Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Nakasendo solo, VI & VII

I'm not happy to be starting this walk in the heat of the day, but clouds are starting to hug the mountains above.  I'd rather not have the rain, but I'd welcome the cool. 

I'm starting in Nagiso, a town that I've often passed through on my tours.  We usually take the older, high mountain route, abandoned in the road's later history because of the dangers posed by terrain and the beasts and the bandits.  This treacherousness remains today, and we will call it an early day in the event of bad weather. (One one occasion, we did so due to a bizarre spring typhoon; the type of weather that clients often die in.)   So I'm going to follow the safer lower route today, the one that hugs the river. 

This late in summer, plums are literally dropping off the branch. I'm almost hit by one as I pray at a small Jizo shrine.  The walls of the Kiso valley are too sheer to do much rice cultivation.  The region's main industry is on display in the piles of timber stacked up in the rail yard, above Momosuke's bridge. Like many Meiji men of industry, Momosuke showed bold spirit in building a bridge at the widest part of the river, simply because he could.  Local lore has it that he did it to impress a geisha named Sayaka, once depicted on the cover of Harper's Bazaar riding her motorcycle, male companion in the sidecar.  Ultimately, Momosuke's plan failed, and Sayaka went off the Russia to entertain the Czar.    

Just past town, the Nakasendo joined Route 19, and here I stay awhile.  I try to ignore the passing traffic by keeping my eyes on the Kiso River below, weaving between massive stones of white.  I long to swim out to one and briefly escape the day's heat, but there is no easy means off this damn road.

I enter Nojiri eventually, a name I love to translate as 'wild ass.'  The rain finds me on the opposite side of town, and when I am fed back onto Route 19 a little later, I find myself hollering at the trucks and their wake of water and wind. As I drop down into Okuwa, the rain really hits, so I huddle in the entrance of a shop to pull out my rain gear. A little girl of four or five is working up the courage to come say something.  Luckily she doesn't, for I doubt I'd have been able to put on my best face under the circumstances.  I did return her wave and bye-bye as I step out from beneath my shelter.   Naturally the rain immediately stops. 

Okuwa is a picturesque little town, and my road here takes me above a valley filled with rice fields.  Mists paint fantastic shapes up in the hills.  Komagatake is high above me, looking quite like an evil wizard in the weather.  Just outside town, a man is perched on a high bluff, camera propped to shoot trains as they make the turn framed perfectly by the steep hills.  The road drops into another hamlet, one that hosts a temple propped on pillars and wedged into a rock overhang.  Then Suhara, and the dainty little farms, one with grapes climbing a trellis.

The final hour of the day is along the busy highway again.  Walking these old roads always entails long stretches like this, which is natural due to the limited space above this wide river that winds though these high mountains.  The birth of the automobile made the Nakasendo obsolete, so it was replaced by a wider road that in turn became obsolete with the rise of automobile culture. Makes perfect sense.  Yet my understanding doesn't change the fact that through the fluke of coincidence, I often find myself on these busy roads at the end of the day, when my feet and back hurt, and my mind rebels with shouts of "This Sucks!"  If I weren't so goddamned stubborn, I'd hitchhike through this crap.

The rain threatens again, so I make a deal with the sky, asking it to please hold off another half an hour.  I push on toward the train that means the difference between a long pleasant bath and meal, or a rushed version of the same.  My burden lifts a little as I spy the only roadside restaurants I've seen over my 21 km today: a soba shop beside a ramen shop beside an udon shop.  Then the road stretching away again toward nothing.

I get the train, late as expected due to the severe storm that soaked me earlier.  I find my inn in Agematsu, and  fall into the bath within minutes.  As often happens, I wind up dining alone.  The meal is good, shared only with the baseball announcers on the TV.  Then, as I hang my clothes in front of the window, the rain falling behind, I try not to think that I've been checked into Room 13...

...at six a.m. the rain has stopped, and not much else is moving.  I briefly toy with the idea of hitching, but there is no sign of any living thing in Agematsu this morning.  I sit in front of the station with my poor excuse for a breakfast:  raisin cookies and canned coffee.  The train comes through and I disembark again where I'd boarded 12 hours before.  I backtrack a few hundred meters to the trail I'd seen the previous night yet hurried past in the fading light.  It is a gorgeous morning, the sun still tucked behind the high walls of this valley.  I'd counted on this, hence the early start.  I've gone fast and light, leaving my bag at the inn to be picked up when I pass by again in another 9 km or so. 

