed, and I can now understand our farmer friend's warning.

Where the trail ended, we had lunch beside a quiet river. We circled around a pair of lakes, then moved up the final pass of the day and--for us--the Ōhechi. Each pass we'd crossed over the last five days had been a little lower than the last, making this one a mere baby, comparatively. At its top was a Jizo that supposedly had healing powers, and the high tech A/V system beside it told us so.

Dropping next into Kii Katsuura, moving through town past the old sake brewing factory toward Nachi station. This section was a mess, far too many roads built with tourist money, in the hopes of luring even more. What I saw before me completely justified the internal Kinsellan voice I heard when I first learned that Kumano got World Heritage status: "Before they build it, you should go." Miki noticed posters put up by a resident's group opposed to a proposed nuke plant down here. I feel that if this plant is built, UNESCO should not only repeal the World Heritage status of Kumano, but should never reward it to anything in this country ever again.

We paid a quick visit to Funarakuji temple, which housed a marvelous collection of statues and faded paintings, all shaded by majestic trees 800 year old. Beside the temple building was a model of an old sealed boat. Upon reaching the age of 60, certain monks would be sealed inside and set adrift, faithful that they'd reach the Pure Land. Of the twenty who attempted it, only a single monk returned. (Would this then be considered a success or failure?)

A bus took us to Shingu. Along the way, I tried to find those sections I'd walked back in 2005, and noticed immediately the damage that the construction industry had done, especially near the port. We dropped our bags at the station, where Miki ran into a friend she hadn't seen in 6 years, now working at the Tourist info center.

Salutations complete, we walked through town to Kuragami Jinja. The rocks leading up were jagged and wild, befitting a place where yamabushi train. A young, thin woman appeared from out of the forest, then turned in prayer toward the mountaintop. Something about her resonated something in me, some power she emitted. Miki and I walked on toward the source, over jagged steps, scaring off a viper in the process. In front of a large tree was a stone the size and shape of a Jizo. Thought lacking any distinct features, it had a collection of small white stones around its base. When we came down later, an old woman was standing before it deep in prayer, causing me to wonder about what secrets it espoused.

The shrine at the top was equally powerful, built into an immense boulder. Behind this was a gap--the typical passage to rebirth found in Shugendo. We wanted to pass through, but a couple of men were standing there talking, one obviously rich in knowledge about the Kumano region. Leaving them to their talk, we walked over to Hayatama Jinja, passing Hikitsuchi Sensei's aikido dojo on the way. As Miki and I walked and talked about whether this had been a spiritual experience for us, we both agreed it hadn't been. Sure, we'd suffered some and had learned a handful of things, but overall, it just felt like an especially long hike.

This feeling changed once we got to the shrine, and that feeling of spirituality came on in a sudden rush. The trees, the quiet dignified buildings, the quality of light, all contributed to a great feeling of peace, of not wanting to leave its sacred precinct. I'd been here twice before, but hadn't felt it then. But today, this place, a major source of Japanese folk spirituality, had drawn me in. I want to make this my life-work.

A group of bus tourists tried to ruin it. As the tour conductor was purifying her hands before her in worship, one middle-aged man interrupted these ablutions, complaining that he didn't want to wait an extra hour until dinner. Then he and his three buddies pushed in on me as I prayed before the main shrine. I moved away, bowing in thanks before all the gods, and with that, my Kumano pilgrimage was done.

Miki and I scouted out the castle ruins as a place to sleep, but finding it less than ideal and too trafficked with dog walkers. Miki's friend instead directed us to a cheap hotel. The hotel clerk in turn lead us to a good izakaya. It was a small place, just a counter with six stool, all filled by a group of men in their sixties, local men and friends since childhood. It was funny to hear them talk about old school days. The master was a handsome man with the immense hands and powerful chest of a judoka. By day he caught the fish that he'd serve at night. I neglected to ask if he'd personally 'rassled the whale on the menu. When I did ask about the 'namero,' he brought a whole serving--basically an entire bonito, bones and all, ground into mince and served raw, seasoned with vinegar and chili. It is the type of thing that only fisherman could eat, and believe me, even with all the beer, it was tough going. That mission finished, we walked up Shingo's main shopping arcade, stomach churning and head abuzz. Closing my eyes that night was closing the chapter on this part of the trip.

On the turntable: Hootie and the Blowfish, "Cracked Rear View"

No comments: