Friday, May 09, 2014

Sea of Japan to Biwa...revisted.

Before walking the Hōkuriku-dō last December, I spent a fair amount of time deciding which of the two routes to take to the east shore of Lake Biwa.  What bothered me was that neither of those routes connected with the Nishi Ōmi-ji on the western side.  There was a road by that name, but I knew that it wasn't the real thing.  In Japan there are plenty of highways that take the monicker of an older route which traditionally lay close by, but not necessarily directly beneath.  I found what I thought was the most likely course, and decided that I'd walk that.  

Then one day, I came across a different map which showed the true route I'd been seeking.  The road didn't branch off the Hōkuriku-dō at all, but started its southbound journey from the western outskirts of Tsuruga city.  And rather than follow the broad river valleys, it snaked its way into the mountains, before rushing headlong toward Japan's largest lake.  

And so it was that I once again found myself on the first train bound for Tsuruga.  What is it about towns on the Sea of Japan that makes them look so tired? It took me a good hour to actually walk out of the city and into the rice fields that were in an earlier point in their planting cycle than those I'd been walking through earlier in the week.  

There wasn't a single trace that this had once been an old road.  Rather, it was busy with farm vehicles, with absurdly wide sidewalks, despite the dearth of bicycles out here.  I looked at the parallel roads to the right and to the left, but those too were lined with newer houses, lacking the usual wonderful line-up of old Edo period structures.  

The morning started muggy, but began to cool as I climbed, not due to the change in elevation which was very steady and gradual, but more from the wind coming off the sea, pushing me along, urging me toward the hills.  The landscape never seemed to change, just that bland, broad highway moving slowly on. There was a lone Jizo, and a majestic old tree.   Other than these, the road remained featureless.  I grew bored pretty quickly, and began to sing songs by Paul Weller.  That's entertainment.  

The mountains rose to meet me.  As they did, the road became a single track, which began to trace the bank of a concreted river.  This took me through a number of small farming communities.  Just beyond them, the concrete and the asphalt dropped away, and I happily found myself walking on bare earth.  My eyes were occasionally turned up toward the hillsides, as the memory of a bear warning sign that I'd seen further below resonated within my head.  But it was important to look down sometimes too.  Not too far along into the forest, I saw a sign pointing down a side trail in the direction of a Jizo that had been carved onto a giant, split bolder.  I followed this overgrown and unused trail until I saw a hut covering the stone upon which was imprinted a deity many centuries old.   As I took a step to investigate a smaller statue nearby,  I noticed a snake of a meter or more, moving slowly past my feet.  
The rest of the morning I followed the path as it hugged and crisscrossed the river.  It looked as it must have in feudal times, and I mused on this while walking along, climbing gradually into fresh green.  The forest around me was filled with birdsong, and if the constant chatter and squeals were any indication, rife with monkeys unseen in the trees.  On the final approach to the pass, the clouds began to roll in, and it wasn't long before the "potsu potsu" began.  Luckily there was a shelter at the top where I could sit and eat lunch.  The rain didn't last very long, but the clouds remained close.  Rather than linger, I headed quickly down the other side. 

The road here was paved as it moved toward the valley, eventually joining a broader one when it finally flattened out an hour later.  I continued on, chasing the shadows of clouds which blew along the road's surface in the direction of the lake.   Frogs serenaded me as I went.  They were given a standing ovation by two towering rows of dawn redwood trees, which ran in parallel on either side of the road.  It was puzzling that these trees were here, as this species is more commonly found in the Sichuan Province of China.  But here they were, shading me for the next few kilometers.  I've read a great deal about the namiki shade trees that once lined great stretches of the old Japanese highways, offering the traveler respite from the sun and the weather.  I'd seen patches of them here and there during my journeys, but never a strand so grand and unbroken as these.  

The redwoods begat chestnut orchards, which in turn begat rice paddies.  Approaching one, I saw a man standing over a woman sitting on the bank, her arms stretching behind her to support her weight. This was the body language of the young, for no old farm woman would sit like that.  As I drew closer I saw that this couple were probably still in their thirties, smiling and seemingly happy at this rural setting and life in which they found themselves.  I imagined them as recent city transplants chasing a dream, an impression created for no other reason than their newish clothes and the slightly perplexed expression on the man's face as he looked at his newly flooded fields. 

I checked my GPS, which told me I had 35 minutes to get to Ominakasho station, from which my desired train would leave in 30.  The next train would depart an hour after that.  I picked up my pace, nearly speed walking, keeping it up for the final three km, before breaking into an outright run for the last few hundred meters.  God I hate running!  Each slap of foot on pavement brought shooting pains into the lower buttock muscles on the right side, a place that usually begins to ache this far into a walk.  I'd done 30 kilometers on the day, and as usual, the last five began to hurt.  But I was proud that I'd done this distance in six hours, a blazing speed made more remarkable by the fact that I had climbed over 600 vertical meters in crossing the pass.    

I made it to the platform seconds before the train pulled in.  And with that, my feet came to rest.  While there are still a few longer routes I'd like to walk  -- four days on the Ise Kaidō, about a week on the Kumano Kōdō -- in terms of distances that can be measured in day trips, there were no more roads in Kansai left for me to walk. 

On the turntable:  The Beatles, "The White Album"
On the nighttable: Winston Davis, "Dojo:  Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan"

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