Moving through the next hamlet, I surprise a man wearing a lovely button down shirt and not much in the way of trousers.  Within minutes I pass a sign aimed toward him and his tribe, warning older men against pissing at a roadside rest stop.  It's main point seems to be that there are toilets at a rest stop 20km further on, or 25 minutes by car.  That same distance will take me the rest of the morning.

Luckily, I don't have to stay with Route 19, and am led along smaller parallel roads shaded by trees.  The way into Agematsu is a pleasant journey through nice stretches of green.  Not much remains of the old post town, a fact confirmed by the owner of my inn, who tells me that a fire wiped out over 700 structures back in the '50s.  Only her two kura survived.

The trails signs are good throughout the day, though I never get to the point where I put away my map book, despite it's big and cumbersome A4 size.  The signs do fail me once, point up the wrong side of a train crossing.  I soon find myself stubbornly pushing on though waist high weeds, until the certainty of stepping on a viper brings me to my senses.  I double back to find the true trail, and am right as rain from then on. 

It is a long 32km day, best remembered as features passed in the small communities through which I passed.  One town has a great water source, cool against the sun now high and persistent.  Not far away is the similarly cooling Ono Falls.  I'm startled to see a pair of shoes lined up at the water's edge, which I hope were merely forgotten rather than the signifier of a suicide somewhere over in those trees. 

I come to a shrine for Mt. Ontake at the edge of the forest.  There is nothing here but a torii, no shrine structure at all.  It dawns on me that it once framed Ontake itself, formerly visible through the trees.  The mountain itself was the shrine.  I continue on into the forest, passing through an old tunnel, dark and atmospheric, dating from the time when cars and man once shared the roads.  The far end opens onto the outskirts of Kiso Fukushima, a familiar town that I've visited on every tour.  The river runs wild and fast through town, but at this west end it throws itself against a dam.  An old man fishes daringly in a spillway.  I buy lunch at the Co-op and eat in the shade of another Ontake shrine, visible from the train station yet previously overlooked.  The statues in the main hall have weird glowing eyes which upon closer examination reveal themselves as diamonds.

The journey is pleasant from here, in and out of villages quiet and picturesque.  I'm startled to find a sign notifying me that I've only now reached the midway point on the Nakasendo.  It has taken me 9 long days from Kyoto, and though I've already done 2 days walk to the east, I still have at least a week to get to Nihonbashi.  My feet aren't happy with this new piece of information.  But I'm still better off than those buried beneath the tall stones at the edge of Miyanokoshi, whose stone visages remain discreet in regards to the identity of those who perhaps didn't survive the hard climb over Torii Pass. 

Not far past the Kiso Yoshinaka museum, the Nakasendo makes an abrupt right turn, mimicking the river.  It is shady and cool here, and a man takes advantage of it with a snooze in a small gazebo.  I'm forced onto the highway again, eventually coming face to face with a tunnel.  My map tells me that there is an older road that bypasses it, but signs of a newer vintage warm me of landslides over that way.  I'd go for it but am afraid to miss my train, so plunge headlong into the tunnel's darkness.  I find little respite behind the iPod, whose maximum volume can't cover the incredible noise the trucks make as they thunder by. On the tunnel's far side I pass the occasional hand-written sign for older Nakasendo courses leading off into the forest. These contradict both the newer wooden signs and my guidebook.  Again, if it weren't for my train, I'd go explore.  Perhaps I'll make a return visit.

Before long, I leave the road again and bisect rice paddies before tracing the river again.  I follow the road to where it meets Route 19 again, which I'm prevented from rejoining due to a high cement wall.  At one point it slopes just enough to gain a few footholds.  Above me are some thick metal springs extending from the concrete, which I grab and wrap around my fists to gain better leverage.  My feet are slipping as I climb this embankment, shoes gaining no traction in the earth gray and greasy from decades of exhaust.  I literally pull myself up as if doing a chin-up, until I can grab the chain link fence at the top.  It was a risky move that I can't quite believe I pulled off, yet not without price.  One finger is badly bruised at the joint, and three fingers bleed at the knuckles.  Legs and forearms have raw nasty scratches.  Then a rain comes, showing a different character than the aggression of yesterday's squall.  A nurturing rain that washes away the blood, washes away the grime.  Thus anointed, I take refuge in my train.

On the turntable:  Trent Reznor, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"


1 comment:

blaine said...

I really enjoy these walks you do.

I'm not sure I'll ever approach the level of what you undertake but it fills me with great imagery.

I need to start thinking about the Shikoku 88 next summer. I want to camp as I do it but I really have no experience with that.

How did you do it?