Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nakasendo solo, V

This country can be drop dead gorgeous, but it can also present a face so ugly that it knocks you flat. Despite it being only 5:30 a.m., I'm already thinking this.  I purposely left early since I knew I still had two more hours on the godawful Route 21.  At this hour, traffic is lighter, but the clusters of cars as they are released by the traffic lights roar by in a way that taxes the nervous system.  I am grateful for a minute of quiet here and there, where it is as if I am the only one out and about at this hour.  Even the SDF base is silent.

I find my reward in the posttown of Unuma.  It is one of the more scenic towns along the whole Nakasendo.  The former inns, now the current homes of regular families, still maintain the patina of age.   Even the huge sake brewery is fenced in by the tall, darkened slats of two centuries ago.  Across the river, Inuyama's castle stands majestic on her perch.

I climb through green suburbs to a park, where three old men direct me into the forest and over a pass.  The mamushi warning signs probably outnumber the snakes themselves.  I walk slowly, out of delight rather than fear, happy to be away from traffic for a change.  At the base of the pass I'm fed through a tunnel which opens onto the Kiso river rushing past.  This scene finally connects me with the Nakasendo I know best, this water having moved through the narrow Kiso Valley that I've walked six times as a guide.  It is a welcome sight.

Sadly, this joy is short lived.  The traffic finds me again, beside three abandoned hotels.  I imagine that this had once been a booming tourist spot in the 90's, but today, not a single business is still alive.  There is more life up in the cave temple hanging above the river, where Buddhas and Jizos and En no Gyoja look over these monuments to impermanence.  The temple is small but would've been the ultimate place to have slept had I stuck to my original plan, to drift off to the lullaby of the flowing river, and the constant drip, drip, drip,  like a heartbeat in the cave's darkness.

Below the cave I come to a bicycle track that runs atop an embankment beside the river.  I follow it since it parallels the Nakasendo now running heavy with traffic and trucks.  A number of joggers pass by, including one guy running in Chuck Taylors.  It is far more pleasant to look down on the river, rather than at the factories to my left, but the sun is hot now as we get further into morning.   I'm happy to finally drop back down to Ota posttown, which is a little more modern yet tinged with history.  There is a museum here, surprisingly free, with a decent amount of exhibits and displays.  An old man sells his veggies out front to a few tourists.   I sit and have some bread and a cold tea, happy to get out of the sun's unforgiving glare.

Before long, I'm back on the bike trail again.  I keep seeing signs for the Nihon Line.  Nihon Line, Nihon Line?   What the hell is the Nihon Line?  Then I get it.  This area is called the Japanese Rhine, but to me walking along the river toward a iron trestle bridge I'd soon cross, with the Old Timey American music on my iPod, I feel more like I'm walking in the Deep South somewhere, through Georgia or Mississippi, on a hot day, with the old men sitting by the banks having a smoke and a chat, and fathers teaching their sons to catch catfish.

On the far side of the river I am surprised to see an Indian restaurant, so I duck inside for a curry and a beer, followed by an iced coffee.  My stomach churns as I continue along the hot roadway.  The next town is Fushimi, who express honesty with their signs saying  "Ruins of Historic Fushimi Posttown."  Which is true.  Not a trace of the old town remains.

I'm an hour away from my final destination of Mitake.  The Nakasendo weaves me on and off Highway 21, through little hamlets and under the shade of bamboo.  Just beyond a small shrine commemorating a headless oni, I take the last of the right angle turns that were built to slow an enemy advance on a posttown.  I know Mitake well, as it is where we start the real walking on our Nakasendo tours, and I'd planned to say hello to the Korean family that runs the okonomiyaki shop up the street.  But there's a train that I can catch in a few minutes, so I run the last 100 meters.

The train is near empty so I stand toward the back and towel off the sweat before changing into a clean shirt for the ride home.  As I do, I recall the words of the thruhiker of a few days back.  He said that when asked why he walks in this kind of heat, he doesn't have any answer. Even he doesn't know why.    But he's got it wrong.  The real question is:  why do we do this at all?

On the turntable:  "Memphis Gospel"  (Various)

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