Friday, May 02, 2014

The Road to Sasayama

Once again the weatherman lied.  He'd promised me clear sunny skies, but all was dull and grey.  My train moved beneath, pulling out of an equally grey Osaka, and heading northwest into the hills.  In the seat before me, a young high school couple sat, heads close, sharing a look at a smart phone, or perhaps sneaking kisses.  At one stop, the boy abruptly got up and sat down beside me.  I was puzzled, until about fifty other kids wearing the same uniforms filled the carriage.  I liked this whole scenario, of this young couple hiding a love found during a longer commute.

From the train, I saw signs of spring coming back into the land.  A farmer was turning slow circles around his field upon a tractor.  Neighboring fields had already been flooded.  The rice would go into the ground within the week.

I disembarked.  Wisteria crawled upon the trees above the station, purple streaks amidst the new green.  The residents of this small village were a bit taken with my foreign presence, something I wouldn't have expected this close to the cosmopolitan centers of Osaka and Kobe.  I wandered away and out into the grid of rice paddies, the world doubled due to the placid water in the fields. 

Today, I was following the Sanin-do, one of the most ancient of roads, which led from Kyoto to Izumo Taisha. I had lived just off it during my 12 years in Yonago.  This particular section was known as the Sasayama Kaidō, named after the frontier town into which I would walk an hour later.  A castle had been built here by the Tokugawa, in order to keep watch on the powerful lords to the west.  The narrow streets parallel to the castle ruins still retained their feudal look, and the newer shops of downtown could hardly be called contemporary.  The '60s look of their frontages mimicked the stock beyond the doors.  There was the bamboo and wicker shop, the kimono shop, the shops which sold only umbrellas. Black beans seemed to be the coveted souvenir here, being sold out of wooden bins everywhere.  

There was a bizarre double retro vibe going on here, as if fifty years ago the town fathers had decided to celebrate the town's history but preserving it, yet the town of that time had found itself unintentionally preserved as well due to stalled economic growth.  Sasayama appeared to be capitalizing on this, and it was working.  New life had evidently flowed in, personified by the younger, hipper presence here, in the form of a woman in her flowing India clothing, hanging more of the same upon the racks of her boutique.  I saw two cafes run by men in ponytails, and some rather progressive menus written in colorfully swirling chalk lettering.  These artist types had been charmed enough to relocate here, and I too felt the spell.  I promised myself a return trip for further exploration. 

But I didn't linger long, and moved once again out amongst the fields.  They had done some remarkable things with the trees here.   Many of them lined the banks of the fields, hinting that strong winds must blow wild out here.  A pair of real giants towered above the small Jizo hall nestled at their feet.  Many of the homes still retained their thatch roofs, one of which having recently been replaced, glowing bright and green like fresh grass.  Flowers both wild and domestic added such a rich burst of hues that almost made me forget the grey clouds above.   Hand in hand with all this new life came the inevitable partner, death: a snake, and later on a frog, lay crushed into the asphalt.   

The Sanin-do carried the burden of its age with a certain weariness.  All-night lanterns were overgrown with creeping vines.  Memorial stones of an ancient vintage lay in the weeds to the side.   Deities resided in wooden structures that were rotting and covered in mold.  Even the few shrines I passed had simple torii of a few tree trunks merely lashed together, the shrines behind being of an underterminable age. Underlying this all was the immature voices of juvenile frogs who tested their new legs by raising themselves from their beds of mud.      

This valley was broad and easy for farming, the road unobstructed as it moved arrow-straight through a chain of villages.  These communites must have gone back far more than a millenium, back to a time when clans were migrating from the provinces toward a Yamoto state just being born.  The shrines all dated to this time, when chieftains held far less sway than the gods.  The rain sodden gate of one of these gave off the scent of wood as I approached.  I took a rest at a different shrine further on, one even older, with a certain air of mystery.  As I sat before yet another massive tree, the caretaker came out and began telling me a bit of the shrine's history, and about the festivals that were still held every year.  There was a selection of black and white photographs commemorating a time when the shrine was the cohesive bond for the community, a bond that would begin to erode once those same photographs were put into a electronic box and began to move. 

As I left the protection of the shrine, a squall rolled over and unleashed upon the paddies, and upon me.  I took shelter in a bus stop for a few minutes until it relinquished its urgent intensity. The rain itself kept on, so I pulled out my umbrella and followed suit.   As if a co-conspirator with the weather to my misery, my narrow road merged with the busier highway, and I began moving uphill against the trucks that doused my trousers with the mist coming off their tires.  

Approaching Anabiki Pass, I eventually found a section of the old road that helped me to avoid the unpleasantness of a long tunnel.  It wove and wound up the slope, littered with leaves and small branches.  At the pass was the obligatory Jizo, this particular one turned toward the hillside which was in a rapid state of deforestation.   But the forest got its own back, as one section of the road had fallen into the valley below, the white guardrail twisted and extended out over the abyss in a gesture of pleading. 

Until this point the walk had been fantastic, the Sanin-do well preserved, despite a few short sections on the busier highway.  The remaining hour unfortunately stayed with the new road, and though expecting a descent after the pass, I found myself climbing again.  The highway crossed the next pass in a series of S-curves, and without a real shoulder, I had a few tense moments of walking upon the road itself, into blind turns.   Over the top, and I was given perhaps a meter of space, as the oncoming traffic slowed and veered around me.  

Looking down into the valley, I noticed the ghosts of old rice paddies, their terraced shapes obvious and unnatural.  I imagine that the fields had provided the food for the tea houses that had surely been atop this pass.   But even these would be lost soon, judging by the tree-felling being done above, as well as further done the valley.  Based on the curves of the road earlier, I imagine a tunnel is to be bored beneath, the new road laid atop those traces of fields.  But who cares about history when you can shorten the drive by five minutes?  I supposed there's some consolation to be found in the fact that the new road will be true to the original route of the Sanin-do.  

I walked into Hatta, and found my bus stop.  I had about twenty minutes until the bus arrived, so looked for a place to charge my phone.   The adjacent police box was open, with no one around.  It did have an outlet, so I plugged in and sat awhile.   When the bus came I boarded and rode the final eighteen kilometers into Kameoka, joined at some point by two dozen school girls, which served as a bookend of sorts to the day.  I was surprised that the bus avoided the main highway and followed the Sanin-do itself, making us the latest set of travelers moving along this, the most ancient approach to the old capital...

On the turntable:  The Band, "Live at the Academy of Music"
On the nighttable:  Art Davidson, "Minus 148º"

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