Monday, August 12, 2013

Shikoku... Four Years Later

Rising with the sun, I had envisioned a leisurely drive along the coast of Awaji, marveling at the sparkle of sun off water.  But it seems like Osaka prefers that I sit in traffic instead, extending for 30 km until Kobe.

Once untangled, I cross over Awaji bridge, the waters below busy with boats.  But the opposite side of the island enlists a more emotional response, as the vision of Shikoku brings back plenty of memory. 

I drive down through the drudgery of outer Tokushima, on the same road that I walked between Temples 17 and 18.  Along the way, I have a coffee with David Moreton, whose name popped up multiple times as I waded through the research for my book on the pilgrimage.  He is a pleasant guy, generous with his time and his stories.  Where I've read extensively on the lore of the pilgrimage from a pilgrim's perspective, here I get tales of the researcher, equally interesting.      

I leave him and continue driving west.  I pass Temple 13, noticing first the beautiful shrine that I remembered from across the road.  The valley narrows and mountain begin to grow taller.  Upon one of these stands Shōzanji.  Here far below, a lone walking henro moves along a route different than that which I had taken.  He is young and it is a hot day, and it is only a few minutes later that I should have offered him settai of some sort. 

Whereas I could have followed the quicker northern route, I decided to spend most of the afternoon taking in the rural scenery.  The road continues to cut through the valleys, then begins to twist upward.  Houses hug the slopes far above me.  Rivers have cut deeply into the earth here, forcing the residents to build precarious and high.  Incredible the heights of some of these roads.

As I'm crossing the final pass before Tsurugi-san, I see a hiker walking up the road and offer him a ride.  He had planned a loop hike back to his car, but one crucial trail was closed due to damage over the winter.  His luck rubs itself on me when we find a sign telling us that my road has been taken away by a typhoon last autumn.  We drive an alternative route that takes me well out of my way, and my leisurely drive turns into a race with the sun.

I finally get to the Iya valley, the shadows lengthening, the drops into the river to my right growing more and more precipitous.  I see spider webs here and there, and wonder if the spiders know just how high above the river they perch.  There's a dead monkey lying the road, looking disturbingly like a young child.   I weave and bob and eventually return to the Oboke/Koboke River Valley.  Somewhere along here was the inn where Miki and I stayed the night before we climbed to Temple 66.   I stop for gas and step out of the car, listening to a band play from a stage that has been built far below at the water's edge.   The music surprises in actually being pretty good.

Then, in near darkness, twelve hours after I left, I arrive at my business hotel.  It is more motel in its ramshackle nature, and in being just off the highway.  There is a diner (of sorts) attached.    The waitress comes to my table, and in a charming way that can only be found in the country, takes a long slow look at what I'm reading and then asks if I can speak Japanese.  I'm surprised that it was the book and not my face that inspired the question.    

I sit and look out the window, at the usual views of houses high above, water far below.  This particular stretch is crossed by a steel tsuri-bashi. The window looks like it hasn't been cleaned since glass was invented.  The color has nearly reverted to that of sand, as it hides how brilliant the sky had been today.

When the waitress returns I notice that she's dressed much like a schoolgirl, in a short blue skirt, white blouse, and cream colored sweater vest.  The thickness of her calves however betray decades spent right here, on her feet.  I've ordered a second beer, as I do while on the road, but my fatigue and lack of decent food today stand little chance against the alcohol, and I find myself pleasantly buzzed.  As I leave, I notice that the tray suspended from the ceiling to hold the TV is now empty.  My buzz thinks it looks like a kamidana, with the god suspiciously absent. 

I retire and attempt to sleep, as mold and ancient cigarette smoke have their way with my nostrils...

On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to the Blues"


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