Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Nakasendo, solo

And as soon as I looked into the deity's eyes, the shrieking began...

I found myself awake on the nighttime side of five, so I roused myself out of bed, jumped on the bicycle and rode down river.  Our Walk Japan Nakasendō tours ostensibly begin in Kyoto, but aside from an obligatory stop at Sanjo Bridge--the western terminus--we take a train east, through all the built up concrete bed towns of Shiga.  The real walk begins where the mountains start in Gifu.  I found myself curious with what we roar past, and decided to walk those sections of the Nakasendō not on the tour.  I know that it won't be pleasant, over unforgiving asphalt and through ugly scenery, but curiosity oft trumps common sense.  This first twenty-some kilometers was not only the Nakasendō but also that road's more renowned sibling, the Tōkaidō.  I'd follow them both until they part ways in Kusatsu.

So I found myself heading up Sanjo just after 6 a.m.   The usually busy road was quiet, and I left it before long, along a diagonal road heading beneath the hills that lower themselves eventually into Misasagi.  Occasionally there'd be a set of steps leading up to some temple, and I'd climb up and have a look.  Historically, this must have been a flourishing center of Buddhist practice, today watched over by the massive Agon-shu temple atop the mountain itself.  It was along this stretch that I saw the cave, just the other side of the parking lot.  It is very unusual in Japan to see a roadside shrine without direct access, but these people meant business, with their double set of chains and a third strand of barbed wire.  There was a elderly man before the shrine altar, finishing up his prayers.  I asked him if I too could pray there, and he said sure, and gestured me in.  A small waterfall fell across the entrance to the cave, where esoteric austerities are performed.  Further back was a large stone turtle and riding his back was one of the most beautiful statues of Fudo-myo, with eyes of a brilliant emerald green.  And as soon as I looked into the deity's eyes, the shrieking began.  Startled, I turned to see a woman in the street, screaming at me, asking what I was doing there.  I told her about the old man, who at that moment was riding away on his motorcycle.  The woman's husband now came outside, and started yelling at the old man's back.  I repeatedly  apologized, but they said that I wasn't doing any harm, that the old guy was trouble.  He'd been repeatedly told not to enter the shrine, but he did.  Apparently a lawyer had already been contacted, and the matter was heading to court.  Things calmed down now, and I started to ask about this mysterious place, but the couple stayed focused on the old man.  At one point the woman went into the house, returning with a pencil and paper.  She then asked me if I'd give my name and address.  I started to walk backwards, hands up, saying wait a minute, I just wanted to say a quick prayer.  The woman said that was fine, but that she'd want the police to get a report on the incident.  I quickly turned and headed down hill, saying sorry but no, over my shoulder, leaving behind this protective deitess, shrieking for me to come back.

I hurried for the next twenty minutes, worried that she'd call the cops who would come question me.   There was no way I could blend, what other foreigner was out walking at this hour?  After a few more zigzags, I began to relax.  I was walking in the opposite direction of a parade of commuters heading toward Yamashina station.   I liked the fact that at this early hour, I'd already walked halfway to Otsu.  

Along with a walk that would be hard on both the feet and the eyes, I was expecting a frustrating day of seeking out signs, of repeatedly doubling back to find the trail.  I was very surprised to see that the path was quite well marked, for the Tōkaidō of course.  I've walked many of this country's old roads which always entails a lot of guess work, for the lack of signage and poor maps in guide books.  I had no real problems all day.  On the far side of Yamashina, I walked into a snarl of highways and railways.  The road was narrow,  morning auto commuters creating a bottleneck at the intersection of the Nara Kaido.  I topped Osaka pass, stopping for a snack at a small shrine, and noting the sparkling clean toilets built onto the site of the old barrier station.  On the descent, I walked beneath an overpass used solely by walkers of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō.  I knew that at the southern end was the start of a very grueling ascent, one of the hardest on the whole Kansai section of the trail.  (In fact, throughout the day, I'd pass a half dozen more places where the day's walk intersected with walks done previously by Miki and I.  Where a modern GPS will show you a map of the region as it looks now, in my head I hold maps of where these arteries once led in the past.)

The road into Ōtsu is marked with shrines.  A few blocks shy of Lake Biwa, the road doglegs sharply to the east.  In the past, I've ragged Ōtsu for its poor marking of trails, of ignoring its past.  But this section is very well loved and cared for.  Maps and signs are plentiful, as are the multiple placards demarkating history.  These accompanied me for the rest of the morning.  

The monotony of the suburban scenery was beginning to wear on me, so much so that I recall little to reproduce in writing.  Over the line into Kusatsu and the signs began to disappear, though someone made a valiant attempt in their handwritten signs.   The town center was quaint and faux traditional, atop which the two great trunk roads left one another.  The Nakasendō stood alone now, taking me through a brick tunnel and through a shopping arcade before boring me with more uninspired suburbs.  It was a long muggy afternoon, the only relief being a few large wooded shrines.  Moriyama was attempting to capture some of the flavor of the old road, with a museum and a handful of galleries.  I stopped for an iced coffee in a small cafe built inside a renovated storehouse.  I was soon joined by a woman from the historical center next door.  We talked a little about the road, then I continued on, in the rain now lightly falling.  

Outside Yasu I realized that I'd had enough for the day.  It had been 35 kilometers over hard surface and my feet were beginning to complain.  Far better to jump the next train back home, pop into that Nepalese place around the corner for a take-out curry, and accompany it with a craft beer and an old film.  Then wait until the guide book upstairs begins to weave its next spell on me, and spur me on to the road once more.  

On the turntable: Beastie Boys, "The Mix-up"
On the nighttable: Richard Tames, "A Traveller's (sic) History of Japan"


Zacky Chan said...

Lately I've been taking my long journeys into the mountains, only to return just in time to teach night classes ... totally messes with my beer drinking movie watching next trip planning happiness. I hate eating a delicious meal without cake and coffee. Well done!

blaine said...

I enjoyed this write up.

I haven't been out much at all these days and this makes me want to get back out.

I've just been playing in the kitchen as usual.