Monday, August 13, 2012

Nakasendo, solo II

As I'm congratulating myself on how quickly I can move in the morning (I'm one of those annoying people who are able to wake up as if by the flick of a switch), I feel a drip down my arm.  Shit, my water reservoir is leaking.  It had acted strangely on that last hike I did with Wes, and now I see a nice little hole in the bite valve.  There are a few moments in the kitchen where I make like a Dutch boy, find the leak, and transfer the water over into a couple of nalgene.  I'm going to need it.  It's going to be hot again today.

On the train I'm feeling a bit self-conscious due to the wet spots on my shirt, that is until I notice that guy hanging off the strap in front of me reeks like a mosquito coil.  His T-shirt looms in front of me, its large font literally screaming, "Don't ask me 4 shit."  Sorry, bro.

I should have asked him about trains.  I'm lucky to find a seat in a busy commuter car.  I tuck into my book, and look up at one point to notice that Lake Biwa is on the wrong side.  Shit again.  I often tell people that I sometimes miss those early days when I was illiterate here, and hopping the wrong train being the impetus for adventure.  Well, this morning I've gone retro. 

I eventually get back to Yasu, where I finished the last walk.  The Nakasendo is right where I've left it.  Obon is coming up soon, and the temples are aflurry with sweeping brooms and splashing water.  There are quite a few dosojin along this stretch, freshly decorated with lovely purple flowers.  On the outskirts of town I come to Sakurabasama burial mounds.  The largest, Kabutoyama, has had a tunnel cut into the side, and at the end is a small chamber lit by an electrical source coming from somewhere.  At the center of the chamber is a large stone sarcophagus, lid pulled slightly aside.  The body is of course no longer here, but perhaps some trace of the spirit remains, so I apologize out loud for disturbing it,  then realize immediately that this could be the first time that this long-dead person has heard my native language.  While thinking this, the entire tomb shakes as the Shinkansen passes nearby.  I'm not the only one doing the disturbing.

I follow the Shinkansen tracks for awhile.  What would take me over two weeks of hard walking will be covered by the train in about 2 hours.  I'll parallel the line for the rest of the day, never more than 500 meters away, as the trains push the air along with an impatient whoosh.

The pushing of things aside is the perfect metaphor for the town of Shinohara.  It is another one of those bedtowns that has no time for that which isn't new and shiny and safe.  Here the Nakasendo signs disappeared quickly.  The few historical points seemed almost an embarrassment, like the hiding away of an elderly relative in some back room.  Just beyond a newly abandoned gas station is a small pond important in the life story of Yoshitsune, one of Japan's greatest heroes.  The area surrounding it is hemmed in by development, and the water of the pond itself is covered by an oily scum from all those trucks passing by a couple of meters away.  The only hint that this had once been a sizable post town are the placards showing the locations of what had been prosperous inns, staked in front of those lego-like instant homes designed by the most unimaginative of Tokyo's cookiecutter housing firms.   Even the more developed post towns have a section that retains somewhat of a look of the old.  Here nothing remains, least of which the dwarf bamboo from which the town of Shinohara took its name.

The next town, Musa, is entirely different.  I backtrack to the old river crossing, from which Hiroshige took his print of the town, and walk through a lovely little area of old buildings.  Near Oiso shrine I take a long rest in front of a house that is for sale.  I live out an entire life while sitting here:  of watching Sora grow up with the shrine and surrounding forest as her playground;  of converting the old sake shop next door into a cafe for shrine visitors, which would take on a hipster vibe with live music at night;  of the envy of friends as we'd walk from my front door and into the surrounding hills to explore the old temples up there;  of growing rice in one of the fields that stretches away seemingly toward Kansas.  A pastoral idyll, an hour from Kyoto.

Throughout the day, the sun plays peek-a-boo in the clouds, but it is hard to ignore the rising humidity.  It worsens as I am forced to march along Route 8 and all that traffic.  In the afternoon, I try to find some brief moments of cool in the shadow of the trucks backed up at every red light. 
Luckily I'm not on roads all day.  I cross the Echikawa down in its dry river bed, despite the signs warning me that water could be released from the dam upstream at any time.  I'm prevented from reaching the far side by about five meters of water, but rather than concede defeat and return back to take the bridge, I push through the reeds until I find a way across.  As I pour cooling water on the red welts and scratches on my legs I ponder why we men will stubbornly push on at great risk rather than prudently retreat to safety. 

Echikawa is a lovely stretch of road beneath the shade of trees.  Many of the homes look abandoned, trees and vines growing madly behind crumpling earthen walls.  A beautiful Taisho building is being sold as a residence despite looking more like a European bank.

The sun is low now so I walk the left side of the road in the shade of the two-story buildings.  My left hip is hollering loudly about something, so I take many rests, leaning against the iron shutters of yet another failed business. My feel feel like taiko bachi, which someone had been beating against the asphalt for the last six hours.  Two young girls bicycle past, one of them wearing a shirt emblazoned with, "Wishing you the Best."  Thanks, sweetie.

The last 7km are hard fought, but lovely Takamiya perks me up.  The grassy verge brings relief for the feet, beneath high zelkova trees that throw welcome shade.  A tap attached to the side of a house  offers cool and delicious water.  The town itself retains its historic look, marred somewhat by traffic a little too heavy for such a narrow street built for pedestrians.  Cars jerk sideways suddenly like crabs in order not to sideswipe one another.  One impatient driver brushes my hand with his mirror as he passes.

Finally the station.  Two elderly station workers sit in their air-conditioned office, watching Sazae-san on TV.   Waiting for my train, I think that I'd pushed it pretty close to my limit today.  And the scenery had hardly been worth it, through the worst of Shiga's suburbs.  The few sections of beauty had been too far between, offering the mind too little to distract it from the pain of going over all that asphalt.  The greater challenge was that it had been 35ºC degrees for most of the day, the humidity like a thumb.  Yet I had been set on my 30 km goal.   I make a vow that I'd set a 25/25 rule:  never going over 25km on a day that is over 25ºC. 

But within a week I was hoping to walk 94km over three days, across the broad Minō plain...

On the turntable:  Paul Simon, "You're the One"
On the nighttable:  Alan Booth, "The Road to Sata"

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