Thursday, January 02, 2014

Beyond Spiders and Wizards

I'm on a very early train, trying to catch glimpses of the final sunrise of the year, as it rises between the edifices of south Kyoto.  After a number of failed attempts, I had finally been able to find a coffee at a shop near the Kintetsu line, a line I rarely use.  Why, oh why is it so hard to find an open coffee place before 7:30?  I sip and I ponder and look out the window at the mist rising off the shorn rice fields.  The view from these trains as they edge past the suburbs is like looking at the back of a film set. 

On this last day of the year, the trains are pretty empty.  The few passengers all have their eyes closed, and I envy yet again the ability of the Japanese to fall comatose on a train lurching through morning. 

It is raining slightly as I disembark and hail a taxi.  But luck is with me and the skies clear by the time I get dropped off at Kuhonji, where Ojisan Jake and I finished the southern half of the Katsuragi Kaidō five summers ago.   As we did last time, I follow the path as it zigs and zags up and down Mount Katsuragi's lower slopes, leading to small shrines that sit quietly at the edge of the forest.  None of the shrines share the patina of age of those ancient shrines a few kilometers to the south.  Perhaps these arose as the spiritual hearts for the hamlets that developed over the next millennium.  One of the bigger shrines has a large cannon in the courtyard, a self-congratulatory relic from the Russo-Japanese war over a century ago.  Here and there I've seen at shrines the tall stones that commemorate the dead of this particular war, but I've never seen something so blatantly militaristic. Perhaps the name of this shrine,  Fuefuki Jinja, or "Shrine of the Whistling Flute," is referring to the sounds that shells made as they were fired at Russian positions in 1905.  The ema here are similarly decorated with this cannon, and when I ask if I could purchase one, I'm told that they are only sold to 'special persons.'  So I go back and have a look at some of those hanging on the rack, and see nothing special whatsoever.  I'm tempted to play the race card here, but I'm in the holiday spirit.  

As I continue north, I connect the dots with small hamlets.  One of them has a tall, three story tower where you can swing in a hammock as you admire the view.  In the next village, I count at least five labrador retrievers tied up in front of four different houses, and wonder if they are from the same litter.  There are the ubiquitous jokey signs about these pets, "Labrador Crossing."  The children however, don't seem to get the same pampered treatment, for a massive pile of earth has been piled up beside an elementary school.  That said, I remember the fun we used to have playing boyhood games amidst similar construction sites. 

The day has turned warm, and I pass a wonderful morning being a part of the rural landscape.  There are few people about, everyone probably enjoying family as they wait out the old year.  I do spy an incredibly old woman walking away after making a flower offering at a small graveyard beside a pond.  Near another pond, a farmer comes out to chat with me, mainly about his village's history as traditional dyers.  Similar ponds line the path as it moves along.  I'm intrigued by this man-made landscape.  The ancient kings of this region must've held incredible power as they could command not only these massive aqueduct projects but also the construction of the mounds under which they were eventually buried.    

Mount Nijo looms above me now, the villages below housing some large and ornate temples.  Most are closed in order to prepare for the midnight ringing of the bells.  I feel the need for yet another journey down here in the future.   It's just as well, as I hope to get back up to Kyoto before the day gets late, and the trains begin to fill with those intending to revel in the new year.  But as usual, I am far more interested in the past, and the only countdown I take part in will be measured in the number of steps I'll take in order to seek it out...

On the turntable:  Curtis Mayfield, "The Anthology"
On the nighttable: Dan K. Charkoski, "The Drop"

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