Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Road to Kameoka

The bus ride was a film played in reverse, as it followed the course it had the week before.  Where on that journey I had been surrounded by young schoolgirls, today it was their male counterparts, filling the bus with their musky hormonal scent.  Along the way I noticed other hormones in action, that of a blue heron striding across a rice paddy, taking broad deliberate steps through the mud, as if tiptoeing up to its potential mate standing nearby.

The bus dropped me off it Hatta again.  I moved up the road under the bright sunshine, a brilliant example of just how good the weather can be in May.  Entering a village further on, I heard a rapid tapping from around the next bend, and assumed it was a carpenter getting an early start to the morning.  But there in the street was a lion, carrying on its shoulder a man's head, which was smoking a cigarette.  There was another lion a few houses away, swirling and spinning in the gravel yard.  Beside him was the source of the banging, a tall man beating a simple tattoo on a small drum to keep time, as a pair of flutes trilled a repetitious tune into the morning air.

A housewife standing nearby told me that this troupe came up from Ise once a year, traveling and performing around Kansai and the Chugoku areas. As a fan of classic Japanese cinema, I have a number of times seen films that used these traveling actors as protagonists.  I'd like to pursue this more as a subject of research for a book, these old troupes that would wander the roads of Japan, literally singing for their supper.  It was quite fortuitous then to come across this lion dance, this shishimai, going house to house.  I had originally intended to do this walk a couple of days before, but the bad weather had forced me to postpone. Had I done so, I'd have missed this encounter completely.  Blessed by the gods I am.

The villages here were more spread out than they had been over the passes to the west, the patchwork of fields between much broader.  There were fewer shrines and temples as well.  I did find a Inari shrine up a low hillside, weathered and dull.  A trio of dull orange torii leads further up the hill before giving up, almost in exhaustion.  The forest beyond was overgrown and strewn with bamboo fallen in a long ago storm.  Back on the road below, I saw a number of stone lantern written with the characters for Atago, as well as one old road marker pointing the way, a testament to the fact that pilgrims had once followed this road while on pilgrimage to that sacred peak.   

I crested a low pass, then dropped toward Kameoka.  Along the way, I passed Yu no Hana Onsen, or 'Flowering Hot Springs.'  Though what was really flowering was an acidic cocktail of sulfur and burning plastic.  Perhaps what I was smelling was the captive oni of legend, whose tears contributed to the magical qualities of the waters.  Apparently that had been good enough reason for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to once pass the night here.

On the outskirts of town, a series of streams crisscrossed the plain, its clean waters providing raison d'etre for the sake brewery which imposed a proud presence in wattle and brick amongst all the surrounding shops and homes. As the town's density increased,  I grew a little concerned that I'd have difficulties following the path.  I'd already spotted its likely path on my GPS, but was concerned by my rapidly dwindling battery.  Yet the road itself never let me down, never lost the traditional look of low homes lining its narrow passage.   

The townspeople had come through too.  Once in the town proper, the signage began, leading me through a number of right-angled turns befitting a castle town.  And if the direction continued to remain in doubt, both sides of the road were paved with light brick.  I followed this yellow brick road and navigated the turns, paralleling the old castle moats whose waters were partly responsible for the riot of colors in bloom everywhere I turned.

I quite liked this town, having never seen its true face before.  My only experiences here had been traveling the unattractively busy Route 9 along the outskirts, or walking through the bland suburbs up to the hilltop temple of Hōsen-ji where I'd polish my zen a few times a year.  Today I saw well preserved homes, narrow lanes free of utility lines, and ample signage to explain it all. 

I arrived finally at Umahori Station, reuniting me with a section of the San-in-do that I'd followed out of Kyoto back in 2008.  Not far from the station stood a single fifteen-story monolith, rising to flip the bird at the traditional part of town.  I remember many nights sitting in meditation at the temple in the hills above, looking down at these lights ablaze, the darkness beneath cut only by the trains pulling in and out like glow worms.  Since I knew that the trains ran through at twenty minute intervals, I was able to cheat and use them to time the meditation, waiting for the 8:39 to come in to signal a mere minute remaining until I could relieve the pain in my knees.  Today too, the train proved a respite for weary legs, as it bisected the steep gorges that cut into Atago's flanks, then dropped me into the heart of the Old Capital.

On the turntable:  J.J. Cale, "J.J. Cale Live"

1 comment:

wes said...

I saw a troupe of Shishimai dancers a couple of weeks ago near Kaminaka station just outside of Obama. I wonder if it was the same dancers or perhaps it's the season for troubadors