Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nakasendo solo, IX

Seba was as quiet as a ghost town as I left it behind.  Rather than tumbleweeds, it was the odd kei-truck that rolled slowly by.  The high walls of the Kiso valley were receding behind me now, the vistas opening out to reveal the Alps ringing Matsumoto to the north.  Mt. Norikura was over my left shoulder, and I could still feel her in my legs. 

This valley was filled with the perfume of grape, purple on one side of the road and white on the other.  Above the orchards, the sky wasn't so much autumn as summer's final stand:  soft blue sky, wispy clouds, and a light breeze that tempered the 32C degree heat. The organic plants were soon replaced with those of an industrial type.  I was disgusted at the cynicism of a Fushimi Inari shrine within the walls of the massive Showa Denko complex.  

If I translate Nojiri, as "Wild Ass,"  then Shiojiri must surely be "Salty Ass."  My own was pressing on through town, the former main street now a highway, yet still flanked by the remains of old inns.  Beyond town I came to Kakizawa, where two women were scraping dried mud off the street after harvesting their rice a day before.  Before them was the incredible Eifukuji and its replica 88 temple pilgrimage, each stone carved with the Buddha of its corresponding Shikoku hondo.  The main hall here had a massive kayabuki roof, and a surprising shimenawa hanging in front.  Kobo Daishi stood nearby, beside an Imperial horse.  This seamless Shinbutsu blending begs a return visit.

My toes began to point upward toward Shiojiri pass.  It was a long slog along a non-divergent straight line, which finally began to twist and wriggle once it reached the trees a couple of km further up.  I took a short cut across a baseball field, and past a motorcycle cop who returned my hat tip.  The houses up here were more of the wealthy weekender type, and even these dropped away, leaving me alone with the bear warning signs.  The view from the pass however was worth the ursine risk, of Lake Suwa filling the broad valley below.  Fuji-san too was enjoying the good weather, disembodied and floating further out. 

The pass dropped quickly past a Kannon shrine, and beyond this I lost my compassion for the builders of the new bypass and new environs that looked nothing like my map.  I wound up in a housing development far off trail.  I apparently asked the right local to set me straight, for he'd helped another Nakasendo walker the week before.  He was going in that direction anyway...

I backtracked in order to figure out where I'd gone wrong.  This little 30 minute detour would ensure that I wouldn't get to my inn until well after sunset.  The walk was pleasant though, through an older suburb with plenty of trees and high shrubs and a couple of nice river crossings.  It was nearly dark when I got to Shimosuwa proper, where a school girl pointed me toward the famous area of hot springs and inns, through which I walked, disappointed at the lost light.  (I plan to visit the famous Suwa shrines at some point, so hope to see this all during the day.)  After this section, the incredible inconsistency of my map with actual reality revealed a possible drug habit on the part of the mapmaker.  Everything was an incredible jumble.  Finding roadside marks in the dark was impossible, so I wandered in circles, until a school boy offered to show me the way.  There, just below a sign I had previously squinted at, was a large stone carved with the name Nakasendo, and an arrow pointing right.

It pointed up a wide road completely devoid of street lights.  This was probably the first time in years in which I was walking at night, as I prefer early morning starts and early evening beers.   A couple school kids punished their calves as they pedaled upward to be lost in the dark.  A wild river rushed unseen below me, and finally, I found my inn.

I'd hoped to be here an hour before, at six.  As I apologized, the mother-and-son team tuttered and flitted about, making a big deal about my obvious non-Japaneseness.  This fact had of course been pointed out to me on multiple occasions, and ensured a long night.  The son of the owner (who he referred to as Okami-san)  led me to my room, which looked more like a hospital room.  As I looked around I realized that all the rooms looked like this, and that I'd somehow checked myself into a rehabilitary spa of some sort.  The son apologized about the condition of the room, and I made a bad joke in saying, "That's okay, I'm handicapped by my inability to write kanji well," something I'd demonstrated upon check-in.  No reaction.  It suddenly dawned on me that this man too had a mental handicap of some sort, which went a long way to explain the horror in his voice when I'd telephoned earlier and explained that I'd be late, but would be along soon as I was walking just below the large cemetery down the hill. 

Before my bath, I went back to the lobby to have some of the cold barley tea I'd seen there. The son sat down next to me and simply stared at me as I tried to ignore him by looking around the lobby at fixtures and design decades old.  I love these kinds of places, decades past their prime.  Okami-san's father had been a famous painter before dying in 1947 at the age of 22.  Many of his oils hung in the hallway.  I assumed that his daughter had been quite young when he'd died, and I was saddened somewhat by the fact that he may never have had a chance to paint her.

After my bath, I sat alone in a large open tatami room, my back to where a few dozen others could have sat.  I was thrilled that the inn served locally brewed beer, which went nicely with my meal, eaten beneath a large landscape done in oil.  Perhaps it was the view I'd been denied due to my late arrival?  

As I ate, a shrieking started up in the kitchen.  A few moments before, the son had asked me if I'd mind paying my bill after dinner, as I'd made in clear earlier that I'd be departing at dawn.  Having told the mother this, she began to chastise him about his rudeness.  If I'd been Japanese, I would have surely been deeply offended, she screeched, my meal ruined by this gross breach of etiquette.  She carried on and on with this, about how he'd embarrassed her, for a good ten minutes.  But no madam, you have only served to embarrass yourself, and essentially ruined my stay.

When I paid, he apologized, but I told him truthfully that I wasn't at all bothered.  He seemed relieved.  Despite my earlier bad feelings toward his mother, I couldn't help feel sorry for her.  There was no apparent husband around, and the future of this inn would rest solely in the hands of this young man and his mental challenges.   He was earnest to be certain, but quite awkward.  

With this on my mind, I walked beneath the gaze of two dozen oil eyes to my room...

On the turntable:  The Germs, "MIA"

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