Wednesday, January 23, 2013

With Winter Closing In

Walking through the suburbs, sunny skies.  Curtis Mayfield in the earbuds putting a little glide in my stride.  Kind of surreal to be walking through the suburbs with a grin on my face, belting out a falsetto,  "I'm your Pusherman!"  I was in a great mood, and it would be hard not to be with all the wah-wah guitar in my ears. 

It was the last day of the year, and I needed one more walk.  I'd spent most of December working on a book translation, with the last few days of the year spent hunched forward over the keyboard.  I hadn't been on a good walk for about 6 weeks, and my feet felt neglected.  The Chosenjin Kaido seemed an obvious choice.  I'd walked it in 2009, or so I had thought.  While walking the Nakasendo into Yasu last June, I saw a sign indicating that the Kaido branched off here, rather than over in Omi Hachiman.  So it was that I walked with wet hair through the pre-dawn to a train that would take me back out to my beloved suburbs of Shiga. 

And suburbs there were.   As historically this had been a relatively minor road, without the post towns and features of a Tokaido, or a Nakasendo, it had never been built up in the modern area.  It was wide enough to be lined with houses, and it continued to follow the path between them, away from the places of business.  You could see them a short distance away:  the proud roofs of temples; the smokestacks and brick of the sake brewers.  Definitely a feeling of being on the wrong side of the tracks. 

The suburbs finally dropped away and the land opened up.  The road was narrow here, cutting through rice fields.  In warmer times of the year, this would be shaded by the sakura trees lined up as namiki.  The music was fitting here too, having changed from the '70s funk of the suburbs to the mellower mix of the Buckleys, Tim and Jeff revolving like some bizarre father-and-son freestyle folk battle.  Across the stubble of rice fields, the first thing I saw was the white snaked Shinkansen coming out of a tunnel.  An auspicious sight, as the white snake will represent the year to come.   To the west were the snow covered peaks of Hira-san, out beyond the Lake.  Cloud continue to build up above them, and before long, Biwa's far shore was no longer visible.  The storm moved in, and by the time I reached the next village, the snow had found me. 


I crossed the Hino River.  The bridge was lined with old paintings of the Kaido, from the Edo period.  (Note my ghostly reflection hovering over the procession in the photo above.  Great metaphor there.)  The residents of the village on the far bank were hard at work in the year-end clean up, including a bizarrely large proportion of them washing their cars.  In all my years in Japan, I've never understood the timing of this, considering the large amounts of water used on what is inevitably a freezing cold day.  

I left the village behind, and entered rice fields again.  Amidst them, an older couple was washing a family grave in a plot shared by a couple dozen families.  The graves were unlike any I've ever seen, the markers tall, like overgrown wooden mushrooms.  Surely they don't get enough snow here to warrant their height.  

A series of masugata turns led me into Omi Hachiman, where the road was marked as the Kyo Kaido.   As I'd already walked (most of) the next section into Hikone,  I decided to take the train.  It didn't take me too long to hitch a ride to the station, a welcome bit of mercy on such a cold morning.  

After a quick lunch, I walk through Hikone toward the spot where I'd stopped walking a few years before.  I've been here multiple times on my Nakasendo tours, but never through this particular section, where bars begat shops which begat banks which begat 'burbs.  I had to duck a little as I crossed through a low tunnel beneath the train lines.  Somewhere on the outskirts of this little cluster of houses was a trail that led through the forest beneath the castle ruins.  The castle here had been famously burned a few days before Ishida Mitsunari, its resident daimyo, had been soundly thrashed at Sekigahara.  The Tokugawa forces had had better luck than I in finding my way up there.  I asked a man washing his car(!),  but neither he nor his wife seemed to know the way.  So I pushed on, beneath a sculpture garden of slightly tacky replicas of Gingakuji and Hikone Castle. At the far end of a long tunnel, the road led diagonally down a road lined with love hotels.  Then into Toriimoto-juku, and onto the Nakasendo again. 

It took on a completely different character than it had on that rainy day in August when I'd last been here.  And finally to Toriimoto Station, where I had a short wait for my train.  I was thankful for a small enclosed shelter on the platform, which kept me out of the wind.  I was thankful for the bench, as my feet hurt.  Those six weeks off the trail had shown up in a large blister on the mound of my big toe, and in some surprising muscle fatigue that showed up later in the day.   I sat here listening to an interview with Ewan MacColl, which was punctuated at regular intervals by a temple bell tolling from somewhere, as if in practice for the 108 tones to be rung later that night to signify the New Year.   A hundred meters or so across the fields, the Shinkansen was another reminder, racing past back and forth, loaded with travelers headed home.  Then my train pulled up, a 'one-man' carriage of an ancient vintage. It was like the old man in the old pictures who hands the year over to the newborn baby.  And another Shinkansen raced by. 

On the turntable:  Natcha Atlas, Foretold in the Language of Dreams" 
On the nighttable;  Lian Hearn, "Grass for his Pillow"


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