Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nakasendo, solo III

The rain out the window sounded heavier than the shower.  The day before, I had planned to set out for a three day walk up the Nakasendo, but I just wasn't feeling it.  So I stayed home instead, kicking myself some when the rain stopped around 7 am and the sun came out. 

This morning saw similar skies, though the rain had let up some.  Arriving at Kyoto station to scenes of chaos, people milling in front of the neon signs announcing that all the limited express trains were delayed.  As I sat awhile on the platform waiting for one to come, I was lucky to overhear a station worker tell an elderly woman that he wasn't sure if they be running at all.  I quickly jumped aboard a local train that had been sitting idle before me, its doors closing just behind my back.

It was raining in Takamiya when I disembarked, yet its intensity abated little by little for the next hour until eventually petering out.  The sun didn't seem to want to take the stage today but that was just as well as it kept the heat down.

On a hill at the edge of town stood an old shrine, below which was a cluster of Jizo.  Beside them was a small Jizo temple, almost an afterthought.  I was definitely heading into the countryside now, the suburban homes falling away gradually like the rain.  Moving past a shrine with its papered barrier rope lowered to prevent access.  I thought it had to do with ritual pollution as the shrine stood across from a large modern cemetery and this was the time when the souls of the dead return.  But every shrine in this area seemed to be closed off, so it must be a local custom.  Soon after,  I passed another grave, that of the renowned beauty Ono no Komachi, standing lonely in a narrow ribbon of green between the expressway and the Shinkansen line.  On the latter, the trains weren't moving, two or three of them lined up nose to tail at a dead standstill.  It was like being in some postapocalyptic film, the vision of these ghost trains.  Something bad must be happening back in Kansai.  (Later I'd hear about the fatal floods down in Uji.)

Moving at a speed far exceeding that of the Shinkansen, I entered Toriimoto-cho, a lovely old posttown retaining its traditional look.  At the opposite end was an old-timey wooden canoe and beautiful vintage Jaguar sitting behind an apartment building.  Just beyond them,  I entered the forest for the first time since leaving Kyoto.  A short but steep climb brought me to a tiny hamlet in a narrow valley overlooking rice fields and Lake Biwa beyond.  It was quiet for a time, until I arrived back at the expressway and its everpresent rhythmic hiss.  I crested a low pass where beneath me, the expressway had entered a tunnel.  The far side was quiet.  A large monkey crossed the road in front of me.  As I stopped to watch it move through the trees, dozens of dragonflies churned the air above the rice paddies.

Where the paddies ended lay the village of Bamba.  People clad in black were gathering in the road, obviously heading to a temple downhill.  One man was carrying a small box of powdered incense which smelled like it was already lit.  For the first time, I felt like I was finally on the Nakasendo, moving through the woods that served as the boundaries of human settlement, and on into these villages that exhibit a vitality unseen in the lifeless suburbs that I'd spent two long days trying to leave behind. 

Where the village ended I found a restaurant that surprised me by being open. Inside, two women were busy packing boxes with masu  that were being delivered to families too busy to cook during the holiday.  I was the only customer of course, which allowed me to chat freely with them as I paired my fish with a beer that is always a miracle on a humid day like this.  I joked how when I explain the food to my tour clients, I inevitably use the English word 'trout' for not only masu, but also iwana, ayu, aji.  As we talked, a dozen larger fish swum in a cement pit at one corner of the kitchen, soon to join the souls of their own ancestors. 

Having satisfactorily carbo-loaded,  I moved along, standing on the shoulders of the beer.  Across from the former chaya is a policebox with information written in both Japanese and Portuguese.  Next to it is a butcher shop, open in defiance of the usual Obon prohibition against meat eating.  I soon came to the next posttown of Samegai, a lovely little village shaded by the trees that over hang the brook that runs through the center of things.  The town quickly became my favorite of all of those in Shiga, with the galleries, cafes, and temples.  The only problem is that fucking expressway running just above.

On the slope heading out of town I come across the only thru hiker I've met on the Nakasendo.  He had set out on July 22nd, and would arrive at his destination of Sanjo Ohashi in a couple more days.  He said that when he'd set out 25 days before, he had intended doing 40 km days, but the heat quickly changed his mind for him.  Now even thirty a day is a challenge.  He was friendly and chatty in a way that reveals the loneliness of solo travel.  I had many things I'd have liked to have asked him, but we both had places to go, and soon set off toward them.

The road brought me past a row of love hotels lining a quiet and shady river. Behind the modesty curtains of each hotel I could see a few cars, their owners currently doing their best to stimulate the economy.  I left them to their business, and moved into the forest along a soggy dirt track bisecting bamboo.  The forest on both sides was being used as a deliberate rubbish dump for the nearby factories, machinery and cars piled up the hillsides in an orderly fashion.  The trail opened out onto farmland, rice fields hugging a crescent curve of hills.

I wrapped around them to the town of Kashiwabara.  A Holy Roller moved past, his black priest's robes flowing behind as he rode his scooter to his next gig.  I meet another priest on the road, a nice young guy who seemed curious what I'm up to.  He tells me that he too lives in Kyoto, dividing his time between there and here.  Gesturing at his clothes, I joking ask if he's working, assuming that the priest job too is part time due to his full head of hair.  I carry on up the road again, behind a boy walking barefoot up the street.  A car pulls up, and a couple yells at him to get his ass home, to which he yells "No Way!' and moves along even more deliberately.

I cross the border into Gifu, the division here being a small stream.   The road is quiet, moving in and out of hamlets, then taking me into the forest again, through a narrow pass that helped determine the future of Japan.  Sekigahara lies on the far side, the site of the most decisive battle in Japanese history.  As I approach the town the clouds begin to build up like approaching armies, and just as I reach the town center the skies open up and then the deluge.  I stop in the covered front stoop of a bank to put a rain cover on my pack, for the only time of the four day walk.

It stops by the time I reach the tree lined outskirts of town.  These types of trees once ran the length of the Nakasendo, a great blessing on a hot August day such as this.  I don't doubt that walking the trail was much more of an ordeal back in the days before abundantly available vending machines and convenience stores.  But people were much fitter then, their basic level of walking ability much higher.  Plus they had more shade, and weren't forced to walk on all this hard asphalt. 

But despite the ache in my feet, I thoroughly enjoyed this particular section of the Nakasendo. Sadly, over the next two days, that feeling wouldn't return...

On the turntable:  Fishbone, "Truth and Soul"


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