Thursday, September 26, 2013

Villages of the Watermills

I've been a few days in the Kiso Valley, and after seeing my clients off in Nagoya, I speed over to north Biwa to continue the Hokkoku Wakiōkan, from where I left off in spring 2009.  I remember that as being a delightful walk, and today too doesn't disappoint, as I'm led along a well-marked and quite meandering course.  Farmers are busy in their fields, putting their rice fields to sleep for the winter. And almost in parallel, people are busy cleaning the family graves.  

The trail takes me behind a factory and though a bamboo forest.  This is prime habitat for the mamushi, and I'm less than pleased that the trail is overgrown.  My eyes stay glued to the ground.  With each step, it seems that everything that can possibly take flight does, with large, fist-sized frogs startling most.   I also find myself walking the edge of a harvested rice paddy, the owner herself having told me that this was where the old road once ran.

Steps onward, I come to the site of the battle of the Anegawa.  It is now just a small stream running amidst the field, but one summer afternoon in 1570 this was dubbed the River of Blood.  I'm astounded by just how many battles took place in this area, but it makes sense considering these flat lands stand before the series of passes that once protected the Emperor and his old capital.  In the stillness I see no life, yet there are the occasional graves, and the pile of dozens of bicycles in their own graveyard nearby.  The shrouds that had once covered the heads of enemy dead are now the white of soba flowers, which bobble atop their tall thin stalks.

The canals have not only been a companion but have given this walk its beauty.  I'll leave them temporarily as I walk through grape orchards and into the forest.  When I come out the other side, I'm at the foot of Ibuki-san.  Parasails circle high overhead.   The mountain itself looks less amused, her left shoulder having been savagely hacked into.  I squint awhile at the upper flanks, looking for hikers, but they'd be too far off.  So I drop down to the river's edge, near the remnants of an old bridge that once crossed here.  I move toward an existing bridge downriver, musing at the power of water, and at how well it represents the flow of the inevitable, in particular when it confronts the follies of man.   I sit awhile with the higanbana flowers at the river's edge, yet another reminder of the impermanent.  

I'm getting closer to Gifu now, and the pastoral scenes begin to taper off.  As if to further emphasize the lesson on impermanence, the battery on my iPhone dies.  This is tragic for me, as I've been following a map on its screen.  Without it, I'd never be able to guess the zigzag course I've been following.  Amazingly, I find a power outlet on the side of a bank right beside me.  I plug in, sit in the shade, and listen to Bob Dylan sing about something or other.  After a satisfactory interval, I move on again.  From here is a busy road, moving uphill.  I am offered the choice of a few smaller forest roads just to my right, but the trails are too overgrown, the grass knee high.  I may seen like I'm a little too preoccupied with snakes (and like all phobias, perhaps that's true), but I do know that this is the time of year when the snakes are being forcibly evicted from the rice paddies where they've made a happy home all summer, feasting on frogs.  So they're now on the move, crankily looking for food, and aggressively protecting their newborn.  This is the season when I see the most vipers and anyway, I don't like walking where I can't see what's underfoot.  

I finally get a quick reprieve from the busy highway.  As I cross a small river in the forest, my battery dies again.  Incredibly, a car drives by, stops, and asks me if I need a lift.  I politely refuse, and when I explain my situation, the driver offers to let me use the outlet at her house, just a two minute walk up the road.  I take another short break there, where I'm offered some tea to replenish my own batteries.  I smile at this kind woman's Red Sox T-shirt.  We've woken her teenage son upon our return, who, unfazed at my foreign face, slinks off somewhere.  The photo of a man smiles down from above the TV.  Probably the father.  Probably deceased.   Living amidst all the history of the area, it little surprises that my hostess is a fan.  We chat awhile, until I decide that I'd better get moving again.  Due to my late start, I'll be getting to my train close to dark, and I know I have one more patch of forest to cross.

But it too is overgrown, and as I sit and above looking downward, I see no apparent way across the confluence of streams that the trail bisects.  So I stay once again on the road, dropping to the true course when I can.  

This is Sekigahara proper now, obvious due to the frequent signs which indicate where generals once camped on those nights leading into October 1600.  I too have spent plenty of nights here, inevitably in restless sleep.  Looking to kill time before breakfast, I'd stroll the area, with the sun rising on yet another day marching away from history.  It isn't long before I recognize where I am, and my phone can stay in my pocket until I get to the station.


On the turntable:  Charles Mingus, "Tijuana Moods"
On the nighttable:   Lowell Sheppard, "Chasing the Cherry Blossom"

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