Thursday, April 24, 2014

Taking the High Road through Nara (Ise Hon-kaido II)

I found the signs for the Ise Kaidō right away, little white rectangles of plastic tied to low hanging tree limbs and to signs.  They helped me navigate the twisty road through the suburbs.  Housewives lugged garbage sacks from their kitchens to the street.  School kids swerved around me, not expecting my figure to appear before them as they sped downhill on their bikes.   

These suburbs began where I disembarked from the train, just below the Kuragari Pass that I'd crossed a few weeks ago.  Atop the next hill, I left them for forest.  Stone buddhas lurked in the bamboo groves on either side of the road.  Further along were a handful of small industrial compounds, surrounded by high, rusting, corrugated iron walls.  At my approach, a pack of dogs began a racket close by beyond the trees, which had me worried until I passed the gate to the police dog training facility. 

I spent the good part of the morning looking for beauty, something to shoot photos of; something to write about.  But beauty's so thin on the ground down here.  For years I'd considered buying property somewhere in Nara prefecture, a house in a small rural village, somewhat remote yet with easy access to Kyoto.  But this entire area has had so much concrete poured over it.  It was getting more and more difficult to find those ancient pieces of beauty that had existed for a millennium, but now lay beneath. 

I began to move closer to Nara proper.  The road grew straight, lined with the usual suspects.  I think if it were not for Mt. Ikoma, Osaka would've sprawled right into this town.  It's to Nara's great benefit that the mountain is there.  The suburbs lead right up to both flanks.  This final stripmall was absolutely horrible.  The walk kept getting worse and worse.  

The road led directly to the edges of Sarasawa-no-ike, beside whose water I sat, admiring the sun-worshipping turtles who, eyes closed, craned their great necks toward the five-tiered spires of Kōfuku-ji's dignified pagoda.   I wove through the narrow streets, each well marked with history and character.  Most seem to have been converted into small eateries.  Sadly, it was still early.  I began to move south.  

Within blocks, all charm had faded.  I passed a long hour or so moving through more uninspired suburbs, the railway hugging the side of the road.  One house did try to liven things up, its front door framed by wisteria, perfect and purple and in full bloom.  In another season, I'd have walked right by.  

By the time I arrived in Tenri, I was starting to get rewarded.  The villages held onto what they'd always had: the small canals, the tiled roofs, and even one short section lined with arbor.  Tenri itself was founded around its eponymous religious sect, and it showed.  I found myself behind the sect's 'campus,'  the temples stacked high and looking like dormitories.  Everyone I passed was wearing these long sleeved black over-robes, looking like extras in a 1970's sci-fi film.  I've written about Tenri before, and I was actually quite moved by the faith that I saw displayed here.  But I also have a problem with organized religions, in particular those that are this, well, organized.  There incongruously at the southern edge of town was a condom vending machine, bearing the optimistic pitch of  'Cheerful Family Planning.'

I was paralleling now the ancient Yama-no-be-no-michi, which I consider to be one of the premier walking courses in Kansai.  Though still essentially part of the Ise Kaidō, this stretch that I was walking was called the Kami-tsu-michi, or high road to Nara.  (The lower road lay to the west of me, and I intend to walk it later in the year.)  The scenery began to rival the older road, passing before forested shrines, reservoir ponds, and towering hillock burial mounds.  These final two hours walk redeemed the day for me.  

As did the coffee I drank al fresco at a simple cafe beside Miwa station.  The sun remained high and so did my spirit, despite more than 30 km over hard, uninspiring roads.  I've walked the next section of the Ise Kaidō already, and will pick up the road again further on, as autumn leans into winter, when the dry leaves fall atop the fields and hamlets of the deep Mie hills...


On the turntable:  Ramblin' Thomas, "Ramblin' Thomas and the Dallas Blues Singers"
On the nighttable:  Mark Law, "The Pyjama Game"   

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