Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hiei-zan, Double Traverse Pt. 2

Something rankled.  I still wanted to explore the northern reaches of Hiei-zan that Wes and I had missed the week before.  My map showed small temple halls and possible hermitage huts which might offer some interesting afternoon diversions. 

I take the first bus to Ohara, along with a couple of unfriendly hikers of retirement age, who aren't too keen on conversation.  I leave them behind as I move quickly past Sanzen-in and into the forest that shaded Raigō-in, famed for the melodic Shōmyō chanting that was born centuries before Gregory.  Just above here is what is called the soundless falls, silent because they can't be heard over the chanting coming from the temple below.  Yet on this muggy August morning, the falls could definitely be heard, drowning out any sound the rivulets of sweat may have made as they flowed beneath my T-shirt.

Up and around them now, I follow the sawa upward, walking in the river itself part of the time, and busy looking for the tape marking the trail.  Most times it is on the left, leading me along crumbly little earthen trails hugging the steep walls of the canyon.  I find myself wishing that I had done this with Wes last week, and as a descent. It would have been an enjoyably refreshing parallel to our ordeal in January. In any event, I'm thankful for my trekking poles.

Along the way, something dislodges a large rock which falls with a clack! from the high rock face and into the stream below.  The are some ladders, beside a few more waterfalls.  Then the stream is gone and I climb the spine-like ridge, through a cedar mono-forest that is quiet as a church (though resembling more a Vegas wedding chapel in its lack of authenticity.)  There are plenty of cicada, at that stage of their development where they launch their frantic kamikaze attacks towards your face.  I wonder if they know that their time is short, and these manic bursts are like a character in an old 1930's gangster movie, a character who grabs the lapels of the lead, yelling "Charlie! Ya gotta help me Charlie!"  Later I 'll see a cicada trapped in a spider web, and think of the cruelty of fate.  Mono no aware. 

I halve the two hour ascent, less a strong confident stride than in frenzied heart-throbbing desperation.  I sit awhile at the top of the ridge, everything on the forest floor sticking to my sweat soaked shorts.  To my left is a trail marked only as "mountain trail," with a tree branch stretching across it, waist high.  I'm pretty sure that there's a temple that way, so I decide to cross the barrier and walk awhile, to see what things look like.  I don't want to trespass, or disturb a hermit at his practice.  But curiosity keeps my legs moving.  There's not much trail here, but there is enough, so I walk through the soft soil until it makes an abrupt right-angled turn straight down the mountain.  No thank you.

Back in bounds again, I nearly immediately coming to the peak, Daibi-san  There is a trail leading to the right which I believe is the trail I want, so I move along, beside a high fence that leads to some tall electrical towers.  As they stand in a clearing there are views, but as I stand there, a number of hornets begin to swarm.  I'm guessing that they are attracted to the humming of the towers, but I choose not to linger there and ask them, and shoot quickly toward the safety of the trees again.

Next comes a long descent down a ridiculous path, and it takes great concentration to stay on my feet.  I follow the tape and survey marks, moving uncertainly.  I scare some deer somewhere on the way which increases the uncertainty since they wouldn't come so near well-trod trails.  The sight of an old 1970's canteen hanging from a branch takes that uncertainty up a notch.  I give the canteen a tap as I pass,  comforted by the familiar slosh within. 

The tape continues despite the trail coming into an absurdly steep drop.  Even with poles, I can't negotiate it.  I backtrack, and after another short detour down a connecting ridge, I notice what looks like a little used trail to my left.  Moving closer, I see that someone has untied all the trail tape from the trees.  Here and there are beer and soft drink cans with logos that predate my time in Japan.  There is a further pile of them where I reach the old forest road down beside a stream.  The road is overgrown and in bad shape, but could still be negotiated by 4WD I suppose.  There are supposed to be waterfalls and a temple hall down here, but all I find is a tumbled down shack and more beer cans.   

I reascend slightly and find a more obvious trail, which is probably the one I initially wanted.  I follow it, still hoping for the temple, but it begins to climb.  I decide to go with fate, but the uncertainty grows stronger still until I see the divots that my poles made in the trail on the way down.  It is steep going, so I make many stops.  During one, I brush something from my sock and find that it's a leech.  At half the size of my pinky, it has had itself quite a feast.   Then that final insanely steep climb to contend with, and I slump against the hand-marked trail sign that led me down here in the first place.  I've not only wasted two hours, but I've drained most of my energy, and will spend the rest of the day in a futile attempt to regain it. 

I return to the peak, then follow the ridge back toward Yokogawa.  I pass some tall rocks that bring with them the thought that in New Mexico, I'd be watching for snakes here.  On cue, a mamushi moves off trail toward them.  A few minutes on, I'm looking at a stick in the path, thinking how much it looks like a snake.  It moves its head as my foot steps just beside it.  It is a harmless Aodaisho, but of a weird hue, so white it is nearly blue.  

Undeterred, I move along the ridge, then come suddenly to the clear cut.  What the map said would take 120 minutes actually took 40, without any real effort.  More than ever, I was disappointed that Wes and I hadn't finished this walk last week.

I return to that grueling slog across the valley, then slump against a stone lantern at the parking lot at Yokokawa.  I guzzle two bottles of sports drinks that I buy from a machine.  I'm not sure how the trail I want will move through the temple complex, so I ask at the ticket window.  The surly guy there gives me so much attitude that he forgets to ask for my ticket.  Cheered slightly, I visit the temple halls here, cooling myself in the shadows and the silence.  The statue of Amida here is a particularly good one, and the gold mock up miniatures ringing the main altar bring to mind the Academy Awards.

The trail down is rough, rarely used.  It brings me finally to a Fudo hall and some chairs.  I  small talk with the priest here, who walks with me to the main hall and points out the trail I want.  We don't discuss much, mainly that I take care crossing the wooden bridge that doesn't have too many seasons left. 

The trail throws one more climb at me, then levels off.  There's a heavy presence of inoshishi here, both in the recently torn up ground and in the distinct sounds coming from the streams below.

The latter is soon drowned our by the roar of leaf blowers and weed whackers coming from the direction of the temple nearby.  This too rankles, as I bemoan that even the Buddhists have gone for convenience over mindful training.  They're hurrying through their work to do what now?

Shame too on the monks for allowing Governnment to do such horrible things to this holy mountain.  I've spent the entire day in an artificial forest, but soon transport myself to the natural cedar forests of Yakushima, losing myself in its shadows as soon as the Mononoke DVD begins its revolution.

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Ethiopia"

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