Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Now I'm really confused. I'm standing in front of a sign for the Saba Kaidō, or old mackerel road, the one along which they carried fish down to the Old Capital. I had thought that there was only one, but this is the third Saba Kaidō that I've walked in this country.
The transport of seafood means of course that I'm not far from the Sea of Japan. I'm passing through Imajo once again, a lovely little town that stands at the bottom of a wide valley. The structures on both sides of the road stand close together, and walking through this canyon of wood I'm shown all the usual features of a post town. Through the opening at the end of this canyon I can see snow atop some of the hills before me, and I hope that it isn't deep since I'm wearing low top hiking shoes.
I follow a road that curves along the hillside that it hugs. A great many figures are carved into the walls of soft rock. Fudo gets his own clearing, the small waterfall behind him feeding a canal lined with stone. There are also the graves of dead samurai whose names mean nothing to me. I remember that Kiso Yoshinaka's men rode through here nearly a millennium ago, and far more passed through over the centuries of civil war that were birthed in the era of his clan.
I too have walked here, nearly five years ago when I followed the Hōkkoku Kaidō south. That road was one valley over, and today I am following its ancestor, the Hokurikudō, which too ran north from then-capital Nara and along the coast. Though I'd spend the rest of the afternoon walking in and out of small bucolic hamlets, the height of the mountains and the density of this region's forests seem little changed since the 8th Century when this old road was first trod. This of course could be my own projection, as I've chosen Robert Macfarlane's ironically apt "The Wild Places" as my reading material for this trip. Yet I had definitely felt this sense of isolation and loneliness back in 2009.
The road leaves the villages as shoots itself like an arrow toward the hills. There is little up here but a few persimmon orchards and old graves. I come across the remains of an old post town, which shares the name with the last settlement I walked through, Futatsuya. There is none of the usual relics of Japan's abandoned places, none of the broken crockery, or the wood fitted loosely to take on a vaguely familiar shape. All that remains are the old foundation stones, or at least those that hadn't been salvaged to shape the rice terraces further below. Especially eerie was the old shrine with the roof fallen in. Most shrines are kept in good stead, and to allow one to rot back into forest was a definitive statement that the people here really wanted to leave.
The road continues to struggle uphill, switchbacking now as it crosses from one side of the watershed to another. At one bend a crow shouted down at me, as if warning me away from the Jizo under a stone roof. Further on, I find two samurai graves beside a tall stele carved with the Lotus sutra. A wooden sign written with "The Valley of the Slit Neck," goes some length to tell me why those men now lie there.
And the valley itself continues to cut. Twice I'm forced up and over the trunks of tree that have come down in landslides. The latter slide seems only days old, the needles on the cedars moist and green.
Then the road ends at a broad open space filled with grass cut into perfectly shaped rectangles that directly climb the hillsides. The ski lifts which bisect these rectangles are silent now, but it is only a matter of weeks before they'll start humming again. On the way up, I'd mistaken snow for what I thought was some sort of detergent dumped down the shadowy slopes. The snow is a bit thicker here, but not yet enough for a good run. I sit on one of the lift chairs and have lunch, but the sky is threatening again. A light rain has fallen twice today, for only a few minutes each time, but the clouds here at 600 meters look like they mean business. I eat quickly, then move on.
I walk a concrete path straight up the hillside, until a sign indicates a trail off to my right. I'd never have found it myself, buried as it is under a few inches of snow. Atop the ridge, the snow is thicker, less wet. A sign tells me that Dogen too had walked this trail, back and forth to Eiheiji, which lies a full day's walk to the north. I have better footwear than he, but still I struggle to the actual top of the ridge. The trail levels off as it hugs the ridgeline, apparently a busy thoroughfare due to all the deer and bear tracks here.
I take a short break out of the rain at the Jizo Hall here, the deity within carved into a rock wall behind, looking as if it predates the Hokurikudō itself. As I sit and write notes, I think of the hands of the man who carved this figure, both of us passing one another on the path to immortality.
Ten minutes up trail, I pass my own self, the one who walked through here previously. I see the same lovely tea house, the same trio of white dogs, including the aggressive one off his chain. I again speak to it firmly in English, trusting that it can't be that aggressive precisely because it is unchained. I forego the climb to the top of Mt. Hachibuse this time and instead plunge down the other side of the pass.
The kumazasa isn't as high this time, probably pressed back by a summersful of hikers. I arrive at the spot from which I hitched before, but today I carry on downhill into the next village. The houses here, like those on the other side of the pass, have new glass porches around the older wooden facades, to protect the entrances from the heavy snows here. There's a small bus shelter standing in the shade of a massive camphor which serves too as protection from the elements.
From here I'll be the one that needs protection, mainly from myself. I read the written directions on my map and eager to stay off the busy road, plunge down into the forest. The trail leads me to a rickety bridge, then stops. I push onward, along what could be trails, but may simply be the spaces between rows of planted arbors. The odd footprint beckons me on, but eventually the ever thickening vegetation reveals my error. Despite having been lost in the snows not a year before, I stubbornly refuse to turn back. The terrain underfoot is near invisible due to fallen leaves and other debris, and in warmer months I'd never traverse something this snake-y. I push and pull myself through the thicket, at one time taking a firm grasp of a thorny trunk, which does a fine job of perforating my palms. I carry this stigma onward until I finally see a concrete bridge that spans the gap that has been ever to my right. The ground I've fought for over the past thirty minutes would've taken me less than ten by road. As I sit on a concrete berm and rest, I realize that the direction I'd followed, to stay to the left of the stream, had been written from the perspective of walking from the opposite direction.
I stick to the road from here on. I'll go through another bigger village that has a stele commemorating the Meiji emperor having a had a "short rest here" (the dude got around more than George Washington), but also a larger stone for an elementary school, now closed. The stone has the usual school song, sung from its opening during the first decade of the Meiji period (whose eponymous emperor may have even heard it sung), until its final students put down their pencils for the last time seven years before. It strikes me that the oldest of these would have graduated high school just this spring. I'm further struck by the sight of a school zone sign, its message rusting in the elements.
The rest of the day is spent with one eye on the sky, but the weather holds off. A pass takes me from one hamlet to another, then a second pass drops me on the outskirts of Tsuruga's suburbs. It is an unattractive town, in the shared way that all industrial port towns are unattractive. It doesn't get much more attractive, the closer I get to its heart. Yet I wonder more at the hearts of its residents, who would allow not only the factories, smokestacks, and oil refineries, but also the nuke plant out at the end of the peninsula. The sight of all these smothers the excitement I'd felt at the thought of eating local seafood here.
I do like the sidewalks covered as protection against heavy snow, yet these end too soon, as does my enthusiasm. I walk in and through town, before finding my hotel at its southern edge. Lodged as I am on the seventh floor, I've got a good view of the city, and unlike most hotels in Japan, the windows aren't locked to protect me if said view makes me want to forlornly toss myself out one of them.
This cheerful thought in mind, I grab a least common denominator meal at a budget Chinese franchise across the road, rewarding myself with two beers: one for the walk, and one to distract me from thinking about what may be in the ingredients.
On the turntable: Johnny Cash, "American III"