Saturday, November 17, 2012

Nakasendo solo, XII

The low grey ceiling didn't make ugly Saitama look any better.  But the uniform drab of these suburbs stretching away from Tokyo eased the eyes somewhat, after a weekend spent amongst the crowds and
gaudy temples of Nikko. 

I had to change trains in Takasaki, and took the opportunity to refill the tank with another cuppa.  Gunma is a small prefecture with few attractions, so the usual JR ads promoting trips out to local sights seemed a little desperate.  They may as well have read, "Gunma:  We don't have much, but what we don't have, we have a lot of."

I got off the train in Yokokawa, which is where we finish our crossing of Usui pass, the final mountain section of our Nakasendo tours.  The last five kilometers down to the station are along an old rail line long decommissioned and now paved for walkers, a section that is not the true Nakasendo.  To find that, I'd need to taxi back up to the base of the pass, and come back through Sakamoto town.  But there were no cabs waiting at the station.  I quickly found a phone number and reserved a car, and shortly thereafter, three arrived and loaded up with other waiting passengers, leaving me standing in the parking lot.  I called the company again to be told that one of the cabs had taken the wrong people.  So I stood there annoyed a further 20 minutes until my car pulled up. 

I walked through a small stretch of forest and through the town, past a large Hachiman shrine with reversed komainu, a pair of beautiful dosojin and an architectural style that made it look like a 19th Century San Francisco fire station. 

Out of town then, and fed onto a busy road, the first of many that I'd follow through the day.  Aside from that first hundred meters off the pass, I was only off road one other time.  The copious trail markers had already diverged wildly, and here they diverged again,  where an older faded sign pointed off into the forest.  I dropped down into open farmland, the rice fields clipped and neat.  I had no idea which route to follow, but an old man smoking out on front of his fields pointed me along a inconspicuous stretch of dirt track that he said was the old Nakasendo.  So I made my way along it in the footprints of countless others, feeling suddenly wistful about history.

The next posttown of Matsuida didn't have the informative signage of Sakamoto, but the buildings had a more traditional look.  One of them housed a restaurant that did a nice 500yen lunch.  It looked to be a private residence, with only a pair of tables, no apparent menus, and a handwritten sign at the entrance.  As part of the set, I was given a heaping pile of shaved ice, the first I'd ever had in Japan, but didn't have the usual desired effect despite it being an unseasonably warm mid-November day.

Further along the roads. The mountains of Nagano lay out to the west, with the familiar features of the Nakasendo occasionally looming up.   I found a small shrine with some curious Shichifukujin, and a large cement frog beside the entrance.   Not far beyond, a senior citizen home stood in the shadow of a love hotel, perhaps in an attempt to harness the latter's frenetic frottage of energy.

Despite all that, I could have been walking along any busy highway anywhere in the country.  But I was in Annaka, a town whose name could perhaps be translated as "Relaxed Back."  And relaxation and comfort indeed they sought, with their plentiful kura storehouses, and locals who didn't answer polite greetings, two sure signs of a place where people are seeking security, and are uncomfortable with the unknown.  Ah, yes, a reminder that I was entering the suburbs. 

And out again, briefly.  A new bridge stood beside the ruins of an old bridge at Usuigawa, along which those traveling the Nakasendo may once have crossed.  And then into Takasaki, a small city of lovely brick buildings and architectural reminders of 'simpler times.'  I was only able to see what I was walking beside, and sensed many more delights just beyond the dark.  I dislike walking at night, and cursed the goddam taxi company, wanting my thirty minutes of daylight back.  Leading toward the station was a street of funky little eateries and shops, but up here on the Nakasendo were an assortment of yatai restaurants, whose plastic curtains and hot food protected against the chill of the oncoming autumn night.  These little alleys in which they stood reminded me of the locations of many an Ozu film, where the protagonists nurse their drinks in those domains where they are still king, away from unmarried daughters, fussy wives, and reminders that theirs is a disappearing time. 

I quickly checked into my hotel and wandered back toward that cosmopolitan looking street I'd seen earlier.   After 30-kilometer day, my feet hurt, and I didn't relish walking much more.  Luckily I found some help from the English, in the form of the Red Lion pub, a 'public house.'  Inside, two older British expats huddled over their pints, paying little attention to the soccer game on the TV hanging in the corner, and little attention to me, for that matter.   The words 'happy' and 'hour' took their respective places to form my favorite conjunction, and I tucked into my pints with some fish and chips.  Mouth taken care of, my eyes found their attention alternating between the "Tale of Genji" and the soccer game above.  Over the sound system came some cheesy radio show of the usual mediocre playlist and mundane humor.  The latter surprised as the DJ was Nik Kershaw, an artist I had once respected back in the '80s when he was the spinnee rather than the spinner.  I tried to ignore the asinine patter, but I did happen to catch the final score of the exact match that I was half-watching.  A moment later that winning second goal was indeed scored, and I wandered off to my bed, feet stinging as I went.

On the turntable:  Kitchens of Distinction, "Strange Free World"

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