Saturday, September 15, 2012

Nakasendo, solo X

How does one write about a 40 km day, where most of one's attention is on the misery happening in one's feet?  Details are few, but for a landscape rising up and vibrating with every fall of foot...

I escaped my sanitarium around 5:30, when the light was just good enough to see by.  The clouds hanging low on the walls of the valley ensured it would stay dark late into morning.  My maps showed that I'd be following Route 142 up to Wada pass.  Thankfully, the traffic was lighter than it had been down in Kiso.  Another pleasant surprise were the trail marks that led me off the main road for short moments of reprieve.   One of these took me to the top of the infamous Ki-otoshizaka, where young men ride massive logs down the slope with often fatal results.  It is a good thing that the festival is held only once every six years for it would surely deplete the local population.  I followed the road through a small village, where a few older men were getting their machinery ready for the rice harvest.  There were a number of signs indicating where waterwheels had once stood, something that would've been more attractive than the small industry of this village.  Yet the morning was beautiful enough to distract me from the fact the road was now flattening out, and therefore, not my intended route.  I broke the quiet of the day by cursed my map and the lack of signs as I backtracked to Route 142.

I'd purposely stayed a few km above Shimosuwa in order to shorten this grueling section of the Nakasendo.  I knew that Wada Pass is the highest point on the old road, but what I  didn't know was that it was essentially nine kilometers directly up the side of a mountain.  I was equally unaware that these nine kilometers would include a 900 meter elevation gain, more perhaps than I'd ever done in a single day. 

As I pushed myself upward, the highway itself had little to distract me from my misery.  I remember a small roadside onsen, now shuttered.  I remember a stone monument to a group of ronin who had climbed this high only to be slain by Shogunate loyalists in a pleasant patch of shady grass.  I remember an abandoned love hotel that looked like it had exploded its contents all over the parking lot.

After nine kilometers tracing this straight line, the highway cut sharply to the left and through a tunnel.  My path led me into the forest, past a couple of signs detailing a pair of bear encounters that had happened earlier in the summer.  It was now autumn in the mountains, which worried me even more.  This fact, and the early hour, were prime time for foraging bears.  I saw no sign of them, but stayed alert as I walked through bear grass as high as my chest.  The boars had apparently been pretty busy through here, with imprints of snout and hoof freshly laid in the mud.  Due to the remoteness of the pass, little logging had been down up here, the natural forest tall and proud.  Occasionally I'd startle as a leaf fell loudly from its summertime perch. A number of times I would do the startling, and the forest would suddenly streak with white flash of deer's tail.  A few seconds later I'd hear a call, answered by a different pitch further out in the forest, like a game of Marco Polo.

Finally I reached the pass.  I lay in the sun, eating bread and listening to the wind and the birdsong.  Behind me was a large sign explaining the pass, which informed me of everything but the elevation, something I assumed would be of primary interest.  Then the clouds began to chill my sweat, and I remembered that the forecast for later was rain, and I still had 31 km to go.  So I started down the other side of the pass, the trails wide and grassy and a delight after the rocky scramble that I'd just come up. 

The trail bisected the road that switchbacked upward.  Below one turn lay the body of a freshly dead deer, eyes rolled upward in a look that was almost mortification.  The flies were just settling in to their meal, and I hoped that the deer's belly was distended with internal gasses rather than with an unborn fawn.  (The wrong season for fawn I imagine.)  The trail followed a stream running past a couple of restored period tea houses that would have provided an excellent place to sleep.  All in all, a wonderful section of the Nakasendo, and I walked on in great delight.

An hour later, I found myself singing my favorite George Harrison song, "All Things Must Pass."  The highway had found me again, and I'd stay with her for nearly the rest of the day.  The mind began to distract itself with mundane thoughts, and I recall little else.  Along a short section through the woods, I nearly broke through a rotted log of a bridge.  Just beyond, I warned another Nakasendo walker about the bridge, and he rewarded me with a pair of plums.   It was the only food I'd see, as all the prevalent roadside food spots were forlorn and dark.

I ate the plums and a day old rice ball in a bus shelter in Wada town.  It was a quaint little place, obviously proud of its heritage.  It was the type of place I take to immediately, carpeted with copious rice fields, ringed with tall mountains, with a pair of beautiful old Meiji-era schools.  The road out of town took me through a series of hamlets lined up against the forested hillside.  There were a few galleries along here.  One of these, called Gepetto, displayed a fine variety of woodwork in its yard.  Forested shrines honored the trees still living, and one area had a small "Dosojin walking course,"  that proved a nice diversion.

Then the highway again.  I pressed on, stopping for only a few minutes to eat some chicken in a convenience store parking lot, my eyes staring blankly at the concrete. And more concrete.  Hours of concrete.  Miles of concrete.  And finally the next post town of Nagakubo, where the Nakasendo made an abrupt right and led me cruelly up another pass.  The legs complained bitterly about this, not having been previously informed.  The brain concurred.  After 300 more vertical meters, I was up and over.  A few km down the far side was the outskirts of Ashida post town.  The Namiki shade trees pleased the eyes, but not half as much as the grass beneath them pleased the feet.  Tiny frogs jumped out of the way like bright green rainbows.  (Actually, it did rain lightly sometime, somewhere during the day.)  Ashida had a nice preserved feel to it, but not half as much as neighboring Motai.  Amazingly, this town had never been a posttown, yet celebrated the Nakasendo in a way that few of the actual 67 posttowns do.  The main street through town was lied with structures old and historical, culminating in a wonderful sake brewery at the far end.  Then the road quietly made its way into forest once more.

Over my last rise, and down into Mochizuki, zigzagging through rice field masugata, and past the handful of inns that have hung on in this remote town, nay village, tucked up into a narrow corner of high hills.  Here I took the last few steps of what must've been thousands.   The expected heavy rain had been merciful in holding off until I'd completed my 40 km, but its dance on my skin was a pleasant physical sensation, one that was a welcome change from what had for hours been merely a persistent throb in the feet.  

On the turntable:  James Gang, "Live in Concert"
On the nighttable:  H. Byron Earhart, "Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan"


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