Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Shikoku... Four Years (and a day) Later
...I awake with the headache I expected. It never fails with these smoking rooms. I'm out the door quickly, the sun not yet above the high mountain walls. Heading south I find a lone convenience store, beside a Montbell shop, the latter a testament to how lucrative the rafting is in this area. I buy my coffee, listening to a young know-it-all with an earring tell a story to impress the young girl who hands me back my change. A third woman, in her 50's moves her mop as if she's heard this kind of thing countless times.
A bit later in the morning now, I stop for a second coffee at a michi-no-eki. A man talks through a bullhorn to a group of bicyclists who are kitted out in spandex. I pass more of their machines over the next ten minutes, happy that I'll be gone before the race begins. Miles and miles earlier, I'd passed a lone bicycle pilgrim, racing only against whatever he's brought on pilgrimage with him. That's where I'd put my money.
A valley or two later, I begin to recognize certain things, and at one bend in the river, I find the village where I helped Yayoi and Seiichi work on their house five years before. I park beside the school where I had once slept and walk up the hill toward their house. I can't find it immediately, and as the houses here are built pretty close, I decide not to panic the locals with the sight of a lone foreigner wandering around.
Not ten minutes later I arrive at my destination, the home of my friend Blaine. He and I have been in contact for a number of years via our respective blogs, but this was the first time we'd met in the flesh. We chat for a while, gather some supplies, then drive further west. He drives these twisty, narrow mountains roads with a special ease, and I, a bit cautious, have trouble keeping up. I shouldn't be surprised at this familiarity, considering the remote and unknown places he's introduced me to on his blog.
We wind up at the trailhead for Ishizuchi-san, where I'll leave my car for the night. We've left his own below, near where we will stay. Earlier in the day, I was telling him that I'd never been troubled by horseflies, but as we transfer gear to my car, we were swarmed by a plague of the little bastards, one of which bites me on the head nearly immediately. Consider myself acquainted. I have a further moment of frustration when I realize that I've left my socks down the mountain. Luckily, the hut had some for sale. Off we go.
I've heard enough things over the years to be somewhat wary of Ishizuchi-san, but the trail to the peak is surprisingly mild considering. I might have changed my tune had we taken the infamous chain route on the final stretch, but the recent rains and damp conditions call for prudence. Along that safer trail, we meet with a trio of yamabushi, leading a group of schoolkids to the summit. One yamabushi has brought his own son, the pair of them dressed identically in their shugendo garb. I'm saddened slightly by the fact that this too is something I can never share with my daughter.
The peak is busy, but we find some quiet behind the shrine. The rain breaks out hard now, having threatened through the day. We move over to the hut for lunch. Another thing I knew about Blaine from his blog was his love of cooking, and it is to my delight that he has brought along some of the pork that he'd smoked for 11 hours the previous day.
Thus sated, we move onward the final few dozen meters over to Tengu-dake, the true summit of Ishizuchi-san. It is a knife-edge ridge, with a sheer and high drop just to our left. Blaine strides confidently across, but I've pressed myself as far to the right as I can, moving slowly over the wet rocks. We sit on the summit awhile, as the clouds part and offer glimpses of a view. When they close in again, we figure we've gotten all that we're gonna get. Midway back, it begins to pour. This route is frightening enough in the best conditions, but the heavy rain makes the footing unsure, and I hug certain rocks, using my arms to pull myself upward. Back to the safety of the hut, we wait out the rain.
When it clears, we head downward , along a different route toward where we'd left Blaine's car. It is a gentle, lateral traverse along the face of the mountain, the sasa grass brushing our legs as we go. Blaine is in front, and startles a couple times at snakes on the path. We cross a few waterfalls, the trail falling away at our feet as we do. Wooden bridges have been built here and there, but most are in pretty bad shape. This trail is obviously not used much. At its halfway point, we sit at a well-stocked mountain hut, listening to the thunder playing over the peak upon which we'd just sat not a hour before. We've chosen out timing well.
The trail begins to descend quickly now as it enters forest. There are obstacles aplenty, in the form of rock slides and massive fallen trees. Finally we arrive at the river, and the Omogo Valley. I like the name, like a place named after an Indian tribe in the American South. We follow the river north, along a series of wooden ladders built where the land has fallen away. It brings us to a boulder the size of a three story house, which offers the perfect perch from which to launch one's self into the perfect swimming hole below. If only it were an hour earlier.
But it isn't. The flies too are getting to be a bother, biting often and leaving itchy welts that'll last a week. So we walk back downstream until coming to our inn. I wonder how much business they do as the valley looks like it doesn't get much traffic anymore. It is a basic, but comfortable place. The beer, baths, and dinner work their usual post-hike magic. Then the sound of the river outside my window quickly brings sleep...
...we leave early, having breakfast back at the mountain hut near my car. We drive the short way to the trailhead, passing along the way a runner absolutely besieged by flies. We're luckier, out of the trees, moving along the sasa-lined trails to the twin peaks of Kamegamori. The day is relatively clear, but the views are closer in. Somehow it is enough. I'd like to see the sea from here, but that can wait for next time. Perhaps I'll come back and walk the ridges along all the high peaks of Shikoku. Perhaps.
The drive out is a long one, alongside an elongated lake. I marvel at what life must be like out here in the few small hamlets we pass. Finally, we find the highway, and drive off in opposite directions, waving each other into our respective futures.
I head due north, toward the sea. My eyes seek out and find places that bring memory from my pilgrimage, memories good and bad. I hope to eat lunch at the small seaside shop with the cute owner and the TV that played "Baghdad Cafe." But I can't find it. Probably further west.
For the next hour, I cross the necklace of bridges leading to Onomichi, then turn left. A thunderstorm washes the dust of Shikoku off my car as it crosses into Hiroshima...
On the turntable: "Unwired From Around the World"